Amphan cyclone

Amphan: Relief as disaster

Print edition : July 31, 2020

A May 22 photo shows damage caused by the Amphan supercyclone in Deulbari village of South 24 Parganas district. Photo: Samrat Paul/AP

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a meeting on organising relief material for Amphan-affected people, in Kolkata on May 29. Photo: PTI

Waiting to collect food from volunteers in the aftermath of Amphan, in Kolkata on May 28. Photo: PTI

Trinamool leaders at the panchayat level face the fury of the victims of the supercyclone for alleged misappropriation of relief funds disbursed by the State government.

THE Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal is facing a new crisis as violent agitations over irregularities in relief distribution for those affected by the Amphan supercyclone are rocking the coastal districts of the State.

Almost 50 days after Amphan struck on May 20, flare-ups and protests against the government are spreading like wildfire across the nine affected districts.

With Assembly elections less than 10 months away and the opposition once again finding corruption a handy political weapon against the Trinamool, the ruling party is finding itself increasingly cornered.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a Rs.6,250-crore Amphan Relief Fund soon after the cyclone and claimed, within 10 days of the disaster, that five lakh families who had lost their homes had been given Rs.20,000 each. However, complaints of genuine cases being denied relief soon allegedly as a result of the corruption and nepotism of Trinamool leaders at the grassroots level.

According to some reports, by the first week of July, there were about 40,000 complaints relating to relief distribution.

The common allegation against local leaders and panchayat members belonging to the ruling party was that they had distributed the money amongst themselves and their family and friends, leaving many eligible victims in the lurch.

The lists prepared at the panchayat level to identify those eligible for monetary relief to rebuild their houses featured many persons who lived in pucca houses with little damage from the cyclone and who had ties to the ruling party.

In a village in Hooghly district, the Trinamool pradhan of a particular gram panchayat had submitted a list of 166 names for Amphan relief, of which more than 100 names had his own phone number against them. The pradhan was expelled from the party subsequently, but such cases abound in the State.

In Katwa in Purbo Bardhaman district, only eight phone numbers were put up against a list of 63 names. What came as a surprise was that several of those numbers were those of the employees of the Katwa Municipal Corporation.

There have also been allegations of local leaders taking “cut money” (money given as bribe or forcibly extorted for implementing government-funded projects) in exchange for facilitating transfer of relief money into the accounts of beneficiaries.

Fury against local leaders

With thousands of people continuing to live in destroyed houses or in makeshift tents in the middle of the monsoon, it was not long before the protests and agitations turned violent and people began to target local Trinamool leaders and panchayat members. On a few occasions, even administrative offices were attacked.

On July 3, Patashpur in Purbo Medinipur district turned into a battlefield as clashes broke out between the police and protesters. In several instances, villagers took matters into their own hands and made panchayat leaders publicly apologise. Some were even made to hold their ears and do squats in front of a gathering.

With the situation worsening on a daily basis, the ruling party was forced to take remedial measures. Refund forms were distributed among party members and quite a few of them were forced to return the money they had appropriated. The extent of corruption can be gauged by the fact that more than Rs.20.6 lakh was returned from just one block in South 24 Paraganas district.

While a few admitted to their wrongdoing, many claimed that they were not even aware of their names being on the list of beneficiaries. However, their bank account details were also given alongside their names.

Sensing a scam

The agitations over Amphan relief come close on the heels of unrest caused by alleged irregularities in the distribution of rations to the poor during the lockdown. This has given the opposition parties yet another weapon to attack the Trinamool with.

“People saw the Trinamool’s corruption in distribution of rations during lockdown and now in the disbursal of relief for Amphan victims. It has been proved beyond doubt that Trinamool is now more interested in bolstering its party funds than standing beside the poor people of Bengal. This is the feeling in every village in the State. Most importantly, the common people who once used to respect and revere Mamata Banerjee have lost their fear of her party’s intimidating tactics. This will certainly be reflected in the coming Assembly election,” Joyprakash Majumdar, vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) State unit, told Frontline.

Both the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front have labelled the Amphan relief mismanagement a huge “scam”.

“What was a disaster for the poor became a time for profit for the ruling party… The affected people are seeing that the money meant for them is going to those are not eligible for it…and now people are angry. It is not just a loot; it is a scam of Rs.6,250 crore,” said CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty, who is also the leader of the CPI(M)Legislature Party.

As the public outcry grew louder by the day, the Trinamool sent show cause notices to several local-level leaders and suspended or expelled them.

In Nandigram in Purbo Medinipur district alone, 200 local leaders and workers were sent show cause notices.

However, the opposition parties said that these moves were just an eyewash. Sujan Chakraborty and veteran Congress leader Abdul Manna, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, wrote to Mamata Banerjee demanding a high-level judicial inquiry into the matter.

“What is the point in issuing show cause notices and rusticating members from the party? It is not the party’s money that has been stolen, it is the public’s money. The fact is Mamata Banerjee has created a Frankenstein which she is now unable to control,” said Joyprakash Majumdar.

The top leadership of the Trinamool claimed that the situation has been brought under control. “From day one the Trinamool government has been on an overdrive to ensure that all affected people receive compensation and those who have cheated and falsely claimed damages are being forced to return the money. Many have been issued show cause notices or have been suspended or expelled from the party,” senior Trinamool leader Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline.

He also said that other parties, including the BJP and the CPI(M), had also misappropriated the funds in panchayats controlled by them. “Since the Trinamool holds sway in the panchayats, its conduct has been questioned more,” said Mishra.

Lack of democracy

Noted political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty observed that the irregularities in Amphan relief distribution and other instances of corruption at the grassroots level are directly related to the fact that more than 40 per cent of the gram panchayat seats were won in an undemocratic fashion by not allowing the opposition to contest.

“Many of those who have who have come to power through undemocratic means do not have the feeling of being accountable to the people because they have really not been elected by them. We have also seen that public participation in the panchayat system has been virtually non-existent during the last nine years of Trinamool rule. The institution of the gram sabha, as defined in Article 243 of the Constitution, is practically defunct, so there is no check in the corruption of the ruling party,” he told Frontline.

The issue of corruption has plagued Mamata Banerjee’s government right from the time it came to power in 2011. In the middle of 2013, the multi-crore Saradha deposit scam in which lakhs of poor investors lost their entire life’s savings came to light. Several Trinamool heavyweights, including MPs and a Minister, were put behind bars in connection with the scam.

While the scam was still raging, a sting operation carried out by the Narada News portal was released, showing top party leaders accepting cash on camera. The video was released just before the 2016 Assembly elections. However, those leaders were not removed from their posts after Mamata Banerjee returned to power with a thumping majority.

In 2019, the ruling party was once again embarrassed by the State wide agitation over the practice of local Trinamool leaders taking “cut money” from poor people for implementing government-funded projects. More recently, there were the agitations over irregularities in distribution of rations during the lockdown.

“Corruption has been insitutionalised in Bengal, and in the last 10 years the State government has failed to provide any proper method to curb the corruption,” said Biswanath Chakraborty.

Interestingly, while the Opposition parties are viewing the ongoing development as a serious setback for the ruling party, the strategists of Trinamool are see it as a blessing in disguise.

“For a while the political discourse was on corruption and nepotism in Trinamool, but that has led to a cleansing act undertaken by the party. Now, the discourse is on the action taken to stop the corruption,” a senior source in Trinamool told Frontline.

However, reports of agitations breaking out in different parts of the State over Amphan relief continue to flow in.

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