A year after cyclone Aila, the inhabitants of Sunderbans continue to live precariously.
According to newspaper reports, nearly three hundered thousand families were affected in South 24 Parganas district in the wake of Aila. District authorities said only about half the claimants have received the compensation amount so far. (http://www.hindu.com/2010/05/26/stories/2010052660100900.htm).
For the lucky few who received compensation, the amount was so meager that only temporary houses could be re-built. Those close to the now damaged embankments were washed away by heavy tidal waves, less than a year after they were re-built. The promised 600 crores central assistance for building 900 kms of damaged embankments is yet to arrive.
For many, the compensation has been used to buy basic provisions. With a failed crop and soil that continues to be affected by salinity, food production has been severely compromised. Degraded fields mean less work as agricultural labour.
While this is certainly a matter of concern, what is more appalling is the institutional apathy. Even in the wake of the First anniversary of Cyclone Aila, there was still no Disaster Management System or even an Early Warning System in place, instituted by the Government.
Aila was certainly a big blow, but life and livelihoods in Sunderbans have always been precarious. Tidal waves ravage villages every year. Roads and embankments are washed away every year. Crop failures of various degrees happen every year. Aila, being so devastating and sudden made it to the headlines. Civil Society Organizations working in the areas know that shocks and disasters are cyclic, whether or not they are newsworthy.
Quite a few NGOs are working it the area. Some of them have repaired water sources like tube wells post disaster. Some are engaged in providing disaster resistant water supply sources. Others are supporting alternative livelihood activities. However, the magnitude of the problem is such that it cannot be addressed by NGOs. According to their own estimates, all NGOs taken together impact approximately five hundred thousand people, of the estimated 45 hundred thousand who live in the Sunderbans.
The urgency of action cannot be over-stated. There are some recent efforts by NGOs working in the area and by academic institutions like Jadavpur University to study, document and recommend strategies and action plan for the development of this area. One can only hope that the effort is able to preserve the delicate man-nature balance in this fragile ecosystem.
How can the Sunderban areas be more resilient to natural disasters?