Natural disasters amid COVID-19 are compounding woes in India

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As India grapples with its response to contain the further spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the approaching monsoon season has bugled for a more crisis-ridden time. In the likelihood of several severe water-related disasters in several parts of India after the onset of incoming monsoon, India stands at critical juncture balancing resources and saving lives—between the pandemic and natural disasters striking different states.

Cyclone Amphan has killed at least 98 people and left a trail of destruction – destroyed thousands of homes, broken embankments, and damaged crops – across West Bengal while the state was already struggling to keep the pandemic under control. It began showing its impact with a wind speed of up to 190 kmph roared into West Bengal on May 20.

The Cyclone Amphan is the first super cyclone to form in the Bay of Bengal since 1999. In addition to the large-scale immediate devastation, there is fear that agriculture in the area will suffer for the coming few years as saltwater has inundated farmlands. Experts have dubbed the super cyclone as “the worst natural disaster to hit West Bengal in possibly a century”.

The disaster management plans and guidelines that are in place currently, however, are not designed to simultaneously manage biological and natural disasters. The National Disaster Management Authority Guidelines on management of biological disasters uphold that managing a pandemic is primarily the responsibility of the central government whereas the guidelines on natural disasters assign primary responsibility for the management of floods to state governments.

As local schools are being turned into shelter homes, with the onset of flooding, people are being evacuated in large numbers. Civic authorities in several affected areas have employed the labourers and electricians for restoration work. Meanwhile, the government of Odisha on Wednesday announced that it will supply 500 metric tonne of polythene sheets for temporary roofing to West Bengal.

The conspicuous challenge here, however, is balancing the nature of facilities in these shelters while keeping within the necessary norms of social and physical distancing at a time when COVID-19 cases are seeing a fresh surge. Additionally, a bigger question looms over: the continued plight of migrant workers, bringing to highlight yet again the massive impact of disasters on the lower strata of society.

Simultaneously, the flood-related death toll in Assam has risen to five with two more drowning. Officials of the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) said the floodwaters have maintained the receding trend since May 28, but the number of affected people increased from 2.94 lakh to 3.81 lakh within a span of 24 hours.

While most of the affected people have made their way to higher grounds, personnel of the National Disaster Response Force and the State Disaster Response Force have rescued 3,880 people. An ASDMA spokesperson said that “the number of affected districts has come down from 11 on May 27 to seven as on Friday. However, floodwaters entered more villages in the affected districts to displace more people and force 21,807 people into 101 relief camps”.

The list of woes do not end with the expected annual event of cyclone along the eastern coast; as the India and the world struggle to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, adding to the global state of emergency is the threat from locusts as not less than 30 countries face threats.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has alerted that India will face locust attacks from two sides, the Arabian Sea through the coast of Gujarat and from Pakistan through bordering areas like Barmer, Jaisalmer, Nagore, Bikaner etc of Rajasthan.

It is reported that in India, the ongoing locust invasion in parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh is a potential precursor to bigger and deadlier attacks, which will likely take place towards the end of June and July.

An official was quoted by The Outlook as saying that favourable support from wind speed and direction could “wreak unimaginable havoc” on crops, and that “the locusts can fly up to Bihar and even West Bengal” as they can cover 150 km in a day. Normally, Locusts invade India during June and July but this was unexpectedly too early for the locust control agencies in India to gear up.

On the northern front, Uttarakhand is bearing the brunt of wild fire once again. According to the Uttarakhand state forest department, the incident has affected about about 81 hectares of land in the state over the last week and has caused a loss worth Rupees 2.19 lakh.

Natural disasters at this time come have compounded the complexity of the belligerent coronavirus. Amid an increasingly volatile political atmosphere in the country where Centre-State relations are declining rapidly – with the Centre at loggerheads with the States – the distribution of disaster management responsibilities will test the effectiveness of coordination between the Centre and the States.

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