“Never seen anything like this”: How Cyclone Yaas impacted farmers’ livelihoods in Bengal

In May, Cyclone Yaas wreaked havoc on the coastal areas of West Bengal. Atleast three lakh houses were damaged and one crore people affected. Jit Chattopadhyay/SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images
02 July, 2021

There were warnings all around. Sirens wailing, microphones blaring. Like other residents of Sundarban’s Bali Island, Paritosh Biswas too had no other option but to leave his house. He waited anxiously at a nearby cliff with his family. “We have never seen anything like this before,” he said.  “The water engulfed the village in an hour.”

Beginning on 26 May, Cyclone Yaas, classified as a “very severe cyclonic storm” wreaked havoc on the coastal areas of Odisha and West Bengal, for three days. Tidal waves lashed coastal villages and torrential rains battered neighbouring areas. As the seawater kept gushing into homes, farmlands and fishponds by surpassing or breaching embankments that came its way, thousands of people lost their belongings and livelihoods. The cyclone hit 60 lakh people across 11,000 villages in Odisha. In West Bengal, three lakh houses were damaged and one crore people affected. The Sundarbans region, a tidal delta in Bengal, was severely impacted. More than one month on, farmers are struggling to cope with the loss to their livelihoods.

By the time the high tide had receded at Biswas’s village and he rushed to check on his house and farms, everything was gone. His house was submerged in knee-deep water. His family’s belongings, food, the twelve sacks of harvested paddy he had stored for later use, his school-going son’s books—nothing remained intact. 

Biswas is a marginal farmer and a resident of Bali in Gosaba block in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. His two-and-a-half bigha farmland that was aplenty with seasonal vegetables—cucumber, ladyfinger, and pointed gourd—became inundated. All the freshwater fish in his pond died due to salt-water intrusion. “The stench from the rotting fish was growing unbearable. I collected all the dead fish and dumped them into the sea,” he said. For the fish to breed again, Biswas will have to pump out the entire pond and refill it with freshwater or let rainwater fill it up. Costlier methods include bleaching and aeration. It would also take at least three years for the soil to be fit for growing freshwater paddy or other seasonal vegetables again. The cyclone cost him a loss of around fifty thousand rupees. 

Like Biswas, the thousands of residents in the Sundarbans who depend on the traditional occupations of the region—farming and fish breeding—see an uncertain future. Hit by frequent cyclones, it has become a tiresome game of loss and recovery for them. This time, many villages across West Bengal’s coastline protested against the poor-quality levees that collapse or crack open every time a water hazard hits the region. On the occasion of Environment Day on 5 June, people from several villages in Gosaba block, Ghoramara island and Mousuni island, organised marches and sit-down protests to demand concrete embankments instead of government aid.

Cyclone Yaas breached 136 flood barriers in West Bengal. According to a report in The Telegraph, at administrative meetings, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee “expressed dismay” over the ineffective reconstruction of embankments. She asked officials to come up with a permanent solution to recurring inundation and utilise reparation funds efficiently. At a press meet following Yaas, Banerjee said that this cyclone has damaged around 2.21 lakh hectares of crop and 71,560 hectares of horticulture. She submitted a report to the prime minister Narendra Modi enlisting a total loss of Rs 20,000 crore.

At Diamond Harbour, another badly affected area in South 24 Parganas, betel vine farmers have suffered huge losses. Niranjan Maity, a 45-year-old resident of Purba Gobindapur village in Diamond Harbour-I block, had lost a whole betel garden to Amphan. Following losses of around Rs 2 lakh, he had to pump in another Rs 1.5 lakh to rebuild his two remaining gardens.  It had only been a year before Cyclone Yaas battered the place and gave him a fresh blow of Rs 1 lakh. A heavy storm during Yaas withered off the betel leaves and snapped the branches. “It will again take a lot of toil and money to mend the betel sheds,” he said. “I am already struggling to make the bare minimum as the demand has drastically reduced since the 2020 lockdown. While I would have earned Rs 10,000 in a normal market, I could make only Rs 3,000 this April.”

Over 1.5 million farmers in West Bengal are dependent on betel farming. To aid betel vine farmers hit by Yaas, the state government is paying Rs 5,000 to each of them under its relief drive Duare Tran. This one-time scheme allowed those affected by Yaas to visit booth camps set up at gram panchayats and submit applications within 3 June and 18 June. 

Other farmers will be given aid ranging between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,500 depending on the amount of crop damage. Families whose houses have been fully or partially damaged too are also entitled to relief under Duare Tran. The government has allotted Rs 20,000 compensation for those whose houses were fully damaged, and Rs 5,000 for partially damaged homes. At least 3.6 lakh people have claimed relief under Duare Tran. The relief disbursement is scheduled to begin on 1 July. According to the state government’s timeline, eligible applicants are meant to receive the aid directly in their bank accounts by 7 July.

However, according to farmers I spoke to, various issues stand in their way—poor awareness and the lack of digital literacy; the need for repeated visits to government offices; delay in receiving aid; and then finally ending up with little reimbursement. I spoke to Ravindra S Gavali, a professor at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, an institute under the rural-development ministry. “Decentralisation of relief and community participation is necessary to reach the grassroot level,” he said. “State governments could start by forming youth committees at panchayat levels in disaster-prone villages. Such teams should be digitally competent and be able to aid fellow villagers to avail government benefits.”

Banerjee’s relief compensation for Cyclone Yaas only caters to the worst-affected districts—Purba Medinipur, Paschim Medinipur, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Howrah— and excludes affected farmers in other regions such as Malda district. Islam, a farmer and a 29-year-old resident of Malda, is one of them. When the first wave of COVID-19 hit India and the centre imposed a nationwide lockdown, he quit his contractual job in Mumbai and returned to his family home in Chandipur village. Over a year after his return, Islam is now debt-laden and struggling to meet the basic needs of those at his home—an ailing uncle, his wife, and a five-month-old son.  

Islam described how the cyclone had further impacted his livelihood. “The harvest was hardly due by a month,” Islam said. “But the heavy rain during Yaas submerged my entire paddy field.” Last year, Islam sold 12 quintals of rice from his two-bigha land in government-designated mandis, at Rs 1,800 per quintal. This year, he got hardly three quintals as most of the wet crop had to be discarded. “As the produce isn’t of good quality, I can’t take it to government mandis,” he said. “So I will sell it to  middlemen who usually give Rs 1,000 for a quintal.”  

In the second week of May 2020, a hailstorm hit several parts of Malda and ravaged hundreds of mango plantations, including Islam’s four-bigha orchard. “First the hailstorm, and then Yaas,” he said.  “I lost mangoes worth Rs 1 lakh and paddy worth Rs 25,000.” This year, he took a farmer’s bank loan of Rs 20,000 for growing paddy and mangoes. He has not been able to pay anything back yet. If he fails to pay out the loan within July, the bank will start charging him a monthly interest of five percent. Malda’s mango farmers had already been reeling under huge losses from Cyclone Amphan, which hit West Bengal in May 2020, and poor sales due to the pandemic. Yaas has made it worse. 

Mohammed Shamim, another farmer and a resident of Harishchandrapur-I block in the state’s Malda district, also suffered losses due to both the hailstorm and cyclone Yaas. He grows jute and cultivates paddy. The hailstorm damaged all the jute crop that had grown in his 2.5 bigha land. “The head of the jute plant that holds maximum yield had broken off,” he said. “I tried restoring a portion that was partially damaged. The crops had only started regrowing that Yaas hit the place, drenching the entire field in knee-deep water.”

Further, the COVID-19 crisis had made it difficult for Shamim to fetch good market rates for his paddy crop. “To avoid wastage, I often had to sell my crops at a lower price to middlemen,” he said. “While the government mandis here pay Rs 1,700 per quintal of paddy, the middlemen give us Rs 1,200 or less,” he said. Shamim said he lost Rs 1 lakh of jute and paddy to Cyclone Yaas. Shamim added that he is yet to receive the Rs 20,000 crop insurance compensation that he had claimed after heavy rains had flooded his paddy fields in 2019.

However, farmers of excluded districts have got some relief with the government’s announcement in June to double the farmer allowance under Krishak Bandhu, a scheme to provide financial assistance to farmers. Farmers with one or more acres of land will now get Rs 10,000 per annum instead of Rs 5,000. Those with lands smaller than an acre will get Rs 4,000. Like Islam and Shamim, several other farmers left out of the state’s Yaas relief are relying on yearly benefits from the Krishak Bandhu scheme. Dibyendu Hatui, a resident of Hooghly’s Jangipara block lost 1.5 bigha of sesame crop to heavy rains during Yaas. He too told me that he was not entitled to compensation under the government’s Cyclone Yaas relief programme and will be depending on the Krishak Bandhu scheme. According to Shyamal Samanta, an agriculture extension officer in Jangipara, the block alone has lost 5,376 hectares of standing crop to Yaas.

A study released on 27 May, by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a non-profit policy research institution, showed that 15 districts in West Bengal, home to around 72 million people, are vulnerable to extreme climate events such as cyclones, floods, and droughts. According to the study, districts like Howrah, Kolkata, North 24 Parganas, Paschim Medinipur and South 24 Parganas are hotspots for cyclones, which have increased five-fold in the state between 1970 and 2019.

Taking lessons from Yaas and previous cyclones, government field experts have already started training farmers in the Sundarban area. I spoke to Prasanta Chatterjee, a senior scientist and head at Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Nimpith in South 24 Parganas. Krishi Vigyan Kendras are agricultural knowledge centres under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.  “We have distributed salt-tolerant paddy seeds to farmers hit by brine water intrusion,” Chatterjee said. “We have also recommended farmers and fishery owners to use the collected saline water for seafood farming.” He added that farmers of boro paddy—a type of freshwater paddy sown in winter and harvested in summer—have suffered massive losses and that it would take at least three years to restore the soil health. He suggested that switching to sunflower and cotton cultivation for the time being could be helpful for farmers. 

Gavali also said that adaptation is the only key to combat frequent losses due to natural disasters. “A right combination of indigenous knowledge with new technology can help coastal communities adapt to calamities without worrying for their livelihoods,” he said.