Concerted action in wake of Cyclone Amphan, COVID-19 should focus on building strong public infrastructure in Bengal

After Cyclone Amphan battered coastal and deltaic West Bengal on 20 May, the mammoth task of picking up the pieces can justifiably be said to have just begun. It took the Centre some time to react, but after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s aerial survey on 22 May coordination seems to have been established.

Suhit K Sen May 27, 2020 14:33:43 IST
Concerted action in wake of Cyclone Amphan, COVID-19 should focus on building strong public infrastructure in Bengal

After Cyclone Amphan battered coastal and deltaic West Bengal on 20 May, the mammoth task of picking up the pieces can justifiably be said to have just begun. It took the Centre some time to react, but after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s aerial survey on 22 May coordination seems to have been established.

The preliminary estimate of the losses the state will suffer is Rs 1 lakh crore. This figure was put out by the state government on 22 May. In all likelihood, the figure will be revised upwards. The Centre has committed ‘advance assistance’ of Rs 1,000 crore, while the state government has created a fund of the same proportion to be used immediately. The Centre will obviously have to provide more assistance, financially and logistically, as the project of reconstruction picks up pace.

Before proceeding further, it will be worthwhile estimating the magnitude of the catastrophe. To begin with, the last major cyclone, Fani, caused damage worth Rs 24,000 crore in Odisha, the state that was hit worst. West Bengal also suffered some damage.

Concerted action in wake of Cyclone Amphan COVID19 should focus on building strong public infrastructure in Bengal

An image from Bengal after Cyclone Amphan.

Amphan has devastated five districts – East Midnapore, Howrah, Hooghly, and South and North 24 Parganas – and Kolkata. But substantial damage has been done in some other districts, as well. Apart from habitations and infrastructure, the most significant loss has been to agriculture over a number of districts, including the two Burdwan districts, known as Bengal’s rice bowl. The standing paddy crop, vegetable farms and cash crops, like sesame and betel, have been pulverised. There has been significant damage to the mango crop in Malda district, which relies on it heavily, currently estimated at 10 per cent.

Beyond the statistics, however, are the hardships of people whose lives were already flattened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to spike substantially because physical distancing is practically impossible for millions of people in the wake of Amphan and the steady return of millions of migrant workers. Keeping some kind of leash on the spread of the pandemic while also rebuilding lives will be a huge challenge.

That is why the Central government and the state government must work together, without reservation. The prime minister and chief minister have showed signs of suspending hostilities to do so. In real terms, teams provided by the Centre, culled from several sources, including the army, have been helping the early work of reconstruction, especially in Kolkata and its environs.

It is futile to expect that ‘politics’ will suddenly disappear, even though the situation is grave. This does not happen. Nevertheless, the state Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) grandstanding is egregious, jejune and irritating. With Assembly elections about a year away, it is readying, according to media reports, a chargesheet against the Trinamool Congress government. The plan is to release it today (27 May), the day the party completes nine years in office.

The highlights will be the state government’s mishandling of both, COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan. That sounds strange, when, first, the state government has hardly had the time to either manage or mismanage the situation; and, second, Modi himself has commended Mamata for her handling of both. Faced with the contradictory demands posed by COVID-19 and Amphan, he said on 22 May, ‘West Bengal is fighting well’.

State BJP chief and Midnapore MP Dilip Ghosh and his lieutenants will have to assess the situation. Ghosh’s demand that compensation for the cyclone-hit should go directly to Jan Dhan accounts, otherwise it wouldn’t reach the intended recipients, was his first shot across the bows. It wasn’t particularly smart, however. Trying to exploit this catastrophe is unlikely to yield results, especially when the dust settles and there is time for sober appraisal.

Work has been progressing both in Kolkata and the districts. The progress is as much as can be expected under the circumstances. But the work on the restoration of power has shone a light on the issue of comparative efficiency – as between the performance of the West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Corporation Limited (WBSEDCL) and the Calcutta State Electric Supply Corporations (CESC). The former is the state-run body that is tasked with providing power to 96 per cent of the state, excluding Kolkata and some adjacent areas – with a consumer base of nearly 17 million. The latter is a privately held company that has the monopoly of supplying power to Kolkata and adjacent areas.

In the first five days after the super-cyclone, WBSEDCL seems to have kept pace with the CESC, if not outperformed it. Media reports and anecdotal evidence suggests that up until late evening on 25 May, some areas in which CESC claimed to have restored power, only a small percentage of buildings had been re-connected (see ‘Power back: 12.5% truth’, The Telegraph, Calcutta, 26 May 2020).

CESC, however, claimed on Monday that 95 per cent of lines had been restored and the rest of the re-connection would be complete by Wednesday evening – 27 May. In many areas, however, restoration was makeshift, with no time-frame for full services spelt out. That means no lifts will work in high-rises and water supply will be fitful and rationed.

In contrast, WBSEDCL had got 240 of 273 damaged substations up and running early on Monday. No claims have been made in terms of the extent of the restoration, but the work has proceeded apace. This raises the question of the role of the state in the provision of public services – transport, power, water, health, education, etc. – vis-à-vis the private sector, also because the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the critical need for a comprehensive transformation of state-run health services across the country.

Take CESC’s explanations for its slow progress. A contention that bulks large is the non-availability of maintenance personnel, many of whom have gone back to their home states because of the pandemic. But this explanation also points to cost-cutting exercises – sometimes in the form of outsourcing work – that negatively impact maintenance and the capacity to respond to situations. It is, for instance, inexplicable that something in the region of 30 per cent of Kolkata’s power is still supplied through overhead cable networks that are vulnerable to much less extreme natural events than cyclones like Amphan.

The issue of privatization drives that are indiscriminate, profit-driven and framed by a kind of fundamentalist market orthodoxy is moot. This policy perspective should not be applied to public services, even as the state retreats from businesses that it should ideally not be in. The Bengal government must meet the double whammy with which it has been hit by investing in and upgrading public infrastructure across the board.

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