by Annu Jalais and Amites Mukhopadhyay

With the Category 5 cyclone Amphan hurtling towards first the Sundarbans, then Kolkata, and the rest of Bengal in May, both of us, scholars who have been working on the Sundarbans for more than two decades, started calling our friends and acquaintances. We learned that our long-time interlocutors, Sumati and Hori, both in their mid-fifties, and Rubina and Shahid, in their mid-forties, would be spending the night packed like sardines in local schools. They hoped that the brick structures would hold against the 185 km (111 mile) per hour winds that would lash their respective low-lying islands and perhaps break the ring embankments that protect their homes, lands, and ponds from the brackish river waters. When cyclones hit the Sundarbans, mud huts’ bases risk dissolving either in the torrential rains or in the sudden surges caused by embankment collapse, and straw or asbestos roofs then fall to the ground; roofs also risk being carried away by the fury of the winds. The severe cyclonic storm Aila, which struck the Sundarbans back in 2009, killed 340, caused the “disappearance” of 8000, and left more than a million homeless across the Indian state of West Bengal and the adjoining country of Bangladesh. Aila’s devastation forced Sumati as well as her sons to leave the Sundarbans in search of work elsewhere in India. Cyclone Amphan may have seemed unique, but the modus operandi was a recurring one.

An earthen embankment breached by saline floodwaters following cyclone Amphan in Lahiripur village in the West Bengal Sundarbans. Photo by Ayan Ghosh. (India)

After cyclone Aila, millions of young men, sometimes with their young families, left the Sundarbans in search of work in India’s big cities. Over the years, the Sundarbans had worn a relatively deserted look as the younger and middle-aged members of families started migrating out (with some frequently and others infrequently returning home during their break). However, if Aila had forced mainly young people to migrate out, the pandemic Covid-19 and India’s ill-planned sudden and total “lockdown” was making them return. Sumati, who worked as a nurse in one of Kolkata’s better-off households, found herself ill with fever and a bad cough three days after the lockdown. She had caught “a cold” from the family where she worked, but they forced her to leave. With no means of transportation available, returning to her village rapidly turned impossible. Would she have to live on the streets? She somehow managed to return home and quarantined herself for two weeks. Her job had ensured the steady supply of the life-saving medicines her ailing husband needed; now with her job gone, they had no means of continuing his treatment, and his health was hastily deteriorating. Over the coming weeks, her sons also lost their jobs and started to make the long way back home with their young families. Teenagers who had left villages to pursue dreams of a better life in the city were walking back home on May 20, the day that cyclone Amphan struck the region. They walked empty-handed with the foreboding knowledge that the storm would certainly shatter embankments, inundate their land and ponds, and – with its salt – wreak havoc on any life that could have tided them over the coming months.

Children play in the floodwaters of cyclone Amphan on Mousuni island in the West Bengal Sundarbans. Photo by Abhijit Chakraborty, Shudhu Sundarban Charcha. (India)

The Sundarbans are an immense archipelago of islands stretched in a semi-circle across the mangrove delta north of the Bay of Bengal. The inhabited islands closest to the forest are part of the active delta and have the reputation of “moving” – as Amitav Ghosh described these islands beautifully in his books Gun Island. Large scale deforestation for revenue purposes under the British about two hundred years ago paved the way for these islands to be “settled” by humans. By the end of nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only the islands where people had managed to erect bunds (embankments – usually of mud), became habitable1. The islands that were left untouched, remained forested and inhabited by wild animals, the most famous of which are the Royal Bengal tigers. These islands continue to be flooded by the brackish water tides and go under water twice a day during high tide. This watery landscape, so vulnerable to the shifting currents of rivers and frequent cyclonic storms, can only be “habitable” when surrounded by protective embankments – “life-lines” that keep the surrounding salt water at bay. Once these are breached, all life that sustains human life ends – ponds that provide fish suddenly become cesspools of poison, land that is usually fertile becomes barren for three to five years, and huts built with great precaution dissolve into the vast stagnant expanse of rotting grey.

A man carrying his baby walks along a mud embankment at Kamalkathi, 25 kilometers north of the Sundarbans. This is an example of how the river (here the Morrichap) “eats” into the embankment. One can see a second inner ring embankment in the distance protecting the island. Photo by Annu Jalais. (Bangladesh)

The Sundarbans islanders are not unfamiliar with cyclonic storms. It is in this sense that the impact of Amphan is no different from that of earlier ones, such as Sidr (2007), Aila (2009), Phailin (2013), Hudhud (2014), and Bulbul (2019). However, Amphan struck in Covid-19 times. On the fateful night of the cyclone, young mothers with their children, the fit, as well as the elderly, all left their mud huts to pack together in brick shelters at a time when physical distancing was being promoted to prevent and control the pandemic. The cyclone hammered the islands for five long hours, tearing through everything that people could call their own. The media reported on uprooted trees and the snagged power lines of Kolkata, providing practically no news of the islands that lay directly in Amphan’s path during the five days that followed the cyclone. The telephone towers were down and those walking back, or those who lived on other islands or in the suburbs of Kolkata, were sick with worry for their families. The central government declared relief to the tune of 10 billion INR or 154 million US dollars. However, for nearly a month after the cyclone, many continued to spend their nights either in the crowded cyclone shelters or under makeshift plastic-sheets tied to four poles that act as open “tents” on the still-raised parts of the embankments that were not broken. A recent report revealed how the beneficiaries of state compensation from the wreckage caused by the cyclone were mainly the ruling party functionaries’ families and supporters, causing a lot of anger and distress amongst those who were most affected.