As Bangladesh, India and Nepal are reeling under heavy downpour and massive floods, the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led West Bengal Government is back to what it does best: blaming others, including neighbouring countries for its own failures.
Not content with accusing the Centre of having caused the “man-made” floods in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has urged Delhi to take up with Dhaka the fresh flooding caused by the swelling Atreyi and two other rivers that flow into North Bengal from Bangladesh “at the appropriate level.”
Her initial complaints were related to the havoc caused by rain and flooding in South Bengal. But, following Mamata’s complaints against Delhi and Dhaka, West Bengal’s Minister for Irrigation Rajib Banerjee now points out how the excess flow and discharge of water from rivers in Nepal and the Bihar state have added to North Bengal’s woes, causing prolonged water-logging and bringing everyday activities of thousands of people to a halt.
The complaints Rajib raised sounded more like an elementary lesson on problems of regional river linkages than a serious, fact-based allegation. He did not refer to the prime cause of the ongoing floods and damage to property caused by recent long spells of rain due to repeated depressions in West Bengal and neighbouring areas including Bangladesh. Taking a cue from his chief, Rajib spoke to the media mostly about the situation the state faced because of the high discharge of excess water from Nepal and Bihar. He had visited Malda and three other districts before meeting the media.
Interestingly, whereas the present death toll in Bangladesh on account of the recent floods has been reported in Indian media at under 20, the figures for Bihar, Nepal and West Bengal are 50, 55 and 45 respectively.
This naturally raises questions about the preventive measures taken by respective countries, central or state governments, and other authorities in charge to ensure that the current spell of bad weather did not cause much damage. Not surprisingly, West Bengal’s record in providing relief and immediate assistance to the flood-affected people, currently estimated at 5 million, has not inspired confidence.
As Kolkata-based TV channels have been showing day after day, from Midnapore to Cooch Behar, there are thousands of marooned people virtually living in the open, without much official help reaching them by way of food, drinking water or medicine. Most rivers are overflowing, and accumulated water has been receding exceedingly slowly. The reasons are: lack of drainage channels, rampant human encroachment along river banks and shorelines, illegal building construction, and reckless sand lifting to carry out illegal constructions, among other factors.
As Mohammad Shafiq, a flood refugee in Malda, was quoted as saying: “Quite apart from the vagaries of the weather, people also have to pay for the greed and corruption of politically backed anti-socials.”
With little or no relief in sight, many people whether in North or South Bengal, have survived barely through the efforts of local NGOs and peoples’ organisations. In both parts of Bengal, there have been several instances where official convoys carrying relief materials have been looted by starving, angry mobs, the more so in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. There have been allegations of firing by police on such crowds in some areas, but the officials concerned strongly denied this.
Quite apart from problems of riverbank erosion and attendant issues, Bengal’s pathetic failure to protect infrastructure such as bridges and culverts – constructed by Public Works Department, Irrigation Department and other agencies – also came to the fore. There are reports almost every day on how poorly maintained and old bridges collapse, leading to communication breakdowns between the north and the south.
Two typical examples: about 48 hours ago, an old bridge on the River Islamari collapsed in Panhati area of Moinaguri, leaving nearly 10,000 people without basic supplies.
Locals complained that there had been no maintenance at all of the old bridge. And, at flooded Raiganj in Simulguri, an old bamboo bridge on the River Neem was swept away, affecting normal communication, even though a new pucca bridge had been built nearby a decade ago. But the new bridge has never been used in the last 10 years because land disputes prevented the construction of approach roads on both sides.
Shounak Mukherjee, a Kolkata-based economist, said: “There are numerous examples of such mind-boggling negligence, callousness and the lack of elementary governmental efficiency or interest in ensuring even minimal public relief for taxpaying people in West Bengal.”
Such failures get exposed during natural calamities and blaming others will not conceal Kolkata’s own failures.
Two researchers point out that unlike Bangladesh or Nepal, where steps have been taken officially to ensure that problems from global warming and flash floods can be handled more effectively, no similar exercise has been carried out in West Bengal. Their study claims that between 1824 and 1930, the smaller rivers and creeks used to act as drainage channels for bigger rivers. From 1950 onwards, as human pressure began to grow exponentially, massive unregulated encroachments and illegal building construction destroyed the flow of the smaller rivers, leaving no drainage channels, even within the greater Kolkata.
The outcome of such reckless, politically backed destruction of the environment, caused mainly because of vote bank considerations, can be seen in the prolonged water-logging in parts of Behala in Kolkata and Amta in Howrah, according to environmentalists.