June 7, 2009

Sunderbans braces for double blow

KOLKATA, 5 Jun 2009: With just 72 hours to go for the dreaded high tide to hit the Aila-ravaged Sunderbans, the government went on a high alert on Thursday, evacuating people from six islands, stationing three ministers to oversee preparations and initiating steps to counter a possible inundation. Although no cyclone or squall warning has been issued by the meteorological department, satellite images showed a wide low-pressure area that could lead to rough weather.
The weather system formed over Gangetic West Bengal two days back and will lead to widespread rain over the next 48 hours. This will coincide with the bara kotal (full moon high tide) that is set to sweep into the islands on the night of June 6-7, raising the risk of further devastation. The Met department has sent a note to the government alerting them about the impending deluge. "There could be heavy rainfall over the next two days. But as of now, there is no indication of a storm or a squall," said G C Debnath, director of Alipore Meteorological Office.
After being caught off-guard by Aila, Writers' Buildings has ordered a huge bandobast for the bhara kotal. People are being evacuated from six islands Kumirmari, parts of Chhotomollakhali, Amtoli, Lahiripur, Satjelia and Kachukhali in Gosaba and parts of Patharpratima. The army and navy have already reached some of the islands, irrigation minister Subhas Naskar said. A hovercraft is being roped in and 75 mechanized boats are kept ready from the civil defence, National Calamity Reserve Force and the army, finance minister Asim Dasgupta said.
The relief centres have been alerted and preparations are being made in advance, with stocks of water and dry food. The message from chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has travelled quickly to the block level in Sunderbans. Reports of vulnerable points along the islands were sought. BDOs started compiling lists of probable rescue centres, stocks of relief material and items they need.
On direct orders from Bhattacharjee, three ministers Srikumar Mukherjee (civil defence), Kanti Ganguly (Sunderbans affairs) and Subhas Naskar (irrigation) have been stationed at Gosaba, Patharpratima and Hingalganj to take charge of affairs when the tide hits. Mukherjee said civil defence personnel have been dispatched and would reach their areas of deployment by Friday.
"They will be on 90 boats and carry 500 life jackets. All the men will be in uniform so that they can be easily identified," he said. According to the government, 940 points on the embankments have been breached but only 381 of them been repaired. "We are trying our best to prevent casualties this time. We don't want to add to the 137 death toll," said Mukherjee.
The irrigation minister, however, claimed 65% of the embankments have been repaired. "Unfortunately, the embankments will have to brave 10 more tides before proper repair work can be started," Naskar said, adding that they want to take the help of the central government's Ganga Flood Control Commission. Almost all mud houses in the Sunderbans need to be replaced and the Rs 27,000 allotted per house from the Indira Awas Yojna isn't enough, Naskar said. "At least 2.5 lakh pucca houses are needed."
Till Wednesday, a squall had seemed a distinct possibility, leading people to fear a repeat of the May 25 devastation. The latest weather reports dispel that fear but even heavy rains could be damaging. With embankments in the Sunderbans still weakened, another inundation cannot be ruled out, fear officials. An 11-member team from the Centre, headed by joint secretary (home) Ashok Lavasa, will visit the affected areas between June 7 and 9 to gauge the situation and assess the government's demand for Rs 1000-crore aid.
A team is also expected to visit Bangladesh to learn about preparation of permanent embankments. The local authorities deny there is an epidemic. They peg the number of affected at just 5%. "Around 6,000 patients have been diagnosed with diarrhoea in Gosaba. We have enough medicines and the situation is fast improving," claimed Gosaba medical officer Girin Mondol.

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