By Robin Gomes
Thousands of Catholics are among 13 million people who have lost homes, crops and livestock after a powerful cyclone ravaged the coastal region of eastern India’s West Bengal state.
17,000 Catholics affected
Some 17,000 Catholics of Baruipur Diocese are among the worst affected by Cyclone Amphan, which tore through the southern districts of West Dinajpur, South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas on 20 May.
"Our people have practically lost everything," said Father Parimal Kanji, social work director of the largely rural diocese, which mostly covers South 24 Parganas district, the worst-hit area in the state.
Baruipur Diocese also includes portions of North 24 Parganas and part of Kolkata metropolis.
The south-eastern extremity of the district is known for the mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans, most of which is in coastal Bangladesh, whose forests are the habitat of the famous Royal Bengal Tiger.
Father Kanji told UCA News that phone communication was restored only on on the morning of 25 May. Until then, they could get little information directly from the people regarding the situation.
The cyclone has destroyed houses, crops and livestock in at least 24 parishes. "Their churches are also damaged," Father Kanji said.
Of the 24 parishes, "ten are in the most affected coastal areas, and all of them suffered serious damage. The roof of a church was blown away," he said.
"These parishioners are poor people eking out a living mostly from fishing, farming and collecting honey and other produce from the forest." Their houses were reduced to mud in the rain and the storm, he added.
Some 300,000 fishermen have lost their fishing gear. They have now taken shelter in government relief camps and other safe places, the priest said.
West Bengal state government said the cyclone has affected 13 million people in nine districts in the state, which has 90 million people in 23 districts.
Several villages continue without electricity and communication lines.
More than one million houses collapsed, crops covering 100,000 hectares have been lost, and close to one million livestock died in the cyclone, hitting the livelihoods of the poor, according to government data.
"That's just an initial estimate and the losses could be much more," said Father Kanji, who appealed to people to be generous in helping victims return to normal life.
The Catholic mission in South 24 Parganas was the enterprise of Belgian Jesuits in the 1860s, who were followed by Yugoslav Jesuits. Formerly under the jurisdiction of Calcutta Archdiocese, the territory was separated in 1978 to form Baruipur Diocese.
Earlier this month on May 4, Bishop Salvadore Lobo of Baruipur retired. Coadjutor Bishop Shyamal Bose succeeded him, becoming the third bishop of the diocese.
There are more than 62,800 Catholics in the diocese according to 2018 estimates.
The Catholic Church's service arms, such as Catholic Relief Service and Caritas India, are working with local parishes to provide immediate assistance to the cyclone's victims.
"We have started distributing food to at least 2,000 people in vulnerable localities," said Father Franklin Menezes, social work director of the Archdiocese of Calcutta based in the state capital Kolkata.
"Many people in the city are starving and thirsty as they don't have drinking water after floods contaminated open wells and other water sources. Many have bore-wells but cannot pump for want of electricity," he told UCA News on May 25.
In a circular, Archbishop Thomas D'Souza of Calcutta asked parish priests and other religious congregations to do "whatever is possible" within their capacity "to help the needy urgently," "irrespective of caste and creed". "It is time to respond to this challenge," he said, urging relief workers to "observe strictly the Covid-19 guidelines", such as social distancing and wearing face masks.
Many churches, convents and other Catholic institutions in Kolkata suffered losses.
"The diocese is trying to gather materials to augment its food delivery. We want to feed at least 10,000 people, increasing from the current number of 2,000," Father Menezes said.
The cyclone uprooted hundreds and thousands of trees and blocked roads. The government and church social workers are unable to reach interior villages, Father Menezes said.
"The situation is pathetic and it will take some time to restore normalcy," he added. (Source: UCANEWS)