STUDENT COLLECTIVES AS RELIEF MEDIATION TO THE PERILS OF NATURAL DISASTERS

‘The year is 2020. The tree in front of my house is bent on crashing upon the family car. It’s raining cats and dogs. Suddenly, there’s a blackout and there’s water seeping in from a broken window pane. The wind too isn’t very keen on slowing down either and seems to be turning stronger by the minute. My phone battery is on the verge of giving up. Much to my dismay; currently I am a resident of a 200 year old house, with no electricity and rain water for company. Built during the British era in Kolkata, this house with water leaks, steep wooden staircases and strong forces of wind is not exactly very pleasant at the moment. But my experiences at this moment cannot be read in isolation. They are marked by our present.’ Nayanika Kongar writes about the role student’ collectives can play in trying to mitigate the after effects of disasters.

Aftermath of super cyclone Amphan in Kolkata

From the need of a young teenager, like Greta to make us aware of the drastic need to raise our woke collective consciousness to relentless environmental activists like P. Sainath and Jadav Payeng back home in India, we do need more voices for the environment, keeping the climate change crisis in mind.

Further with regard to climate activism in India there was a surge in opposition to the recent release of changes in the Environmental Impact Assessment Draft (EIA), 2020. This was a welcoming change. A majority of the millennial population wrote to the Ministry of Environmental and Forest (MOEF) for its withdrawal. This showed that we could at least exercise our little rights to make an appeal for change.

Aftermath of the super cyclone Amphan

THE WEST BENGAL CHAPTER

The super cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal on 20 May, 2020 amidst the pandemic and I happened to have witnessed the perils of this disaster, on somewhat a first-hand basis. I was fortunate enough to have a home unlike many in the Sunderbans, North 24 Paragana, Howrah, Hoogly, East Mednipur and West Mednipur, which were the worst affected districts in the state of West Bengal.

The West Bengal government has claimed a total loss of 100,000 INR Crore caused by the storm. A total of 28.56 houses have been damaged, causing a loss of 28,560 crore INR. While 17 lakh hectare of agricultural land has been damaged that adds another 15,860 lakh INR crore to the loss. 244.73 km of embankments were damaged and 2,122 lakh animals have been lost too causing 3396 crore INR losses in numbers.

The numbers however on your mobile screens do not do justice to the amount of trauma and pain faced by the people. Personally struggling with the hullabaloo of animals and swooshing of winds to accompany, let me share my personal engagement with two significant relief work drives that came up right after the cyclone. One based in West Bengal and the other one in Assam.

Ration kit being distributed in a flood relief drive

THE PROCESS TO FORMING A COLLECTIVE

So after waiting patiently for three days, when electricity returned on my end, I went frantically reading through the backlog of messages on my phone.I was added to a group of student collective constituting alumni’s of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati campuses who were either from West Bengal or were residing in and around Kolkata. The group was formed as an immediate think tank response to the disaster. The initiative came to be was called as TISS West Bengal Alumni: TISS ALSoc – Bengal Chapter. This was also to discuss ways and means to form a rescue response team for all the devastation caused.As the days progressed within the team, we developed on a plan to the relief pattern in order to do better with our times in quarantine.

First we set up a page highlighting the need to set up such a collective on both Facebook and Instagram. Then we started with pooling our resources of knowledge about organisations that have had the experience on working with relief drives. We also looked into individuals requiring assistance within our personal contacts. Almost all of us came from an understanding that no help to the initiative was small or large further which made things really easy.

Intervention in the field of menstrual hygiene management

Some took to social media to update the initiatives purpose to reach out to people, some took to taking the idea of crowdfunding and fundraising and made the need for monetary contributions welcome. Members from the team volunteered their accounts to accept the crowdfunds.  A few members went straight ahead to make infographics and posters for our social media pages. Others pitched in ideas of bringing in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives willing to contribute to the cause on board. The team also engaged and collaborated with a couple of young college students who agreed to volunteer on the drives from our end.

WHAT THE RELIEF WORK ON GROUND MEANT

As the work began, the group started receiving distress call for ration and clean drinking water. We went ahead with sending the money collected in the group’s fund to organisations that were conducting relief distribution drives on ground with confirmed knowledge of amongst the group members. There were also places where the collective reached out to provide help in the menstrual management hygiene arena.

Tarpaulin sheets

Building homes and schools that had their building infrastructure completely devastated, was another intervention in the arena of logistics.The relief kits contained ration alongside clean drinking water. In some places we helped deliver books too. Tarpaulin sheets were also given to rebuild houses as requested by the people on field. Money was also raised for Tiger Widows (Women who have lost their husbands to tiger attacks) in the Sundarbans who were working to make masks during Covid to stay afloat. With each relief drive the number of beneficiary families varied from hundred to two hundred.

I added my inputs to fundraising from time to time and made sure the stories were shared all over social media, as far as my reach could go. Thus in this way the group managed to fundraise quite sizable amounts of money to help holistically. I learned a lot with respect to delivering assistance to internally displaced climate refugees.

Aerial view of Assam Floods

THE ASSAM CHAPTER

Now this anecdote was just one personal experience from a collection of many such stories that I have heard and faced a couple of times with regards to natural disasters and climate refugees. Hailing from the state of Assam, the wrath of climate devastation and change has been a long overdrawn struggle for us. While the river waters the flood and agriculture plains of Assam it also takes away a lot, in terms of loss of lives both human and wild animals alongside livelihoods. National Daily, Hindustan Times reported the death toll at 107 and 16.5 lakh people have been affected till now.

The perennial flood situation in Assam went way overboard this time round with Covid in place. The man- animal conflict has been there for a really long period. Most parts of Assam’s state heritages, Kaziranga and Manas National Park went all under water. Apart from the floods and Covid, Assam also witnessed one of the most tragic disaster of all times of the oil gas leak in Bagjhan, Tinsuikia District, leading to rise in the number of relief camps set up in the region for purposes apart from flood survivors. The leak also was responsible for taking away the forest cover and wildlife in all entirety of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park alongside.

Assam flood

The problem in my opinion to the struggles of my home state has been much more, and very prolonged. However what continues to highlight on the media front has mostly been with regards to pompous celebration of culture (no doubt an inalienable and important part of the state heritage but should not be in any way limiting to look at other problems the state faces), which is often not understood with respect to the reasons of its celebration. Little has been focused when it has come down to the annual floods in the region and our wildlife heritages at great risk.

Condition of people during the flood in Assam

THE PROCESS TO FORMING A COLLECTIVE

Since I was already working for the Amphan relief collective, I also decided to join another such initiative stemming out of yet another batch of Alumni from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus that has members mostly indigenous to the region. We decided to call the initiative ‘Xahox’ which translates to strength in Asssamese. I joined both the initiatives simultaneously on a voluntary basis. For Xahox I worked as the Content Developer and Social Media Strategist. We set up pages on Facebook and Instagram for starters and came up with ideas thereafter to help.

We managed to successfully conduct eleven relief drives in collaboration with particular non-governmental organisations working directly in districts such as Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Barpeta, Baksa badly impacted; we also managed to set up a Milap Fundraiser in collaboration with a known comedian and collect sizable amount of funds. We had quiz societies from universities collaborating with us for fundraising too. From Delhi to Nagpur we found people coming up to join the initiative and delivered the funds subsequently to our partner non-governmental organisations on ground. Each drive, here too had around 100 to 200 beneficiary families.

A Hog Deer washed away by the Pukumara River which flows through the Panpara village in Bhuyapara range of the Manas National Park

Simultaneously a few team members came up with the idea of a tie up in the field of social science research and we wrote to organisations; thus qualifying for their grants to develop research on the flood situation. On a few drives we had members from the team on board too, helping in person. On our relief drives we managed to distribute ration kits, menstrual hygiene management kits and water purifiers as a part of Water and Sanitation Hygiene (WASH) Intervention. We also managed to highlight articles about indigenous methods to coping floods specific to communities like the Mising Tribe in Assam on the group’s social media page.

We also tried focusing on translating Assamese local daily newspaper articles to English and vice versa and bring out the vernacular voices to the forefront. Further we managed to collaborate with artists who came up with brilliant works of art highlighting the flood situation. Thus we secured well to archive the news about the floods on social media with the official pages set up by us. I also went on air to speak about our initiative with Instagram live representing the team. Learnt the importance of graphics and creative poster making on the process and how that helps in taking a movement forward.

Water purifiers as part of the WASH intervention

Thus we tried to reach out to as much as we could and incorporate as many voices of those who were willing to contribute. Partaking in both these collectives I learned that any form of contribution is a way ahead for change. Monetary contribution or lending time for creative ideas, it’s an all-inclusive process and we need more people to step up and participate in such noble initiatives.

Conclusion

The truth of the hour is; in order to bring out the fallacies and shortcomings of our systemic structures that need evolvement, we as citizens have to make sure we are ready to bring the changes which we want to see.We need to partake in what’s happening in and around us more promptly and carefully.2020 has seen the worst of nature in the longest. From cyclones to locust attacks, massive oil spills and gas blow outs, Covid – 19 just alone hasn’t been the case of death and destruction. Witnessing all these disasters amplified thrice with social media connecting us to the perils of wreckage, I just could not sit and do nothing.

Beneficiaries at a relief drive in Assam

Coming from even a tiny bit of privilege there is no denying that, in a country such as ours where corruption, patriarchy, casteism, hunger and poverty are an everyday invisible yet so visible struggles, the ecology and environment spectrum suffers the most. Making a conscious effort to not give in to the corporate chains just feels like an added burden. Green and sustainable living therefore, becomes an expensive taste acquired by a very few who can manage to invest in it, both at the collective and individual level there is a need to reimagine our usage of technology. The tool of social media is a great responsibility. In the end as saying in the super hero novels goes “With great power comes great responsibility”. Let’s make sure we start to make changes and amends at some point in time even if we hadn’t earlier.

Nayanika Konger has a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus. She can be reached at nayanikakonger@gmail.com

End Notes

  1. Operation Update Report, India: Cyclone Amphan by International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cross Crescent Societies
  2. The statistics of losses have been borrowed from an online article of TimesNowNews.com featured in an article by Sreyashi Dey updated on June 07, 2020.
  3.  Please visit the initiative’s official Instagram and Facebook page to understand better and read in detail all the work taken up by the group. Instagram Handle – @tisswestbengalalumni (TISS AlSoc: Bengal Chapter). DM (Direct Message) them on the page for any queries.
  4. For information on Xahox you can visit the official Instagram handle – @xahoxassam and Facebook Page – Xahox Assam. Direct Message to address queries and follow up on the work
  5. Picture Credits for all the photographs used in the article go to Team TISS West Bengal Alumni and Xahox’s official social media pages.

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