Chandan Das points to the trees. “The leaves, can you see them? They have wilted, turned yellow,” he said. “The storm bought so much salt water spray from the sea that it even killed the trees it couldn’t knock down.”
Das looks down and mumbles, “The Sundarbans is finished. Amphan has killed it. All our crops, even our trees have been destroyed. What will we do?”
The two bighas of farmland he owns in the Uttar Gopalnagar village on the eastern edges of the Sundarbans is now completely submerged by the sea water thrown up by the super cyclone. The paddy fields of the village are, in fact, now one vast lake, their calm waters belying the great violence caused to create them – and the human misery they represent.
On Wednesday, one of the fiercest cyclones the Bay of Bengal has ever produced, Amphan, ripped through West Bengal and Bangladesh. Like it has for all of Bengal’s history, the storm first barrelled into the Sundarbans – a vast mangrove forest formed in the delta where the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems meet and then empty out into the sea.
The Sundarbans is Bengal’s first line of defence from the fierce storms that periodically arise in the Bay of Bengal. However, the people of this region pay a heavy price for this. Four days after Amphan hit, the Sundarbans region of West Bengal is in shock. Livelihoods have been destroyed, houses torn down, power systems dislocated and mobile networks blacked out. Most troublingly, the intensity of the storm has meant salt water from the sea has backed up into farmlands in the delta, rendering them useless for the next few years.
Romesh Mondal claims he is 92 years old. “I have seen the British and Congress, CPI(M) then Trinamool,” Mondal recounts to prove he isn’t exaggerating. “But I have never seen a jhor, storm like this.”
From Mondal’s village, Kalikapur, Usha Das is spending her day helping her husband repair their shack. Since they didn’t have a pucca house, Das was rounded up by the police a few hours before the storm hit and moved to a shelter. “We stayed in the school all night. Outside there was tandab [destruction],” described Das with a mixture of awe and fear. “When we came out, we saw our house had been ripped to shreds.”
The simple act of making sure that anyone with a katcha house took shelter in a pukka government building means that in spite of its intensity, the death toll of Amphan is low compared to previous storms.
The storm has, however, left Das and her family with no money. “We are fishermen. We haven’t been able to fish for a week now,” Das said, holding her head. “And our house has been knocked down.”
Das complains of corruption in the distribution of relief by the local panchayat. “Why are they not giving us [food] tokens? What will we eat?”
Even by the standards of the Sundarbans, catching fish pays little and Das’s hamlet of shacks was tossed around by Amphan like a bundle of twigs. In Das’s case, the thatching and tarpaulin sheets have been blown clear, leaving only a rickety frame.
The farmers of Gobindrampur village are well off compared to the fishermen of Kalikapur – but the storm has hit them harder. The tremendous force of Amphan pushed salt water up the Kalnagini river and into their fields. The Sundarbans is always an amphibious terrain, land segueing into water and water into land. But, for now in Gobindrampur, water has clearly won: the village is inundated, with islands sticking out only in places and multiple families camping out in the village school which, luckily, sits on dry land.
Nibharani Santra, 60, and her son are sharecroppers. They argue that they are the worst hit. “We have already paid off our landlord in Chaitro [April] and now for the entire year, we have no hope of earning anything from this land,” Das said, still able to smile wryly at her own tremendous misfortune.
“We were going to plant the Aman [monsoon paddy] crop soon. But our fields have become salt water lakes,” she said, pointing to a vast expanse of water.
Santra complains that the government takes no note of sharecroppers. “Our landlord has got money from us and now when the government will announce compensation, they will get that,” Santra argues. “And we will die without eating.”
Like Nibharani Santra, Kalipada Mondal of Durgagobindapur village owns no land. But unlike Santra, he has decided to leave paddy for poultry husbandry. Mondal is a contract farmer for a poultry meat corporation. The company sells him chicks – and then buys back full-grown chickens from him at a profit. When the storm came, Mondal tried to secure the coop with ropes – you can still see them lying on the ground, frayed and distended after their battle with Amphan – but it was no use. The winds were too strong, breaking the bamboo structure.
“I managed to save around 2,000 birds,” a distraught Mondal recounted. “But 900 were swept away.”
We do some calculations. At the company buy-back rate, Mondal’s losses amount to Rs 1.5 lakhs. It is a figure that will break his back.
“Even now I am losing money,” Mondal says, his voice small. “I have managed to stuff chickens into another hut – 200 are in my own house. But they are not eating well and losing weight. Many will die.”
Mondal had taken to contract farming two year back after trying his hands at rearing his own chicken. “I generated a loss when I reared them myself but with the company I was making a profit,” Das said. “But now with Amphan, all is lost.”
In between, Mondal had also thought of working in Hyderabad, as a cook’s assistant in a small diner, joining another man from his village. “But in my heart I didn’t want to leave [my home]. And then I saw the lockdown and how our people got trapped. I was happy I didn’t leave,” he said. “But now – maybe I should have gone.”
All photographs by Shoaib Daniyal.