Today, we and the readers have the privilege of having Mr Sankar Haldar, President of NGO Mukti with us. We are grateful that he has managed to find time from his hectic schedule for an interview with Lockdown Voices.
Over the years, Mukti has done immense work in Sunderbans that has helped people in this Gangetic delta region progress, in spite of their vulnerability to natural calamities. But no one was prepared for the hard-hitting changes that have occurred in the last three months, the most recent being super cyclone Amphan.
Lockdown Voices (LV): What has been the impact of lockdown on the people of Sunderbans?
Sankar Haldar (SH): The impact of lockdown is huge. We have 3 categories of people in Sunderbans. Some are farmers and depend on rainwater harvesting. They do not have any earning now as transport is not available for selling their produce. Then we have people whose livelihood is dependent on the environment – jungles, sea, rivers. They collect honey, catch fish. They also cannot sell their fish and crabs. And finally the people who provide service in the city – Kolkata and beyond. They are the migrant labourers. We call them environment refugees. They are jobless and returning back to Sunderbans. Life for them is also hell. People are jobless and now with Amphan, they are actually homeless and all kind of chaos is going on in Sunderbans
LV: Did the lockdown affect Mukti’s regular organisational work? Did you have to focus on some new areas in context of the pandemic situation?
SH: Due to COVID-19 scare, Mukti‘s activities for a week was affected. Gradually, we convinced our people and volunteers that during this kind of emergency, the NGO should work as people are jobless, food-less. They also need medical help and consultancy. We had to make them aware of how to handle this COVID-19 scenario and practice sanitisation. And gradually, we convinced farmers that they shouldn’t sit at home. They should come out and follow safety measures. They should start their cultivation, otherwise they will starve. In short, yes we continued our activity with initial hiccups and after that things fell in place.
LV: When people were still coping with the lockdown, Amphan came on 21st May. But Sunderbans is not new to cyclones. Were the people adequately prepared to face the brunt of Amphan?
SH: Were the people aware of the Amphan? Not really. Starting from media, Govt., all local people were focusing on COVID-19 issues. There was forecast that a cyclone may hit Sunderbans. But many times what happens, at the last moment the cyclone goes to other areas – Vishakapatnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar. So unless one is certain that cyclone is going to hit Sunderbans, people do not take it seriously. When they came to know for sure, only 24 hours were left, for the Govt. and the people. The time was not adequate for either to take any action. They couldn’t do anything. Anyways with Amphan’s speed of 185 km/hour, damage to trees and houses was inevitable. Yes if the people were more prepared, they could have saved lives and domestic animals, but the damage that happened couldn’t have been stopped.
LK: Could you elaborate on the extent of the devastation as compared to the previous cyclones?
SH: The damage of Amphan is incomparable to any other cyclone. Before this Aila was 100-130 km/hour in February. That was much before the monsoon season and people had time to to recover from the damage. Aila flooded more land, but Amphan has damaged many more houses and trees. Though with cyclone Bulbul less saline water came inland, yet it damaged huge number of houses and trees. Amphan impact is so much worse because people were already two and a half months into lockdown. They were jobless, food-less and completely unprepared when the cyclone hit. It is like the last nail on the coffin. It is really, really a bad scenario in Sunderbans.
LK: Do you feel the coverage of Amphan in the international and national media has been in adequate?
SH: I feel the coverage of Amphan in national, international media is bare minimum as the whole world and media community is focussing on COVID-19. Obviously, it is a bigger issue, a global pandemic. But when Amphan came, nobody knew what had happened in Sunderbans. Kolkata took 7-10 days to be normal, so you can imagine Sunderbans’ situation, where the cyclone made landfall. There surely was little coverage in national media including the Bangla media. After short 2 days coverage, they squeezed the reports and the focus again switched to COVID-19. People of Sunderbans are in bad shape. They need the national and international coverage.
LK: What were the immediate priorities for Mukti team post Amphan? Did the lockdown become a roadblock for your relief work?
SH: Mukti’s strength is that we are an on-the-ground NGO. We can reach out to 10,000 people through our self-help groups, volunteers and employees. They are embedded in Sunderbans. At the beginning, our volunteers too were shocked, as they were also impacted. Soon, they took care of themselves and started helping others.
Based on our past experiences of Aila, our initial focus was on dry ration, cooked food, water and shelter. We knew drinking water becomes a huge issue when saline water covers the ponds. After that, the relief work shifted to recovery. Now we are taking care of the saline water, agriculture, re-construction of roads, river-boundaries. Also we are working on job creation, engagement of people etc. Initially, when it happened on 21st May, 10 more days of the lockdown was left. So getting adequate tarpaulins, mosquito net and food was proving difficult – both due to lack of transport and people to support. Roads were blocked and nobody was clearing that out. Gradually relief-work has picked up but still it needs fund, money. No big NGO or big player is thinking of Sunderbans. Small players with a couple of lakhs or crore rupee cannot solve the issues of Sunderbans. We need huge monetary support from big or macro player.
LV: There are so many islands in Sunderbans, is it possible for the Mukti team to reach the deep interiors?
SH: Mukti is functional in about 10 blocks – Sagar, Namkhana, Kakdweep, Patharpratima, Mathurapur 1 & 2, Jainagar 1 & 2, Phultali and Basanti. In each block there are 4-5 Gram Panchayats (GP). So we are able to reach and take care of around 40-45 GPs and 160 villages. This is our coverage area. There are few parts of Sunderbans in North 24 Parganas district, where other NGOs are working.
LV: With such sudden upswing in relief work, was Mukti able to generate the additional funding required?
SH: Yes, Mukti got support from around the globe, but this was inadequate. We got good amount of fund when we started relief work. But the number of tarpaulins, mosquito nets, food and other requisites needed is much higher than what our funds can manage. We need much more funding to take our relief and recovery work forward.
LV: Sunderbans is known for its flora and fauna. How has the ecosystem coped with the devastation?
SH: The ecosystem of Sunderbans has got damaged in few areas. Mangroves are mostly intact. Few of the tall mangroves are little damaged. Medium and low sized are intact. The sweet waterbody has got contaminated by saline water. But nature should take care of this very soon. The monsoon rains should wash away the salinity and restore the balance. Yes, river embankment is damaged and the saline water has flowed into the cultivable land
LV: Do you see anything positive and constructive in all this difficulty that people are facing
SH: We do have a few positives. I believe the cyclone eye passed through Sunderbans one hour before the high tide. This actually saved Sunderbans. Whatever damage we see, it would have been 10 times more if the cyclone hit an hour later. The second good thing is that people have realised that mangrove saved them. Even in Kolkata, the awareness of the mangrove and the protection it gives is growing. And the third thing is rice harvest. During Bubul people lost the Amal rice as it was not harvested. But now, 80-90% of the harvest of Boro rice was done before the cyclone. Of course some got damaged. So immediately, I am not seeing any food crisis in Sunderbans but gradually it may come up. Of course, the migrant labourers and others who don’t have any land, they will have the food crisis.
LV: You and your team are putting your heart and soul to Mukti. What has been your greatest personal return?
SH: When we do social work, we do not expect anything in return, except love. When people work for their family, friends, what they expect? Love, right. I also belong here. Sunderbans is my extended family. We are working for them with our heart and soul and in return we expect love. It is there. When our volunteers go there, people are hugging (in spite of social distancing). We are not able to meet the expectation of all, but they understand our limitation and love us more. That actually gives us the mileage to go forward. Love is the return for us.
LV: Thank you Mr. Haldar for giving us a glimpse of the outstanding work you are doing. On behalf of our readers, we wish you the very best in your endeavours. Please stay safe!
Mr Sankar Haldar was born and raised in a village in Sunderbans. The support of a well-wisher helped him move out of his native land to pursue higher education and later a successful technology career. But he realised that like him there were many a youth with untapped potential in the hinterlands. They all needed the “push” to do well in life. In 2003, he with a few like-minded people set up Mukti. Today, Mukti works in the areas of health, water and sanitation, education and empowerment, agricultural reforms, environment and much more.
Cover image : Wikimedia
Story images : Mukti
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