COVID19 and Cyclone Amphan batter Hobjapara’s ‘migrant’ families

Over 40 families in Hobjapara village at Kolkata’s outskirts have lost both their homes and livelihoods due to the double whammy of COVID-19 lockdown and Cyclone Amphan.

Debdutta Paul
| Updated: Last updated on August 24th, 2020,

Jamuna Tarafdar, a resident of Hobjapara village near Kolkata, lost her house to Cyclone Amphan. Since the lockdown, she is without work. Photo: Subodh Mondal

An hour’s drive from the southern fringes of Kolkata is Hobjapara. Not many have heard of this village, inhabited by over 40 ‘migrant’ families from various parts of Bengal, in Canning division of South 24 Parganas district. That is why the sufferings of its poor residents hit by the Super Cyclone Amphan in May this year and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have not reached the official corridors or made news headlines.

Whereas the cyclone washed away their belongings and flattened their houses, which are yet to be repaired, the COVID-19 lockdown has taken away their livelihoods.

Lipika Goldar, a resident of Hobjapara, used to earn a living as a domestic worker in three houses in Baghajatin area of southern Kolkata. But, since the lockdown in March, she has been left without work. With a physically challenged husband, Goldar is the sole bread-earner of the family that includes her three young kids.

“I used to earn Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 a month by working as a domestic worker,” Goldar told Gaon Connection. “Early in the morning, I would leave my kids and home, and travel to Kolkata for work. The previous evening, I would cook food and keep for my kids to eat during the day,” she added.

Since the lockdown in March, she is without work.

Lipika Goldar, a resident of Hobjapara, Piali Taltola, Canning-1 block, Canning division, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal. Photo: Debdutta Paul

The majority of the residents of Hopjapara village in Piali Taltola of Canning-1 block used to earlier reside in the islands of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest shared between India and Bangladesh. These islands, which lie on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, are currently battered with a series of environmental attacks.

Because of both economic and environmental reasons, villages in the Sundarbans have been witnessing an out migration. “My house was in Kachukhali, near Monsamela in the Indian Sundarbans,” said Balai Gayen, one of the residents of Hobjapara. It used to take about six hours to travel one way from the villages of Sundarbans, to Kolkata, the state capital. Rivers had to be crossed, sometimes two, sometimes a few.

“The wholesale markets wouldn’t give a good price for the crop and we could cultivate only one kharif crop a year. The rest of the year, we had nothing to do. So we moved closer to Kolkata many years back,” Gayen reminisced. Now the men of the family work in the city as labourers, and the women as domestic workers and healthcare aids of newborns and olderlies. Livelihoods of all have been affected due to the COVID-19.

These villagers moved to Hobjapara village near Kolkata in the hope of a better tomorrow. But economic problems and environmental woes refuse to leave them, as has been exhibited during the lockdown and the impacts of Cyclone Amphan.

Daily commute to Kolkata for work isn’t easy. The nearest railway station from Hobjapara is Piali, a half an hour walk. Goldar and other villagers take the first train coming from Canning in the wee hours every single day. It stops at Piali at ten minutes before 5 am.

“My kids are on their own the whole day while I am at work. God takes care of them,” said Goldar, who is waiting to resume her work and earn a living.

Amid the nationwide lockdown, Super Cyclone Amphan made a landfall in the Sundarbans on May 20. It pulverised whatever came in its way and caused destruction in Kolkata and surrounding areas, including Hobjapara.

During the cyclone relief works, Subodh Mondal, a resident of Purbapiali village, happened to visit Hobjapara, which is a neighbouring village. Till then, Mondal, a research scholar in the University of Calcutta, and a part-time lecturer in Behala College, wasn’t aware of the existence of a village called Hobjapara, which was devastated by the Amphan. 

“While we were distributing dry food in Pialimath near Biharipara, twin sisters named Ganga and Jamuna Tarafdar came running to us, and urged us to accompany them to Hobjapara,” Mondal narrated to Gaon Connection. “The devastation of Amphan there was worse than our villages. Some houses were completely flattened, others were falling apart,” he added.

Ganga Tarafdar of Hobjapara worked as a healthcare worker in a residence near South City Mall, southern Kolkata. She is out of work since March. Photo: Debdutta Paul

Ganga Tarafdar, who has a seven-year-old son, lost her house to Amphan and her only source of income to the lockdown. She used to work as a healthcare worker in a residence near South City Mall in southern Kolkata. Her husband deserted her when she was five months’ pregnant. Her parents and brother live and work in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. She lives alone in Hobjapara with her son and is his only support.

Since the lockdown was enforced in March, Ganga is without work.

Her twin sister, Jamuna, who has a nine-year-old son and a daughter too young to talk, is also without work.

“Many years ago, our parents and brother migrated to the Andamans for work. What would they have done here? There they at least work as labourers in the supari [betel nuts] business,” Ganga told Gaon Connection.

Meanwhile, Jamuna’s husband works as a labourer in Kerala, over 2,200-kilometre away from home, and occasionally sends money back home.

With support from relief agencies and non-profit organisations in Kolkata, residents of Hobjapara have rebuilt their temporary homes using tin-sheds and asbestos sheets. But, these homes are filled with mud and are in extremely unhygienic conditions.

This tin-chamber with one bed is the newly built house of the twins Ganga and Jamuna Tarafdar. There is no running electricity most of the time. Photo: Debdutta Paul

With dilapidated homes and lost livelihoods, children in the village are suffering silently. For instance, Ganga’s son is enrolled at the nearest state government primary school. “But, the school is closed for the last five months now due to the coronavirus. Also, the Cyclone Amphan has blown away all his books. Now he keeps playing somewhere in the fields,” she said.

Residents of Hobjapara alleged the Rs 20,000 relief for rebuilding homes after Cyclone Amphan announced by the state government hadn’t reached a single person in the village.

“The officials came and noted down our names, but we don’t know what they have done with those. We have received nothing. Our panchayat pradhan has never come to this village. Some women have received Rs 500 from the Central government, a relief announced during the lockdown,” Balai Gayen told Gaon Connection. “But, my wife is an exception of that as well,” he added.

Accessing foodgrains during the lockdown has also been a challenge for the residents of Hobjapara, many of whom do not have a ration card to avail the government’s subsidised food grains under the public distribution system (PDS). The reason for being left out of the PDS is the lack of identification papers required for issuing of the ration card, or the invalid ration cards of their previous homes in the Sundarbans. 

Caught between their places of birth and a city that provides them support for life, the 40 families of Hobjapara have well and truly been locked down.

Debdutta Paul is a former scientist and a science communicator based out of Kolkata.