Cyclone Amphan: Those left behind in Sundarbans have nothing to rebuild their lives with

Cyclone Amphan made landfall on May 20 and battered the islands in the Sundarbans. Gaon Connection travelled to the cyclone-affected islands. A ground report

Aritra Bhattacharya
| Updated: Last updated on June 3rd, 2020,

Tents along the embankment in Sulkuni. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

On a ferry across the Dansa river, connecting Sulkuni island in the Indian Sundarbans with the rest of the West Bengal state, recently ravaged by Super Cyclone Amphan, Manas Das wore an unchanging expression as he narrated the plight of the poorest of poor like him who live on the island and have been braving the vagaries of weather.

“It’s eleven days since Amphan [landfall on May 20] washed away a part of the embankment along the river. Every high tide is bringing in more saline water into the island, while the low tide is taking away only a part of it. This process is submerging newer areas every day,” Das told Gaon Connection. The saline water brought in by the cyclone and the breached embankment has killed all the freshwater fish in his pond, a source of his income, and also nutrition for his family.

Not very far away, stood Tapan Sardar, another resident of the island badly hit by Cyclone Amphan. “It’s only people like us, who have lost everything to the cyclone, abandoned and struggling to piece together what is left of our lives. All the belongings have been washed away,” Sardar told Gaon Connection, standing beside a line of tarpaulin tents housing the cyclone-affected families in the Sulkuni island.

A man repairs his tent damaged by frequent storms after Amphan. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

All the tents have been put up by the villagers themselves, two-three days after the cyclone hit, initially with strips of tarpaulin salvaged from their homes, and later with those distributed by the local panchayat. These tents are pitched along the roads and on the embankment – the only ‘dry areas’ on the island.

It was on May 20 when Super Cyclone Amphan made landfall in the Sundarbans as an extremely severe cyclonic storm and pulverised the delta islands and coastal regions of West Bengal. From an initial death toll of 72, the numbers have now risen to 98. The state chief minister Mamata Banerjee has announced a cyclone relief package of Rs 6,250 crore to assist the affected people to build houses, compensate farmers, and carry out reconstruction activities.

Gaon Connection travelled to the Amphan-affected islands in the North and South 24-Parganas districts of West Bengal, the two districts worst hit by the cyclone. The residents of the Sulkuni, Patharpratima and Sagar islands said strong winds post the cyclone had again toppled their tents, but villagers had managed to put them back on their own. People had lost their homes and all the sources of income and were apprehensive about surviving the coming few months.

Makeshift tents pitched along the road in Sulkuni. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

“The tides surge around Purnima [full moon] and Amavasya [the new moon]. The next full moon night is only days away [June 5], but broken embankments are still lying un-repaired. This will certainly cause even more widespread flooding,” the villagers complained.

In Sulkuni, an on-site engineer from the irrigation department, tasked with repairing embankments in the area, said it would be difficult to repair breaches in the coming few days. “The government had instructed all repair works to be completed by June 3, but we don’t see happening before June 10,” he said requesting anonymity.

Last August, Gaon Connection had travelled to the Sagar Island in the Indian Sundarbans and reported on the breached embankments. The entire Indian Sundarbans region — 102 islands, of which only 54 are inhabited — has 3,500 kilometres long embankments. Of this, 176 kilometres was washed away during the Aila cyclone and 777 kilometres was partially damaged. Another 1,043 kilometres was lost due to various reasons. Thus, more than half the embankments meant to ‘protect’ the Indian Sundarbans either did not exist or were partially damaged.

Cyclone Amphan has caused further destruction and made the local people more vulnerable.

Submerged houses in Sulkuni islands. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

Strong winds, surging tides, mounting losses

During visits to the affected areas in the two worst-hit districts in West Bengal, Gaon Connection found strong winds of the cyclone had destroyed a large number of houses on the Sagar Island and adjacent islands like Patharpratima in the South 24-Parganas. In the North 24-Parganas, located further inland, surging tides and breached embankments had caused maximum damages.

In Patharpratima island, where there were no major breaches in the embankments, villagers were living in whatever was left of their mud houses – rickety frames of wood or bamboo, portions of walls and, very rarely, roofs, and a few pieces of furniture and kitchenware. Like the villagers in Sulkuni, sheets of the tarpaulin were their only shelter.

“Although floodwaters have subsided from our area, they have completely ravaged paddy fields, betel vines, and vegetable farms. People are either surviving on white rice and mashed potato, or the community kitchen,” Pintu Das from G-plot village in Patharpratima told Gaon Connection.

Villagers in Sulkuni island in the North 24-Parganas, where Amphan washed away around 200 metres of the embankment along the Dansa river, were similarly dependent on community kitchens and dry ration, including oil, dal, spices and soap from civil society groupings like the Amphan Relief Network and charitable organisations like the Ram Krishna Mission. The public distribution system was back up in both the districts – Gaon Connection saw vans transporting grains, but villagers said ration shops were only disbursing rice.

Vans carry rice to PDS shops in Patharpratima. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

“We can’t just survive on rice, so we’re making these nets to catch whatever fish we find in the river,” said Birendra Mondal, a vegetable farmer from Sulkuni who lost all his produce on the two-acre plot.

Apart from destroying the crops, saline floodwaters have also killed all the freshwater fish in both the districts, claimed the villagers. “I haven’t even been able to calculate the losses suffered due to dash fish in two of my ponds,” Manoranjan Saw, a resident of Sulkuni island, told Gaon Connection.

Villagers in makeshift tents making fishing nets. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

Apart from the loss of houses and livelihoods, there is also an acute crisis of drinking water in the flood-hit areas (due to the cyclone). Most tube wells are throwing up saline water, forcing villagers to rely on boiling the pond water and using it for drinking and cooking purposes.

Massive destruction, little relief

As per the estimates drawn up by the state government, a little over a week after the cyclone, Amphan had destroyed 20 lakh homes and caused damages worth Rs 1 lakh crore, primarily in the two districts of the North and South 24-Parganas. But this figure is likely an understatement of losses.

During its visits to both the districts more than ten days after Amphan made a landfall, Gaon Connection found no government official, including from the local panchayat or block development office, had visited the affected areas, and carried out surveys to assess the losses and initiate relief.

Work on reconnecting power lines in large swathes cut off from electricity since May 20 had only begun, and workers were seen moving electric poles to the affected spots. On the ground, the power department said many workers had gone back to their native places during the lockdown and the department was grappling with a shortage of skilled labour.

Relief workers and residents of both the districts said most of the 8.5 lakh people who were evacuated to storm shelters before and immediately after Cyclone Amphan struck had moved out of shelters to salvage whatever remained of their belongings.

Although the state government claimed an immediate relief of Rs 20,000 had reached the bank accounts of five lakh beneficiaries who had lost their homes in the cyclone, Gaon Connection did not find a single person who had received the cash assistance in his/her account. Many said they did not have bank accounts in the first place because most Sundarbans residents work in the informal, unorganised sector, and their dealings are mostly in cash.

“I have worked in several disaster hit areas, including post Tsumani India and Sri Lanka. But seeing the damage wrought by Amphan shattered me,” said Sreyashi Sen, a Singapore-based content producer and social work professional, who is currently in Kolkata.

Sen is associated with Prajak, an NGO involved in relief work, and visited Mograhat and surrounding areas in South 24-Parganas in the aftermath of Amphan. “The absence of international organisations, which generally move in immediately after every disaster, is surprising, and COVID cannot be a reason for their absence. The lack of early warning and preparation is also shocking,” she added.

Water on either side of the damaged embankment in Hasnabad block. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

COVID-19 and impending health crisis

Floods are often followed by widespread water-borne diseases, infections and allergies. Despite this, most primary health centres and private clinics in the affected areas remained closed. Although several civil society groups were disbursing ration and other relief materials, only some, like the Amphan Relief Network, were sending doctors to the affected areas.

“We treated many people who had sustained injuries, including deep wounds and fractures, while trying to save embankments and boats from the fury of Amphan,” Debashish Halder, a junior doctor at the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, who volunteered his services for medical camps in the affected areas of the North 24-Parganas last week, told Gaon Connection.

“Almost 90 per cent people in the flooded areas had skin, eye and ear infections. Water-borne diseases, which take around ten days to manifest themselves, were also beginning to emerge in a large number of people. The situation could get worse if there is further flooding,” he warned.

Halder also feared the return of migrant workers from other states, following the relaxation of the lockdown, may lead to a spike in coronavirus cases in the cyclone-affected area. “A bus carrying migrant workers from Tamil Nadu reached Hingalganj on the last day of our camp there. While many workers may be asymptomatic carriers of the disease, home quarantine for them would be practically impossible since most houses are destroyed and villagers are living cheek-by-jowl in tents and makeshift shelters,” he said.

Cyclone Amphan has hit and left. But, amid an ongoing pandemic, it will be a big challenge for the people of Sundarbans — poorest of the poor — to rebuild their lives from scratch.