While all of India and the world was fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the east coast state of West Bengal (pop. 91 million) which has reported a modest 5,772 Covid positive cases and 335 fatalities (June 1) was hit by a double whammy. Supercyclone Amphan with wind speeds of 155-165 km per hour ravaged the state claiming nearly 100 lives and destroying the property of 10 million citizens in 14 of the state’s 23 districts leaving behind uprooted trees, power cuts and prolonged water logging. According to chief minister Mamata Banerjee, homes, crops, roads and infrastructure damage is valued at Rs.1 lakh crore.
Dismayed by the scale of damage caused by the cyclone, Banerjee, who in the recent past has emerged as arguably the most adamant vocal critic of prime minister Narendra Modi and the BJP/NDA government at the Centre, had to swallow her pride and appeal to New Delhi for financial and army/paramedical aid from the Centre. Responding to the widespread damage caused by the cyclone, Modi visited Bengal on May 22, and following an aerial survey of the cyclone-hit districts announced a Rs.1,000 crore relief and rehab package for Bengal and neighbouring Odisha, and also deployed army personnel to clean up the mess.
Meanwhile on the eve of the easing of national lockdown 1.0 with considerable leeway given to state governments, on May 30 Banerjee announced that places of worship will reopen from June 1 and government, private and public sector companies will work with full complements of employees from June 8. However, the state’s 95,000 government and nearly 1,200 private schools will remain shut till June 30, because of extensive damage caused to school buildings by the cyclone and also because schools are being used as quarantine centres for migrant workers who have returned to the state. According to education minister Partha Chatterjee, once schools reopen classes will be held on alternate days for 50 percent of children to observe social distancing norms.
However class XII school-leaving exams will be held on June 29, July 2 and July 6 as scheduled. The West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education has been asked to take all necessary precautions for staging the exams in 1,058 centres across the state. “If necessary, the buildings of some colleges can be used for the higher secondary exams,” says Chatterjee who has left the decision of resumption of campus activities of colleges and universities and date of holding final year semester exams to the vice chancellors’ council comprising VCs of all 20 state universities in Bengal.
All these arrangements are being accorded high importance because elections for West Bengal’s legislative assembly are scheduled to be held next May (2021). As the race hots up, verbal clashes between the Mamata Banerjee-led government and the BJP government at the Centre are becoming more strident. With the previously unheralded BJP having won 18 out of 42 seats allotted to Bengal in the Lok Sabha, Delhi, in General Election 2019, the saffron party has emerged as the principal opposition in the state and its leadership is pulling out all stops to topple the TMC government which has the anti-incumbency disadvantage of running for a third term.
Therefore on May 30, within nine days of Amphan visiting devastation on the state, Banerjee made direct bank transfers of Rs.20,000 to 5 lakh families who lost their homes. Moreover, 3 lakh farmers in these districts will get Rs.1,500 per acre as compensation for crop damage adding up to a total of Rs.6,250 crore released for relief and rehabilitation work in nine districts of the state.
While the betting is against TMC being returned to power in West Bengal for the third consecutive term, the chief minister has favourably impressed the state’s influential bhadralok (refined middle class) with her public education reforms of the past five years. Therefore, some monitors of West Bengal’s unruly political scene believe this fiery woman leader who famously extinguished the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist), which misruled the state for 34 years consecutively (1977-2011), almost a decade ago, may pull it off again.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)