GOSABA, 24 MAY: Sumi and Aila’s birthday present is milk and sweets brought from the money saved by their parents after starving for a day. Sumi Mondol of Dakhin Sreedhar Kati and Aila Mondol of Jharkhali were born during the cyclone last year. For them, the dark days are not yet over.
In Samshernagar, where all drinking water sources have turned saline after Aila, people bank on water trickling from a mould of mud near the embankment. They call it ‘Ganga’s gift’ to the hapless villagers and have kept it away from the reach of engineers and district administration officials. They consider their touch ominous.
“There was a Ganga temple here before Aila devastated Sunderbans. Months later, when all the drinking water sources had turned saline, water started trickling out of the place where the deity’s kalash was kept,” said Runa, who lives nearby. On being asked whether the water has been tested, Runa said that engineers had come but villagers did not let them touch it. “What if the stream dries again?” Runa asked.
In another part of Shamshernagar, people have made hamlets with tarpaulin sheets given to them just after the storm. “We don’t know for how many days we will have to carry on like this. The forest range is a stone’s throw from the region from where tigers stray into the village quite often. And on the other side is Bangladesh. We did not even get the relief money promised by the government. God help us if another Aila comes,” said one of the settlers.
In Jharkhali, a van-puller says the government cares for the tigers “but not us”. “There are so many projects to save the tigers. What about us? We are struggling to stay alive while the government is pitching for tourism here,” he said.
There are a total of 137 NGOs working in the region. Some NGOs, which want to work genuinely, face resistance from the government while others are operating just to make money since there has been a huge flow of international funds after Aila. Some NGOs that had initiated ‘cash for work’ scheme in the region were told to pull out since it “upsets the NREGA scheme in the area.” When it comes to NREGA, farmers have 6 months’ wages due.
Mr Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert, said that engineers do not want to be transferred from Sunderbans since there is scope of earning a lot of money. A year after Aila, nothing has changed in Sunderbans. People have learnt to live with fear and those who cannot take it any more are moving out of the islands.
In Raidighi, Konkondighi, Rangabelia and Satjelia, families above poverty level were the worst sufferers. They lost whatever they had and are deprived of the benefits that BPL families are entitled to. The battered Sunderbans stand as a martyr of corruption, underdevelopment, poverty, starvation and ignorance.