AsiaStoryHow Amphan destroyed sunderbans’ microeconomic mechanism by Joydip Mitra

Geeta Rani Das, 65, of Dakshin Kasiabad village in Ramgopalpur Block of the Sunderbans marks up her age with cyclones. Five days after she was struck by one more cyclone—Amphan this time—I saw her searching for anything of any value around her ravaged mud-made home.

Geeta Rani Das, 65, of Dakshin Kasiabad village in Ramgopalpur Block of the Sunderbans marks up her age with cyclones. Five days after she was struck by one more cyclone—Amphan this time—I saw her searching for anything of any value around her ravaged mud-made home.

Strewn everywhere were piles of wet straw that had once been her roof. Geeta Rani Das appeared composed and unperturbed even in the ruins. “Jhar niyei to bachi amra” (We live with storms)—she declared without a flicker of emotion.

Everyone in the Sunderbans shares the same fatalist outlook of Geeta Rani Das as long as ‘jhar’ or storms (cyclone, tornado, typhoon) are discussed. In their Strategy Report for the Sustainable Development of the Sunderbans (published in 2014), the Environment and Water Resources Management Unit of the World Bank calculated that on an average 2.5 tropical cyclone events originate in the Bay of Bengal every year, which culminate into a landfall in the Indian part of the Sunderbans. The corresponding figures for Bangladesh and Srilanka are 0.9 and 0.7. The people of Sunderbans thus take the storms for granted. They were struck by Cyclone Fani on 5th May last year, by Bulbul again on 9th November, and this time by the Amphan on 20th May. So, number of cyclonic events that ravaged the Sunderbans in the last 12 months is little over the expected average. People of Sunderbans know these figures better than the World Bank.

Geeta Rani Das of Dakshin Kasiabad village trying to link together the scattered parts of what had been her home. Amphan raged for 10-12 hours at a wind velocity of about 185 kmph and ripped open a considerable portion of Geeta Rani Das’s roof. Exposed to Cyclones since her birth, Geeta Rani Das could hardly remember if anyone ever was fiercer than Amphan.

Once a trading hub that got rich through naval trade with Europe and South Asia, the Sunderbans started thinning out of people in the 16th century as Arakanese pirates practically blocked every navigable stream, and people found the terrain hopelessly inhospitable for agriculture or fishing. In 1771 the British Collector General Clod Russell first thought of dividing the Sunderbans into plots and leasing those plots to prospective landlords, for extracting timber. This plan was put into effect by Tillman Henkel—the then Magistrate of Jessore district—in 1781, which in turn saw a good surge in population as the new landholders brought in poor farming communities into the Sunderbans, particularly from the present East Midnapore district of West Bengal, and helped them to settle down to clear the forest for cultivable land. After partition India could retain only 38% of undivided Sunderbans, and over it considerable number of families migrated from its East Pakistan part to the 3600 sq. km India could hold on to, pushing the population of Indian Sunderbans to 1.15 million as per the 1951 Census. This figure would eventually rise to 4.44 million in the 2011 Census. In 1984 a further 1330 sq. km area was declared a National Park and freed of people. The Land Reform Program carried out by the Left Front Government in the 80s distributed the ever shrinking cultivable lands to an ever increasing number of families, which effectively resulted into millions of noodle-strip landholders who can produce just enough for their own consumption from the land they hold. To earn a little cash the farmers turned to cultivating betel leaf in whatever little area they can manage to spare. They also borrow to take a pond on lease and rear fishes in it. These are, grossly, the three options of livelihood a farming family in the Sunderbans can avail of.  A fatal cyclone can ruin all these 3 options and that too for years. Amphan did just that.

Jainul Sheikh of Jumai Naskarhat village pointing towards open fields through which Amphan approached and wrecked havoc. Jainul’s being the first house right beside vacant fields, damage to it was the maximum. Jainul and his grandsons now live under tarpaulin cover provided by the village Panchayet. Mostly of farming communities who migrated from East Midnapore in the late 18th Century, people in the Sunderbans equipped themselves over generations with an obstinacy needed to survive extreme onslaughts of Nature. On an average they face 2.5 cyclones per year.

Almost every village in the Sunderbans is located beside one or more rivers that are right on the point of draining out into the Bay of Bengal. Strong tidal waves—part of a cyclone—cause a surge of saline water in the estuaries which in turn can submerge a village. Embankments—known as ‘Bandh’ in Bengali—are therefore essential protective barriers to keep away overflowing rivers from flooding agricultural land with saline water. If a plot of land is submerged, it takes nearly 4 years to make it productive again. Since the Sunderbans is a low land and the sea level around it is estimated to be rising by about 9 mm per annum, these mud-brick embankments (more mud, rarely brick) collapse with expected regularity against strong tidal pressure, particularly if tides soar to a height of 6 meter as in Amphan. 

Bikram Mandal from a village near Bhajna looks as battered as his storm-struck home. A Survey carried out by the World Bank shows that 67.8% houses in the Sunderbans remained ‘Katchha’ (mud-made and thatched), though several housing schemes (like Indira Awash Yojona, etc) were launched for the rural poor, since 1996. It seems an irony that the Government of West Bengal has claimed to complete 98% (1st among all States) of the targeted number of houses for the rural poor under Pradhan Mantri Awash Yojana-Gramin (PMAY-G) in the year 2017-18.

In Sunderbans’ villages small ponds leased to rear fishes are filled in by rain water, and nurtures solely fresh-water fishes. A little increase in salinity in water kills the fishes just in minutes. During Amphan small ponds everywhere had been over-flooded with saline water coming from the rivers, either breaking or sneaking through the village embankments. Betel leaf (‘paan’) needs protection from direct exposure to the sun, which is provided through a solid cover of cloth and straw (known as ‘boroj’ in Bengali). Wind velocity of about 185 km/h—and that too for an uninterrupted period of 10-12 hours during Amphan—blown away the covers, and strong salinity of air along with absence of shade for subsequent number of days destroyed this crop thoroughly. Only consolation for the farmers is that by 20th May fields were mostly cleared of Boro crops, though a good proportion got damaged because of the rain. However, this assures that this time at least the farming community in the Sunderbans will not go hungry. There is another consolation that Amphan caused relatively fewer loss of life, as good care was taken to evacuate villages and shift the villagers into cyclone-shelters well in time.

Montu is living with his mother and younger brother for 5 days on the outer platform of their mud house, as their thatched roof is put into such a sorry state that it may collapse any time. To cover the roof with straw again this family needs Rs. 15000, assuming that they will get straw for free from their neighbors. Lockdown for Covid 19 has made them so cash-crunched that they cannot afford it.

400 Royal Bengal Tigers besides, the Sunderbans is also home to nearly 4.5 million people who mostly live in the margin. As per the previously mentioned World Bank Survey, 31 to 65 percent in Sunderbans’ 19 Blocks are BPL households. After 60 days of lockdown because of Covid 19, their situation got more desperate as all non-agricultural economic activities remained suspended. Farmers couldn’t take their surplus crop to nearby towns and earn a little extra in cash. Over years every family grown in number of members though their holding on land remained the same. This created a huge number of surplus (and unskilled) labors in the Sunderbans who were made to migrate to other States to earn a wage for shockingly cash-deprived families. Lockdown meant that all these families didn’t receive their monthly remittances. Amphan struck right on this shattered economic structure. Now more than ever the cyclone-struck victims of the Sunderbans cannot afford to make good their losses. A survey conducted in 2014 showed that only 9% households by then could recover their losses caused by cyclone Aila, way back in 2009. This indicates what to expect this time as a much broader economic collapse seems a certainty in near future.

Over generations the people of the Sunderbans adopted the courage and tenacity required to keep on living in their deadly terrain. In that sense they are quite close to their closest neighbors—the tigers. [Official Website]

Ranjon Gayen of Tepakhali village borrowed Rs. 70000 to lease a small pond and try ‘Backyard Aquaculture’ this year. Amphan caused surge of saline water from the estuary flood his village by breaching an embankment. Saline water also sneaked into Ranjon Gayen’s leased pond, killing his freshwater-fishes instantly. Catfishes can survive such a situation by moving deeper into the mud. Ranjon Gayen’s wife, grandson and daughters-in law are searching for catfishes in the mud after water from the pit is pumped out.

Despite being thrashed by cyclones with disturbing regularity, people in the Sunderbans revere their land. The soil is as fertile as anything in normal conditions, producing more than 2200 kilogram of paddy per hector. Its inland water bodies are rich in fishes. West Bengal is the largest inland fish producing State in India, and about 30% of these fishes come from North and South 24 Parganas (districts to which Sunderbans belong to). But when judged in the Human Poverty Index, the Sunderbans reflect a dismal condition. People here are ever vulnerable.

Kabiul Islam of Sankiberia village was building a new concrete home and was planning to shift to it in a few months. He had to move in early because of Amphan. His old ‘katchha’ family home is stripped to its skeleton by this cyclone. Kabiul assured us that he has received from the Village Panchayet rations for a few days, tarpaulin covers, and money.

Family of Bapi Singri, in Dakshin Kasiabad, doesn’t own agricultural land. Their sole earning member owns a van, and a bit stable financial standing of this family is reflected in their plastered and painted walls. But they are unable to lay a new roof over their heads, as more than 60 days of lockdown-imposed inactivity left them with little cash.

A farmer inspecting a damaged betel leaf from his ravaged field near Netaji village. Betel cultivation is the most lucrative option for a farmer in the Sunderbans to earn cash. Betel leaf needs cover from direct sunlight and is produced under the shade of cloth and straw—known as ‘boroj’. This farmer spent Rs. 40000 to grow betel leaf in 10 cottahs (about 650 square meters) of land and expected to earn Rs. 120000 in the coming 12 months , even in an extremely volatile market. Amphan not only blown away the ‘boroj’, it destroyed the crop through long exposure to saline air.

In Ramgopalpur, this family could afford to cover the roof of only one of their 3 rooms, which is now used for cooking, sleeping, playing. Amphan made a mockery of the concept of social distancing. It is estimated that 5 lakh families have lost their homes. The West Bengal Government assured to transfer Rs. 20000 to each of these families.

After Amphan, it rained almost every afternoon in vast parts of the Sunderbans. Thunderstorms are also frequent here during pre-monsoon days. These are blows that the people are taking helplessly, as Amphan left them mostly without a cover over their heads.

In 2011 Census it was found that about 57% students in the Sunderbans drop out before moving to Class V. Swapan Nayak and his friends opine that poverty is not the sole reason for kids to drop out; what they lack more is quality education in primary level and they drop out because they cannot keep pace with their relatively affluent classmates in middle school. Swapan and others collected donations to start Manab Teertha School in Dakshin Kasiabad, with an aim to provide quality education. This school runs through aid provided by well-wishers and now 8 teachers look after 100 odd students–all from challenged backgrounds– practically for nothing. Amphan not only damaged the classrooms thoroughly, it tore apart the roof which was laid only last year. Swapan Nayak estimates that about Rs. 250000 needs to be spent to make Manab Teertha School functional again.

Neogi family of Dakshin Kasiabad invested Rs. 20000 to rear Budgerigars. They expected to sell 200 pairs of these birds every month, at Rs. 270 a pair. Against a wind velocity of 185 km/h during Amphan neither the Neogi’s bird-room, nor their birds with weak wings, had any chance. Munia—the youngest Neogi—could save only 5 very small ones and has decided to take them as her pets.

Strong salinity in air during Amphan, which raged for 10-12 hours, turned leaves to rust-colored crooked shapes, making all trees look alike. This may result into severe loss of trees in the Sunderbans. People claim that saline water coming from estuaries by breaching an embankment never before reached so deep inland. It submerged considerable chunk of agricultural land this time. They are afraid that these fields will not produce anything for the next 4 years.

Amphan uprooted about 5500 big trees in the city of Kolkata. From this one can try to predict what that figure could be in the Sunderbans. Most roads remained blocked for several days because of uprooted trees. Many trees crashed on overhead power cables and snapped the supply. It is feared that several months may pass before the supply is resumed.

Sk. Nurul’s family has shifted every movable item of their household into a narrow corridor inside their mud house, as this is the only space with an overhead cover that Amphan left them with. Outer walls of their rooms mostly collapsed, and the roof came smashing down. This led to a surge of sunlight in their generally dark inner rooms, making them look more stark and vacant.

In Madhabnagar, Preetilata Mondal feels it beyond her ability to reconstruct her one-roomed, unplastered home again. A domestic help who needs to travel 200 km every day to earn a meager wage, Preetilata cannot think of keeping aside any extra buck for such eventualities. During lockdown she couldn’t visit her employers either to collect her wage.

Staying behind concrete walls Amin and his mother could wither the rage of Amphan. Amin’s father migrated to another state (probably Maharashtra) to work as a mason and his family is not sure about his location during lockdown. This family possesses very little land and appears to be greatly dependent on the remittance Amin’s father sends.

In Netaji village a family residing in a half-finished brick-made house couldn’t keep away the heavy downpour that accompanied Amphan. All their possessions were thoroughly soaked. For a family of such standing it takes years to buy a couch or a bed. All these are now stacked in the open to get dry.

A room that had previously been used as her hens’ coop is now serving as temporary shelter to Geeta Rani Das, in Dakshin Kasiabad. It took all her life to save just enough to cover her living space with brick walls, but her roof remained thatched. Amphan tossed off the bundles of straw from most part of the roof, making her rooms exposed to open sky. Geetani Rani Das hopes to make good her losses once more.

‘Bandh’—embankment—is an essential protective barrier to resist saline water, coming from a swollen estuary, flowing into a village. If a plot of agricultural land is submerged, it takes nearly 4 years for it to become productive again. Almost all villages in the Sunderbans are protected by these bandhs, and, it is common practice for villagers to heap extra load of mud on their ‘bandh’ to further strengthen it as soon as they get a sign that tidal pressure is going to increase. There are a total of 3500 km embankments in the Sunderbans, of which 800 km is vulnerable to breaching under high tidal pressure.

Standing over heaps of wet straw which is what remained of their collapsed roof, this girl is taking her lessons for survival in the Sunderbans delta. They learn early how to cope with all odds.

A stroke paralyzed the right side of Nachirul Biwi, of Bhajna village. She was carried to a cyclone-centre before Amphan struck. From then on she preferred to remain in the open, as she is afraid that her mud walls may collapse any time. In her broken words she let us know that she didn’t see a storm like this one ever before.

In Jumai Naskarhat, Jainul Sheikh reflects on the losses Nature inflicted on him all his life. In this general landscape of destruction he doesn’t feel defeated. He hopes that his grandsons will learn a new trick to stay afloat in the Sunderbans. Probably they will eventually learn how to walk on water.

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