Reflections of the Sundarbans as Cyclone Amphan turns 1
A year ago, Cyclone Amphan brought down land in the state of West Bengal and caused indiscriminate havoc and destruction in the state.
As the cyclone turns one, we wanted to go back and understand the consequences of the storm that made people suffer.
As COVID-19 made travel in the region impossible, one of the authors, who had previously worked in the region, made extensive use of the social contacts forged over the years to write this article.
The first person we had a phone conversation with was a farmer from Kultali block. He recounted that a decade earlier, in 2009, Cyclone Aila had arrived, which was much more deadly and disastrous than Amphan.
He tells us that his house was damaged by Amphan, for which he received compensation of Rs 5,000 from the government and claims that many have not even received this amount.
Another farmer we spoke to was very agitated when we called him to find out his side of the story. There was palpable anger and despondency in his voice at his crumbling house that he couldn’t rebuild even after a year. Nonetheless, after much hesitation, he recounted the losses he suffered and the water crises that emerged as none of the tube wells are able to draw water from the ground.
Like the first farmer, he also received compensation of Rs 5,000 but protests that the compensation amount initially announced was Rs 20,000 for each beneficiary. He said that you have to be “politically aligned” to get development aid and those who are not have to fend for themselves. The conversation ends, but not before he says, “The poor have no one.
Grassroots organizations working in the Kultali bloc have given the authors some insight into how the functioning of early warning systems leaves a lot to be desired and how COVID-19 has disrupted relief work. Pabitra Mondal, President of Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Mancha (SJSM) said that in Amphan’s time, people were warned earlier and were transferred to the newly constructed cyclone shelters or to nearby schools.
However, these shelters were overcrowded with the return of migrant workers. His organization distributed food, tarpaulins and first aid kits, among other things, to people in the shelters. Government help came to them, but not at the right time, Mondal said. “When help arrives, the hungry lose their appetites,” he said.
Another local representative is Prabir Mishra, who is associated with the Missing Link Trust (MLT), an organization that combats trafficking in children and women. He assessed the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 and Amphan.
“The overall COVID-19 situation was normal, few patients were taken to hospitals in Baruipur and Canning,” Mishra added, with nothing admittedly low in the region.
The lockdown impacted the delivery of social assistance programs and many houses under Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awaas Yojana (PMGAY) remained half-built. According to the 2011 census, government housing programs like PMGAY are crucial as 22% of homes in the Indian Sundarbans are in a dilapidated condition. Considering the scenario and the environmental vulnerability of the area, the patterns should be permeated in all strata of society.
Mishra agrees with the Second Farmer that political patronage works to a large extent, leaving many deserving families behind when it comes to compensation.
The women most affected worked as housekeepers and ‘ayas‘in Calcutta and its suburbs, but the second wave of COVID-19 restricted their movements, negatively affecting their household income. Mishra said this in turn increased domestic violence.
“In the past year alone, the Kultali bloc has recorded a total of 350 cases of domestic violence. If that’s not worrying enough, there have been 186 suicide attempts and 72 deaths, mostly among boys between the ages of 18 and 25. In the neighboring block of Gosaba, 10 girls are said to be missing due to trafficking, ”Mishra said.
Gosaba Block, where Sundarban National Park is located, is no different from Kultali Block. The second wave of COVID-19 has also become a major obstacle on the path to economic recovery in the bloc. Rabin Mondal from Tagore Society for Rural Development (TSRD) explained the situation on the ground in Gosaba block.
Due to Amphan, many houses mostly made of mud, cane and bamboo collapsed, but the concrete buildings survived the storm. Although the farmers of Gosaba could cultivate their land, the yield was not what it was. Rabin Mondal said the maximum yield farmers could get is 60% of usual production.
Another member of SJSM informed that the paddy which was sold at Rs 900 per bag is now sold at Rs 700. The prolonged dry period after Amphan made it difficult to access groundwater in the area. One of the two farmers said the Indian Sundarbans did not receive enough rainfall after Cyclone Amphan. In addition to this, many people who keep fish in ponds are also affected by Amphan.
Local organizations like TSRD and SJSM in collaboration with Child in Need Institute (CINI), Baikanthapur Tarun Sangha and others engage with locals to provide alternative means of generating income in the form of mask making, encouraging farmers to grow crops that need less water and provide training on vermicomposting, among other things.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the number of women working in mask making has dropped from 20 to 30 to four at Missing Link’s financial empowerment program. Likewise, people could not derive sufficient economic benefits from other sectors either.
For example, fishing is currently stopped because it is time to hatch and fishermen will not be allowed access to the water for the next three months. But the irony here is that fishermen with small boats are not allowed while trawlers are allowed.
We asked if the farmers here received a payment of 2,000 rupees from Prime Minister Kisan Samman Nidhi. However, SJSM’s Pabitra Mondal informed that many farmers here are not eligible to receive the amount as they do not own any land. The majority of farmers work on other people’s land as sharecroppers and farm laborers and it is they who need the money. The situation is much worse for people belonging to communities of scheduled castes or tribes, as very few of them own land.
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The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which offers rural Indians the opportunity to work for a guaranteed income, was hit last year due to the lockdown. MGNREGA data website shows that there has been a significant reduction in the total budget allocation, the number of person-days generated and the average number of employment days provided to households.
Data shows there are 517 grams of panchayats in West Bengal where no spending has occurred for the last fiscal year when there was not a single gram of panchayat without expenditure in the previous fiscal year.
West Bengal has been affected by several meteorological and hydrological disasters in recent decades. In addition, cyclones form regularly in the Bay of Bengal and recently we have observed an increased frequency of cyclones on the west coast of the country due to increased warming of the Arabian Sea.
Residents of the Indian Sundarbans were still reeling from the Aila (which affected more than 50 million people), when Amphan hit the Ganges Delta last year. It will take years, if not a decade, to overcome the trauma and loss caused doubly by Amphan and the pandemic. By the time we finished this article, Cyclone Yaas has passed through the same region, leaving behind a trail of devastation that has yet to be fully mapped.
Sneha Biswas is a doctoral candidate in development studies at Center for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources (CEENR), Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru.
Michael Islary holds a PhD in Development Studies at the Center for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources, ISEC, Bengaluru and also works as a junior consultant at the National Institute for Disaster Management, New Delhi.