‘Who'll rebuild our memories?’: Cyclones bring tragedy to this Sundarbans village

For the people of Kalidaspur, one of the furthest inhabited villages of the Sundarbans, Amphan is yet another chapter in a story of loss.

ByShaunak Ghosh
‘Who'll rebuild our memories?’: Cyclones bring tragedy to this Sundarbans village
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For about a week in May, Swatilata Mondal listened to government officials make announcements in her village of Kalidaspur, warning of an incoming storm. Kalidaspur is on the Choto Mollakhali island in the Sundarbans in West Bengal.

Swatilata shrugged off most of the warnings. After all, cyclones and coastal storms are a regular feature of living in the Sundarbans.

“I had survived Cyclone Aila,” she said. “What could have been worse than that?”

Cyclone Aila had torn through the Sundarbans in 2010, killing 300 people and destroying 40,000 homes. But what Swatilata saw on May 21 this year, while sheltering in a local school, was like nothing she had seen before. The skies were slate grey and the winds whipped in from the sea.

“I saw asbestos roofs flying past. The river was rising with heavy waves hitting the shore,” she said. “Its intensity was even more than Aila 10 years ago.”

On May 22, when the storm subsided, Swatilata returned home. The roof had collapsed onto her kitchen, leaving it in ruins. A branch had fallen on her chicken shed, killing six of the chicken huddled within. But what really hit her was that her 1.5 bighas of paddy field – her main source of income – was flooded with seawater. Her crop was gone. Her loss was so great Swatilata couldn’t put a number to it.

Kalidaspur lies about five hours away from the mainland by boat, and about an hour and a half from the nearest ferry ghat on Choto Mollakhali. It is one of the furthest inhabited villages in the Sundarbans; beyond it lie uninhabited forests. It also borders the jungles of Marichjhapi, infamous for the 1979 mass eviction of the people by the communist government of the time.

Kalidaspur is a small village, spread over 679 hectares and populated by 5,724 people in 1,343 households, as per the 2011 census. It has a post office and a solitary school, the Kalidaspur BCJ Higher Secondary School.

The school, which has about 1,000 children on its rolls, is a large three-storey building, the most prominent structure in a village of mud dwellings and pucca huts. As a result, it’s the shelter of choice when cyclones visit the region.

All around the village, there are vast stretches of lush green paddy fields. Almost all the people in this remote village depend on the cultivation of paddy for sustenance.

Trouble of embankments

“We sow our seeds at the beginning of May,” explained Anup Mondal, 33, a resident. “It takes about two months for the crop to grow to the desired height. We harvest in mid-November.”

A house in Kalidaspur destroyed by Amphan.

A house in Kalidaspur destroyed by Amphan.

Saltwater flooding the paddy fields.

Saltwater flooding the paddy fields.

Cyclone Amphan, therefore, arrived just after the seeds had been sown this year.

Anup owns two bighas of land in the village. He spends around Rs 10,000 to procure and sow seeds, and sells the harvested rice in local mandis for about Rs 16,000. This profit of Rs 6,000 constitutes a major portion of his yearly income.

Anup lives with his wife, Supriya, 29, and daughter Munmun, 5. Supriya works for an NGO, Purono Kolkatar Golpo, where she makes handwoven fabrics, saris and masks, earning about Rs 5,000 a month. The family live in a two-room mud hut on the banks of the Bidyadhari river, next to the mud embankment.

For Anup, this year has been a nightmare. Amphan tore up the embankment, erected to protect the paddy fields from the river. The Bidyadhari is a deltaic river that carries saltwater, so when it flooded the fields, saltwater seeped into the soil.

“Salinity in the soil hinders the full growth of paddy plants,” said NPS Yaduvanshi, a professor of agricultural studies at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. Excessive amounts of salt can injure the plant cells, he said, further reducing growth. The longer the flooding by saltwater the greater the damage caused to the plants.

Anup’s voice choked with emotion as he described the loss of his paddy. “Saltwater from the river flooded in until we rebuilt the embankment a month and a half after the cyclone,” he said. “It completely destroyed our crops.”

The mud embankments in the Sunderbans were originally built by the British over 100 years ago. After Cyclone Aila, when 778 km of the embankments were destroyed, according to official estimates, the ministry of irrigation, in collaboration with the Bengal government, launched a Rs 5,032-crore project to reconstruct 1,000 km of the embankments with cement, bricks and polypropylene sheets.

But 10 years on, Kalidaspur is yet to see the benefits of this project. “No government official ever came here to rebuild any embankment,” Anup said. “It is us villagers who rebuild these everytime they get destroyed in the cyclones.”

According to an irrigation official, only about 100 km of the embankments have been rebuilt, utilising 20 percent of the Rs 5,032-crore fund since 2009. The official did not want to be identified, and did not provide any further details.

So, it’s left to villagers to make “quick fixes” to the old embankments, the only barrier between them and the full force of the cyclone.

“We have sent requisitions to the Choto Mollakhali panchayat to rebuild these embankments but none has been answered,” Anup said, referring to the local body in charge of Kalidaspur .

This year, he added, he doesn’t expect to cultivate even a fifth of his usual crop. “I am very worried about how I’ll be able to sustain my family.”

‘Storm snatched my land and my hope’

Several people in Kalidaspur maintained that the only thing standing between them and the wrath of cyclones is the river embankment, a structure of mud and cement that runs the length of the river. Experts say the loss of mangrove cover in the Sundarbans has contributed to the embankments crumbling during strong cyclones.

“The mangrove roots hold the soil firmly and so, when a coastal cyclone strikes, it is not easy to break the soil down,” said Jayanta Sen, an environmentalist based in Kolkata. “However, there are fewer mangrove trees now, due to several reasons like climate change and deforestation, and hence, the soil has grown weak.”

Anup Mondal (left) and Soumitr Mondal.

Anup Mondal (left) and Soumitr Mondal.

A section of the ruined embankment in Kalidaspur.

A section of the ruined embankment in Kalidaspur.

Sen added, “These two heavy cyclones, Bulbul in November and Amphan in May, in a span of just six months took a toll on the soil. That is why the embankment broke so easily during Amphan.”

The villagers said a lot of trees were lost when Cyclone Bulbul struck last November.

“If you walked through our village, you would have seen hundreds of mangroves across the shore of the island. But Bulbul wiped out nearly 90 percent of the trees,” said Soumitra Mondal, a farmer and resident of Kalidaspur.

Soumitra, 27, lost 1.5 acres of his paddy fields during Amphan. He used to work under the instruction of his father Sanatan, he said. But Sanatan died last November due to dengue, and the burden of farming fell to Soumitra, his oldest son.

“This year was the first season that I had done all the work on my own, and I was confident that I could make my father proud,” Soumitra said. “But this storm not only took my land but also snatched my hope.”

Soumitra has four younger siblings to look after — three brothers and a sister — and with no income in the near future, he said, his siblings’ futures are at stake.

Almost every family in Kalidaspur has a similar story of tragedy. Anukul Mondal, 75, had worked for 30 years as a peon in the forest department of the Sundarbans’ Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve. After he retired, he settled down in Kalidaspur, sharing a two-room pucca house with his wife Kamala, their two sons and their spouses, and one granddaughter.

In 2009, Aila struck. The house collapsed, killing Anukul’s sons, their wives, and his granddaughter. Anukul himself managed to escape with his wife, and he was forced to spend a large amount of his savings to rebuild the house.

Kamala died last year from breast cancer, leaving Anukul alone.

“With all my family members gone, all I had left were memories,” Anukul said. “I kept photographs of my family safely in a trunk in my kitchen. Every time I longed for them, I would take out the photos and stare at them for hours at a stretch.”

Even this crumb of comfort was lost this year. During Amphan, a portion of the house collapsed yet again. The trunk containing the photographs was washed away.

His voice shaking, Anukul said: “I rebuilt my house again thanks to my monthly pension of Rs 10,000. But who will rebuild these memories? I feel I have lost my family once again.”

Too many expenses, but no income

It’s a similar story for Ramarani Baidya, 46, a resident of Kalidaspur and a paddy farmer, like Anup. The Bidyadhari flooded most of her 1.5 bighas of paddy fields during Amphan.

“I usually produce around 10-12 sacks of rice every year,” said Ramarani. “But this year, the flood hit right at the start of the sowing season.” It took about one-and-a-half months after Amphan to drain the saltwater from her field and rebuild the embankment.

“By then, everything was gone,” she said. “I expect not more than one-tenth of the usual production.”

Ramarani’s burden is even more difficult to shoulder, she said, because her husband, Satish Baidya, has been bedridden for the last three years with a pancreatic ailment. He can no longer work in the fields, so it falls to Ramarani to look after the household, while also covering her husband’s medical expenses. They have no children.

Ramarani’s paddy crop earns her about Rs 10,000 a year, she said. Additionally, she sells vegetables for about Rs 1,000 a month, and earns around Rs 2,000-3,000 per month by working with an NGO that sells hand-woven fabric. Satish’s expenses, on the other hand, work out to about Rs 4,000 per month, which includes the cost of his medicines and monthly visits to a government hospital in Kolkata.

“Paying for his expenses is becoming harder day by day,” she said, “with income at an absolute standstill.”

The cyclone hasn’t damaged only the paddy fields. Kalidaspur is known for growing vegetables such as brinjal, ladies finger and potatoes which are sold at local markets across the 54 inhabited islands of the Sundarbans. The vegetables are distributed to the local markets by boats that collect the produce from Kalidaspur once every week.

Anukul Mondal.

Anukul Mondal.

The average income from vegetables, villagers like Soumitra and Ramarani say, is about Rs 1,000-1,500 per month. When they manage to grow a bumper crop, the income goes upto Rs 3,000-4,000.

“All our produce has been damaged by the flooding,” Anup said. “So, the income from vegetables will be absolutely zero this year.” The same thing happened during Cyclone Aila’s landfall in 2010: with wind speeds of 120 kmph, the river flooded the land and residents lost most of their crops and vegetables.

“The soil was damaged so much by the saline water that we couldn’t yield a regular growth of crops for the next three years,” said Ramarani. She expects a similar outcome of Cyclone Amphan. If they’re lucky, their normal crop yield will resume in 2023. Anup, however, thinks it might take longer.

“Yes, Aila was devastating for us and we took a long time to recover. But Amphan has been even more devastating,” he said. “I don’t expect the situation to come back to normal in the next five years.”

Government apathy

In the midst of this tragedy, where is the government?

On June 2, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said her government had disbursed Rs 1,444 crore as relief after Cyclone Amphan, including compensation to nearly 23.3 lakh farmers across Bengal whose crops had been damaged. Additionally, it announced a relief of Rs 1,500 per acre to three lakh farmers, and released a list of the beneficiaries.

Not a single resident of Kalidaspur figures on this list.

“We submitted our papers long back but they still haven’t provided us relief,” said Mousimi Mondal, a resident. This was repeated by multiple residents but the gram panchayat that has jurisdiction over Kalidaspur insisted that relief was distributed.

Harish Mondal, a member of the Choto Mollakhali gram panchayat, said the farmers of Kalidaspur had been asked to submit land ownership papers, photo IDs, address proof, and an estimate of their loss due to the cyclone.

“We received around 7,000 documents from across villages and sent them across to the government, and people here have been provided relief,” Harish said. “The people who have not received their relief have either not submitted their documents or there must have been something wrong with their papers.”

Importantly, a group of CPI(M) leaders, including Sujan Chakraborty, an MLA from Jadavpur, has accused the government of “gross mismanagement” of the Amphan relief funds, and has filed an official complaint with the local district magistrate. Newslaundry reached out to the government’s department of Sundarban Affairs multiple times but did not receive a response.

Meanwhile, some of the residents of Kalidaspur are considering moving.

“I will most probably go to Kolkata now to look for a job as a construction labourer,” said Anup. “That’s what I did after Aila.”

Soumitra agrees; he worked in Kolkata for three years after Aila, earning Rs 200-300 a day.

“We are literally left with no choice,” he said. “Amader gram ta puro morubhumi hoe geche.” Our village has turned into a desert.

***

This is the final story in a five-part series on the disastrous consequences of the Assam floods and the Amphan cyclone in Bengal. Read the other parts here.

This story is part of the NL Sena project which 43 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Aditya Deuskar, Deshapriya Debesh, John Abraham, Aditi Prabha, Rohit Unnimadhavan, Abhishek Daevil, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next project, ‘Love Jihad’: Myth vs Reality, and help keep news free and independent.

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