The aftermath of Aila has changed the face of the Sundarbans. Much of the relief efforts in various parts of the region are being undertaken by private citizens, NGOs etc. Of these, a group from Jadavpur University is making. regular trips to different villages carrying with them medical, educational etc supplies. At the end of my message you can read a report from one such visit.
If you live outside Calcutta and you would like to help out, please send money. This group prefers to do its own buying of supplies. Knowing the people involved, I personally vouch for their sincerity and integrity. If you live within Calcutta and would like to join a trip, please call Samantak Das at 9434212841 or Deeptanil Ray at 9831495484 to find out what you can do.
After the devastating cyclone Aila hit West Bengal, I had accompanied some teachers and students of Jadavpur University on their second trip to the cyclone-afflicted villages. We had gone to the villages Bijoynagar and Birajnagar on the Bali Island, Sunderbans (Bali 2 panchayat area), on Thursday, June 4, with some relief materials, and distributed them first-hand. Here's a brief sketchy account of our journey to the cyclone-affected regions of the Sunderbans. This was circulated among friends who had contributed, and followed up by a detailed report, with the exact figures and quantities of the things we bought for the cyclone-relief, and the costs incurred.
Despite our reluctance to carry a camera, we had decided to carry one, since sometimes pictures document situations better than words. Those occasional pictures taken during the trip can be found here:
Soumyo, Dipanjan, and Abhijit— all of them PG1 students from JU English, and myself, a doctoral fellow from the same department, had gone to Burrabazar on Wednesday afternoon to buy the materials, except for rice dal, and packets of biscuits which we bought from Goshaba on Thursday, to save on the transportation cost. At around 9 pm, we transported the material— 200 heavy tarpaulin sheets, 200 lungis, sarees, and gamchas, a carton containing 100 zeoline bottles— to the campus on a tempo van. Some packets of medicines had also been bought and/or collected earlier.
On early Thursday morning we— five in number, Samantakda and Sujitda (teachers from the Comparative Literature department), me, Soumyo, and Abhijit (from the English department) started for Gadkhali on two vehicles, and there was also a gentleman separately carrying some medicines for Champa who got off at some point. One of Samantakda's friends, Jitda, had brought along his Bolero which was packed tight from above and inside with the sacks and with Soumyo tucked in uncomfortably somewhere between. The others fought for precious space with some of the tarpaulin sheets inside Samantakda's Omni van.
Gadkhali is at a distance of 112 km from the city, and it is reached by the road to the left of Science City passing through the Bantala leather complex and later through Kultali, with Canning roughly on the other side. The motorable road ends at Gadkhali; from here you cross the river Bidyadhari to reach Goshaba. On our way, we saw many broken houses and/or their remains, some remains of uprooted trees that have now been used for firewood, maacher bheri overflowing with saline water, numerous people camping along the road, and bleaching powder, where it's not really needed, spread meticulously on both sides of the metalled road (like the white lines you witness during a school sports) to mark the passage of ministers.
At Gadkhali, we saw a few vans with relief materials brought in by some clubs and small welfare societies, and a small number of relief camps set up by the Bharat Sevashram Sangha, RSS, TMC, and by 2-3 voluntary organisations. Though the people lining up before them were many, the size of each of these camps was considerably small, and I sincerely hoped that these were only stoppage points from where relief went to the Sunderbans' interior. There were 3-4 parked army trucks of the 20th Battalion. By then, we were already surrounded by desperate people from different villages where no relief had reached a week and a half after the cyclone. And we had no answers for them.
After Sujitda, Samantakda, and Soumyo had visited Bijoynagar and Birajnagar on the Thursday immediately following the cyclone, they had arranged for some youths from Birjanagar to help us with the transportation. These young men had voluntarily come to help again, and without them it was next to impossible to move all that stuff. We said farewell to Jitda and his driver, climbed on to a bhatbhati (a medium-sized leaky boat that runs on kata tel like the city autorickshaw) with the youths from Birajnagar, and crossed the river to Goshaba.
At Goshaba, we bought 15 quintals of rice and 3 quintals of dal, and 15 cartons of biscuits. It took us one and a half hour on the river Bidyabati to reach our island by boat. A few hundred people of the thousands living on the riverside of this rather big island have had some 'relief' in the form of chnire-gur and paper-thin plastic sheets after the cyclone. The chief minister had crossed this region, but, as on Thursday, nothing had been done. And as for the people living in the interiors of similar islands across the Sunderbans, their condition is left for you to imagine.
We left the river Bidyadhari behind at one point, and entered a 10-feet wide canal that cut some way into the island. We had the low tide to keep the boat afloat, but the boat's motor was no match the receding waters, and it was a tremendous act of collective effort that prevented the boat from capsizing. In chest-deep to knee-deep foaming water and mud, almost all of the twenty people atop the boat got down, and pushed and heaved and tugged to keep it going. There was a village youth with a spinal cord injury who pushed alongside us and kept up the cheer.
When we reached Birajnagar, we saw groups of men working desperately on the embankments that the cylone had blown off. I learnt this was a voluntary effort pioneered by a schoolteacher. The panchayat had done nothing; sulking away in anger in aftermath of the recent electoral happenings. Everywhere you could see devastation, remains of houses and trees, and precious crops, and faces with an expression of pain I remain incapable of describing.
The news had spread and soon noisy crowds lined up before the 'distribution centre' we had set up. The infinitesimal quantity of things we had brought along started evaporating fast. A man in his forties was standing next to me, staring at the rice with vacuous eyes. He had lost everything to the cyclone, his house, his family, and the memory of large quantities of rice. An old man with a white beard, of about seventy years of age, was shouting angrily at having to wait in queue. Later I spotted him; tears flowing down his cheeks, putting a fistful of uncooked rice in his mouth. We saw a woman with a baby suffering from acute diarrhoea; there were many.
We started on our return journey in the evening. Near the canal, we heard a few angry words from a group of people whom we had been incapable of providing anything. And there were the few people whom we had seen silently working on the embankments. With Saturday's high tide right ahead, they were preparing for another great fight. A lonely people, I thought, when deserted by the gods and the government. The boat moved easily with the rising tide, and shadows loomed large over the numerous islands of the Sunderbans, none of which we were capable of visiting.
As we had appeared tripping and falling along the muddy canal side in Birajnagar, Soumyo and I had befriended a child who heartily laughed at our predicament. His name was Biswajit Mondol, I later learnt, a student of Class VI, and of the many I talked to, his was one of the most innocent and cheerful face you can ever come across in a child. On the day of the cyclone, Biswajit was inside his house, and his father stood in chest-deep water throughout the night with his child on his shoulders. In the morning, they found three-fourths of their house gone. How they survived is a strange question of chance considering that the cyclone had washed away houses and trees, people and livestock in their neighbourhood. Their family had spent the next four days without food, in semi-starvation as on Thursday.
With three of his friends he accompanied us on our boat to Gadkhali. While we were in the middle of the river, he excitedly pointed out a spot where he swore he saw a group of mermen— people of the underwater villages devoured by the river and the floods long ago. They have islands just like ours, he told us, where they have men, women and children living under the waters without any contact with the outside world.
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