A small group is tackling big problems

A month after Cyclone Amphan had wreaked havoc through southern Bengal, I got a call from a professor in Kolkata. Barely an hour’s drive from the city, the area of Piyali in the South 24 Parganas got devastated by the cyclone — even a month later, many did not have a roof on their heads. He told me about the situation of Ganga and Jamuna Tarafdar, twin sisters with kids of their own, whose hut was blown away in the cyclone. With the lockdown lifting slowly, we planned a visit a couple of weeks later.

I wrote about the key takeaways in a journalistic piece. A group of people in Piyali had collectivised. With the help of non-profits based in the city, they started gathering funds, buying people ration, building back their homes, and organising medical camps. The people who formed the backbone of support to the affected families were themselves financially hit due to losing their daily jobs in Kolkata. They channelised their organisational efforts and successfully listed their newly-formed organisation as an NGO, the ‘Prantik Sundarban Welfare Association’ (PSWA), on the 30th July, 2020.

Around 4,000 families in villages surrounding Piyali, in the Canning-1 Block under the Jibantala Police Station, Baruipur Block under the Baruipur Police Station, and Champahati Gram Panchayat area had been affected by the lack of opportunities in the labour market post lockdown. The NGO provided ration support to these families throughout 2020. As the COVID situation improved, they provided clothes to people who needed them and new clothes to marginalised kids during the Durga Puja. They started running a community sewing room, focussing on training women to sew masks, sanitary pads, bags, and other clothing materials.

The situation was starting to get back to normal by the end of 2020. The inhabitants of Piyali were finally travelling to the city in the restarted trains. With a good fraction of families getting back their daily wage work in the city, at least partially, the burden on the organisation to provide many with ration was starting to lift. The NGO distributed winter clothes and blankets to marginalised people.

Then, the second wave struck.

On the back of a fiery election campaign in the state, West Bengal was reeling, its healthcare system breaking down. I got desperate calls from Subodh, one of the three directors of the NGO. They needed ambulances, oxygen cylinders, PPE kits. Moreover, they needed to spread awareness for people to wear masks properly and maintain physical distance. It was challenging to convince the inhabitants not to risk their lives while trying to cling to their livelihoods. It took a while for people to realise the ferocity of the wave, busting the myth that the pandemic was for “city people” and “we have better immunity”. At the back of Piyali’s inhabitants’ minds, the fear of dying of starvation was looming large. Many inhabitants were hiding the disease and pretending nothing had happened. The organisation was coming to know of cases at the last stages of life. The nearest hospital provided none to little support. There was no oxygen, there was no infrastructure to tackle the pandemic, and doctors were advising patients to be straightaway taken to Kolkata instead.

Now, a new organisation like PSWA does not have medical help. So, they began an online fund-raising campaign via Milaap. The members started queuing up for basic medical supplies of oximeters or an ambulance in Kolkata. They made do by hiring an autorickshaw to ferry emergency patients to the city. They bought PPE kits for themselves and masks for everyone who did not have one. They pleaded with various organisations and political outfits who get media attention regarding their ‘humanitarian’ efforts in tackling the pandemic, but that did not help. “Only if a patient is in Kolkata can we do something” pretty much sums up the standard response from mainstream organisations.

Two non-profit organisations based out of Kolkata helped PSWA by providing them with hand-sanitisers and masks. Repeated online campaigns by individuals privy to the efforts partially paid off. The members started a COVID-canteen, from which they provided nutritious meals, including breakfast, to infected patients. They sanitised the neighbourhoods with clusters of infected individuals and procured oxygen cylinders to help patients in desperate need of oxygen before being ferried to Kolkata. They played a significant role in communicating the science of the disease to the masses, consequently getting their guards up against the disease. They saved lives — when the government forgot to acknowledge people. The herculean effort they put in can only be possible with a thorough understanding of the locality and a sense of community.

Just when the ferocity was getting over, Cyclone Yaas struck the region. It was different from Amphan — not as ferocious in terms of the wind. People heaved a sigh of relief, but all too soon. Heavy rain lashed the districts of Kolkata, South and North 24 Parganas for a week. The sea had taken enough, and instead of winds, it gave back with water. Whole areas of South and North 24 Parganas had been inundated with salty seawater. Gosaba block in South 24 Parganas had been badly affected, came the news from relatives of the PSWA members who inhabit Gosaba. Dead fish floated on the seawater, engulfing the region, creating a stink in the whole area. Houses were inundated too — people were forced to come to the half-made roads and stay in temporary shelters. Cooked food was impossible to obtain.

When the members of PSWA reached Gosaba, other NGOs from Kolkata had already arrived. These city-based NGOs carried out relief work only in those areas reachable by concrete road. PSWA members observed that the overcrowding at the end of the road sometimes resulted in different NGOs competing to give relief to the same people. In the regions inward of the main road, the affected people lived in negligence, hunger, and apathy — even of NGOs. PSWA members were shocked to see that some members of NGOs based in Kolkata had come with their whole families, conducting tourism of Sundarban with the excuse of providing relief! A few people even went around drinking and creating ruckus on the same village roads where people now lived with merely plastic over their heads. In the last year, the members of PSWA have seen the worst of human suffering and human apathy.

I amplified my earlier calls for fund-raising, both personally as well as on social media. It helped! With the financial backing, PSWA found a place to cook food every day, got ration, and got to work. Although a small organisation, they started providing cooked, warm meals to the people. The number of people dependent on them for their daily meals soon increased to about 500. For the next few weeks, the members gained the trust of the locals and bleached the localities and ponds of the excessive smell of dead fish. They also conducted a free medical camp in the vicinity.

At the same time, the COVID-canteen at Piyali continued.

During their relief work at Gosaba, the PSWA members ventured into the islands of the Sundarbans. They surveyed how much these islands had been affected by the back-to-back cyclones. Thanks to Amphan, a significant fraction of the mangrove cover vanished overnight. The organisation has taken upon itself another herculean task — of sowing 2,000 local mangrove saplings in the places where the trees belonged earlier. With the help of the local community, they will also be taking care of the sown saplings until the trees start proliferating. The work began on World Environment Day, 2021 but had been stalled because of the heavy monsoon. The members continue to work with local nurseries to obtain new saplings and work with administrative heads of the local and the state government to get the desired permissions. In the meantime, they are reorganising themselves and putting their best foot forward to garner administrative and financial support to carry out such a long-term project.

PSWA volunteers have identified that in the tribal area of Jotirampur, school-going girls and women do not use sanitary napkins. They have conducted one campaign to raise awareness among women regarding menstrual hygiene and distributed sanitary napkins to mothers. They are planning to continue this work in the future, for which they require more logistical support. Recently, the volunteers of PSWA have divided themselves into geographical units and are planning out the future course of action.

As the monsoon has subsided, a fraction of the workforce in Piyali have gotten back their work in Kolkata. The members sincerely hope that the frequent cyclones are less severe, because they will need time to restore a significant fraction of the mangroves which provided vital cover to the region during Amphan. Moreover, bureaucratic hurdles have gotten in the way, and efforts are on to get past these hurdles.

Prantik Sundarban Welfare Association has come a long way — its work has been covered in the local news. In the meantime, the community sewing room has reopened. The womenfolk stitched clothes for kids which the members then distributed in tribal villages of the Sundarban islands during the festive months. As the work continues, plans to extend the products are in the offing. The members hope that the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 does not throw all ongoing work and plans into the Bay of Bengal.

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