Cyclone Amphan and Covid-19: Survivors recount tales of horror and grit
Cyclone Amphan which affected more than 10 million and killed 86 people was the strongest cyclone to hit West Bengal in a decade. Tanmay Chatterjee and Joydeep Thakur spoke to the people who faced the full fury of the cyclone.
‘As if the lockdown was not enough to cripple us...’, says honey seller Gopal Mondol
The nationwide lockdown had already crippled Gopal Mondol, 55, even before Cyclone Amphan hit. Every year, in April and May, he would enter the tiger-infested mangrove forest of the Sunderbans to collect honey. But this time, the forest authorities did not issue any permit. “As if the lockdown was not enough to cripple us, now we have been hit by the cyclone. We have lost almost everything. Our house is gone,” Mondol said.
Mondol said his father, two brothers and cousins were killed by tigers. Yet he continues to enter the forest to collect honey and beeswax from the hives of wild bees, as it is a lucrative business. “My family and I had to take shelter in a local school building along with dozens of other villagers. The cyclone has devastated our village. Saline water has gushed into the villages. Ponds and croplands have all been destroyed. We don’t know what to do,” Mondol said.
Mondol’s son works in Bengaluru as labourer. His grandson and daughter-in-law live with Mondol. The nine-year-old studies in a village school.
“During the lockdown, we were getting some help from the government in the form of rice, dal and potatoes. But that was not enough. We hardly have any money left. My son is not able to send any money either as he has no work there,” Mondol lamented.
‘We had to ensure safety and social distancing’: Bureaucrat recounts experience
Sudipta Mandal found himself literally at the eye of the storm when Cyclone Amphan struck last week. The 46-year-old block development officer for South 24 Parganas in Kolkata was in charge of Sagar Island, one of the worst-hit by the cyclone that made landfall on the coastlines of Bangladesh and West Bengal on May 20. After the Indian Meteorological Department issued the warning earlier this month, Mandal supervised the rescue and relief operations with nearly 500 officials and volunteers. Together, they evacuated around 45,000 villagers from various islands and shifted them to shelters.
This is not his first rehabilitation effort. He was also involved in the operations after Cyclone Fani hit Odisha in May 2019, and a few months later, Cyclone Bulbul that hit the Bengal coast. “Cyclone Amphan was by far the most destructive. Now that the cyclone has passed, relief and reconstruction work has started,” he said.
The challenge was greater due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We not only had to shift villagers to safe locations but also ensure that there was social distancing. Around 500 migrant workers who had just returned from other states had to be kept in six quarantine centres,” Mandal said, adding, “My family members including my parents called me frequently to ask about my safety. But there was no mobile connectivity.”
‘Doubt if our roof is intact, wish I could talk to my kin’
Ever since she watched television footage of Cyclone Amphan battering large parts of the South 24 Parganas district, Arati Sardar, 45, has not stopped praying for her family at Chunakhali, a remote gram panchayat area in the Sunderbans.
“I tried calling my husband and daughter. Their phones have not rung even once in five days. One of our relatives from another part of the district told me that there is no electricity and mobile phone towers have collapsed. I cannot take this anxiety anymore,” Sardar said.
“A lot of people have died, they said on television,” she added.
The 45- year-old homemaker started taking a train to Kolkata to work as a domestic help when her husband, a mason, lost his job because of his excessive drinking, three years ago.
Ever since the nationwide lockdown began on March 25, Sardar has been stranded at her employer’s home in Gariahat, south Kolkata. Her son, also a migrant worker, is stuck in Bengaluru where he recently underwent a kidney operation.
“The roof of our home is covered by an asbestos sheet. I doubt it is intact. We have some date palm, mango, banana and other trees on a small piece of land. The orchard must be ravaged. I wish I could talk to my husband once,” Sardar said.
‘Such calamites can come again... need to be ready’: Septuagenarian hails renewable sources of energy
Septuagenarian SP Gon Choudhury and his wife Swapna, 69, live in their own house in east Kolkata with two domestic helps. Their son, an engineer, lives in London while their daughter, a doctor, lives in Australia.
Choudhury, a former government employee is a renewable energy expert and received the Green Oscar award in 2003. And thus, at a time when Madurdaha, a residential neighbourhood in east Kolkata plunged into darkness as Cylcone Amphan tore into Bengal and Bangladesh’s coastlines and high tension electric wires snapped at grid supply sites, Choudhury’s house enjoyed uninterrupted power supply.
Choudhury installed a rooftop solar panel in 2018, which produces 1 kilowatt of power when the sun shines — enough to operate a small pump to fill the overhead tank in emergency, apart from running lights, fans and even charge mobile phones. The Choudhurys use a combination of solar power and grid.
On the day the cyclone made landfall, Choudhury said that his children kept calling him and his wife to check on them. “My son and daughter were concerned as it was a huge cyclone and mobile networks were down.”
The cyclone devastated large parts of the Sunderbans, and the city of Kolkata, and left millions homeless and 86 dead.
“Kolkata being a cyclone prone city, such calamities would come again. Every house should explore this option of becoming self-reliant,” Choudhury, who has served as a United Nations expert, said.