The doors of the robust sedan started rattling. The windows of the car began rattling too, tugging at the frames that held them. The wind speed was 110 km/hour. All around us, mighty trees swayed violently and some already lay fallen like toothpicks. Branches flew like dangerous missiles in the leafiest neighbourhood in south Kolkata, Southern Avenue. It was 6.20 p.m. on May 20. The storm was brewing .
After we clicked a couple of photographs, the driver sounded a word of caution: “The back wheel is mildly floating in the air.” We clambered out and fled the scene. Outside, the sky had changed dramatically. Darkness had descended and the wind howled.
Over the next several hours, super cyclone Amphan went on a rampage . It surged through the city, carelessly sweeping aside trees, lamp posts, vehicles, and even robust brick-and-mortar structures. “It took away my house. But my brother’s house across the road was still standing,” said Moktar Ali, a fish vendor at Minakhan market in South 24 Parganas.
One of the earliest emergency calls to the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, a group that works mainly with migrant workers, came from Selima Khatun of Hasnabad village in North 24 Parganas. The phone rang at around 7 p.m. on May 21, a full day after the storm had unleashed its anger. “Save us,” she pleaded. “We are about 100 people on the roof of the mosque. As far as I can see, everything is under water. All our houses are inundated. Our pets have been swept away to the sea.”
The Mancha received hundreds of such calls after the cyclone. The president of the group, Samirul Islam, said it is impossible to guess the extent of the damage as neither the government nor the media could reach the epicentre of the cyclone, Sagar Island, about 100 km south of Kolkata. He said a man named Vineet called him to say that the islands in Patharpratima in South 24 Parganas had “disappeared”. “No news channel could reach there, so no news is coming from there,” Vineet told Islam over the phone. “We don’t know if Sagar Island exists any more. The jetty at Kachuberia in Sagar has been pulled into the sea. It’s been two days, but no outside support has come yet.” Subhas Bhandari from Mousuni Island said fog had surrounded the entire island and caused panic among the people. “We could taste salt on our skin,” he said.
‘We need to rebuild from scratch’
People from all walks of life — a lone man sitting on a sinking island in the Bay of Bengal, a weatherman monitoring the situation from the Regional Meteorological Centre at Alipore in Kolkata, and even Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee — described Cyclone Amphan with the same words: “I have never seen such a cyclone in my life”. There is no historical record of a cyclone with a wind speed as high as 185 km/hour making landfall on the coast of Bengal in recent times. It was not only the intensity of the storm that made the event significant but also its duration. The wall cloud stayed for almost five to six hours. The only comparison that the people of coastal Bengal and the authorities could make was with Cyclone Aila which struck in 2009, but with a speed of 120 km/hour. In anticipation of Amphan, 5 lakh people were evacuated to cyclone shelters . Of them, 3 lakh alone were from South 24 Parganas district.
But while destruction caused by the storm has been vast, the number of deaths in West Bengal has been relatively low. Banerjee said 98 people died in the cyclone, of which 19 lost their lives in Kolkata. And in some ecologically fragile places, casualties have been very low. Amphan ripped through Ghoramara, the smallest and most vulnerable island in the Sundarbans, with a population of 5,000 inhabitants, only claiming two goats. They died when a wall collapsed on them.
A few hours after the cyclone, Banerjee sat at the State Secretariat and summed up the scale and nature of the tempest via video conference. South and North 24 Parganas are “finished” and “99% of south Bengal are destroyed,” she said, looking at updates on her mobile phone. “We need to rebuild Bengal from scratch.”
Acres and acres of agricultural land in the State were flooded. Tarak Ghosh, a small farmer, pulled out wet paddy from a field which, until a week ago, was glowing under the sun. It was just the beginning of the harvest of the Rabi crop. “It is all gone now,” he said. West Bengal, the leading State in paddy production, had suffered a great blow. By one estimate, about 1.5 million sharecroppers of south Bengal had lost their produce. Vegetables and cash crops like sesame, jute and fruits had simply disappeared. “Farmers are coming to withdraw deposits, not to buy pesticides and fertilizers. This is a bad sign at the peak of the harvesting season,” said Liaqat Ali Jangi, a middle-level farmer and manager of a farmers’ cooperative, Dhubulia Krishi Unnayan Samiti, which has about 1,000 members, in Nadia district.
“We voted for Mohua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress. Yet, when we lost our jobs and then after COVID-19 struck, she never visited the area. She is on television talking about big issues but we are dying due to issues like joblessness and crop failure,” said Rahim Baksh Mollah of Charmahatpur. The district leaders of Trinamool did not deny that their MLAs and MPs were busy on social media during the lockdown. “They have left the politics to Didi,” said a Nadia district leader of the Trinamool, on condition of anonymity.
People in Kolkata also had a harrowing time during the storm as the wind speed peaked between 112 km/hour at 6 p.m. and 133 km/ hour at 7.33 p.m. on May 20. Most people remained indoors and held on to the doors and windows of their homes to prevent water from entering inside. All they could hear was the wind and the torrential rain. There was little or no visibility. By evening, as the cyclone became more and more fierce, large parts of the city plunged into darkness. Two iconic structures in the city, Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial, were invisible.
After a long night of battling with the cyclone, millions in south Bengal, including Kolkata, woke up to destruction that was of a scale they had never imagined. The city was completely battered. Trees and poles lay uprooted in every lane in every neighbourhood.
Over the next few days, Kolkata had not only the monumental task of restoring essential infrastructure services, but also power and electric supply, disrupted by the storm and the fallen trees. There was an outpouring of anger on the streets. Protests broke out in several neighbourhoods, and the Army was called in.
Also read | Storm of rage in battered Kolkata
Six days after Amphan, at the Regional Meteorological Centre in Kolkata, Sanjib Bandyopadhyay, the Deputy Director General of Meteorology, was still trying to pull all stops to get the Internet at his office fixed. “We should be your top priority,” he told the staff member at the Internet service provider over phone. “The Chief Minister is visiting districts and we cannot provide updates.” The staff member retorted, “Like you there are several top priorities for us. In fact, you are priority number 132.”
Bandyopadhyay was the man of the hour. He had been issuing all the necessary alerts about the cyclone for several days before it made landfall. On May 20, at about 4 p.m., he told the press that the landfall process of the cyclone had commenced near Sagar Island at 2.30 p.m. and that the cyclone was moving towards the north and north-east.
Bandyopadhyay explained that it was the first time that the India Meteorological Department (IMD) had issued an advisory for people to stay inside their homes. “This was not the COVID-19 advisory,” he clarified. “The administration also ensured that the people remained indoors.” Weather officials said they gave regular advisories in their bulletin that the damage will be caused by three factors: gale winds, rainfall, and storm surge. The IMD’s focus, they said, was on getting the prediction of intensity and track of the cyclone right. The officials said they got it right, just like they did with earlier cyclones such as Bulbul, Fani and Hudhud.
Close to Kolkata, destruction was visible in Howrah district. The 230-year-old Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, set up by the British to pioneer botanical research in India, had turned into a graveyard of trees . At least a thousand trees, including some notable and rare species, were destroyed, said Kanad Das, scientist, Botanical Survey of India, and in-charge of the Botanic Garden. A Dutch cemetery, around the same age as the garden, was destroyed in Hooghly-Chinsurah. The impact of the storm was felt as far as in the Bardhaman and Birbhum districts of south Bengal.
Seven days after the cyclone, drinking water pouches reached Deulbari Debipur village in Kultali block of South 24 Parganas district. About 3 km of the embankment of the village on the Matla River had been washed away. Thousands of acres of agricultural land stood ravaged by the saline waters. Hundreds of fish had died and innumerable houses had turned into heaps of rubble. “I have nothing left except the gamcha I am wearing,” said Jiarul Laskar, whose house had turned into dust.
In the afternoon, just after the high tide, Basanti Naskar risked the waters of the Matla. She swam for several hours in the deep waters surrounding the broken embankments with a fishing net, trying to catch fish spawns. Basanti and her husband Basudev used to have a pond with fish, and grew rice and vegetables. The sale of fish, rice and vegetables was enough to support them. But after the cyclone, the only way to survive was to catch prawn seeds in the water. “For a thousand seeds, we get ₹200,” Basanti said.
While gale winds ravaged Deulbari, there was more suffering to follow when the embankments broke and seawater flowed into the villages. The embankments of several villages in Hasnabad, Hingalganj and Minakhan in North 24 Parganas, and Patharpratima, Namkhana, Bansanti, and Gosaba in South 24 Parganas suffered extensive damage. These villages are now getting flooded everyday in the high tide.
The many woes of the migrants
The cyclone could not have come at a worse time for rural Bengal, which is not only grappling with the spread of COVID-19 but also trying to quarantine thousands of migrant workers who have returned home. On the road to the Achintyapur gram panchayat in Patharpratima block of South 24 Parganas, amidst broken houses and trees lie a pile of boxes and hundreds of bicycles and motorcycles. The boxes, some of them made of aluminium, contain television sets and refrigerators. This luggage belongs to the migrant workers, mostly from Haryana and Delhi, who have returned home for good. The migrants said it was becoming impossible for them to stay in Haryana and Delhi, so they packed their bags and came home — only to face the storm.
Dulal Sith, the panchayat pradhan, said about 3,000 migrants, or about 10% of the gram panchayat, have returned to the village. Along with other officials, he admitted that the cyclone evacuees and those who had been in quarantine had to be kept under one roof as there was no other option on May 20. In many coastal areas and remote islands, cyclone shelters were being used as quarantine shelters. When people had to be evacuated before the cyclone, the authorities brought both categories of people under one roof .
In the adjoining gram panchayat of Lakhijanardanpur, the fate of the farmers has swung between two cyclones, Amphan and Bulbul. This area of the Sundarbans yields a good crop of yellow lentils (moong dal). Sowing was delayed when Cyclone Bulbul struck West Bengal on November 9, 2019. Before the harvest could be reaped, Amphan landed washing away thousands of acres of plantation. Roopkumar Sardar, a migrant labourer, had taken about two bighas of land on lease paying ₹45,000 for two seasons. A few days after the cyclone, he and his wife Sutapa and mother Phoolmani worked in the fields of Purbadarogapur village. “The lentil pods I have been collecting from the submerged fields can only be fed to the cattle. I will have to go out of the village to work, maybe to Kolkata, maybe somewhere else outside, to repay the ₹45,000,” Sardar said. In several parts of south Bengal, migrant workers who returned before the lockdown took land on lease, hoping to cultivate crops for a couple of seasons before the situation improved. Their hopes have been destroyed by the cyclone.
If yellow lentils have been destroyed at Lakhijanaradanpur gram panchayat, at Mousuni Island, Amphan has destroyed the alternative livelihood of tourism. Over the past few years, locals on the island have been investing in seaside homes which they called “resorts”. Of the 42 homes that came up, not even one stands now. Rebuilding them is going to take a long time. Keshav Maity, a villager of G Plot, said the roofs of houses, made of asbestos and tiles, flew like cardboard pieces when Amphan struck.
Mousuni and G Plot, the areas closer to the sea, also witnessed a unique phenomenon. Trees that did not get uprooted have dried. The leaves have turned yellow. The villagers said this could be because of the saline fog that formed when the cyclone made landfall.
A comprehensive mitigation plan
In almost every village of coastal Bengal, particularly in the Sundarbans, villagers kept making references to Cyclone Aila. “The wind speed was stronger this time but during Aila, there were more embankment breaches,” they said.
“Amphan will not be the last cyclone for the Sundarbans,” said Tuhin Ghosh, Professor and Director of the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University. Data from the IMD show that between 1901 and 2012, the Sundarbans saw 367 depressions, 68 storms and 77 cyclones. Between 1999 and 2019, the number of prominent cyclones in Bay of Bengal was 32.
“The need of the hour should be to formulate a comprehensive policy for mitigation through risk minimisation, resilience-building and preparedness to respond to such events,” Professor Ghosh said. West Bengal should follow the example of Odisha, he said, where, after the super cyclone of 1999, the State has been on a learning curve.
Experts believe that historical weather events like Cyclones Aila and Amphan give us an opportunity to evaluate the State’s preparedness as well as the fragility of our urban infrastructure. “The suffering of today should bring in some wisdom if not gain for the future,” Professor Ghosh said.