This is guest post sent by DEEPTANIL RAY from Jadavpur University
Seven weeks after the cyclone Aila hit West Bengal, the situation in the Sunderbans remains alarming. Some of us, teachers, research scholars and students at JU, without any affiliation tags, have tried over the last month and are still trying to reach out to some of the remote areas with materials and distribute them first hand, though our efforts are feeble and insignificant compared to the magnitude of the crisis. Last weekend, we had gone to one of the remotest villages of the Hingalgunj island in the Sunderbans— with the forests on one side, and the Bangladesh border on the other.
As most of you know, Hingalgunj is a Sundarban island on the south-eastern tip of the North 24 Parganas District of West Bengal, with the Sundarban Tiger Reserve Forest on one side, and a small river separating this country from Bangladesh on the other. It is one of the block areas to suffer most from Aila— with over 28,000 families and more than 1,26,000 people affected, according to modest government reports.
A month and a week after that devastating cyclone of May, and exactly a month after the local legislator and also the Chief Minister of West Bengal were rudely questioned on the inadequacy of government relief by some irate villagers at the Block Headquarters (at one end of the island), three of us from Jadavpur University visited a part of the village called Kalitala, one of the farthest villages of the block (on the other end of the island). This is a report of our journey on July 4-5, 2009. We also have some pictures from the trip uploaded on Picasa. Make your own conclusions.
‘Civilian relief is always welcome’
Three days after the cyclone, Samantak Das (a teacher of the department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University), and another teacher and a student had gone to the Bijoynagar and Birajnagar villages on the Bali island of the Sundarbans. What followed was a concerted effort by some Jadavpur University teachers, research scholars and students to organise relief for villages on this island on their own initiative. Emails were sent out with the following message or something similar:
This is a private effort by some teachers and students of JU to distribute relief first-hand. And we are acting as individuals, against affiliations of any sort. That means you’re welcome to help as individuals, and any private organisation/ voluntary body that is willing to contribute to the cause has to do without photographs of people alongside their banners and similar expectations, for we won’t encourage that. We’ll give a full account of the expenses to all contributors, and try to provide occasional pictures taken on the trips. You and anyone are welcome to spread the word, join us while we buy things, accompany us to the affected villages, and disseminate our reports.
Help poured in from unexpected quarters during May-June. We distributed select quantities of clothing, tarpaulin sheets, food and medicine to some villagers at the time when they were getting none. And we were able to fulfil the modest target of providing books, exercise books, and educational material to all of the 1600 students of the local high school, Bijoynagar Adarsha Vidyamandir, by the first week of July.
We also had plans to visit Hingalgunj in the first or second week of June after Saurav Mandal (a friend and an alumnus from the History department, JU) had come in with disturbing tales of his village. He was there the day after the cyclone with some medicine he and his brothers at Kolkata had managed to buy. No relief had come in: bloated corpses of humans and animals floated in the fields and clogged the canals; there were long queues of people waiting for Bangladeshi boats carrying relief and drinking water on the banks of a small river that marks the border of this country. I heard of him a particularly moving incident: A week after the cyclone, Saurav’s family had seen crows flying over the remains of what used to be their cowshed. As the giant waves from the sea had entered the island, a man from somewhere had the idea of tying his body with a rope to his baby daughter and his wife, and also to some of his family utensils and a goat, with the hope of surviving together. A mangled bloated heap remained of them.
We planned for a medical camp here, planning to have some doctors with us, and distribute some foodstuff as well. We had learnt earlier on our trips to Goshaba that the administration’s responsibility in providing transit facilities to everyone providing relief under times of natural disasters ends with some notice put up at the DM’s bungalow that supposedly shows some route maps. At Gadkhali and at Dhamakhali— the two transit points to the Sundarbans accessible directly on road from Kolkata— there were no governmental helpdesks to guide people coming with relief. Throughout the month of June, most of the relief material brought in by trucks and vans from Kolkata by civilians, neighbourhood clubs, various agencies, etc. were emptied off at these two points. But boats were scarce, and charging exorbitant rates; ‘relief agents’ of various sort fell upon the unsuspecting and siphoned off the stuff; some of those who could hire boats threw their load on to the riverside people without getting off their boats in fear of infection! It goes without saying— for the people living in the interiors of many Sundarban islands, there has been little or grossly insufficient relief. It is always fatal to expect something.
We deferred the trip to Hingalgunj to July4-5, hoping to convince some doctors to stay there for a day or two. We were unsuccessful: the few doctors whom we contacted were busy and/or unwilling, or too tired from the trips to the other cyclone-afflicted regions. I remember Samantakda, Sujitda (teachers at the Comparative Literature department, JU), myself and Saurav visiting an influential city doctor (also the son of a powerful man from the state legislative assembly) who painted an almost convincing picture of 500 doctors on foot covering the entire island. He promised us no help but smiled: “Civilian relief is always welcome.”
We were acutely short of funds this time but help from many friends made it possible for us to undertake this trip. On July 3, we were bought some zeoline bottles and medicine for fever, diarrhoea, and other stomach-related ailments (see the detailed list at the end) which we could distribute without strict medical supervision, and left the next day.
We had stocked up the medicine and zeoline bottles at Rafatda’s quarters (Rafatda is a lecturer at the Department of English, JU), and caught a morning train on Saturday to Canning, with Rafatda helping to transport the stuff to the station. At Canning, the three of us—myself, Saurav, and Abhisekh, a student of Chemical Engineering who has graduated this year— crossed the Matla river and boarded an autorickshaw for Dhamakhali. Abhisekh had separately brought along two big bulging bags of medicine, ORS packs, and some nutritional food supplements for children below six years.
Dhamakhali is almost opposite of the Sandeshkhali block and island, one of the major boating ports of the Sundarban regions. From Dhamakhali, we took a passenger boat on the muddy Raimangal river to Sardarpara Ghat, one next to a Santhal village by the same name. We had an eventful journey.
After one and half hours of a scorching boat ride, we were stopped by a BSF patrol boat, who insisted on seeing our identity cards. We had none. Angry words in Our Queen’s Language convinced the patrolmen of our purposes; after all, who has ever heard of a jehadi swearing in Anglais! We were let off with a mild warning, but forced to take a longer route. And to add further delight, a huge storm cloud caught our boat on the middle of the river. It poured cats, dogs, and elephants, and you couldn’t see anything five metres from where you huddled up inside the boat. Apart from the medicine inside the plastic packets, everything and everyone was soaked to the bones. We reached Sardarpara in that downpour, and took a ‘Helicopter’ to Jogeshgunj. The ‘Helicopter’ (as called here and in Bangladesh) has the body of a pedalled van, the front of a motorcycle stolen from the city, the motor of a smuggled Chinese pump-set, and a metal strip on a flattened rubber tube acting as a brake and making awful noise. It gives your vertebral column the sensations of riding a bumpy dragon.
A single metalled road runs from Sardarpara to Samshernagar on the edge of the forests where there’s a BSF outpost, and it crosses Jogeshgunj in the middle. From Jogeshgunj there lies another road that leads to the Dulduli side of the Sandeshkhali island, and further away to Hasnabad, crossing two rivers on the way. This road to Samshernagar, created two years back of the PM Gramsadak Yojna, has acted as lifeline for the people living in the interiors of this island. But for this road, none of the relief that had come in could be easily transported to this island’s interiors. The road has also served as a kind of barrier for the flooding waters. On the way to Jogeshgunj, we could see the sharp divide: green and algaic water from the rains on the fields on the left hand side, lots of greyish slimy and black water on the right. There were a lot of roadside shelters made of thatched straw and plastic sheets, and people and families crowding inside them. The outpour continued when we reached Jogeshgunj bajaar at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We had plans for buying rice here, but with the shops closed due to the rain, we decided on coming back in the evening. We crossed the Gobindakati panchayat area, and reached Kalitala at around 2.30.
The Kalitala Panchayat consists of 3 villages: Kalitala, Shamser Nagar, and Pargumti. It has a population of more than 21,000, excluding the unregistered settlers who’ve moved over from Bangladesh. Saurav’s neighbourhood is in the western portion of the Kalitala village. The brackish flood water had not receded from the fields and some of the village’s inner roads, and now it had stagnated and rotted, a black jelly like substance at some places, with some oily layers floating over it like you see at the time of a diesel spill. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that any contact with this water results in sores and itches. And it took us some time getting used to the rotting smell around the place, noxious and repulsive vapours abounding. The villagers speak of it as the ‘gas’; it had formed after the human and animal corpses and everything blown over by the cyclone had melted away in the waters. A month and a half later, the devastation all around looked as if from yesterday. Broken and cracked mud houses, remains of furniture and woodwork in the fields, scattered remains of decomposing vegetation, and a few leafless trees spreading out their gnarled fingers across a monsoon sky.
‘A Corpse can build 500 Houses’
It was next to a long queue in front of one of those few functional half-sunken tubewells (that gives out water of deep sulphurous yellow colour and a tangy bitter taste, and is the only source of drinking water in that village) of the Paschim Kalitala panchayat area that we met a septuagenarian with a bucket who asked a strange question.
“Did you snap any pictures of corpses?” he asked. Later at Jogeshgunj bajaar, we had many people asking us the same question.
“Damn.” The man looked at us with imploring eyes. “Not even one?”
“They have promised to rebuild 500 houses if you can show them a single picture of a corpse.”
I looked around and asked Ajit Mandal, one of the few village youths who were desperately running around buying medicine from Baruipur and Kolkata, and organising the few and intermittent relief camps set up by NGOs and religious organisations who’ve managed to venture deep into this region. In these days of cheap cameras and mobile phones across the border, surely someone had snapped pictures of some bloated corpse right after the cyclone when the canals and fields were abounding with human and animal corpses. Ajit sighed: “Don’t listen to him; he’s a conceited old man. This is an enormous hoax. Nothing will come out of it.”
Why? I asked. Surely the promised houses would be of some help. I remembered reading off a newspaper the government putting the death toll at something around 150. Today’s newspaper speaks of a 1000 crore something allocation for the cyclone afflicted. Ajit looked at me with blank eyes and said: “You know we had been clearing dead bodies and animal carcasses right after the cyclone. After three days in this water, you can identify nothing human of a corpse. Then we didn’t think that snapping pictures could be that important. And anyways, I think we should spare the dead their self-respect.” Later another villager pointed out a mound of earth surrounded by the waters in the middle of some fields. “If someone is really willing to seek out the dead, they can find them there.” And still later I found myself staring out uncomfortably across a moonlit night at that mound, and hearing indistinct voices. The poor of the village were wading through the infectious waters with fishing nets to catch small fishes and shrimps.
But back to sequential reporting. We bought 8 quintals of rice in the evening from Jogeshgunj bajaar and stacked them up at Saurav’s house, and tried meeting the local haturey (quack) doctor to help us distribute the medicines. But he was unavailable: there has been an outbreak of diarrhoea, 25 people taking to bed in the space of a week, and he was busy administering saline drips to patients throughout the day and night. With the stagnating waters all around, there were huge swarms of mosquitoes and insects coming over after nightfall. There was some rainwater to drink, and that highly suspicious yellow water from the tubewell treated with zeoline. Saurav’s mother took enormous trouble in feeding us shrimps with vegetables, and we all had an excellent dinner. We arranged the medicine for diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, dysentery, bodily pain and fever in different packets, and had a meeting with village youths for the distribution of rice. We drew up a list, and made a decision to exclude the families who have salaried earning members (schoolmasters, etc.) so that only needy get some share from the meagre amount we were distributing. Medicines were for all as long as they lasted; zeoline bottles only for the poorest.
Medicines sans doctors
The distributions were scheduled to start at seven in the morning, but we had some rain, and it started from eight. We had people (a person per family) come for the rice according to the list and have 2 kgs of rice. We had reached out to 312 families of Paschim Kalitala, and to 57 families of the Kahar (shoemaker) community living in Daspara, of Gobindakati panchayat. We had set up a table close by for the medicine distribution where we made lists of the people and the medicine they were taking home.
I and Abhisekh distributed the medicine. Almost all of the people who came asking for medicine had dysentery, blood dysentery, worms in their stomach, acidity, loose and liquid bowels, and skin diseases. After a month of cooping with various illnesses, many people here have known of medicines such as Rantac, Norflox, etc. and consumed them in mouthfuls. With the absence of proper health infrastructure, insufficient doses, and overconsumption of antibiotics without the prescribed doses from a medial practitioner has made many of them resistant to common antibiotics. A man suffering from acute blood dysentery had sent out his son to get medicine: he was consuming around 10 pieces of Norfloxacin 500 tablets a day! I asked him, and many others, to consult a city doctor as soon as possible, knowing very well that I had said very dumb and insensitive things to a people who are not sure about their next meal. We gave a 5-day course of medicine for common ailments, asking everyone to complete the full course of medicines, not to stop midway, and not to consume medicine without sufficient illness, etc. There were babies below six months of age with stomach problems and terrible-looking skin sores, but we had nothing for them. As we could cater to some people, most left disappointed.
Myself and Abhisekh left by the one o’clock boat. We reached Kolkata around eight. Saurav stayed back planning to move to the riverside neighbourhoods with some of the Zeoline bottles Abhisekh had brought over, and the remaining medicines. The following afternoon, I heard from him over the phone that he had distributed the remaining zeoline bottles and bought another quintal of rice to some poor families. The return journey was uneventful apart from scorching heat, stomach cramps, and Abhisekh falling ill due to fatigue and catching a fever.