Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Real Stories, Sad Lives

As we traveled through the bumpy mud road that parted from National Highway 34, after crossing about 6 kilometers from Karandighi, (35 kms north of Raiganj town), we were greeted by a bullock cart that was carrying three others and some bags of wheat, two bags of cement and few rods. Once we crossed it, we entered Basudebpur, the little hamlet that is dotted by palm trees, and it was almost empty under the scorching noon. Accompanied by two other companions and the driver, our Scorpio was soon surrounded by couple of women, three men and a dozen children. As I got down, I was looking for some known faces. I had been to these areas almost eight years ago. Nothing much has changed.

The Santhal tribal people who live in the midst of the village surrounded by Muslims and Scheduled Caste communities on either side were still living with hope, living in present! When I walked into the first house I felt comfortable with, I found a boy of about 12 years old. There was some light in his eyes. I could read that he is educated. I enquired. He said he is studying in the fifth grade. And when I walked in, I found a old lady whom I could recognize, and fortunately she could recognize me as soon as I introduced! I requested her to take us around the village. Soon some more known and unknown faces joined us.

I saw at least six fully damaged houses and several partly damaged houses in the hamlet of about 30 odd houses. All of tribals. I saw the men sitting and drinking the liquor drawn from palm trees (toddy), and all that the men and women could utter at every house was, they received nothing after the tornado that tore their houses apart on the fateful night of 13 April.

We checked with them. They had gone several times to the Panchayat (local government office). But the crowd at the panchayat was overwhelming, and they were asked to come another day. Well, these people had no money to travel, nor the voice and strength to stand and receive the tarpaulins.

We walked further. At the farthest end of the village was the house of Denis Soren. (That’s how she pronounced it.) Her house was flat. She is a young widow. Has a child of about 5 months old, and another girl studying in upper kinder garden. Her husband died when she was just three months pregnant. The house on which it was built is a declared “waste land”. With no other assets, and the house flattened, with nothing to cook, she wanted to go to see her elder child whom she had not seen in weeks. Tears were rolling up her eyes, as there is no one to help her collect the broken tins, nor to repair her house. She is, luckily, the only person who had received a black polythene sheet (as tarpaulin) and three kilograms of rice. And she had eaten all that stuff in the last four days.

We were dumb. We had no words to console. We took her on our air-conditioned 850,000 rupees worth Scorpio, and dropped her at the boarding school where her child is. On the way, we gave her some money, which would probably buy her some oil and soap for her child, and purchase some pulses for her own survival for few more days. The support from humanity never seems enough to get her out of poverty. Alas, you could still see thirst in her eyes.

Congress and other things...

The State Disaster Risk Reduction Congress, first of its kind in the country, took place on 22 -24 April 2010. It had been very long 10 weeks of preparation, that yielded fruits. As State Coordinator of the State Inter Agency Group, I had to go about creating sub-committees, negotiate with organizations for fund raising for the event, and ensure that every thing perfect in order.... With over 60 speakers and three venues, over 600 participants and over 50 dignitaries, and the huge exhibition by 20 organizations and National Disaster Response Force, the entire Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata gave a new look. The sun was inclement. It certainly hit on my body, as the last seven days were almost sleepless, and spending the days in hot and humid weather. A little shop at the stadium run by two blind people (they are couples) gave me some relief, as I drank almost five to eight bottles of Nimbooz (of Coca Cola) that cooled me down, with the lemon flavor.
Meanwhile, the death toll in Uttar Dinajpur where a devastating storm had struck had gone up to 43, and the government said over 100,000 houses are fully damaged, and the number of people affected by the storm was placed at 700,000. On 15 April I had called for a meeting of the State IAG and we sent a team of professionals to do needs assessment. Several organizations have started responding to the needs of the affected population, although it is severely insufficient, and the support given by the government is terribly short of fulfilling people's needs, and is mired in political battle. (In picture, a child at play in the midst of rumbles....never realizing the damage that surrounds it!)

As soon as the Congress was over on 24 April evening, immediately I left for Raiganj to visit the affected areas and to assess the level of response. And my visits, rend my heart.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Another storm kills 39 in a district and keeps me busy!

I have begun to say to myself: "Anywhere in Bengal there is a disaster, it is a disaster to me!" Personally I have grown in the last 14 years of public life, and specially in the last 7 years, managing disasters from ground zero. The disasters have made me appreciate the health and safety I have, and also become humble and humane to empathize with the pain and agony of those who have lost their loved ones, homes, and livelihoods due to natural calamities.

At least 76 people were killed and more than 200 injured when a severe Nor'wester packed with a windspeed of 125 kmph raged for 40 minutes through North Dinajpur district of West Bengal, four neighbouring districts of Bihar and five of Assam last night.
While 39 people were killed in North Dinajpur alone, (where I worked for 12 years!) , 33 perished in four districts of Kishanganj, Araria, Supaul and Purnia in Bihar in the storm.

West Bengal chief secretary Mr Ashok Mohan Chakrabarti, reporters in Kolkata that the storm leveled 50,000-60,000 dwelling units. Later in the evening, reports suggested total destruction of 20,000 houses and partial destruction of 25,000 houses. Tin and thatched roofs were wrenched off and hurled at a distance in villages lining both sides of the National Highway in North Dinajpur.
Bamboo groves in more than 500 sq-ft. area at one village was completely uprooted as the storm ripped through Kaliaganj, Raiganj, Karandighi and Hemtabad blocks in North Dinajpur, civil defence minister Mr Sreekumar Mukherjee said. The storm, which was accompanied by rain, uprooted thousands of trees and left telephone and electric poles twisted, he said. Around 50,000 dwellings were destroyed rendering hundreds of people homeless in the district while the police barracks in Raiganj was destroyed, he said. Mr Chakraborti said the Centre had offered help to the state government.
“I contacted the cabinet secretary to brief him. The Centre has enquired about the devastation. The Centre is willing to assist the state government,” Mr Chakraborti said. He said Rs 5 lakh had been disbursed from the Calamity Relief Fund for the affected people. The government has approved the release of 25,000 tarpaulin sheets, 1,000 tonne of rice, dry food, tarpaulin sheets, dhotis, saris and children's garments for the affected villages. Drinking water was also being sent, while five medical teams left for the spot.

And I spent the whole day, collecting information, putting together a team for emergency needs assessment, and generating Situation Reports.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

It is WAR !

India is, for the first time, almost in a state of civil rebellion. Besides the massacre of policemen in some parts of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa in the recent past, on Tuesday, 6 April 2010, nearly 1,000 rebels (called Naxalites / Maoists) ambushed 75 men of para-military force (known as, Central Reserve Police Force - CRPF), and a police driver, and killed them all under heavy gun battle. This is War! People killing forces of the country. The men, many from poorer families who took jobs in the CRPF to get their families out of poverty have been killed by the Maoists who claim to champion the cause of poor.

The political twist does not end there. The home ministry of the country has asked for two drones from the defense ministry, to spy on the Maoists specially in the deep jungles, so that operations against them can be done safely. But the defense ministry does not want to give them. Reason: defense items cannot be used to fight against the citizens of the country! Rubbish.

If we cannot protect the citizens what is the point in having these resources? When citizens' lives are under threat, how can we not use our resources? Do the people who continue to engage in inhuman violence have a right to citizenship? Who defines citizenry?

And finally, when will we stop talking politics, and start acting?