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Poor Flood Planning Is Destroying Livelihoods In South Bengal

Villagers are literally struggling to keep their heads above the water.

25/09/2017 8:47 AM IST | Updated 25/09/2017 8:47 AM IST
Rajiv Palit
The flooding led to a watery grave for the crops.

By Aditi Roy Ghatak*, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal

Chaipet in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal lives up to its original Bengali name Chayapath, which means a shadowy lane. From Chaipet, the road to the broken Chandreshwar Khal (canal) becomes narrower and narrower before ending in a messy bog, the result of continuous rains and floods.

Incessant rains had led to breach of riverbanks and flooding, Paschim Medinipur being one of the worst affected districts. The floods have affected more than 2.7 million people in 106 blocks of 14 districts of West Bengal this year.

Breach of riverbanks after torrential rains and water released from overflowing reservoirs have flooded southern portions of West Bengal, leading to loss of livelihoods and complete disruption of life.

After being inundated for more than a month, the villages around Chaipet are in a state of decrepitude. From 26 July to 28 August, the villagers lived amidst a floating pool of filth. The waters have receded but the stench remains. Everything has been ruined — homes, standing crops, fish, power poles — save the villagers' amazing sense of humour.

With temporary embankments to prevent further breach, people use makeshift rafts to get around. (Photo by Rajiv Palit)
With temporary embankments to prevent further breach, people use makeshift rafts to get around. (Photo by Rajiv Palit)

Five kilometres from Chaipat is the village of Benai, where more than a month after the floods, everything remains under water. "No, not everything," Preetikona corrects with cheerful resignation. "The waters have retreated from our homes," she tells VillageSquare.in. "After a month."

The state government opened 311 relief camps, though none are in evidence in this part of the land. "Maybe other areas are in greater need of relief," the residents say.

Loss of livelihoods

"Oshur er chul kintay gaylam (Went to buy hair for the demon), paid 18 % GST," grins the local clay idol maker from his wayside studio — a shack with a plastic sheet on it. He is busy applying layers of clay on his straw frame, creating goddess Durga, whose festival is round the corner. The Silabati River running 30 ft below had swirled up in fury to wash away everything — his half-completed idols of Durga, her family and even the idol of the demon she slayed.

He had bought adornments for the deity and a flowing mane for the demon before the Goods and Services Tax (GST) came into effect, as they were less expensive then. All that he had bought and most of what he had made were lost to the floodwaters. He and his assistants managed to save a few frames by keeping them in the loft of his studio.

Bengal's idol makers earn for the entire year during the festive season. This year there will be no earnings. "All that we will recover is the daily wage. There will be no profit to see us through the rest of the year," an idol maker tells VillageSquare.in.

The floods were made worse because none of the sluice gates was functional for want of regular maintenance. The water that entered had no escape route. Sudipto Seth, local teacher and journalist

The local puja committees organise the Durga puja festivals with money raised from the local community. This year they will spend a lot of money on flood relief and cut down on puja expenses, which means much fewer orders than usual for the idol makers. They might look for work on the fields as farm labourers — only there are no fields to work in this year.

As for the farmlands, not only the 1400 bighas (one acre equals 3 bighas) of lowland but even the 600 bighas of highland remain submerged. "There stood the paddy that would have fed us the next year," points out Rabindranath Manna wistfully. Manna owns around 2.5 bighas of land in the nearby Faridpur village. He could not save any of his crops. "Not when the fields have been under water for a month; everything has gone," he says.

Fortunately he works part-time as a hairdresser and may earn a bit. But most of the other villagers are landless farm labourers with no prospect of work.

Bibekananda Bidyamandir, a school in Arit that has 1400 students, has just reopened after a two-month break. Sudipto Seth, a teacher of the school, tells VillageSquare.in that the ground floor of the school remained inundated for around a month. A part-time journalist, Seth, shows video clips of the state the school was in and of students and teachers coming by country boats to hoist the national flag on Independence Day.

Cause of floods

Following a depression leading to torrential rain and gusty winds, River Silabati was in spate. Then the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) started releasing waters from its reservoirs in neighbouring Jharkhand. It had no option for its own reservoirs were bursting at the seams. Some 1,69,955 cusecs of water was reportedly released on 20 August, further inundating villages in Howrah, Burdwan, Bankura, Malda and Paschim Medinipur districts.

Manna recalls how an embankment in Chandreshwar was literally swallowed by the waters in broad daylight—residents who had expected the collapse captured it on their mobile phones.

The jammed sluice gates prevented outflow, exacerbating the floods. (Photo by Rajiv Palit)
The jammed sluice gates prevented outflow, exacerbating the floods. (Photo by Rajiv Palit)

"The floods were made worse because none of the sluice gates was functional for want of regular maintenance. The water that entered had no escape route. People had forgotten the last such calamity that happened some ten years ago, even though every monsoon the waters strike with an eerie, inexorable regularity," says Seth.

The people feel that the Ghatal Master Plan, designed as a flood control measure many decades ago, would have made a difference, had it been implemented.

With no roads, people walk to Pratappur, where the Silabati dam breached on the night of 29 July. The waters literally gushed in and by morning even double-storeyed pucca houses fell like a pack of cards. There is devastation everywhere.

Yet the villagers smile. Electricity has just been restored in the region. Financial relief is to be distributed. Some local boys have been working round the clock to bring food, water, medicine and plastic sheets to the shanties. Shops are back in business.

The people may be indigent but they are very well informed. They feel that the Ghatal Master Plan, designed as a flood control measure decades ago, would have made a difference, had it been implemented.

Aditi Roy Ghatak is a Kolkata-based journalist. Views are personal.This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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