Cyclone Amphan: A trail of death, misery and destruction
At around 1am on May 19, winds of around 80kmph woke up Sanjay Mandal. A resident of Bali island in the Sunderbans delta of West Bengal, Mandal was used to the vagaries of weather in a region where roughly four million people co-exist with heavy monsoons, storms and the Royal Bengal Tiger. “Winds of that speed mean nothing to us,” said Mandal. He turned around and slept.
The government had, two days before, sounded an alarm about an approaching super cyclone and evacuated roughly 360,000 people from the delta, but Mandal was not one of them.
Next morning, he knew something was wrong. When the high tide surged in at around 8am, it was not the silt-heavy muddy water that the Muriganga river usually brings, but clear blue water that swelled two metres above the usual height.
Mandal and his neighbours quickly formed a plan.
Pivoting on their experience with the 2009 cyclone Aila, they took 35 boats out and rowed their way onto shallow waters – the logic being that the gushing river would inundate their low-lying island homes but they would safely wait for the low tide to set in – a common practice in the marshy mangrove delta where the cycle of tides drives local life.
By 3pm – the time the tide was supposed to withdraw – they knew the plan had gone awry. The squall tossed their boats around and threatened to crash them into rocks, and the winds were only gathering speed. Mandal and his friends rowed towards land, abandoned the boats at the shore and ran towards a local school. At 4pm, the mobile phone connection snapped.
From atop the building, the group saw their boats being hurled violently in the wind, followed by the sound of the embankment crumbling and columns of water submerging their homes. “We thought nothing would survive this disaster. Everything would be finished,” he said.
The cyclone subsided around 11pm. “Our homes weren’t there anymore, only water. It was as if large parts of our island had disappeared in six hours,” he said, admitting that he had underestimated the strength of the cyclone.
Of the 35 boats, only one was in sailable condition; so the group took it out to survey the damage. They rowed for roughly 50km, and two hours, but found nothing but breached embankments, washed away roads and clumps of mud where kachha houses once stood.
“Everywhere we went, there was only water. In every island, embankments had given way. Nothing had survived Amphan.”
The embankment near Mandal’s home was part of a 16km stretch of decades-old fortification protecting the low-lying islands against storm and tide surges. None of that remains. Neither do roughly 600,000 houses in the delta.
For eight hours on May 20, Amphan pummeled four Bengal districts in the fiercest cyclone in the region in a century that left 86 people dead and roughly 10 million people homeless. In interviews with 20-odd local residents, bureaucrats, experts and activists a week later, HT pieces together the trail of devastation that chief minister Mamata Banerjee has estimated at Rs 1 lakh crore.
Perched on the southernmost tip of Bengal, the Sunderbans mangrove archipelago is collection of 102 islands – 54 of which are inhabited – that form a crucial carbon sink and eastern India’s biggest protection against coastal flooding and cyclones.
The islands have had human settlements since the 1830s but the population started swelling at the turn of the century and then exploded in the decades following the partition of Bengal when hundreds of thousands of people – many of them poor and lower-caste refugees – cleared forests and settled in the islands. Many of them started building embankments to keep the saline water out of the low-lying islands, and began farming.
Today, roughly a third of the population of the south 24 parganas district – under which the largest chunk of population falls – is scheduled caste and another third is Muslim. “Even among the Muslims, many are other backward castes and do small jobs or are farm labourers,” said Swagato Sarkar, a sociologist and professor at Jindal Global University.
Ringed by rivers and battered by torrential showers, farming and fishing are the two mainstay of the under-developed region whose biggest concern is transportation, though it is barely 80km from the state capital Kolkata. Rickety water ambulances make up for the lack of proper health facilities and a bridge to the biggest island, Sagar, has been hanging fire for decades.
It takes four or five showers every year to just wash away the salinity of the soil; in other regions, when the flood water recedes, it leaves plants as is; in the Sunderbans, the salty water makes plants rot.
In the past three decades, a new problem has worsened the lives of locals: Hastening soil erosion and rising sea levels that have submerged whole islands and forced people to relocate to new homes every 20-30 years. For these groups of climate refugees, the cyclone has not only destroyed their houses but also left them without a homeland.
Sheikh Abdul Rauf is one of them.
Now 50, Rauf is one of 3,000-odd residents of Ghoramara island, from where residents started fleeing 30 years ago because the river was slowly eating into the land.
“I heard from my father that we had several hectares of land. Back then the island was huge. But gradually all our land got eroded. Every time we lost a house, we had to rebuild it a little inland. Even three years ago the river was at least 25 min walk from my house. But now it is barely 15 metres away,” he added.
Rauf worked as a tailor in Kolkata’s Kidderpore area but rushed to his village on March 23, fearing an impending lockdown. The next day, he summoned his four sons, Ansaruddin, Ashrafuddin, Azaharuddin and Akramuddin, from Kerala, where they worked as daily labourers. All congregated at their house in Ghoramara by March 25, the day the government clamped a nationwide lockdown.
On May 18, district authorities hustled them out to a relief camp in Sagar.
Rauf held out for two days but he, too, was shifted on May 20 – hours before the cyclone struck his house. On Sunday, the family returned to the village only to find that there was nothing to return back to – the house, the backyard and the farms were all marooned.
“We were forced to leave the island in search of work. Then the virus forced us back. Now the cyclone has again evicted us. Where are we supposed to go now?” said Rauf.
The scenery changes quickly along the Basanti highway, the 80-km road that takes tourists from the bustle of Kolkata to the tip of the Sunderbans.
Highrises give way to red-brick factories and chimneys of the Kolkata leather complex and then coconut palms and thatched roof huts on either side of the road, small bag and jewellery making units functioning out of single-storey asbestos sheds and vendors selling Rs 5 tea cakes and small packets of puffed rice spiced into the special Bengali delicacy: Jhalmuri. The drive takes roughly three hours.
Now, however, the road is the high land as fields and villages continue to be under chest-deep water and villagers scramble to reach relief camps. Stretches of train tracks are under water and swathes of land in the north and south 24 parganas – the peculiar name dating back to a unit introduced by the Delhi Sultanate and implemented by the British – continue to be cut-off from the mainland.
In November 2019, cyclone Bulbul, which was much lower in intensity than Amphan, pounded the same region and damaged 500,000 houses and roughly 300,000 acres of agricultural land. A second, and more severe cyclone in Amphan has broken the back of the region, said Sunderbans development minister Manturam Pakhira.
“No mud house is left. Pakka houses have no roofs. There is no block in the district that is not affected. Even if we want to restore electricity quickly, there are no poles left. The main jetty in the area has been washed away and more than 650,000 houses destroyed,” he said.
The block development officer of Sagar, Sudipta Mandal, admitted that it would take another week for communications and electricity to be normalized. “Even in Bulbul, we had phone connectivity, this is worse,” he added.
In the neighbouring district of East Midnapore, at least 330,000 houses have been damaged and 4,000 sq km, comprising 20 blocks and five municipalities have been hit said Partha Ghosh, district magistrate of East Midnapore.
“Evacuated people have been kept in more than 800 shelters. Tarpaulins have been sent and dry food is being distributed. At the same time embankments which have been breached are being repaired so that saline water could be stopped from entering the villagers,” added Ghosh.
Locals know this, and their biggest concern is water supply. Despite being surrounded by rivers, the main source of drinking water is tubewells, which are rendered useless because saline water has seeped into them. In some areas of Gosaba and Rangabelia, residents have put mud embankments around tubewells. Others stand in queues for an hour to fill a pitcher of water. “After Aila, it took many years for the ground water to become sweet. Plus, arsenic in the local groundwater sources will make water problems worse,” said Asim Mondal, a professor at the Ramkrishna Mission College, Narendrapur.
As for electricity, no one holds out hope. “We will be lucky if power comes back even in three months,” said Sanjay Mandal.
Experts say the cyclone’s damage can be classified into tangible losses in the short and medium term and intangible changes in the socio-political fabric, agriculture and environmental patterns in the long term.
The first concern is agriculture, on which roughly two-thirds of the region is dependent. The worry, experts say, is not that the standing crop will be affected – by the end of May, 80% of the Rabi crop is harvested anyway – but the impact of the saline water on the main kharif season.
“The soil is heavy and drainage is almost non-existed. Because of the damaged embankments, salt water has entered the soil and may continue to do so at high tides. In the next two months, paddy will get badly hit,” said Himadri Sekhar Sen, a former professor at Calcutta University.
To gauge the extent of the problem, he pointed at the salinity after the 2009 Aila cyclone, whose effect still lingers. “In salty water, the crop is not able to suck nutrition from the ground, so 50% yield may be affected. Draining the soil is the only solution but it wasn’t done sufficiently after Aila,” he added.
The state government says 105,000 hectares of crops have been damaged, and 100,000 hectares of betel leaf cultivation – the most-popular source of income in Sunderbans islands.
Crops are affected even in districts 300km from the Sunderbans. In Murshidabad, for example, mango growers say their produce is destroyed. “This time we were expecting good harvest of mangoes. But Amphan has left nothing of the mango orchards,” said Mosharaf Hossain, Murshidabad zilla parihad chief.
The second concern is fishing, another economic mainstay especially deeper into the Sunderbans. The cyclone destroyed hundreds of bheris, or fishing ponds, and swept saline water into fresh-water sources; as a result, the supply of fresh-water fish to Kolkata – the main revenue generator – has been disrupted.
“This land, those fishery ponds – they are all gone. Fishes worth crores of rupees have been swept into the river Buri from a few neighbouring villages alone,” said Asit Mahato, a resident of the north 24 parganas district.
Mahato supported a family of five with the produce from his one-acre pond, locally called bheri. He spent Rs 1 lakh for the lease amount and almost an equal amount to buy fish seeds. He had taken a loan from a bank to pay the lease amount for the fishery pond.
Now his pond is ruined, and the walls and roof of his two-room house have collapsed.
“We have no home, we have no resources left and we have no prospect of earning with all the lobsters, tiger prawns and bektis gone. We are doomed.”
The third concern is animal husbandry, because many families have cattle that they use for personal use and make milk products. The government says 900,000 domestic animals perished.
In Kakdwip, residents of Gobindarampur village have started selling their cattle because saline water has left nothing for the cattle to eat or drink. All the tube-wells are under water, sweet water ponds are full of saline water and dead fish and crops on the fields destroyed. Food and drinking water is scarce and cannot not be spared for the cattle, residents say. “We had to collect the rotten fish floating all around and dump them into the river,” said Sujoy Mahata, a villager.
A fourth lingering concern is Covid.
The state has roughly 4,000 infections and the two-month-long lockdown has gutted the economy, especially the supply chains to Kolkata that most of the south Bengal countryside is dependent on. With no earning, the cyclone is likely to further eat into the savings of the poor.
Secondly, fear of the virus has hampered relief with concerns of no social distancing at camps. “We have been tried to wash hands and keep distance but it is the toughest challenge,” said Pakhira.
Ironically, the relative isolation of the Sunderbans that was a boon in March and April – there was a virtual ban on entry of visitors to the islands – has now turned into a problem. “Very few of us are infected, but we are worried that those coming for relief from Kolkata, even the volunteers, can carry the virus,” said Mandal.
How quickly can the economy rebound? The answer, experts say, is embedded in Bengal’s economic structure that is wedded to political party affiliations.
“In the last 20-30 years, a rent-seeking economy has been created. Most of the economic activities in Bengal are mediated through the party structure, from government programmes to market transaction,” said Sarkar.
The fear in such structures is that ruling party functionaries may get more relief. “Mamata has herself appealed to be neutral,” said Sarkar.
The first enterprises to resuscitate could be the small garment-making units, groups of women making puffed rice and running micro units from their homes. “Many of these are run by Dalits and OBC Muslims,” said Sarkar.
The impact on the fragile local ecosystem and alarming erosion is unpredictable, but experts say it was a long-time coming.
A 2016 paper published in Climatic Change journal said the Sunderbans – with an average elevation of 2 metres above sea level – was “under threat from inundation and subsequent wetland loss”.
Tuhin Ghosh, one of the authors of that article and a professor at Jadavpur University, said the problem of erosion was exacerbated by the incomplete building of guide-walls (only one of the seven proposed structures meant to protect islands from storm surges was fully built) that changed the course of rivers.
“The repairing of the embankments was never done properly, so they couldn’t take the pressure of the cyclone surge. Now that they’ve been left more brittle, the rate of continuous erosion may increase,” he said.
Moreover, with dams being built upstream, the delta has been starved of sediment that helps secure marshy islands “It is now 1/10th. So the islands are sinking. When sedimentation decreases, erosion increases,” he said.
This can have unforeseen consequences. If the local climate changes, it disturbs vegetation, wildlife and the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on it.
In the Sunderbans, for example, harvesting honey from combs is the only economic activity for marginal tribespeople deeper in the delta. But combs thrive at 12-14 feet, and hives at lower heights are not stable. If continuous erosion begets stunted trees, it will devastate the incomes of thousands.
“These people go in every 15 days to fetch the honey and earn around 30,000 – that’s an income for four months under danger of being wiped out,” said Ghosh.
To better fight future climate disasters, he proffers a two-step plan: Mitigation (minimizing impact) and preparedness. “But we don’t even know what we need to prepare against, so I am not hopeful.”
Amphan unleashed a humanitarian tragedy of scale not seen in Bengal since 1867, and some of the worst-affected people across eight districts are poor, come from marginal castes and tribes and are older.
In Bangaon near the India-Bangladesh border where the largest community comprises the Matuas, a scheduled-caste sect focusing on teachings of self-respect and education, the cyclone has shattered homes and livelihoods.
“Many community members are engaged in flower picking, but the plantations are gone. Many are refugees so they have nowhere to turn to,” said Ameya Sarkar of the Matua Mahasangha.
In Gosaba, Malati Mandal is struggling to feed her children because half her hut has been inundated, and she has lost her job as a domestic help in four homes in Kolkata. But her husband is hopeful that he will get employed by a contractor to remove trees and clear the roads.
In East Midnapore’s Kanthi, Bablu – who agreed to give only his first name – is certain he cannot rebuild his shop and will have to become a migrant worker After Aila clobbered south Bengal in 2009, too, tens of thousands of young men left their homes in search of work because their lands were too salty and their local economies too poor. “
“The impact on the marginsalised sections will be felt for years,” said Jaydeep Sarangi, a Dalit writer and activist.
A week has passed since Amphan but authorities are still scrambling to assess the damages. The state government estimates 200,000 people are still in relief camps, 450,000 electric poles uprooted and 150,000 km of electricity lines damaged.
At least 160 km of river embankments and 4 km of sea dykes are ruined, and nearly 6000 km of roads have been washed away. The death toll stands at 72 – a figure attributed to the evacuation of 850,000 people to relief camps before the storm.
But even for those who have survived, the horrors are unfolding.
Chandan Patra, a worker at a leather factory near Kolkata, was staying at the unit during the lockdown but a day before the cyclone, decided to go visit his village of Mohanpur, in the north 24 parganas.
But the squall and rising waters damaged the road leading to his village, so he was forced to stop and go back. The next day, panicked calls from his family told him that all 15 embankments protecting the village had been breached, and their home marooned.
Over the next seven days, locals were able to repair five of them, but the water level is still somewhere near waist level, and Patra’s ageing parents and ailing sister are stuck in the house.
“Our family is perched on the bed, and is cooking rice in the room with the water swishing about. We haven’t received relief, and salt water has entered the tubewell,” he said, appealing for support from the army, bulldozers and mechanized pumps to expel the sheets of water that has cut off the village from the road.
“I am safe, but I don’t know how long they will be able to survive,” he said. “Please help us.”