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.