A year after Aila, people in the Sunderbans living on the edge

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Aila and aftermath: No respite for the residents of Pakhirala in the Sundarbans.
Aila and aftermath: No respite for the residents of Pakhirala in the Sundarbans.

Ananya Dutta

GOSABA (SUNDERBANS): Houses patched up with tarpaulin, palm leaves, bundled hay, tin and mud; embankments repaired from fresh mud barely withstanding the onslaught of tides and heavy rains; homes rebuilt, only to be washed away in tidal surges, increasing incidents of tiger attacks – a year after cyclone Aila ravaged the region, the inhabitants of the estuarine islands here are still living on the edge.

Madhumita Paik holds out a “zero point book” – the name in local parlance for the passbooks of bank accounts that were opened to provide compensation promised by the government. Since her house was razed to the ground, she was eligible for the full compensation of Rs.10,000 – but other than her blank passbook, there was no sign of the money.

Nearly three lakh families were affected in South 24 Parganas district in the wake of Aila. District authorities said only about half the claimants have received the compensation amount so far.

Haripada Sil was among the luckier ones who did receive the promised compensation. He is a resident of Lahiripur gram panchayat where the percentage of beneficiaries is even less – barely a third of the total.

After spending a monsoon, autumn and winter under a tarpaulin sheet perched on an embankment, Haripada Sil had rebuilt his home on the edge of the island once the money had come through. But his newly built home was again washed away in a tidal surge last week.

His fate is shared by about 40 families in Pakhirala village who are living in temporary shelters on the banks of public ponds.

They are no longer eligible for compensation under Aila funds and panchayat officials have already informed them that they cannot permanently set up homes beside these ponds.

For many, the compensation is needed, not to rebuild their homes – but to buy provisions. With a failed crop, there are no stores of foodgrains and the money will help tide over the crisis. Avenues of livelihood have dried up with no demand for agricultural labour and a drastic reduction in the fish catch.

While schools have become operational, the mid-day meal scheme, intermittent before the cyclone, has been scrapped.

But the gravest apprehensions are about the embankments. Breaches in dykes were plugged with fresh soil – which tends to be weaker than the parts of the earthen embankments that have hardened with successive seasons under the sun.

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