Across North 24 Parganas (West Bengal): Our car made its halt at Sulkuni. Suddenly, it was not possible to advance any further.
After walking for about a kilometre, we reached the bank of Dansa River, a branch of the Ichamati, only to find that Dansa river is actually three kilometres from there. One can spot rooftops floating at a distance.
The land is completely submerged and hundreds of houses across the villages have been wiped out after Cyclone Amphan wrecked parts of West Bengal on Wednesday evening.
Sulkuni is located 83 km from Kolkata, in Hasnabad of North 24 Parganas, which is one of the worst-hit districts. Amphan is the first super cyclone to form in the Bay of Bengal since 1999, and one of the fiercest to hit West Bengal in the last 100 years.
Sixty-seven-year-old Nishit Batabbyal, who lost his house and now living at his cousin’s, told The Wire, “We lived an impoverished life all this while, but somehow were managing. This cyclone snatched our only house, snatched the food from our plate.”
Embankments which guard the Dansa river water from entering the villages and farmlands were breached in three areas in Sulkuni. Life has been halted in most parts of Hasnabad as the cyclone washed away roads, snapped electricity supplies and left many areas without basic utilities.
Speaking over the phone to The Wire, a local school teacher, Chiranjeeb Mondal of Sadharan Vidyamandir said, “Many people in that area are not getting food and water. Some government relief (flattened rice and jaggery blocks) are trickling in, but those are inadequate. People did not just lose their homes; they also lost their livelihood — all cattle are now dead. Thousands of houses have been washed away in the Sulkuni area alone. People are now living in highland areas, either under a tarpaulin or under the open sky.”
Hachini Bibi of Jamberia village has also lost her house. The woman has taken shelter at her father’s house on the farthest corner of the same village. Twenty-nine-year-old Hachini used to work at a brick kiln while her husband worked as a daily wage labourer. “Ours was a mud house with an asbestos roof. It is completely destroyed. Many of our belongings are gone with it. We haven’t received any help from the government yet. A panchayat member visited us, but offered no help,” Hachini said.
On the west side of Sulkuni, the road heads towards Hingalganj. We stumbled upon a house which was reduced to rubble in Kadamtala village. “I have never witnessed such a fierce storm in my life,” said a 53-year-old Gobindo Das. His mud house was broken down the middle, roof blown away. The kitchen is a pile of rubble, as if it was bombed.
A devastated Das said, “Look at that, can we ever rebuild this again? I don’t think so. When the thatched roof was blown away, we ran out to take shelter in our neighbour’s pucca house.”
Das further said that saline water from Dansa river has entered the village and submerged the farmland. This will make the land uncultivable for the longest time. “I have a small portion of land; you can see it’s completely submerged now. We can’t farm on this land now. This storm destroyed both our house and livelihood,” Das said with teary eyes.
At Mominpur village of Bashirhat II block, the picture was similar.
There (Mominpur village) we met Bharat Das (52), who lost his only son Mahata on Wednesday evening. His expression empty, Bharat was wearing a white piece of clothing, the traditional outfit worn by Bengali Hindus when someone in their bloodline dies.
“I am handicapped, my son was 22 and the sole breadwinner of the family. But God took him away from us so that we suffer more,” he said.
On Wednesday evening, Mahata went to his neighbour’s house to meet a friend, Suman Das. Minutes after he entered the house, a big tree next to their house fell, killing Mahata and severely injuring Suman and his father.
Suman told us that his father Biswanath had been admitted to the Basirhat district hospital and the doctor has informed the family that he has a major injury on his waist and has fractured his hip bone. Suman has also suffered injuries; we noticed scratches and a deep cut over his shoulder and chest. “Neighbours came and pulled me out of the debris. They saved my life,” Suman recalled.
Samar Das, a cousin of Mahata’s, told The Wire, “The block development officer (BDO) called us to submit official documents for compensations. We have done that. He said, soon the money will be released.” A local panchayat member visited the family and gave tarpaulins and rations to each of the houses.
Swapan Das’s house in Chamapapukur gram panchayat was also damaged. The thatched roof flew away leaving the bamboo house in tatters. Swapan, along with his wife and daughter took shelter in Mominpur primary school, located down the road. “We are so poor that it is impossible for us to build our house again. I am begging the government to help us or else we all will die,” said Swapan.
We visited Mominpur primary school, where around 22 people are staying since Wednesday afternoon. Locals have arranged food and water for these evacuees. Shamoli Das, a resident of Chamapapukur gram panchayat said, “Nothing is left in our house, everything is gone. Our home has been reduced to debris.”
Shamoli’s husband Shadhan took us to the spot to show the remains of their house. The house had crumbled down to the ground. “We don’t know where we will go. Some of the houses can be rebuilt, we can’t even do that. After this, we might need to beg for a living,” said Shadhan.
Further, at the end of the road, we spotted what remains of Anup Das’s house. We could only see a brown almirah with broken pink doors, a large trunk, a floor mat, and a few clothes, all out in the open. The family has taken shelter elsewhere.
Das is a daily wage labourer. “For the past two months there was absolutely no income because of the lockdown. On top of that we lost our house in this storm. What is the point for us to be alive?”
Down the coastline, we visited Chamapapukur railway station and found that the gusty winds had ravaged the small station and virtually uprooted the platform shed.
In our 250-km trip, we saw hundreds of trees fallen, electric poles uprooted and overhead wires snapped all along the state highway, resulting in power cuts and communication disruption at Duttapukur and Hingalganj.
Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, a social advocacy group, along with other local social welfare organisations, have created a network to distribute relief material.
“We are trying to reach to the most vulnerable with our local contacts and provide them basic relief material like drinking water, and dry ration,” said Samirul Islam, president of the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha.
As of Saturday evening, the official figure of casualties due to the calamity stood at 82.
The West Bengal government on Saturday sought the support of the Indian Army, railways, and ports for restoring essential infrastructure and services in the cyclone-ravaged areas of the state. In a series of tweets the state home department said that the state government has mobilised maximum strength in a unified command mode for immediate restoration of essential infrastructure and services.