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Post AMPHAN rehabilitation- Lessons and tasks for West Bengal & the centre

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The media reports say the government of West Bengal has assessed the extent of damages to the tune of INR 1,02,442 crore. The expectations are obviously that losses will be compensated, at least to a large extent.

Whether or not the actual losses equal this figure, fact remains that they are substantial. Such a magnitude of demand on central resources arising from a single State with respect to a single disaster no doubt puts strain upon the Centre. At the same time, it is imperative to come to the rescue of the State and its people. It is therefore necessary to ensure that genuine losses are made good urgently, simultaneously taking steps that such huge incidence of losses do not befall the national exchequer over and again. The prerequisite for reaching these twin objectives are (a) analysis of the pattern of losses; (b) exploring methods to avert their recurrence; (c) reaching compensation to right victims.

Amphan losses- a surgical view

A quick analysis of the details of losses suffered by the State shows that nearly two-third of the total losses have arisen on account of loss of homes, crops, fruits and fisheries, damages to electrical installations and equipment, damages to school building & health facilities, damages to irrigation assets, damages to drinking water projects and damages to rural roads. To cite individual items, the damage to 28.56 lakh houses has been assessed as INR 28,560 crore, and the damage to crops over 17 lakh hectares has been estimated to be INR 15,860 core.  Another major chunk of loss amounting to INR 26,790 crore has been attributed to MSME sector in the form of industrial warehouse, infrastructure, and sheds as well as raw materials. The damage to urban infrastructure has been estimated at INR 6,750 crore.

Loss of homestead – why?

There can be no question that the damaged assets need be rebuilt. There are however questions that needs to be simultaneously addressed. First as regards homes of the poor that perished due to Amphan. These number nearly 28 lakh homes of general people besides those of the fishermen. Most were understandably not of pucca construction.

A follow up question is whether they included houses built under PMAY? If so, there is obvious issue of ‘quality’ of construction. If not, one would ask as to why these poor inhabitants residing in such flood and cyclone prone areas were not included under the PMAY scheme over last one decade? This question is particularly relevant as West Bengal has been one amongst major beneficiaries of PMAY schemes.

Irrespective of whether the damaged houses were built under PMAY, it goes without saying that the largescale reconstruction must be undertaken under that very scheme and the end use must be ensured beyond any shade of doubt.

Critical community assets – the question of priorities

As regards the wide array of community assets like embankments, irrigation assets, rural roads, school buildings, health facilities, drinking water project assets which succumbed to Amphan, there need to be serious introspection as to their qualities. This question arises because many private houses of pucca constructions seem to have survived the onslaught of the super cyclone.

Whether and what percentage of these damaged assets were built under 100 days’ work scheme and if so, whether their quality was compromised due to political partisanship and corruption needs to be examined.

The Amphan together with the vast devastation it wrought compels us to rethink about how to resolve the conflict about providing jobs to local youth under MNREGA and the quality of community assets of critical importance, the collapse of which can cause losses of lakhs of crores of rupees and expose lives of crore of people to grave danger? For example, a little reflection suggests that bulk of the losses of various types arose from one single cause i.e., breach of embankments by swelling rivers. That reinforces the need to ensure the quality of critical community assets.

Prima facie, there seems to be a case for engaging reputed public companies or public sector enterprises for the purpose of rebuilding the damaged community assets, after taking into account factors such as their brand image and offer to employ local youth. MNREGA can be used in respect of non-critical assets.

Importance of Insurance cover

The pattern of losses and damages also emphatically points out to the fact that many of the assets should have been covered under general insurance like flood, cyclone and other natural calamities. Had this been so, the losses on account of crops, horticulture, fisheries, livestock, forestry products, etc. would have been borne by general insurance companies. Similarly, community assets such as urban infrastructure, health infrastructure, Anganwadi infrastructure, school building, and assets relating to drinking water project etc. also ought to have passed on to these insurance companies. The same thing can also be said about the losses to electric poles and substations and transformers etc. already stand covered under general insurance cover, in which case the total estimate of losses ought to come down marginally.

From the list furnished by the State, it is not clear how much of the losses stand covered under the ‘insurance cover’. It is probable some of these must have been insured. The claims will probably be filtered accordingly. But what looks confounding is the big-ticket loss shown under MSME. Irrespective of the types of their ownership, all MSME units are supposed to have covered their assets under insurance cover.

Whatever may be the actual scenario, the important lesson which every state government must learn in the aftermath of Amphan is the need to secure insurance cover for various kinds of assets in urban and also rural India.

Insurance is a must in today’s world. It is the most effective method to disseminate risks. Standing with a bowl before the central government every time a disaster strikes is a primitive method. That trend must change. Insurance spreads the incidence of losses across the whole country in a scientific and equitable manner. The  device of insurance must therefore be aggressively utilized. Not only state governments must take lead in insuring community assets but also educate their people to take insurance cover for their movable and immovable assets. Towards that objective, the state governments may even bear part of the insurance premium to encourage people to get initiated to the ‘insurance’ culture.

Transparency is only way to keep it bay politics & help the needy

The media shows intense politics over the mode of compensation to individuals. It is known that some taps of financial assistance have already been opened up by the governments. Already few TV reports show monetary assistance not reaching the needy but being misdirected.

The only way to remove this difficulty will be (a) to get the list of beneficiaries prepared by local authorities but additionally vetted by major political parties on a war footing and in a spirit of togetherness for the sake of the distressed masses; (b) publishing the full list of beneficiaries together with amount of assistance in the government websites in English and also vernacular scripts. There must also be an authority designated to lodge complaints through letter, email, and SMS.

The way forward for the Centre

Now that the state of West Bengal has furnished its demand, what ought to be the next steps of the Centre? Clearly, helping the people of West Bengal promptly, reasonably and effectively. The cases where insurance claims are available must be elicited and excluded. Also, where the State ought to have taken insurance cover but neglected, it should bear the burden. As regards the huge losses suffered by MSME, the parties responsible for not taking insurance cover should bear the brunt of their own negligence. Next, all eligible cases of home reconstruction must be undertaken under the PMAY, as already said. As regards the critical community assets, they need be re-built by reliable agencies or companies under strict supervision as to the quality.

Finally, all monetary help to individuals must be by way of DBT to beneficiaries identified by local authorities and vetted by major political parties with full particulars being made available in government websites. The entire exercise need be carried forward with exemplary speed. As a matter of fact, the speed of disposal of the request of the State should signal the emergence of the New India, which is compassionate, farsighted, efficient, just and intolerant of any kind of corruption.

Hopefully, with these few initiatives, the Amphan victims in West Bengal will expeditiously come out of the crisis. No less importantly, a model such as this can serve as a template to meet challenges of any fresh disaster.

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