Villagers in a makeshift camp.
Close to three weeks after Cyclone Amphan ravaged the Sundarbans in West Bengal, NewsClick travelled across the affected islands in the districts of North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas, and met scores of people who had lost almost everything to the cyclone, barring the clothes they had on them. Many said they had only managed to salvage some important documents, a few utensils and other belongings, but were entirely dependent on relief materials and ration distributed by the government, civil society groups and NGOs for their day-to-day needs.
Disturbingly, villagers in several areas alleged there was widespread politicking over the disbursal of relief materials. They said that local leaders of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the party in power in the state and in most local panchayats, were deciding who was eligible for what kind of relief, and were often denying the same to workers and supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), and those associated with other opposition parties in the state. They also said the politicking was similar to what was seen during disbursal of relief following cyclones like Bulbul and Fani, in the recent past.
Volunteers of Amphan Relief Network and other civil society groups, who were engaged in relief work in the cyclone-hit areas, corroborated their claims in separate conversations. They said that in many places, they were being forced to butter the palms of local TMC leaders, and were pressured to hand over relief materials to them, without having any say in their disbursal. NewsClick also came across several instances where those protesting against such malpractices, including people without any political affiliation, were being attacked, threatened with violence or framed in false cases, forcing them to go underground.
Framed and on the run
Nilratan S. (name changed), an assistant professor of Political Science in a college on the outskirts of Kolkata, returned to his village under the Srinagar gram panchayat in Kakdwip Vidhan Sabha constituency, following the enforcement of the nationwide lockdown in March this year. Once a stronghold of the CPM, almost all elected representatives in the Kakdwip area, including panchayat members, the MLA and the MP belong to the TMC.
Nilratan had no political affiliations, but, moved by the plight of villagers under the lockdown, he teamed up with a childhood friend, who now teaches in a primary school close to his college, and two other retired school teachers in the village, to carry out relief activities, including making and distributing around 1,200 masks and organising a blood donation camp.
“After Amphan ravaged the area, local TMC leaders conducted a survey to assess losses. Although most of the houses in the village were damaged, and people had lost their farm produce, they only visited the homes of their workers and supporters and told them to collect tarpaulin sheets from the local panchayat office on May 26. We got wind of this, and approached Nilratan and his companions (two of whom are still associated with the CPM), and staged a protest outside the office in the morning of May 26,” a villager, who requested anonymity fearing reprisals, told NewsClick.
He said the police descended on the scene within minutes, and lathi-charged protestors. “All the while, local TMC leaders were telling the cops to beat up Nilratan and his companions so that they could be taught a lesson for opposing the ruling party,” said the villager.
“A couple of hours after this, local TMC leaders and their henchmen – about 150 of them – gathered around my house, abused, heckled and threatened my family, and forced me to sign a note saying I would distribute 300 tarpaulin sheets to villagers of my own accord,” Nilratan, who had gone underground soon after the incident, told NewsClick from an undisclosed location.
His family was attacked again on June 1. “They ransacked the entire house, and when they were unable to find him, they tore up our clothes and threatened us with physical and sexual violence if he did not surrender before them soon,” said his wife and his mother. “We submitted a written complaint to the Harwood Point Coastal Police Station, naming the accused. But the police refused to register an FIR,” they alleged.
Villagers who were part of the protest, including Nilratan and his companions, were named in an FIR lodged by local TMC leaders the following day, the villagers mentioned. “When we approached the police on June 3, they said they were under pressure to act against those named in the FIR. Although none of us are with the BJP, local TMC leaders spread a rumour that we are working for the saffron party,” Nilratan’s brother told NewsClick.
“They (TMC leaders) were keen to take all the credit for distributing relief, during the lockdown and after Amphan, and were very angry with us for participating in the protest on May 26. They have been threatening my family with dire consequences,” Nilratan’s friend, who leans towards the CPM, told NewsClick from an undisclosed location. “We are on the run because we could be killed if we return to the village,” he added.
Villagers from Sulkuni, Sagar, Patharpratima and the G-Plot islands in the Sundarbans, said that local TMC leaders were distributing relief materials themselves, even when it came from civil society groups and NGOs.
“We lost all the vegetables in our farms; our betel plantations are destroyed and houses are in shambles. Yet, we have not been provided any relief, whereas those associated with the ruling party have received tarpaulin and dry ration on three to four occasions since Amphan,” a group of villagers in Sulkuni island, who had voted for the BJP in the recent polls, told NewsClick.
Rabindrabath Das, a BJP booth president from G-Plot island, echoed their statements. “When an elected panchayat member of the TMC urged her party leaders to distribute relief in a fair manner, they stopped keeping her in the loop, and took away her official seal,” he alleged.
Like Nilratan, Das said he feared for his life and was keeping a low profile to avoid a direct confrontation with TMC leaders who enjoy unbridled power in the area. “They are even asking NGOs who bring relief to our area to cough up exorbitant sums to unload dry ration, mosquito nets, clothes and other relief materials from boats on to the island,” he alleged.
Volunteers of Amphan Relief Network, an assemblage of civil society groups and NGOs, corroborated these claims, saying local TMC leaders were taking away all the relief materials being provided by them, and were hoarding them in panchayat buildings.
“If we insist on distributing relief ourselves, they are providing us with lists of eligible persons and forcing us to stick to it, despite us having specific information about many villagers who have suffered heavy losses and are being denied access to relief,” said Pintu Das, a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, who is engaged in relief activities in the area alongside his peers from Jadavpur University.