Flood and Fury

The aftermath of Cyclone Amphan in Andul and South 24 Parganas

A woman walks across a field, littered with trees pulled down by the unusually strong winds that accompanied the Cyclone Amphan, near Bakkhali, a village in the South 24 Parganas district of southern West Bengal, on 23 May. The super storm, which made landfall on the eastern coast of India on 20 May, generated gale-force winds which peaked at 260 kilometres per hour.
Elections 2024
Photographs and text by Ranita Roy
06 June, 2020

By the morning of 20 May, I had been informed by news reports, as well as the Windy weather app, that my town, Andul, in the Howrah district of southern West Bengal, was expected to be mauled by the impending Cyclone Amphan. By 6 am, it began raining, followed by strong winds. At around 4 pm, the rain increased in ferocity, and the power supply had already been cut off over an hour ago. Between 7 pm and 9 pm, we witnessed the cyclone, watching from our windows as trees hit the ground and windows rattled in the strong winds.

I left the house at around 9:30 pm to document my locality, Uttar Hatgacha, near the Andul station. Several electric posts and at least fifty trees in the area lay on the ground. The entrance to my locality was blocked by two large trees, and it continued to rain heavily. The next morning, I woke up at 4 am and left the house, and saw that residents were out on the streets and had begun cutting the trees fallen on the road. Around a kilometre from Uttar Hatgacha, there are two slums, Sitalatala Basti and Panchpara, near the Hooghly River, where falling trees and waterlogging had completely or partially destroyed scores of houses. Around a hundred and fifty people had been left homeless. Electric power was still disconnected, and there was a shortage of drinking water—there is one tube well in the area but it was not enough for the locality, so people had to wait for a long time for a bucket of drinking water. Howrah district was among one of the worst affected by the storm.

The power supply was eventually restored after eight days, on the evening of 27 May, but only after residents in the area pooled money for an electrician. Two days after the cyclone, local residents of Andul had started to protest against the state government, ruled by the Trinamool Congress, and there was a strike on 23 May to demand electricity. According to the locals I spoke to, the next day the strike turned violent. That day, the villagers of my locality had gone to the pradhan, Minoti Senapati, to demand electricity. A 16-year-old named Niladri Dutta, who is also my neighbour, told me that a heated argument broke out among the crowd outside Senapati’s house. According to Dutta, the argument continued for around two hours. Towards the end, Dutta also recorded a video of the altercation.

“On 24 May, the current had not come back in our neighbourhood, so people from various neighbourhoods went to our pradhan’s house, to see how we could get it back,” Datta told me. “I went to ask for the trees to at least be cut down, there was a ruckus about that.” He said that the deputy pradhan, Rupam Sadhukhan, had also come to talk to the villagers. “He was trying to convince us that they were working too, that [we] shouldn’t disturb them. This is the discussion that ensued on both sides. A quarrel broke out in the midst of this. We’ve said before as well that the work wasn’t done well. That’s why I tried to keep the evidence by taking a video. I think he didn’t appreciate the fact that I was taking a video, but I didn’t stop, because we need it.”

The pradhan’s husband, Sadanada Senapati, who was also there, came and hit Dutta. “As far as I can remember, he did this to stop me from taking the video,” Dutta said.  “Then he went inside the house, then we were sent back home, and told they will do the work satisfactorily, we don’t have to think too much about it. We came back with more people, who were demanding to know why I had been hit. There was a lot of fighting over this, but no more assaults on people, only squabbles. At the end, they weren’t ready to listen to anything. Everyone dispersed, some of their people stopped us, but we went home eventually.”

On 23 May, I hired a car and went to Patharpratima, Bakkhali, Frasergunj and Sibrampur, villages in the South 24 Parganas district. I also travelled to Kakdwip, a small city in the district. South 24 Parganas is around one hundred and forty kilometres from my home, and I had previously documented the area in the aftermath of another storm—Cyclone Bulbul—barely six months ago. I wanted to record and compare the impact of the storm on the fragile ecology of some of the areas worst affected by Cyclone Amphan’s unprecedented intensity.

At a point close to Bakkhali, known as the fifth mile, I saw a gathering of around fifteen people. One of the villagers told me, “Aamra kono kichhui paini, oi tripol elechhilo panchayat ey, sheta payini, shob oder nijeder lokjon kei diye diyechhe.”—We did not get anything; all the materials that came to the panchayat have been given to people who are associated with them [the ruling party.] “Aamra ekhon ki korbo? Kothay thakbo? Eta ki prothom baar?”—What will we do now? Where will we stay? Is this the first time this has happened? The man told me that time and again their houses break down, and they fix them themselves. “Shudhu vote pawar shomoy eder dekha paowa jaye.”—They [the administration] are only to be seen when they are asking for votes.

That day, I also visited Bakkhali beach—shops here had already been closed down due to the nationawide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus. There, I saw two women collecting bricks from a broken house near the beach. “Egulo niye giye amader ghore lagabo. Amader ghor bhenge gachhe jhor ey”—“We will use these for our house, which broke down in the storm,” they told me.

I went to a shop near the beach, which appeared to be open. The shopkeeper told me that because of the lockdown, no one comes near the area to shop anymore, and this has been exacerbated by the cyclone. “Kicchu khabar nei go. Keu aashena toh bikri toh hoyena kicchu. Shob pyaket er khabar noshto hoyegachhe. Electricity nei tai fridge o cholena, tai cold drinks o nei”—There’s no food, since no one comes here, so nothing is being sold. All packets of food have been destroyed. There’s no electricity, so the fridge isn’t working, and so no cold drinks either.

Later that day, on the way to Sibrampur, around eleven kilometres before the village, I came across two areas, called the Fifth Mile and the Seventh Mile, which had been severely affected by the cyclone. Many Muslim villagers from Dakshin Durgapur, a village around six kilometres from Sibrampur, were staying in the building of a school there, the Meghnadh Bhaban, because they had lost their homes. “We are in this school since the storm,” a woman among them, who said she was currently staying in the ground floor of the school, told me. Several villagers told me that they had not received any help from the government. They said that almost all the people from their village had taken shelter at the school. One of the villagers said, “A child was sick, we went to the panchayat for medicines, we didn’t get any.” Another added, “Amra ki bhabhe achhi, amrai jaani. Keu dekhena amader. Ek Ek jon kore jaachi diner byala ghor sharate aabar ekhanei phire aaschhi”—Only we know what we are going through, no one is looking out for us. One by one we leave to fix our houses, then come back here.

The South 24 Parganas district accounts for 24 of the total 98 people killed by the storm and officials estimate that over ten lakh houses collapsed and around four lakh farmers have been affected in this district alone. It took between a week to ten days for power supply and drinking water to be restored in parts of southern West Bengal, including Howrah and South 24 Parganas, and relief interventions have still not reached remote areas or regions made inaccessible by flooding. As the chief minister Mamata Banerjee took stock of the situation a few hours after the cyclone, she said that South and North 24 Parganas are “finished … 99 percent of south Bengal is destroyed.”