Soma Das’s voice cracked. “Please do something,” she said, breaking into sobs. “Our people need to come back from Kerala. Our house is gone. We have nothing to eat.”
Das’s husband works as a fisherman in Kerala’s Kollam. He has got stuck there without an income since the end of March, thanks to the nationwide lockdown to low the spread of the coronavirus. This forced him to stop sending money back home to his wife in Kalikapur village in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, two months after the Indian government instituted the world’s harshest lockdown, one of the fiercest cyclones ever in Bengal’s history, Amphan, smashed Das’s home to pieces. “We didn’t have money to eat. Where will we get money to rebuild the house?” asked Soma Das. “How much can we suffer?”
Soma Das isn’t alone in her predicament. People from Kalikapur say that approximately 30 men from their village have migrated to Kerala, employing the skills they learnt in the Bengal Delta to catch fish in the Laccadive Sea.
Among the village men in Kerala is Bipli Das’s husband. She says he is in distress there. “They used to give him food regularly but now he only gets his meals intermittently,” she said, standing inside her destroyed shack. “He has been trying to come back desperately ever since he heard of the storm and what it has done to the village.”
When he learnt the storm was coming, Bipli Das’s husband made enquiries with bus operators willing to make the journey from Kollam to Kalikapur. The cost: Rs 1.5 lakh. The migrants from Kalikapur simply didn’t have that kind of money. “They spent all their savings on food,” said Das, waving her hands to emphasise nothingness. “Where will they get Rs 1.5 lakh from?”
‘What will our son eat?’
Some distance from Kalikapur, in Durgagobindapur village, some farmers escaped the worst of the cyclone since a concrete embankment protected their fields from being flooded. Despite this, the salt water spray brought in by Amphan has ended up destroying crops. In more normal times, Gurupodo Dinda and Arati Dinda could have absorbed the loss. But now with the lockdown, there is a desperate need for money.
“Our son works in Hyderabad at a roadside restaurant,” explained Arati. “But after the lockdown was announced, they stopped paying him or even giving him food to eat. We have been depositing money into his bank account, which he withdraws using his ATM card.”
However, the destruction of their vegetable crops means the Dinda household faces a sudden cash crunch. “I don’t know how I will send money to him [son] next month,” worried Gurupodo. “What will he eat?”
The combination of lockdown and cyclone has also resulted in domestic strife in Durgagobindapur. Due to a cash crunch, Sopon Patro’s daughter returned from her husband’s home. “My son-in-law is stuck in Dubai where he works as a plumber,” Patro explained. “He has been unable to send money. And after the storm, his crops have also been destroyed. So my daughter’s in-laws refused to feed her anymore and told her to go to my place.”
Patro’s problems don’t end there. The storm has also blown the lid off Paro’s small construction items store, situated alongside the highway. He will need money to fix it. “We were doing well,” Patro said softly. “But so many things happened at once. And now even I am worried where my family’s next meal will come from.”
Back and forth
Doiboki Doloi from Gobindrampur had her house flooded by the storm. She and her son are staying in the village school. Unlike in Kalikapur and Durgagobindapur, migration from Gobindrampur has occurred within the state, with a number of men moving to the northern district of Cooch Behar to work in rice mills. This normally pays less than working in a place like Kerala. But now this inter-state migration has turned out to be a good thing: it is at least been possible to return from Cooch Behar during lockdown.
“Forty men from Cooch Behar have hired two buses,” said Doloi. “It took them Rs 2,000 each. This will finish off our savings. But when they heard such a huge storm had happened, they had to come back. Our life here is destroyed.”
But migrants getting back to the village is only a temporary solution. If work could be found in the village, they would never have left in the first place.
Jibon Kumro returned back home to Gobindrampur a few months back after working in a rice mill in Cooch Behar. “I kept falling ill, but in the rice mill they keep on making you work,” he explained. “So I came away a month before lockdown.”
Kumro owns no farmland. But his family made do using a combination of daily wage labour and growing vegetables on a small patch of land besides his mud hut. But after the cyclone, that’s all gone. “No one is hiring labour and there is salt water all around my house,” Kumro said. “All my vegetables are dead and the wall of my house is cracked. It might fall any time.”
Kumro now survives on the food distributed by the government. He is desperate for the lockdown to be lifted so that he can rebuild his life. “If I could go back to the mill, I would,” he said. “There is nothing left for me in the village.”
This is a common sentiment in the village. Amphan’s destruction is both immediate and long term. The flooding of farmlands with salt water means that the damage will last a long time, thoroughly destroying livelihoods in affected areas. The result might be even more worker migration to unaffected parts of West Bengal or other states.
“We saw a lot of migration from the Sundarbans after Aila [a cyclone that hit Bengal in May 2009],” said Tanmoy Ghosh, secretary of the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, an organisation that works with Bengali migrant labourers. “Given the scale of Amphan, over the next decade, we will see another exodus from the regions affected.”