Cyclone Amphan: Why the government cannot afford to repeat its mistakes in the Sundarbans

30 May 2020
Villagers in the Sundarbans reconstruct an embankment after it got washed away by a tidal wave caused by Cyclone Aila in 2009. Cyclone Aila destroyed tens of thousands of houses and devastated the livelihoods of many. Government inaction in relief work and rebuilding led to massive migration out of the Sundarbans.
Parth Sanyal / REUTERS
Villagers in the Sundarbans reconstruct an embankment after it got washed away by a tidal wave caused by Cyclone Aila in 2009. Cyclone Aila destroyed tens of thousands of houses and devastated the livelihoods of many. Government inaction in relief work and rebuilding led to massive migration out of the Sundarbans.
Parth Sanyal / REUTERS

In the November of 1988, I was on a boat in the middle of river Bidya in front of the Gosaba island—one of the main islands of the deltaic mangrove forest region of the Sundarbans—with forest-department officials who were on their way to the Sundarbans National Park to conduct a tiger census. A cyclone came with windspeeds as high as 200 kilometres-per-hour and lashed the coasts for almost six hours amid high tide. Our boat miraculously escaped, taking shelter inside a creek, but another boat of the forest department that was also on the same route was not nearly as lucky. It got blown away along the river Bidya, across Gosaba island and out to the Bay of Bengal.

After bracing the storm all night, the following morning we made our way to the forests. The trail of devastation that the cyclone had left behind was visible across the mangroves. While returning to Kolkata two days later, by boat and then over land, I got to see human cost of the cyclone. Almost every house on the islands I travelled through had been razed to the ground or had their roofs blown off. I saw dead cattle on top of trees and remains of crushed boats strewn along river banks.

Despite the devastation I saw in the Sundarbans, hardly any media reports emerged about the cyclone in the three days following it. Three decades later, when Amphan hit the same region on the evening of 20 May, news from the region was equally slow and silent. Social media was brimming with images of Kolkata and the urban areas around it, but the Sundarbans, which the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee called the “worst affected region” in a press conference that day, seemed conspicuously absent in media coverage. Despite a revolution in mobile connectivity, for the first five days, I was unable to get much information from the same islands that I had seen flattened in 1988.

Then bits and pieces of information started trickling in through circuitous routes. They paint a picture of absolute devastation. The cyclone has not only brought down almost all the mud houses and brick houses, it has also uprooted innumerable trees. Pintu Das, a doctoral student at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, who hails from G Plot island—one of the southern most points of the delta facing the Bay of Bengal—told me that vegetable crops in the fields were completely destroyed. He said that ponds had become unusable because of a surge of saline tide, contaminating them and killing the fish in them. The loss of cattle and poultry has been incalculable too.

Reports have emerged of rivers breaching embankments in several islands. The bund breaches were reported to be so wide that water flooded villages and fields in high tide and receding in low tide. According to Kolkata-based groups that are carrying out relief initiatives, the cyclone has washed out the embankments in the Rangabelia block on Gosaba island, flooding the main road and rendering the island inaccessible. Das told me over the phone that the cyclone had either collapsed eighty percent of the houses, or blown away their roofs in Krishnadaspur, his village.

Nazes Afroz is former executive editor for BBC World Service, South and Central Asia. He has been visiting Afghanistan regularly since 2002 and has co-authored a cultural guidebook on Afghanistan.

Keywords: cyclone Sundarbans West Bengal migrant workers natural disaster
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