“I have seen all kind of storms, but this one was different. It went on for almost 12 hours. In the afternoon, water rushed into the fields like a mad bull chasing us. I picked up my brother's disabled son and ran,” recounts Swapan Nayek, a primary school teacher in Dakshin Kasiabad village in West Bengal’s Sundarbans region.
On May 20, with wind speeds raging up to 185 kmph, Cyclone Amphan made landfall not far from the village located within Ramgopalpur panchayat in Kakdwip block of South 24 Parganas district.
The storm was unlike anything the villagers had seen before. Not even cyclones Aila (2009) and Bulbul (2019) have caused the damage that Amphan has to the Sundarbans, the people here say.
"Our school is devastated. The roof is gone and the four classrooms destroyed. The future of nearly 100 students is at stake," says Nayek, who teaches at the privately-run Manab Tirtha Primary School in Dakshin Kasiabad.
The India Meteorological Department notes that the ‘super cyclonic storm’ began advancing towards the Sundarbans on May 20. Amphan made landfall at around 4.30 p.m. near Sagar island, southwest of Kakdwip. In South 24 Parganas district, Kakdwip, Kultali, Namkhana, Patharpratima and Sagar blocks were within close range of the landfall – and they are among the most affected parts of south Bengal, where the cyclone caused severe damage.
On May 29, while going from Kakdwip bus stand to Dakshin Kasiabad, which took nearly two hours across around 40 kilometres, we saw the wreckage scattered on both sides of the road. Trees were uprooted, and homes and shops destroyed.
Ranjan Gayen and members of his family were fishing in the freshwater pond near their home in Madhab Nagar, in Netaji panchayat, on the way to Dakshin Kasiabad. The saline water brought by the cyclone has contaminated the pond. "We invested around Rs. 70,000 on farming freshwater fish this year. All of them are dead now. We are trying to see if there's any fish left to sell in the market. My betel leaves are also gone and my family is in debt now,” said Gayen, whose total loss amounts to about Rs. 1 lakh. “The happy days will never return for us, never ever.”
We also met Pritilata Roy in Madhab Nagar. Like many women in Kakdwip, she earned a living as a domestic worker in Kolkata’s Jadavpur area, around 80 kilometres away. It was her main source of income until those jobs stopped in the last week of March, after the Covid-19 lockdown was announced. Her crop of betel leaves was ruined by Amphan’s fury. She estimates that she has lost close to Rs. 30,000.
The scale of destruction in Dakshin Kasiabad stunned us when we reached the village. The delicate betel leaf crop, a major source of income of farmers there, had been wiped out. For the people here who earned by selling fish, paddy and betel leaves in the haats in and around the village, Amphan brought in additional losses – when they were already struggling due to the closure of markets for the lockdown.
“We are betel leaf farmers since generations,” said one man, who didn’t want to give us his name. “It used to give me an income of Rs. 20,000-25,000 per month. The lockdown had knocked out our business, but Amphan has destroyed us.” The South 24 Parganas horticulture department, cited by some news reports, says the cyclone-linked loss for betel farmers in the district is an estimated Rs. 2,775 crores.
Saline water occupied swathes of agricultural land in Dakshin Kasiabad after the cyclone in May. “The water would come in earlier too, but not this far. It's not just the paddy crop that has been destroyed by the cyclone. It’s unlikely that the land will be usable anymore,” said another farmer. The harvest of his rabi crop of boro rice was already affected by the shortage of labour during the lockdown, and unseasonal rains in summer added to his problems this year – until Cyclone Amphan arrived.
In the same village, the Niyogi family is one of few in this area who rear the colourful budgerigar birds. The small birds are popular as pets, especially in Kolkata. The Niyogis sell them at the Naryanganj market, eight kilometres away. On the night of the cyclone, many of the cages broke open and the birds flew away. They were able to catch a few the next morning, the majority were gone. With that, their initial investment of Rs. 20,000 to raise the birds was wiped out.
Other losses run into lakhs. Madhab Das, a member of the managing committee of the cyclone-ravaged Manab Tirtha Primary School, says they need to raise Rs. 250,000 to rebuild the school. “We are short on funds and the monsoon will arrive soon. But the children’s education cannot be compromised. So we must keep our problems aside and rebuild it,” says Das.
In a region long ravaged by recurring storms, salinity and other disasters, many in the Sundarbans have had to do this before – start again from scratch.