After Amphan and coronavirus lockdown, residents of Sundarbans struggle for a livelihood

24 June 2020
A jetty damaged by Amphan in Patharpratima block in the Sundarbans. After Amphan hit the Sundarbans, its residents were faced with the challenge of rebuilding their lives, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, almost completely by themselves.
Aritra Bhattacharya
A jetty damaged by Amphan in Patharpratima block in the Sundarbans. After Amphan hit the Sundarbans, its residents were faced with the challenge of rebuilding their lives, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, almost completely by themselves.
Aritra Bhattacharya

“My son and I were home the morning when Amphan arrived—gushing torrents of rain followed by gusts of winds,” Bhaba Shankar Patra, an elderly resident of G-Plot—an island in the Patharpratima block of the Sundarbans—said on 7 June. Bhaba was recounting the events of 20 May, when Cyclone Amphan swept West Bengal and ravaged the deltaic mangrove forest region of Sundarbans. “We were perched atop our hut, trying to save the roof. But we couldn’t withstand the storm’s fury for more than two hours. As our tiles and walls were swept away by the winds, we saw sheets of asbestos flying in the distance, like birds,” he said. The family sought refuge at a neighbour’s pucca house, made of permanent materials. “We lost everything we had,” Bhaba said. “Everything, except what we are wearing,” he added, while gesturing to the clothes—a lungi and a gamcha, a bath towel—he was wearing and the sari that his wife Kajal Patra, who was standing next to him, had draped. 

Kajal listed all that they had lost to the cyclone. A crop of ripened paddy on their small farm, on whose seeds they had spent Rs 2,100, and from which they could have earned enough to feed the family for a good three months. Their hut, on whose reconstruction they had spent Rs 60,000 a couple of years after it was damaged by Cyclone Aila in 2009. Their cowshed, re-constructed only last year after it was damaged by Cyclone Bulbul in 2017. Their sole cow, which was in the shed, and was crushed under the weight of the cowshed when it was pulled down by the torrential winds. Vegetables in their kitchen garden, which would have been sufficient for them and a few other families for almost a month. And all their belongings, including a bed and a couple of steel trunks that were battered by collapsing walls, under a caved-in roof.  

The Patras were among several residents in the Amphan-hit areas of Sundarbans who told me how they had lost their livelihoods to the cyclone when I travelled through the South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts between 30 May and 9 June. Residents said that they did not expect much assistance from the government as it had not even carried out a comprehensive assessment of their losses to provide them with compensation. Many of them had pinned their hopes on the upcoming monsoon season, which would bring in some income from agricultural activities. It seemed that the residents of Sundarbans were faced with the challenge of rebuilding their lives, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, almost completely by themselves. 

Seventeen days after the cyclone hit G-Plot, its residents were busy taking their first gingerly steps towards recovery. That evening, in the island’s Krishnadaspur area, I saw several residents, including women and children, work to rebuild their homesteads—fixing tarpaulin sheets or clay tiles on broken roofs, repairing damaged mud walls, pumping out rotting, brackish water from ponds and farms that were lush with produce before Amphan struck. Others were ploughing fields from where the seawater had evaporated, preparing for the monsoon. Several residents were milling about on narrow, muddy pathways, fetching water from those tube wells that were still gurgling out sweet water, some buying fish seeds to sow in ponds purified hurriedly with bleaching powder, lime and potash only a day or two earlier. A few men were repairing a part of a mud embankment, located along the periphery of G-Plot, which had been washed away by the surging tides that had accompanied the cyclone. 

A stretch of the embankment, about nine hundred metres next to the broken section, was reinforced with bricks and concrete and topped with a wide road. As it had been constructed after Cyclone Aila, it was locally known as “Aila bandh.” Many villagers were walking or sitting along its length, mired in discussions or staring into the horizon, whereas groups of fishermen were repairing their nets and other equipment, preparing for their first voyage into the deep seas after a two-and-a-half-month hiatus on account of the nationwide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus. 

When I asked people on the Aila bandh what they had lost to the cyclone or how much it was worth, most responded with a blank expression, followed by vivid accounts of how the cyclone pummelled away at everything in its path for close to twelve hours. They spoke of how the winds brought in swirls of salty seawater deep into the island, inundating large swathes, flattening or washing away homes, roads, electricity poles and high-tension towers, betel vines, and acres and acres of paddy and vegetables awaiting harvest once the lockdown was relaxed. 

Only some gave specific details about the losses they had personally endured. Like the Patras, Subhash Shitt, a fish farmer, said he had lost means to sustain himself due to the cyclone. “Seawater rose above the embankment and swept into my pond and all the Rohu, Katla and Sol fish in it died within two–three days,” he said, before adding that he had to throw away five crates full of fish. The cyclone had damaged the roof and walls of Shitt’s house, which was located along the embankment. When I spoke to him, he was reinforcing the periphery of a small pond adjacent to his house, which was flooded with rotting water. He estimated that it would cost him Rs 3,000 to pump out this water from the pond, an amount that he could ill afford. He said he hoped that the monsoon would herald better times. “At least, we can grow and eat some vegetables. All we eat now is rice and mashed potato,” he said.      

Aritra Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He can be reached at aritra.bhattacharya@gmail.com and @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram.

Keywords: Cyclone Amphan COVID-19
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