At least 72 dead as Cyclone Amphan tears into Sundarbans and West Bengal

Early reports by Gaon Connection show flooding and strong winds of the cyclone have destroyed fishing ponds, lakes, poultry farms, thousands of acres of paddy ready for harvest in the state

Aritra Bhattacharya
| Updated: Last updated on June 2nd, 2020,

On May 20, post noon, Super Cyclone Amphan made landfall in the Sundarbans between West Bengal-Bangladesh’s coasts in a slightly weakened avatar of a ‘very severe cyclonic storm’. But, as forecasted by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Amphan swept through vast swathes of south and southeast Bengal through the last night before moving into Bangladesh today morning, leaving behind a trail of at least 72 deaths and widespread devastation in West Bengal.

Kolkata, the state capital, suffered widespread power outages and flooding, even as large parts of the state remained cut off from the road, mobile, and internet connectivity, making it difficult to assess the exact scale and extent of the damage.

“I have never seen such a disaster before. I will ask PM [Narendra Modi] to visit the state and see the situation,” said Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, announcing a compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh to the families of those who killed by Cyclone Amphan.

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team clearing the roads at Digha in West Bengal

Gaon Connection spoke with several residents and non-profit organisations in the state, particularly in the ravaged districts of North and South 24-Parganas and East Midnapore, where the cyclone has destroyed thousands of homes, inundated low-lying areas, and ripped apart roads, bridges, embankments, jetties, and mobile networks.

“Flooding and strong winds have destroyed fishing ponds and lakes, poultry farms, thousands of acres of paddy ready for harvest, as well as mango, litchi and betel leaf plantations,” Samirul Islam, president of Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, a civil society group with a strong presence in rural Bengal told Gaon Connection. “Saline water has inundated agricultural land in the Sundarbans, making sure no farming is possible for the next three to five years. A relief package from the Centre is the need of the hour,” he added.

Mukti, a non-profit based in South 24-Parganas, with close to 8,000 volunteers in South 24-Parganas, estimates nearly two million people in the affected districts have lost their homes to the Cyclone Amphan.

Initial reports gathered suggest Ghuni village in Hasnabad block of North 24 Parganas is completely underwater. “Our village is underwater. All mud houses are destroyed and more than 100 people have taken shelter on a mosque roof with no relief team in sight. Nine other areas between Hasnabad town and the village are similarly flooded,” Selima Khatun of Ghuni village told Gaon Connection.

The NDRF teams clearing roads at Shyampur Block in Howrah district

Cyclone Amphan followed the trail of similar but weaker cyclones that have ravaged parts of West Bengal in recent years. The fiercest of these was cyclone Aila, which made landfall on the West Bengal coast close to the Sunderbans in 2009, and left more than one lakh people homeless. In 2019, the Sunderbans were devastated by two cyclones, Fani and Bulbul. 

Learning from these experiences, and based on forecasts from the India Meteorological Department, the state government evacuated close to five lakh people who were likely to be affected by Cyclone Amphan, shifting them into relief camps in nearby schools and government offices.

“Apart from this, local residents wizened by the experience of past cyclones also took the lead in moving people into makeshift camps in many areas,” Santanu Sarkar, a Kolkata-based academic and member of Bangla Sanskriti Manch told Gaon Connection

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel clear electricity wires and uprooted trees off the road between Digha in East Midnapore district and Odisha border

People in coastal West Bengal have weathered many storms. But, they are shell-shocked at the brute force of Cyclone Amphan. Social media is replete with posts of residents who have braved this powerful storm.

Halley Goswami, a resident of Kolkata, was amazed by the scale of destruction he witnessed during a walk through neighbourhoods like Alipore, Chetla, Southern Avenue and Rashbehari today morning. “The destruction is unprecedented. The city is locked up into tiny fragments and all traffic in and out is impossible due to large numbers of fallen trees and debris. Most areas are without electricity or water. God alone knows how many thousands of birds have perished last night,” he wrote on Facebook.

Sajid Jangi, a resident of Dhubulia village in Nadia district, moderately affected by the cyclone, said it had damaged all mud houses, inundated fields, and destroyed crops. “The wind and rain became most ferocious around midnight, sweeping away roads, electricity poles and lines, walls and roofs. Many people have been rendered homeless,” he said.

The NDRF team clearing roads

“Cyclone Amphan has ravaged seven to eight districts of West Bengal, especially South 24-Parganas. There is no internet or telephone, and roads are full of uprooted and broken trees. All mud houses are damaged, most embankments are broken and fields are flooded with saline water. It may take two to three days just to reach the Sunderbans and assess the damage physically,” said Sankar Halder, founder and president of Mukti.

The National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) personnel have begun began relief activities in Kolkata. In most places, they are busy removing uprooted trees and electricity wires, clearing damaged vehicles and other debris from the road, and evacuating people.

“Around five lakh people evacuated in West Bengal have been told to remain in shelters. Four additional teams of NDRF are being sent to Kolkata to assist in relief operations,” said NDRF director general S N Pradhan.

Non-profits and civil society groups active in the cyclone-affected districts whom Gaon Connection spoke with informed food, drinking water, shelter, medicines and mosquito nets were among the immediate requirements for relief.

The NDRF team at Hawrah

Meanwhile, people in coastal West Bengal are staring at huge losses. On 18 May, Jamal Mondal returned from Bengaluru, where he worked as a labourer, to Gosaba in South 24-Parganas. Although he had not earned anything since the nationwide lockdown was enforced on 25 March, he was relieved to meet his family. But his happiness was short-lived, as the cyclone washed away his mud house, forcing him, his wife and their four daughters to report to a cyclone shelter, where they spent spend the night on a tarpaulin sheet.

Civil society groups warn the impact of Cyclone Amphan was likely to intensify the crisis among migrant workers like Mondal as well as farmers and farmworkers, who have been severely affected by the two-month-long COVID-19 lockdown.

“Many farmers had postponed harvesting their crop due to the lockdown and restrictions on movement. Cyclone Amphan has now damaged all their produce, deepening their distress. This will also affect migrant workers, currently returning to their villages in droves, as many were hoping to make a living by growing and selling vegetables this season. The rebuilding required is massive, and will take at least two to three years,” said Islam.