In its continuing coverage of the cyclone-affected Sunderbans, Infochange finds some 700 families in the K-plot island close to starvation. Nothing grows here any more, and rice is priced at Rs 22/kg. Villagers are desperate for work under NREGS
“My family of seven needs 3 kg of rice every day, but I can manage only 2 kg,” says Fazlu Khan squatting behind his bow-legged 9-month-old daughter with a distended stomach. Fazlu is one of 17 families whose homestead was washed away by Cyclone Aila in May 2009. Now they live on someone else’s land under a tarpaulin roof ready to leak at the next rain.
The tranquil scenery on the boat ride to K-plot had not prepared me for the harsh reality on the island. As the Thakuran was gradually widening to open up into the Bay of Bengal, the forested islands narrowed into green slivers wedged between the water and the sky. K-plot is an island on the southern edges of the Sunderban delta open to the ocean to its south. The embankments that circumscribe the island to keep out high water proved no match for the fury of Aila.
On its way out, the water from the ocean turned all cultivable land saline. Residents said that they have never seen their island so barren. Indeed, the island was no more than checkered paddy fields baking in the sun. Almost no paddy could be cultivated last monsoon. And now, with no rain since October, the salt has risen to the surface of the soil, making it impossible to grow anything.
Except for irrigation from a few ponds all farmers depend on rain. Landed farmers grow their own rice and agricultural labourers and sharecroppers take rice in lieu of their wages. But now families are forced to buy all of the rice they need at Rs 22 a kg. Prices of vegetables have also skyrocketed. With no work and expensive food a famine-like situation is stalking the people of K-plot who are managing on one to two meals a day. Hunger is an uninvited guest in every household.
Through the day I met more destitute families living under the temporary tarpaulin encampments by the road. Jaba Dewa is a widow with two young daughters and a grown-up son who is mentally handicapped. Streaks of sunlight shine through her tarpaulin roof and bamboo walls. She begs from door to door to put together one meal a day. These days no one has the capacity to share food. Jaba stares blankly through the thick cataracts on her eyes, softly saying that she needs help. According to a worker of a local community organisation, 700 families are living under tarpaulin shelters. From my travel across the island, it seemed to be a very fair estimation.
It would be wrong to assume that the villagers of K-plot are looking for charity to be handed out. These resilient people are ready to do whatever work comes their way – men, women and all. Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity has organised the women in K-plot after Aila and it is because of their pressure that the government has started providing work under NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) through the rebuilding of embankments. Work is still insufficient and payments are delayed, forcing people into debt.
Fazlu’s neighbour Rahman Khan has received 10 days of work last month but has not received any money for the last 2 months. Abdul Qadir has received only 4 days of work. His frail frame speaks of the specter of hunger he faces.
In an all-women congregation in the village in the afternoon, one of them informed that 300 women had gone to the block office and gheraoed the BDO asking for the implementation of NREGS. They have been promised 25 days of work this month and an assurance that the daily wages will be raised from Rs 88 to Rs 100 a day. Everyone only hopes this is true because most promises are not met.
The promise of compensation up to Rs 10,000 for homes broken by Aila remains mired in the political battle between the ruling party and the opposition in the panchayat. The committee responsible for finalising the list of beneficiaries has failed to do so as each party wants exclusively its supporters (and their kin) on the list. When finally the list was released with the consent of both parties, it turned out that the total beneficiaries in the Patharpratima block were 56,000 families while the total number of families in the entire block was supposed to be 49,000.
The villagers are hopeful that the rains in the coming months will wash away their sorrows along with the salt from their land, but the very same showers strike fears of sleeping with their children under leaking roofs. Where are these hardworking citizens of India to go? What are they to eat?
As I walked back on the embankments towards the ferry ghat, an old man came running to me howling his sorrows in a feeble voice. I held him by his arms but could not understand a word he said except that he had lost everything. I could not gather the strength to ask for a re-explanation of his pain. A few minutes later an older man walked up to me and said that his wife and daughter had gone begging five days ago and have not returned since. A pain surged from my stomach.
What do we need to change so that the people of our country are not dragged through this misery? Politics? Social structure? Economics? Environment? Sensibilities? Perhaps all of them.
(Somnath Mukherji is an activist who has been working in cyclone-affected Sunderbans)
Infochange News & Features, February 2010