Super-cyclone Amphan pounded Bengal on 20 May, leaving a trail of destruction the likes of which the state has not witnessed in a long time. The worst-hit parts were coastal East Medinipur, Kolkata, and the districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly. The process of picking up the pieces has just begun and will likely continue for months, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The extent of the damage in monetary terms is obviously not yet fully clear. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has cited a figure of Rs. 1 lakh crore. How she arrived at that figure is not known. A report on 22 May, too, mentioned a figure of $13.2 billion, quoting a state government source. That works out to somewhere around the Rs. 1 lakh crore Banerjee put out. At the moment, that should give us a baseline figure. For perspective, last year Cyclone Fani inflicted damage worth over Rs. 24,000 crore on Odisha, according to an estimate arrived at by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral agencies.
As of now, it is estimated that the boro paddy crop awaiting harvesting delayed by the pandemic has been flattened over 88,000 hectares; and, vegetables and sesame over 1,00,000 hectares each. There will be big-ticket losses to the mango crop, estimated at 38,000 tonnes in Malda district, which is over a tenth of its average annual produce. The district relies heavily on this crop and will be in dire straits.
As of Friday’s estimations, 86 lives had been lost, just over a million houses damaged, 13 million people affected, while 6,00,000 people had been put up in over 5,000 relief camps. At the moment, it is futile to talk about how physical distancing can be accomplished in them.
It took the central government a while to take cognizance of the cyclone. Around 24 hours after the cyclone first struck, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacted publicly for the first time with a tweet that said, “Have been seeing visuals from West Bengal on the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan. In this challenging hour, the entire nation stands in solidarity with West Bengal.” And, “No stone will be left unturned in helping the affected.”
Union Home Minister Amit Shah had been on social media a little before Modi and had also spoken to Banerjee. The absence of an initial response suggests a strategy session before going public. Soon after, the prime minister surveyed the devastated areas aerially with the chief minister and Governor Jagdeep Dhankar.
After an administrative meeting with Banerjee and others, Modi announced “advance assistance” to the tune of Rs. 1,000 crore for Bengal. On Thursday, Banerjee had created a fund of Rs. 1,000 crore that her government would press into service straight away for relief and reconstruction operations.
For now, the main players seem to be on the same wavelength. Banerjee had been maintaining a low profile from March, when it became clear that the pandemic would have to be jointly managed. A series of provocations initiated by the Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Dhankar had vitiated the atmosphere and muddied the waters in the state. Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress, had responded in kind.
The point, however, is that Bengal, like all the other states, has been “on the frontline” of the “battle” against the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the central government’s response has been completely underwhelming in all arenas of action. If anything, it has hamstrung, rather than facilitated, the efforts made by the states.
But with Bengal struck by a double whammy, no player can afford to allow partisan politics to hamper the emergency and relief efforts. Elections in Bengal are scheduled over the spring and summer of 2021. It is possible that BJP strategists realize that the failure to respond to the super-cyclone without hesitation has already hurt it. The Centre cannot be seen to be playing around at this juncture. Thus Banerjee has been more than conciliatory, while Modi has been appreciative of the state government.
What has to be factored in politically is the history of Bengal’s political relationship with the north Indian mainstream, which has been constituted substantially by a sense of grievance on the part of the former. You could argue that this goes back to the colonial period, when the capital of British India was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi and the then province of Bengal ceased to be the pace-setter. You could argue that Bengal’s sense of aloofness from north India goes back much further.
Leaving those aside, in the postcolonial period, especially since 1967, when Bengal voted out the Congress, there has been a sense that political dispensations at the Centre have discriminated against the state. The Left Front, which governed Bengal from 1977 to 2011, played on this sentiment vis-à-vis the Congress for most of this time, and also when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was in power between 1998 and 2004.
The Trinamool Congress has been playing this tune since the BJP came to power under Modi in 2014. Whether or not they matter electorally, both the senses of exceptionalism and grievance exist, and so the Centre has to be seen putting its shoulder to the wheel in terms of financial, logistical and other assistance. Rs. 1,000 crore is the pro forma advance assistance. More must follow and in quick time, as Banerjee has been emphasising. Whatever the Centre decides to pay, she said on Thursday, must be paid immediately. We “cannot wait for 500 days”, she said.
The Bengal governor, who has been engaged in a battle of attrition with the state government, backtracked after an initial misstep, consisting of labelling the damage “minimal” in a tweet in Bengali which used the word “nyunatama”. Since then he has made statements recognising the magnitude of the calamity.
But some comments will not help either the Centre or the state. Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh, who finds it difficult to both control a logorrhea problem and maintain a simulacrum of basic coherence, was at it again when he demanded that the Centre transfer the ex gratia payments announced for the next of kin of the deceased (and those injured) to Jan Dhan accounts directly, since it would not reach them if the money was given to the state government. Fortunately, ignoring the Midnapore Member of Parliament isn’t difficult.
Equally damaging was BJP IT cell head Amit Malaviya’s utterly inane comment, suggesting that Banerjee had been forced to seek the Central government’s help. “Mamata Banerjee has always prioritised politics over welfare of Bengal’s people. … But now, under pressure, she has no option but to cooperate.” Somebody should tell the egregiously uninformed Malviya that it is not a case of Banerjee seeking anyone’s help. It is a federalist matter between the state government and the Centre, ideally governed by constitutional and other provisions. That is, when the Centre does not use its powers to ignore or subvert them.
Bengal will take a long time to recover. It is inconceivable that the Centre will take its foot off the pedal given the enormity of the catastrophe. The Trinamool will hope, however, that Malviya, Ghosh and their ilk will continue to make statements like the ones they have made. Such reactions could smoothen its path back to power next year.
The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.