Conflict Alerts # 94, 27 May 2020
In the news
On 20 May the category-3 (hurricane equivalent) super cyclone Amphan left a trail of destruction, nothing that the eastern states of India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal region have witnessed in the past 20 years. The trajectory of the cyclone lasted for two days, first bracing the coastal districts in Odisha followed by the largest impact in the Sunderban districts of West Bengal and Bangladesh. With 88 people dead, the coastal villages in West Bengal and Bangladesh remain battered, hampered by torn down power lines, flooding of farmlands and uprooted trees and lives. Assessing the impact West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee put the loss to Rs 100 crore with an impact on a million people. In Bangladesh, the official death toll was at 16 and an estimated loss of Tk 400 crore in the coastal district of Bagerhat alone. Five million people are currently without electricity, and with more than 5,000 houses damaged, the number of people displaced (post evacuation) stands at two million.
Issues at large
Faced with repeated cyclones while states like Odisha have been able to mitigate with a zero-loss of life approach, the other states within the same political geography like West Bengal have failed. In attempting the post-disaster rehabilitation, the issue of absent grassroots institutions, relief politics and forced displacement figure significantly.
First, unlike Odisha, West Bengal has taken little lessons from its past experiences with cyclone Aila and Bulbul. In Odisha, the lessons on early warning systems, efficient decentralized panchayat institutions and strong leadership under the State Disaster Management Authority were learnt from the super cyclone of 1999. When faced with Aila, West Bengal remained marred in political factionalism between the local Revolutionary Socialist Party and the CPM leadership creating space for the opposition to legitimize it power. Similarly, in 2007, when Bangladesh faced Cyclone Sidr, the politicization of the relief estranged any rehabilitation process.
Second, a difference in policy approach towards its coast also hinders post-disaster rehabilitation. While for Odisha, its coast serves as its core economic ground, West Bengal and Bangladesh have given a peripheral treatment to its coastal communities in the Sunderbans mangrove delta.
Third, with each cyclone forced displacement compounded with relief politics are becoming a norm. Even before the Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal, the state government was tackling allegations of mismanagement of COVID-19 crisis. The delayed response, preventing the opposition from distributing relief and diversion of free food grain offered through PDS have fraught the rehabilitation process in West Bengal. The relief politics received a new fervour with each political party playing to particular constituency and blocks keeping the local elections of 2021 in the background.
Last, India's advancement in the early warning system has made mitigating the disaster much faster, but saving lives have not been complemented with saving of livelihoods. Accurate and advance forecasts of cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh proved the success of multi-hazard early warning systems. However, as more than 5 million remain displaced with no livelihood, the question of post-disaster recovery and a need for long-term climate resilience remain alluded.
First, along with cooperative federalism, there is a need to look beyond the relief and rehabilitation approach to disaster risk management. The long-term recovery with dignity addressing the collective memory of loss and reconciliation of the affected community is often ignored while building community resilience to disasters. The disaster-prone South Asia has passed the phase of risk management and needs to delve into what comes after the risk.
Second, cyclone Amphan has also brought with it the need for resilient ecosystem conservation with an equal role for the coastal communities. While one counts the loss of life, the loss to the Sundarbans ecosystem and the uprooted trees remains to be ascertained. The Sundarbans delta in West Bengal and Bangladesh have always been an amphibious terrain where the land meets the water and water seeps into the land. In this cyclone, the realities of coastal inundation, advancing sea level, saltwater intrusion into the groundwater table and seawater seepage into farmlands have become more pronounced. Returning to traditional farming or fishing will be distant for many, thereby pushing the rural to urban labour-migration complex in the region.
Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)