Although it got limited national attention, Amphan was the kind of cyclone that occurs once in decades, if not centuries. After it struck on May 20, Kolkata residents said it was the worst storm that they had seen in their lifetimes. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee compared it to a long-ago storm in 1737.
Thanks to timely evacuations, Amphan killed fewer people than Aila a decade ago. But, ripping through Bay of Bengal at much higher speeds, Amphan has arguably been more destructive. While Odisha suffered severe damage, Bengal bore the brunt of the storm.
Initial reports of the large-scale destruction are compelling evidence that the state will need immediate as well as long-term support from the Centre. By all indications, Centre and state may have differing estimates of how much financial and logistical support is needed.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi jetted down to Bengal and Odisha in the aftermath of the storm, he announced initial relief of Rs 1,000 crore for the former and Rs 500 crore for the latter. This amount, already released, is welcome. But, according to Bengal’s estimates earlier this year, the Centre owes the state more than Rs 50,000 crore.
Moreover, according to the West Bengal government’s initial assessment, the cyclone caused losses amounting to Rs 1 lakh crore. But the Centre has sent its own team down to Bengal to assess the damage. For now, the European Union has provided more relief than the Centre, pledging 500,000 euros for humanitarian aid and health workers battling the pandemic in the midst of a natural disaster.
Some relief cannot wait. The storm has left thousands starving and homeless, several areas suffering from water scarcity and power shortages. Many of West Bengal’s poorest have lost their means of subsistence. Bengal, which sees a large flow of migrants to other states, has been doubly hit by the Covid-19 lockdown. Migrant workers starving in the cities will find no reprieve in their ravaged homes. In the Sunderbans, Aila had triggered a wave of distress migration but its residents will not find employment in locked down cities anytime soon. These groups that will need immediate food and income support.
As the fallen trees are cleared and the waters recede, the state faces the massive task of rebuilding homes and shattered embankments. Farmers who suffered crop losses will need compensation or a moratorium on loans. Apart from relief packages, the Centre needs to ensure that funds for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are released in time. In the months to come, many will depend on jobs provided under the scheme, which assures rural families 100 days of work a year.
Finally, the slow and painful task of rebuilding livelihoods lies in the years ahead. The thousands displaced in the Sundarbans and elsewhere, will need help building new homes and lives. Apart from the vast tide of human misery swept in by the storm, there is also the ecological damage caused to the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, home to a fragile tiger population. Conservation efforts will need to be stepped up.
Centre and state made a promising start in tackling Amphan. Banerjee asked for Central help and Modi paid a visit. Teams of the National Disaster Response Force and the Indian Army were rushed in. But West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress government and the Centre’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government have a fractious history. The opposition-ruled state has been chary of the BJP, which has long eyed Bengal as a political prize. The appalling blame game over the Covid-19 effort is a cautionary tale.
But the present crisis requires both the Centre and the state to rise above political point-scoring and cooperate. The costs of not doing so are too great.