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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 23, New Delhi, May 23, 2020

Um-Phoon Exposed Man’s Helplessness Before Nature’s Fury

Saturday 23 May 2020, by Barun Das Gupta

Super-cyclone Um-Phoon that hit southern Bengal on May 20 at a velocity of 160 kilometres per hour left a trail of death and devastation behind. It is south Bengal – East and West Medinipur and South and North 24-Parganas — which had to bear the brunt of Nature’s fury at its worst. West Bengal has not witnessed devastation at such a wide scale in recent memory.

Standing crops were destroyed, houses, especially mud houses, were razed to the ground. The death toll, however, remained comparatively low – 76. It goes to the credit of the State Government that about five lakh people were evacuated timely and kept in safe houses. The severity of the cyclone can be gauged from the fact that till Saturday, full three days after the cyclone, large areas of Kolkata and Salt Lake are still without water, electricity, mobile and Internet connexions. In the villages pulverized by the super-cyclone the condition beggars description. Thousands of trees have been uprooted, damaging houses and cars and blocking roads. Many of the fallen trees have still not been removed. Dead bodies of people who were electrocuted as live wires snapped by the storm fell on them are now floating up in canals and ditches.

An added problem for the farmers in South Bengal is that vast areas have been inundated with saline water from the sea. Before fresh crops can be sown, the soil has to be de-salinated. True, lives have been saved for people having been evacuated in time, but being alive is not enough. They have to begin life anew. Resettling them in their life will mean spending enormous money. The Rs. 1000 crore ‘package’ announced by Prime Minister Modi for West Bengal may be a drop in the ocean.

It will take a few more days for the State Government to assess fully the extent of damages and the value of property (including standing crops) destroyed. But it is a welcome development that the Prime Minister responded readily to make an aerial survey of the devastated South Bengal, appreciate Mamata’s efforts at dealing with the situation and assure the State of Central help. Mamata spent the night of the cyclone at the State Secretariat at Nabanna and took control of the entire operations, keeping constant contact with the authorities in affected districts and giving them directions.

South Bengal, on the coast of Bay of Bengal, is a cyclone-prone area. It has witnessed many cyclones in the past and will see many more in future. To reduce the extent of damage to houses, it would be wise exploring the possibility of light “pre-fab” houses, made of bamboo and thatch, that can be quickly dismantled whenever there is a cyclone warning and then put back again after the storm has blown away. Way back in 1946, when Mahatma Gandhi was trekking the villages of riot-devastated Noakhali district (now in Bangladesh), a ‘portable’ house was, indeed, made for him. It could be dismantled quickly, carried by his co-workers and set up again at the village which was to be his next stop. New challenges call for new solutions.

In the digitized world we are living in, one cannot, even for a moment, do without the mobile phone, the computer and the Internet. As telegrams have become a thing of the past, people have become totally dependent on the mobile phone and the Internet, including e-mail, Whatsapp, etc. for communication.

The devastation suffered by South Bengal will remain etched in people’s memory for years. Now the State Government and the people will have to work together to restore normalcy as soon as possible.

The author Barun Das Gupta was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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