Kolkata’s devastation feels personal because it is, but it’s not the only place that has been hit hard
Cyclone Amphan slammed into Kolkata, the city where I was born and grew up, leaving behind a trail of misery and huge losses. So many landmarks of my childhood are gone.
The images of devastation are hard to forget. As is the fear and anguish for many of us who live far away and who have near and dear ones in the city.
My 80-year-old mother who lives alone in Kolkata took shelter in her bedroom. Even in her second-floor flat, water had seeped into other rooms. In the middle of Lockdown 4, with no way to reach Kolkata in a jiffy, I panicked. “Don’t worry. The Kolkata police and others should attend to those in much greater distress. I can look after myself. I have enough cooked and uncooked food.”
The words had a calming effect. As I write this, her phones work only intermittently, and the anxiety returns.
Kolkata’s devastation feels personal because it is. But it’s not the only place that has been hit hard. The sights and sounds out of the Amphan-ravaged Sunderbans also brings back memories.
I met Ganesh Das last year while visiting Sagar Island, Sunderbans, as part of a group of journalists. Ganesh, who works with Sabuj Sangha, a grassroots NGO, took us around. We met dozens of families who were used to having their homes washed away not once, but many times.
This week, I managed to speak to Ganesh over a creaky phone line. Cyclone Amphan had blown away his asbestos roof. He and his family were in a tent with a tarpaulin sheet as cover. There was no electricity. He was charging his mobile, his window to the outside world, through a diesel generator.
The fury of wind and rain destroyed all mud houses in Sagar Island, on the mouth of the Hooghly. Islanders squeezed into cyclone shelters. Cleaning work had begun but fallen trees and carcasses of dead animals posed a huge health hazard. Saline water contaminated the ponds.
Betel leaf or paan, the area’s major cash crop, was ruined. The future looked grim even to those who had grown used to loss and a cascade of crises.
Sunderbans is home to millions of the most vulnerable and impoverished people on earth. But to billions of people here and abroad, it’s an exotic home of tigers, barely registering in our consciousness.
Sunderbans shows telling effects of rising sea levels. But unlike residents of the Pacific islands, who have managed to garner global attention, the lives of the Sunderbans’ people typically remain invisible at international climate negotiations and in the policy discourse inside India.
That is why the core makes the kind of mistake that leads Ganesh to ask: “What is the point of rebuilding with asbestos and tin roofs? This is what is used in all houses built under various government schemes. But they don’t last. Why can’t we be given pucca houses like the ones the decision-makers in cities have?”
The past few months have forced us to confront a cascade of crises.
Apart from Covid-19, these are hitting people and places that are peripheral to the national discourse. Before locusts threatened Delhi, how many of us knew they ravage Rajasthan every year, that they are ravaging parts of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana right now?
Those on the margins of the national discourse jump onto headlines only when a disaster strikes. But what if disasters become the new normal? Can we continue with the practice of parachuting into this terrain of pain and misery without having followed everything that led to them?
What if the periphery forces itself into the core? Nilanjan Ghosh, director of the Observer Research Foundation’s Kolkata chaper, is convinced that at least one-third of the Sunderbans is now uninhabitable due to climate change, and the authorities should seriously consider a “managed and strategic retreat”.
There are both supporters and opponents of such a course of action that will affect the lives of around 1.5 million people. This is a debate that must move to the national stage, and that isn’t happening because these issues are still seen as peripheral by policymakers, both in New Delhi and in state capitals. Such a mindset can’t be sustained because multiple disasters are forcing the periphery into the core.
And this isn’t just about the Sunderbans. All along India’s coastline, especially the east coast, there are communities in a similar situation. Cyclone Amphan led to deaths and destruction in Odisha as well as Bangladesh.
At Uppada near Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, the authorities moved residents half a km inland to safeguard them from a rising sea. A passing blow from Amphan destroyed newly-built huts. More lasting solutions are needed.
And it does help when the core takes interest.
As Mr Ghosh says, two things helped minimise deaths from Cyclone Amphan the dramatic improvement in the India Meteorological Department’s early warning system, and the quick evacuation of around 500,000 coastal residents once IMD forecast the cyclone track but you can’t evacuate your farm and livestock, and the losses suffered will need more attention from the core than the money the Centre has given so far Rs 1,000 crores to West Bengal and Rs 500 crores to Odisha. Samirul Islam, president of Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, says farmers in cyclone-hit areas had postponed harvesting due to the nationwide lockdown and severe movement restrictions. Now their crops are ruined.
This will have a serious effect on the rural population and also migrant workers who are coming back home penniless.
Aditi Mukherji of the International Water Management Institute points out the risks of disease after Cyclone Amphan. With the health system already bursting at its seams due to Covid-19, we can’t afford a breakout of diarrhoeal diseases now. Ms Mukherjee says opening up roads, providing clean drinking water and restoring electricity should be the top priorities.
And for the Sunderbans, there should be more focus on maintaining mangroves.
It is widely known mangroves are the best defence against storm surges, but they continue to be cut down all along India’s coast to build more ports and factories.
When these decisions are taken, saving mangroves are seen as an irritant that only pesky environmentalists talk about.
But now that more and more of the coast is getting ruined, the core clearly cannot continue business as usual. The periphery is not peripheral any longer.