Policy aftershocks of Amphan
The cyclone left behind an impetus for drastic and much-needed policy shifts in Bengal
The destruction of Amphan in West Bengal crossed all recorded disasters in the category of cyclonic storms, not just in terms of its destructive impact, but also in terms of its policy impact. The resolve of Mamata Banerjee to extend monthly support of Rs 20,000 each for the next three months to five lakhs affected families is a remarkable step toward post-disaster justice. A cyclone of 185 kmph not only destroys but also re-energises a new spirit of augmenting resilience among suffering citizens. Giving cash to the needy and the cyclone-affected is a realisation of what Raghuram Rajan, Abhijit Banerjee and other welfare economists have been prescribing. Mamata Banerjee could fulfil the much-needed generation of purchasing power among the victims so that they do not sink into poverty and helplessness, as per the guidance of prominent economists. While the Central Government fell far short of any such direct cash transfer mechanism, the Bengal government used Amphan as an occasion to make the most not from misery, but by alleviating sufferers from misery.
Another big policy impact is the CM's resolve to plant five crore mangrove saplings in Sunderbans alone. The rapidly vanishing protective defence of the mangroves and the destruction of these life-sustaining plants by Amphan would have dealt a body blow to low lying estuary areas had it not been a future-oriented plan of regeneration of mangrove forests in Sunderbans. This not only resuscitates an endangered ecosystem with its famous Royal Bengal tiger and crocodiles but it returns to very 'roots' of Bengal's civilisational bio-eco-resources by replenishing it in the face of massive wilting by the cyclone. Sunderbans, the perennial ecological ring of protection of not only Bengal's landmass but also its mainland human habitats needed this systemic infusion of a plantation. It is spectacular to see this double reinforcement in the face of an unprecedented and massive disaster in the form of cash support and planting of saplings, both regenerate and revitalise the quintessential social, economic, ecological and cultural life of Bengal.
These policy formulations become contextually germane if one takes into account the haunting picture of sea level rising and depletion of the fragile ecosystem by man-made disasters as well. The much-discussed Indo-Bangladesh joint venture of fossil fuel-based Rampal power plant falling within the Southeast mangrove region of Sunderbans as it extends to Bangladesh has been a major bone of contention. A power plant within an ecologically sensitive Sunderbans trembling with the threat of extinction as the sea level rises very very fast has come back in public scrutiny with the powerful Amphan. Hitherto unresolved questions of opening up gates of industrialisation in Sunderbans, of which a power plant is a very first step, have come back with additional urgency as Amphan showed how natural disaster can hasten the extinction of estuary landforms. The choice between survival and extinction, sustainability and depletion, replenishment and destruction has become clearer.
'Disaster capitalism' uses disaster as an occasion to continue with the exploitation of natural resources to fund industries. For instance, the new rig off the coast of Nova Scotia or redesigning a gas pipeline in the North Sea after adjusting its height to supercyclones. Contextually speaking, framing repeated flooding, soil erosion, thundering, cloudbursts, storms and cyclones as part of an ever-growing narrative of disaster resilience among the affected and the victims creates a smokescreen through which one cannot grasp activities of disaster capitalism unless it is called out by concerned ecological activists and others. If Amphan had taught us anything about 'disaster capitalism', it is that calling out the destruction of mangroves, forest cover and rising temperatures of the seawater caused by some exuberant profit-seeking capitalist enterprises somewhere in an eco-sensitive zone has now been made to look par the course and perfectly normal. The whitewashing of any environmental concerns by the nascent industrial lobby needs to be put to rest looking at the frequency and intensity of disasters.
Here, one would remember Yarimar Bonilla's collaborative work entitled, 'Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm' that discussed the possible rechristening of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. She conceptualised collective trauma induced by a botched governmental response in Puerto Rico. In Amphan, the response of the West Bengal Government and civil society aimed at removing political hindrances to bold policy measures. The Centre extending little to no support in the form of a mere advance has cast a shadow, while also emboldening the State Government's ground-level measures of amelioration.
Yarimar's notion of 'aftershocks' represents the long spell of aftereffects of a disaster that could be seen in the 13 lakh homes that were blown away in Amphan, while the affected people, through their trauma and pain could reassess the lukewarm response of the Central government. The media blackout regarding the tragedies caused by Amphan by so-called national media only strengthened the resilience that the people of West Bengal had gained from Aila back in 2009. Scrambling for the few resources left intact and making do with what was available is an example of the 'juggad' carried out by the affected communities without any overt support by the authorities or the NGOs. The State is now left with the task of quickly rebuilding the breached embankments, desalinating the flooded fields and refurbishing the mangroves. Confronting serial disasters with an undying sense of realism and human spirit ripples together like the bright stripes of a Royal Bengal tiger as people endure, sustain and survive through the aftershocks of Amphan.
The writer is a philosopher and political analyst. Views expressed are personal