Breached embankments, repair funds frozen – No celebrations for Durga Puja in villages of Howrah

Durga Puja, Bengal's biggest annual event, is just a few days away but residents of 17 villages in Howrah district are in no mood to celebrate because damaged river embankments remain unrepaired due to 'freezing' of MGNREGA funds and there is the ever present threat of their homes being washed away by flood waters like it did last month.

Gurvinder SinghGurvinder Singh   21 Sep 2022 1:08 PM GMT

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Breached embankments, repair funds frozen –  No celebrations for Durga Puja in villages of Howrah

The breached embankments and the constant threat of floods and inundation of their homes and work spaces have played havoc with the livelihoods of those living in the area. Photos by Gurvinder Singh 

Saiberia (Howrah), West Bengal

There are many plans afoot in West Bengal to make Durga Puja extra special this year. After all, COVID-19 related restrictions are a thing of the past and people want to ensure Maa Durga gets a welcome this year like she had not during the past two years of the pandemic.

However, in Saiberia village in Howrah district, 100 kms away from the state capital Kolkata, the mood is sombre.

Kanon Mondal has not slept well for days now and neither has she bought a stitch of new clothing for her children and grandchildren for the festival. She said she had more pressing things to worry about than new clothes and festivities.

"We are living in fear as our home is just a few metres away from the banks of the Rupnarayan," Mondal told Gaon Connection. "Heavy rains in mid August led to a surge of water level that breached the mud embankments and entered our houses. We had to rush outside as the houses were in knee-deep water. It can happen again," she said, pointing to the damaged embankments of the river that is still gushing with water.

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There are 50, 000 people residing in 17 villages spread across 22 kilometres of the bank of the river Rupnarayan who are daily living in fear of the embankments breaching.

According to the village inhabitants the mud embankments along the river's flow are breached in several places and there have been no repairs carried out.

"We have been left to die by the administration. How can we think of celebrating Durga Puja when our lives are at stake," Mondal demanded to know.

Suspension of MGNREGA funds

The embankment repairs remain suspended as the funds for the central government's MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005) through which villagers took up the repair work has dried up since March this year, complain the villagers.

It is alleged that the MGNREGA funds stopped coming from the central government due to allegations of corruption and misappropriation by the state government. This has been widely reported by the local news agencies.

In April, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, had said that the Centre was yet to pay outstanding dues to the tune of Rs 2,786 crore to the state for MGNREGA work despite giving employment to 11 million people in the scheme.

"Normally, we start repairing embankments before the onset of monsoon but the funds are frozen," Indrajit Dolui, who monitors the MGNREGA work in the area, told Gaon Connection. "The locals employed in this work earn Rs 213 as daily wages but the stopping of the funds has left most of them with outstanding dues of around 50 days. This has never happened before since the programme was implemented," he said.

The 80-kilometre long Rupnarayan river begins its journey from Dhaleswari in the Chhota Nagpur plateau of Purulia district of West Bengal and passes through various districts of the state before joining river Hooghly. The river forms the eastern boundary of East Midnapore and Howrah districts.

Water from the river has been entering the brick kilns and destroying them.

Also Read: Trouble in the Rice Bowl of Bengal

Loss of livelihoods

The breached embankments and the constant threat of floods and inundation of their homes and work spaces have played havoc with the livelihoods of those living in the area.

Mrityunjoy Dolui, a 68-year-old inhabitant of Saiberia village shuddered as he remembered what had happened last year when the river had breached and the waters had entered their homes. "We somehow managed to save our lives. But, we wonder if we can do the same this year as the situation is worse this year and the mud embankments are even more vulnerable as no repairs have been carried out on them," he told Gaon Connection.

"The villages in Shyampur block are known as the hub of brick kilns and they employ thousands of local inhabitants. But the water from the river has been entering the kilns and destroying them. It has affected our work for several days," Pulin Pramanik, a brick kiln worker, complained to Gaon Connection.

The state government on its part has taken some measures to help out but the villagers are not convinced.

"The administration has been placing bags which are full of mud and not sand. A layer of two bags are being placed to prevent the entry of water into the villages. But that is a joke," Mrityunjoy from Saiberia village scoffed. "The water had risen by several feet last year. Putting these bags are just an eyewash to prevent us from protesting, but it won't work," he added.

Poriskari Bar, a 58-year-old contractual worker, is worried too. "We are already at the mercy of nature due to the poor condition of embankments and our work has also been stopped because of no payments. This will be the unhappiest and dullest Durga Puja for us," he lamented.

Shortage of potable water

Most of the villages along the river bank are also facing shortage of potable water. "We have to depend on hand pumps for drinking water. There were two ponds which were dug up by the administration to use water for washing utensils and bathing. But one of the ponds has been washed away into the river after the mud embankment was breached," Subhangini Behera from the neighbouring Bania village told Gaon Connection.

"We now have a single pond that caters to the population of two villages, Saiberia and Bania. Women wash utensils and people take bath here. But the water has become dirty and unhygienic. We suffer from skin rashes," the 52-year-old added.

According to environmentalists, the state government should do a lot more if the problem is to be solved. "The shoddy embankments are the main reason behind the sufferings of the villagers. The government should repair them as this would help both the local inhabitants and the natural habitat too," Subhamoy Ghosh, a Howrah-based environmentalist, pointed out to Gaon Connection.

Local administration on its part insisted that it was doing all it can. "We take all the precautions in repairing the embankments. The monitoring is done every week and the minor damages are repaired soon. We have already sent a proposal to the state government regarding the repairs of major damage to the embankments," a senior block level officer requesting anonymity, told Gaon Connection.

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