Bengal’s Amphan-Damage Assessment Of Rs 1 Lakh Crore May Be Grossly Inflated, And That’s Why Centre Should Scrutinise It Closely

by Jaideep Mazumdar - May 29, 2020 07:49 AM
Bengal’s Amphan-Damage Assessment Of Rs 1 Lakh Crore May Be Grossly Inflated, And That’s Why Centre Should Scrutinise It CloselyWest Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. 
Snapshot
  • Bengal’s Amphan-damage assessment seems to be highly exaggerated, with bureaucrats faithfully playing to a script of Mamata Banerjee’s making.

The Bengal government has pegged the estimated loss suffered by the state due to Cyclone Amphan at Rs 1 lakh crore. And obviously, it wants the Union government to wholly fund the massive relief, repair and reconstruction efforts.

According to this report in Friday’s edition of The Times Of India, various state departments which have been undertaking damage-assessments over the past one week have arrived at this figure.

But there are many reasons to doubt this seemingly fantastical figure. The primary reason is that just two days after the fierce cyclone devastated vast swathes of south Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee put the loss suffered by the state at Rs 1 lakh crore. She gave out this estimate after she accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi on an aerial survey of the affected areas and a review meeting she held with some officers.

That she came up with this figure (Rs 1 lakh crore) just two days after the cyclone raises enough doubts over its authenticity, or the lack of it. And when state government departments, after undertaking a detailed survey of the damage wreaked by the cyclone, come up with exactly the same figure that the Chief Minister had given out after the aerial survey last week, doubts over the figure take firm roots.

It is as if the departments are faithfully playing to a script of the Chief Minister’s making. The bureaucrats involved in drawing up the relief, repair and reconstruction estimates wouldn’t, of course, dare to digress from the apparently whimsical figure given out by the Chief Minister. There are examples galore in Bengal of officers being shunted to insignificant posts for even minor disagreements with the Chief Minister.

As per the state government’s estimates, about 6 crore people have been affected by Amphan and 87 people have died. About 8.5 lakh people were evacuated before the cyclone and housed in shelters; 2 lakh people are still dwelling in those shelters since their houses have been totally destroyed.

Ten lakh houses and 160 kilometres of embankments (they ring low-lying islands of the Sunderbans and prevent saline water from flooding farmlands during high tides) were completely destroyed. More than 10.5 lakh hectares of farmlands and fish farms spread over 58,000 hectares have been ruined while 5,027 km of roads and 1.1 lakh school buildings have suffered severe damage.

The departments which undertook the damage assessment have come up with some figures, according to The Times Of India report. The cost of evacuating the 8.5 lakh people and feeding them in shelters has been pegged at Rs 27,000 crore. That comes to more than Rs 3.17 lakh spent per evacuated person.

Even if the cost of repairing their damaged dwellings and providing them utensils, clothes and generous amounts of food, besides the cost of feeding them at relief camps for over a week, is calculated, it will not come to even one-third of this amount, say experts.

Take the cost of rebuilding the destroyed embankments. The state government has put this cost at Rs 5,000 crore. This means, according to the Bengal government, it will take Rs 31.25 crore to build one kilometre of a mud embankment.

As per the estimates of the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the cost of constructing a four-lane highway with divider and paved shoulders is Rs 22 crore per kilometre and if service roads on both sides are added, the cost would be Rs 26 crore per kilometre. If the Bengal government is to be believed, it takes much more to construct mud embankments than four-lane highways with service roads on both sides.

Even the cost of repairing damaged roads, pegged at Rs 5,344 crore by the state government, seems to be an exaggerated figure. The state declared that 4,710 km of rural roads (single lane and mostly unpaved) and 317 km of PWD roads (two-lane, bitumen topped) have been damaged by the cyclone. Bengal’s claim of requiring more than Rs 106 lakh to repair every kilometre of such damaged roads is quite high, say experts.

The power utilities and state power department has estimated that 4.5 lakh electric poles and 5,000 power sub-stations have been damaged. This estimate is doubted by many. But even if it were to be accepted at face value, the estimate of Rs 18,000 crore for repairing and replacing them is very high.

‘Loss of property’ caused by the cyclone has been estimated by the Bengal government at Rs 24,000 crore. This includes the damage and destruction of private dwellings, school buildings, farmlands, cattle and poultry.

Experts say that the estimate of 10 lakh houses damaged or destroyed also seems to be an exaggeration. The figure of Rs 24,000 crore also awaits scrutiny since the state government has not yet come up with details and the breakup of this amount.

The state departments will submit their detailed assessments to the Chief Minister on Monday (1 June) and she will, in turn, send it to the Union government. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) will send a team next week to undertake an on-the-ground damage impact assessment.

It is imperative that the central teams, which will be drawn from various Union ministries and departments, carry out a thorough assessment and visit all affected areas. They also need to examine the estimates prepared by the state government and forwarded to the MHA very minutely and with a lot of diligence.

They should also guard themselves against being taken on ‘conducted tours’ of the affected areas by state officials and insist on unhindered and unchaperoned access to all areas they may want to visit.

Bengal’s damage assessment of Rs 1 lakh crore is, incidentally, much more than the loss suffered by Odisha in the 1999 super-cyclone that left an estimated 25,000 people dead. The estimated loss suffered by Odisha then was pegged at Rs 6,243 crore, a fraction of Bengal’s estimate of Rs 1 lakh crore it suffered due to a cyclone which was much less devastating than the 1999 super cyclone.

According to Odisha government’s own figures (read this), the state is estimated to have suffered a cumulative damage of Rs 85,000 crore in the 25-year period from 1994-95 to 2019-20 due to natural disasters. That includes the damage caused by the 1999 super cyclone, Rs 9,336 crore due to Cyclone Fani in 2019 (which was fiercer than Amphan) and the devastation caused by four other superstorms.

The Rs 85,000 crore figure (of Odisha’s losses in the last 25 years) also includes losses suffered due to floods, rains and droughts. Odisha, a coastal state that is often devastated by cyclones and super-cyclones, also has arid regions that face severe droughts.

If the cumulative damage that Odisha has suffered over the last 25 years due to natural disasters is Rs 85,000 crore, how is it that Bengal’s losses in just one cyclone is pegged at a much higher Rs 1 lakh crore? Bengal’s estimate seems to be highly exaggerated.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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