Remains of the day: The aftermath of Cyclone Amphan’s trail of devastation in Kolkata
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Remains of the day: The aftermath of Cyclone Amphan’s trail of devastation in Kolkata

With several iconic sites reduced to skeletons of their former selves, the city is struggling to pick up the pieces.

By Shaunak Ghosh

Published on :

Mohammed Nasir Ali had always dreamed of opening a plant nursery. A plant lover since his childhood, he worked for years as a botany lab assistant at a reputed college until he saved enough money to open a nursery in the AE Block of Kolkata’s Salt Lake.

Today, the nursery is nowhere in sight. On the night May 20, as Cyclone Amphan ripped through the city, a huge bael tree crashed onto it, leaving little behind.

Like Naser, Surajit Santra also lost everything in the devastating cyclone, including his small metal-welding workshop in Behala. “A nearby tree fell on the tin roof of my workshop and completely ripped through it, destroying some of my machines. Now there is literally no roof over my head,” he said.

Surajit has suffered damages and loss worth Rs 1-1.5 lakh, he said. “On top of this, we have no income due to the lockdown, so this cyclone acted as a bolt from the blue,” he added, his voice trembling.

Categorised as a Category 3 supercyclone, Amphan, which originated in the Bay of Bengal, was the worst cyclone to hit West Bengal in nearly 300 years. It ravaged the state capital along with the South and North 24 Parganas districts and the coastal district of East Medinipur at speeds of more than 130 km per hr.

The widespread damage in West Bengal is estimated at Rs 1 lakh crore, according to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Thousands of houses were damaged, many people were rendered homeless, and 86 people died. In the eye of the storm, the strongest part of the cyclone, over 1,000 houses collapsed.

“The damage that has happened to the city will take a long time to repair, maybe even four to five months,” said a source at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. “We are yet to make a monetary assessment of the loss, but it’s in the range of no less than Rs 3,000 crore — and that is the minimum we are expecting.”

Pages turned

There’s a popular belief in Kolkata that if you can’t find a book in College Street — the city’s very own boi para (book lane) — the book has certainly gone out of print. It’s the largest book market in Asia, attracting thousands of customers everyday. Visit it on any normal day and you’ll find crowds milling about, buying or just browsing through the books on display at big stores and small stalls. Even the air is dominated by the smell of books.

However, post Amphan, College Street is a shadow of its former self. Books lie on either side of the road, wet, torn and tattered, amidst fallen trees and branches.

“I lost books worth Rs 2 lakh,” said Samiran Das, who runs a small unnamed stall right in front of the iconic Coffee House. “I stay far from here and when the cyclone lashed, I just stayed home, praying to God that nothing happens to my books. But when I came here the next day, I saw the street flooded to the brim with books floating in the water.”

Losses suffered by most College Street vendors ranged from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000, with a few crossing into lakhs.
Losses suffered by most College Street vendors ranged from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000, with a few crossing into lakhs.

Samiran’s godown, located further down the road in a small alley near Soorajmal Jalan College, was flooded too. “Somehow, I managed to save some of my books but most of them were soaking wet,” he said. He managed to dry some of his books as the rainwater receded, but most were damaged.

“I sent two mini-trucks loaded with damaged books to the dumpyard. My heart broke into two seeing that scene. Those books are like my own children,” he said.

Further down, Somnath Mondal, who runs a book stall too, said he’s lost books worth Rs 30,000. “Most of the books that I, or any small book stall owner, sell are mostly second hand textbooks and guidebooks for school- and college-going students, and hence their binding quality is anyway not that of a new book,” he explained. “Hence most of our books have been completely ruined by the cyclone.”

Somnath’s business was already hampered by the lockdown, and the cyclone was a double-whammy. Worried, he added, “I don’t think my business can be revived in the next six months at least.”

He points at a stall to his right. “Okhane jaan, oder sob theke besi khoti hoeche (Go there, they have had the biggest loss in this cyclone).”

The stall, named Parents Book Stall, is unmanned and locked. Other stall owners agreed that it was the most affected, with the owner losing books worth Rs 12 lakh. Losses suffered by most others ranged from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000, with a few crossing into lakhs.

The Publishers and Booksellers Guild of Kolkata estimates the loss of the books in College Street amounts to Rs 5 crore. A representative of the guild said it might take two years to recover. NGOs like the Quarantined Student-Youth Network, and alumni associations of prestigious colleges like Presidency University and the University of Calcutta, are now helping out College Street’s vendors with monetary relief. Writer and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor started a crowdfunding campaign to raise aid too.

The government, however, still hasn’t announced any support for the businessmen of the area.

Artisan’s paradise lost

China Pal’s studio lies in the heart of Kumortuli, a colony of artisans and idol makers in northern Kolkata. In other years, the Bengali month of Baisakh would have been the peak time for orders, when China and other artisans here would start getting their first orders for Durga Puja.

In addition, they earn their livelihood from small festivals to celebrate goddess Sitala and Annapurna. The making of Viswakarma idols to commemorate Vishwakarma Puja in September are in full swing.

China said the lockdown has slowed down business anyway, with almost no orders coming in. Then Amphan came. Her workshop is now in tatters; the roof blew away due to the strong winds.

About 700 idol makers live here and, like China, they now stare at a bleak future. Several lost the roofs of their workshops, while others have been completely damaged. Clay idols were washed away by the downpour; some lie on the streets, without an arm and with half the head crumbled away.

Babu Pal, the secretary of the Kumortuli Idol Makers' Association, said that idols worth over Rs 1-2 lakh have been washed away completely.
Babu Pal, the secretary of the Kumortuli Idol Makers' Association, said that idols worth over Rs 1-2 lakh have been washed away completely.
Small business are struggling to cope with the double whammy of the lockdown and Cyclone Amphan.
Small business are struggling to cope with the double whammy of the lockdown and Cyclone Amphan.

Babu Pal, the secretary of the Kumortuli Idol Makers' Association, said that most of his idols have been broken. The 18-20 Durga idols that had just begun taking shape were completely washed away

“There were 20-25 Annapurna and Sitala idols and about 30-40 Lakshmi idols lying outside. All of them have been destroyed by the storm," Babu said. "The price of an Annapurna idol is Rs 5,000-10,000, Sitala is Rs 3,000-5,000, and Lakshmi idol is Rs 1,500-2,000. In all, about 700 artists from Kumartuli are facing a financial crisis. It is impossible to turn around this time without the help of the government."

Though no concrete monetary assessments of the loss have been madeyet, Babu Pal said that idols worth over Rs 1-2 lakh have been washed away completely.

“When I came here the morning after the cyclone, a Lakshmi idol I had made was floating in the water. It seemed as if the goddess had been immersed even before her puja took place,” quipped Sontu Pal (name changed), another of the 700 artists whose livelihoods have taken a hit.

However, the artists remain hopeful. Many said that as the lockdown lifts in June, they will work hard. They are confident that if they put in double the work, they can sustain their livelihood.

Green casualties

A 270-year-old “Grand Banyan Tree” — the world’s largest tree and India’s national tree — was the main attraction at Kolkata's Shibpur Botanic Garden. It has weathered the cyclones of 1864 and 1867, which caused some part of its trunk to be damaged, and storms like Aila, Bulbul and Fani. However, even the grand old tree could not survive the wrath of Cyclone Amphan.

Most of its prop roots have been uprooted, said an official statement from the Botanical Survey of India. It added that “the density of the tree's peripheral stem and branches have been damaged. The exact extent of damage will be figured out only after further inspection.”

The botanic garden, home to around 15,000 trees, also saw over 1,000 trees damaged in the storm. “Not a single part of the garden seems to have been spared,” said Kanak Das, the garden director. “Cyclone Amphan has totally devastated the botanical garden. A huge number of trees in almost all the divisions have either been uprooted or broken."

Firhad Hakim, the mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, said that more than 5,000 trees in Kolkata were uprooted by the cyclone. The damage was such that the army was called in to help municipality workers remove the debris from the streets.

As you drive through Raja Dinendra Street, about four km long, you see lines of trees strewn on the road. A huge banyan tree near Deshbandhu Park, which had a cement structure and a mandir erected at its base, was completely uprooted, blocking the lane. Even the temple was uprooted with the tree. Such was the force of the storm.

Park Street, one of the major green covers in the city, looked like a jungle with uprooted trees in the aftermath of the cyclone, with cars manoeuvring through the carcass of the greenery. The two large trees outside the iconic Tata Centre were not only uprooted but crashed into the gate, blocking the main entrance of the building.

“To clear the trees, a total of 10-15 days will be required, but the loss that the greenery of Kolkata suffered is nothing short of devastating,” said an officer at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

“The loss of greenery has almost sucked the lung of the city,” said environmentalist Subimal Mukherjee . “The loss is such that even a mass plantation drive will not be able to repair the damage. The mass concretisation has anyway led to the loss of many trees, and this cyclone has further enhanced the chances of more pollution and rising temperatures in the city in the coming years."

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation recently announced the mass plantation of 40,000 trees to enhance the greenery in the city. "Over 15,000 trees have fallen in the city. Right now we have to plant 30,000 to 40,000 trees to fill this vacuum. We have to select the right trees for the city and will consult with experts before starting the drive,” said mayor Firhad Hakim in a press conference.

A life lost

Pavneet Singh Sethi, 31, was at his home in Southern Breeze Apartment, Behala, on the night of May 20, three days before his birthday, when Cyclone Amphan hit Kolkata. At around 11 pm, he found that his father had run out of blood pressure medicine. So he went out after the storm receded to fetch the medicine from a nearby shop.

But hours went by and Pavneet did not return. His frantic family called the police control room for hours, but no one had the faintest idea as to where he was.

Pavneet Singh Sethi, 31, died three days before his birthday.
Pavneet Singh Sethi, 31, died three days before his birthday.

At around 4.30 am on May 21, locals saw a few bodies floating in a puddle of water, electrocuted due to electrical wires being torn by the storm and falling into the water. One of the bodies was identified as Pavneet.

Pavneet had ordered a birthday cake for himself the very day he passed away, and had an elaborate celebration plan with his friends and family, said Priyanjit Poddar, his best friend since schoolr.

“He was such a jovial person. He used to hang around with friends most of the time, and was the life of the group. We still can’t believe that he is no more with us,” said Priyanjit.

Pavneet’s birthday cake did arrive on Saturday, but his family refused to take it and instead distributed it among the security personnel at their apartment.

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