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

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
30 May, 2020

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.

The force of the storm has brought down all mobile network and power supply across much of the region. “There is no way we can get electricity for months,” Das said. As the government of West Bengal sees the restoration of infrastructure in Kolkata and its suburbs as a priority, it will likely take days before we can even gauge the full extent of losses in the Sundarbans. But from the initial reports it is clear that the livelihoods of a few million economically marginalised people, dependent of agriculture and fishing, have been totally lost.

In May 2009, the same region was hit by the cyclone Aila, flooding fields and destroying other means of livelihood. The saline-water surge had rendered most of the agriculture fields unfit for cultivation for years. I visited the Sundarbans four times in the past few years as a reporter. Locals told me about how the extensive loss of livelihood after the cyclone Aila forced a huge out-migration as well. I had seen small bills pasted on electricity poles and tree trunks offering jobs in the construction sector in places as far away as Kerala, Bengaluru and Delhi. One or more members from almost every family I spoke to had migrated in search of work. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, under a programme called the, “Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation,” has shown a significant increase in migration from the islands since Aila, largely due to the loss of agriculture-based livelihood.

The loss to livelihood, if not completely avoidable, could have however been mitigated by a quick response from the government. Following the cyclone, the government of West Bengal, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was very slow in relief and rebuilding work in the Sundarbans. The government did not act quickly in rebuilding broken embankments and failed to fortify those weakened by the cyclone. This led to villages across the Sundarbans continuing to flood and be marooned from the mainland. The long-term flooding caused by the following tidal surges is what led to the increased salination and uncultivability of the region.  

Following the 2009 cyclone, locals spent months in makeshift tents struggling to rebuild their houses with minimal assistance from the government and non-governmental organisations. Many survived on subsidised weekly relief ration—locally called Aila rice after the cyclone—that the government continues to distribute till the present.

With the announcement of the nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many migrants without stable incomes returned to the Sundarbans. The main reason the migrants were returning was that in the absence of any income they could at least survive in their villages on local fish and vegetables, which have now been hit by the cyclone.

A year ago, the locals on Satjelia island, in the northern reaches of the Sundarbans, told me that normalcy was finally returning to the villages devastated by the cyclone Aila. The possibility of restarting agriculture seemed viable with a significant natural reduction in soil salinity. The tidal surge and breaching of bunds reported this month have likely rendered most agricultural fields uncultivable for another half decade. With the severe restrictions on movement due to the pandemic, as well as the uncertainty in employment due to the current economic downturn, migrating elsewhere might not be as easy a solution as it has been for the people of the Sundarbans in the past. Unless the government undertakes immediate large-scale rebuilding efforts and alternative livelihood initiatives, one can be sure what will await the population of the far-flung islands of the Sundarbans—an immediate food shortage locally and a downward spiral of poverty.