A decade after Aila (May 2009), Fani (April/May 2019) and Bulbul (November 2019) struck West Bengal in succession last year. Now Amphan. Perhaps the deadliest. As per information so far available in television the super cyclone has affected over 21,500 sq kms area spreading over six districts. Numerous river embankments, over 41 thousand electric poles were damaged. Standing crops, fruits were extensively damaged. Crores of people have been reportedly affected. Till now, the full picture is not out.
Amphan has put both the state of West Bengal and the whole country to a grave challenge. As usual demand for a special package has been raised by the party ruling the state. Besides, another conclave of opposition parties demanded that Amphan be declared national disaster.
The menace of politicization
West Bengal should be helped in every possible way so that it is up and running as early as possible. As the PM assured, the Centre will extend all help to achieve that end. However, there are serious doubts in many that any package, however large, may fall short of reaching the people who are really needy.
Politicization of every conceivable issue that has any potential to attract vote bank has been a part of political culture of the state. The two most recent instances include anti-CAA agitation and handling of Covid-19 pandemic. This aggravates the apprehension that any ‘special’ package may be used for serving particular political interests rather than serving the distressed.
Formulating the package- challenges
Prime Minister has already made available Rs 1000 crore by way of immediate assistance and assured of all further help that may be necessary. He also assured to send a central team to make an on the spot study of the extent of losses and damages.
One does not know how the Centre’s team will approach its task. However, it must keep twin objectives in view. First, the culture of ‘special package’ which often becomes a medium for usurpation of fund by high, mighty and connected must end. A fresh culture need augur of reaching help to the really needy people. Second, it should also be able to lay down a framework for meeting any future disaster, especially in the coastal areas more effectively and by safeguarding the interest of individuals and the community.
Categories of losses & damages
The losses and damages caused by Amphan can be categorized into three broad heads- Community assets/ Government properties, Corporate including Govt / PSU companies and individual.
The first category includes damages of river embankments, roads and other properties. From initial reports it appears large part of damages to the crop, fruits & vegetables were caused due to damages to river embankments resulting into largescale inundation. These must be rebuilt and at the earliest. However, simultaneously the reason as to why they crumbled must also be ascertained. The quality of construction of these embankments is of serious concern and need to be looked into. We may return to the topic later.
The second category mainly refers to electricity and telecom companies. They suffered vast losses. Over 41,000 electric poles, cables and some substations were reportedly damaged. These two sectors together account for large chunk of damages. However, common sense suggests that these assets were insured against fire, flood and natural calamities. If not, this is gross negligence. If yes, the losses mostly will pass on to the general insurance companies.
The third category is the most sensitive of all. As per information available immediately nearly 10 lakh homes have been damaged or perished. These succumbed obviously being of poor construction. The other losses to individuals who mostly belong to economically weaker sections, comprise of crop, vegetables, fruits, household goods, motorized vehicles, cycles, boats, livestock, agri implements etc. Small shop owners have lost their stock. Of the individual belongings, two or three items such as crop, motorcycle, and e-rickshaws may have been insured, especially if there are any bank loans outstanding. The rest are sheer losses facing them starkly. Another big setback for them is the loss of fertility of their farmlands due to induction of saline water. But that is irreparable in the short-term. Only time can heal it!
PMAY-G could give an enduring solution to a recurring problem
However, there is no question that their homes need to be rebuilt quickly. The entire lot can be done under the PMAY expeditiously. Significantly, the target for PMAY-Grameen for the period 2016-19 was 1 crore homes, which was largely achieved. In the second phase another 1.95 crore homes are to be built up by March 31, 2022. As a matter of fact, West Bengal has been amongst one of top ranked states in availing this scheme. In terms of performance index ranking (cumulative ranking for three years till 2018-19), the State was ranked 4th best. It is strange as to why such large numbers of houses in the coastal areas, vulnerable to natural disaster every year, have not yet been made pucca? Amphan has given the State an opportunity to claim another 10 lakh houses, as a special case, from the Centre. Though the cost of assistance in shared between the Centre and the State, in this case, the Centre may consider bear the whole burden or a much greater percentage of it. This can be a part of the relief package for the State.
But it is better late than never. Amphan has given an opportunity and it must be made good use of. The next question is how much time would such construction require? According to the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), the average construction time for houses under the PMAY-Gramin was brought down to a mere 114 days by 2017 from erstwhile 314 days under Indira Awas Yojana. It has been further reduced to less than 3 months by 2019.
Fast tracking PMAY-G cases of AMPHAN victims, Centre bearing whole burden
Therefore, the road map should clearly be to get these 10 lakh houses constructed under the PMAY scheme. Though there are several waitlisted candidates already, these cases may be admitted and fast tracked keeping in view their emergency nature. Meanwhile however some temporary arrangements must be made to house the affected people. For example, they can continue to stay in the flood relief and cyclone relief centres. Even some school buildings may also be considered if they remain closed due to Covid-19. The need of people is of paramount importance. The coming state election should have no bearing on this important task.
Primacy of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT)
As regards compensation towards death and injury, the benefit must go the bank account of the beneficiaries directly. Similarly, with regard to the losses of other movable properties, the centre need to help the distressed people through DBT on the basis of a detailed identification and inventory. This can be done at Panchayat level under the overall supervision of the district administration. A proper procedure must be devised and vetted by all major political parties in the state. The reimbursement should be done in a transparent manner with information available in government website.
Involving big public companies in reconstruction work in a transparent manner
Reverting back to the issue of re-construction, there remains a question on who should be entrusted with the work order? Normally many of these works come under the scope of 100 days work. However, several studies on 100 days’ work across the country raise serious questions about the quality of the assets thus created. Besides, there are frequent complaints of party politics and corruption in allotment of the work under MNREGA.
In coastal areas, exposed to natural disaster like flood and cycle recurrently, there are needs to ensure that whatever reconstruction happens in West Bengal is of enduring quality. There may be well laid down procedure for building homes under PMAY. For construction of other community / government assets like embankments, bridges, roads etc the centre may actively consider engaging large public / public sector companies of great reputation. The final selection can be done through e-tendering. These companies may, in turn, offer to employ local youth in project specific manner, train them and use their labour. That can of course be one of the factors in awarding the contract.
Creating a template for future relief packages
Finally, while helping the state, the centre must reduce the cash disbursement as much as possible. The corruption through misappropriation is believed to be directly proportional to the ‘cash component’ in a package. The lesser that component, the greater is the likelihood that more benefits will reach the victims of disaster. The Amphan is giving an opportunity to make a paradigm shift in the manner and technique in which the Centre should help a State in distress in the years ahead.