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Tuesday, October 24, 2000

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Dams, officials to blame more for Bengal floods than rains

DUTTAPHULIA (NADIA), OCT 23: “Damn with the dams.'' Medha Patekar would be happy to learn that in West Bengal's flood-ravaged districts, there are millions who now spontaneously chant this slogan. Evidently, no word to them sounds as horrifying as ``dams'' and ``barrages''. With the mystery about the exact reasons for this year's devastating floods still lingering, many believe that these had been caused by ``excessive and unregulated'' releases from dams.

Subodh Mondal, whose address for the past one month has been the state highway linking Duttaphulia and Ranaghat, the realisation has come the hard way and through personal experience. ``The sky was absolutely clear and the sun shone brightly when flood water started surging into our village. It took less than a couple of hours for the deluge make us homeless,'' he recounts. ``The dam authorities should have released a little more to spare us the agony of living through it,'' he adds sarcastically.

Displaced persons across the affected region in Bongaon, Bagda, Basirhat, Duttaphulia and elsewhere now firmly believe that the Farakka barrage and dams in Massangore or Hinglow have been wrecking havoc year after year. Bani Saraswati, secretary of a voluntry organisation that has been sheltering pregnant mothers and sick children among the affected victims in Duttaphulia, shares the sentiment of the villagers. ``Maybe water from dams has given the farmers more than one crop, but it has also made them paupers,'' says Saraswati.

The excessive release from the dams apart, there are widespread allegations of river channels in various parts of the affected region being blocked. Ichamati river, for instance, which cuts through North 24-Parganas and Nadia, has been virtually ravaged and mutilated, say locals. Due to heavy siltation, the river had virtually turned into a lean, narrow ``nullah'' before this year's flooding. In both the districts, the river is now a dreadful horror, its width spreading for miles at places.

Earlier, stretches of the dried-up bed on Ichamati had been converted into brick kilns. The more enterprising and influential ones, colluding with panchayat-level leaders, had even set up large prawn cultivation tanks right on the river bed by erecting concrete walls. At one place on Ichamati, where siltation had taken the shape of an island, a posh resort and agriculture farm had come up.

An organisation called the Ichamati River Bachao Committee had organised rallies and deputations for dredging of the river channel and demanding a stop to increasing encroachment of the river bed in the past. Butpeople at large were cynical and not too involved, realising little that the river might also hit back. ``In a single sweep, the river has taken its revenge,'' admits Bhupen Seth, a Trinamool Congress leader from Bongaon.

The floods have also laid bare the gross inadequacy of the ruling government when it comes to disaster management. A coalition which has been in power for nearly 25 years now and its dominant partner -- the CPI(M) -- that boasts of having one of the biggest and most organised cadre base faltered right at the beginning. First, the alert about an impending disaster of this magnitude was not as serious as it should have been. In a majority of the areas, police jeeps did a customary round on main thoroughfares urging the people from low-lying areas and those located close to river banks to shift to safer places. Those staying away from river banks and on relatively higher lands ignored it, paying the price.

Secondly, it failed to mobilise the administration and its party cadre to prevent food riots. Looting of grocery shops and relief trucks was rampant. Gobinda Basak, president of the Bongaon Chamber of Commerce, points out that the business community had informed subdivisional officials that the dealers in essential commodities had enough stock to tackle the emergency but they should ensure that anti-social elements do not capitalise on the situation. ``But that was exactly what happened. With officials keeping themselves confined in offices and the police standing guard for their security, the roads were left to lumpens, who freely went on the rampage, looting relief material and food godowns.''

Finally, while party cadres went through the usual motions of collecting relief across the state, there were no volunteers to be found to carry those relief materials to interior areas. At Bibhuti Bhusan Ghat in Bagda, for example, a CITU leader who was monitoring relief operations on behalf of the party agreed: ``We have enough material piled up here but not many hands to carry it to the affected.''

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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