Have you seen the movie ‘The Twister,’ asks Rakesh Jain, President of RC Calcutta Mahanagar, referring to the
Hollywood thriller which shows the horrors of the devastation caused by the typhoon. “It was just like that, and we are told the first one of its kind in the region. In September, an area that is about 50 km and on the border of West Bengal and Bangladesh, was struck by the ferocity of a similar typhoon. For a distance of about 300 metres that was in the eye of the storm, all the houses and trees that came in its path were literally ripped off.”
He adds that the typhoon lasted for barely 25 to 30 seconds, but it destroyed a few hundred houses in its path. Soon after the devastation, a group of Rotarians from his club visited the distressed residents who had lost their homes and were living in makeshift tents perched on
bamboos, with their open homes being vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. “We have put up for them 300 tin sheets fitted as roofs; the project costed us Rs 4.5 lakh.”
This natural disaster took the people of Domjur province in West Bengal by surprise. “I had to rush out of the house as the thatched roof began to fall. All I was worried about was my three-year-old baby,” recalls Anoj, a villager. Tucked in his mother’s arm, little Diben found refuge in the nearby government school. While the women waited in the classrooms, the men went out in search of family members and other villagers. “We went to bed hungry that night,” he adds. Release of water from the Damodar Valley Corporation added to the trouble of the villagers. The calamity affected 814 gram panchayats in 21,885 villages in West Bengal, according to the Joint Needs Assessment Report.
“We received government aid for a week but it wasn’t sufficient. I ate one meal a day, so did my wife and we kept the remaining for Diben,” says Anoj with a deep sigh. The villagers recall the arrival of well dressed people who distributed food kits to them. “They said they were from Rotary, I couldn’t thank them enough for the milk powder,” he adds.
“We had to deploy two teams to carry out relief operations in Domjur and in interior parts of Habra and Ashoknagar (on the border of West Bengal and Bangladesh) that came under the eye of the typhoon,” says Jain. “Even though we lost everything, Rotarians assured us help in rebuilding it,” says Om, a farmer, whose mustard field was destroyed in the floods.
From darkness to light
The inmates of the remote hamlet of Kumirmari, tucked in the Sunderbans, related countless stories to the Rotaract Club of Heritage Institute of Technology. The Rotaractors installed solar lamps sponsored by their parent club RC Calcutta Mahanagar in 50 huts in this village. After a hectic journey of 12 hours (2 hours by train, 4 hours by jeep, 5 hours on a ferry and a quicksand trail) they were “enthralled by the stories the villagers had to relate — encounters with the Royal Bengal tiger, beekeepers who risked their lives and mastered the art of collecting honey and tales of those who survived the wrath of hightides caused by the Aila cyclone,” says Rotaract President Anwesha Lahiri. “I am never going to forget the Payesh (a local delicacy) that was served to us when we arrived at the village, tired and exhausted,” she adds.
Rabindranath Banerjee, a 96-year-old villager who lives with his wife and grandson, depends only on his paltry pension for survival. “I couldn’t imagine a 96-year-old, braving all odds and walking 5 km to collect his pension,” quips Anwesha. With the solar facility that enables mobile phone charging, Banerjee will now be able to “communicate with his bank effectively; other villagers will be able to find jobs and extend their working hours into the sunset. Most importantly they can now help their children read and write after dark,” she adds.