Kolkata: For the past two months, the Kolkata police have done it all. Their responsibilities have ranged from managing daily fish and vegetable markets to maintaining order in queues outside liquor shops; distributing masks and hand sanitizers to spreading awareness about social distancing; checking body temperatures using thermal guns to managing relief distribution; from supervising the functioning of the public distribution system to attending to daily needs of elderlies in containment zones. Another duty was added to this list on Wednesday late night: Chopping and cutting down trees blocking almost all major roads in the city.
Cyclone Amphan ravaged Kolkata on Wednesday evening, with wind speeds up to 130 km per hour uprooting thousands of trees and electricity poles across the city. From Salt Lake to Behala, Red Road to Jadavpur, Khidderpore to Panchasayar, on Thursday morning, the city looked like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Pushpen Sarker, a traffic sergeant with the Kolkata Police posted in Jadavpur, said, “There was no clear passage longer than 300 metres anywhere in the city. Every road was blocked with trees, some of which were hundreds of years old. In most places, when they fell, they uprooted electric posts and high-voltage electric lines.”
The responsibility of putting the city back on its feet by clearing these blockades falls on three agencies: the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) and the Disaster Management Group (DMG) of Kolkata Police The DMG is a special force with around 400 personnel. But to the common man, the most accessible solution is dialling 100. “Throughout the day, the headquarters is receiving hundreds of calls from people about the difficulty in movement, from where information is passed on to the relevant traffic guard or police station. The police’s job is to facilitate the work of the KMC. But the KMC councillors themselves are bombarded with distress calls. As traffic police we have to ensure that roads are clear. So we are now engaged in cutting trees with axes and sickles. We should not forget that due to the pandemic, there are always ambulances on the street,” Sarker told The Wire.
To make matters worse, people across the city blocked roads at numerous crossings on Friday morning, demanding the immediate restoration of electricity. One such oborodh was organised near Padmasree cinema hall near Garia in South Kolkata. “This entire area has not had electricity for over 65 hours now. The CESC and KMC are passing the buck, so we had no other option,” said a protester, as a lone policeman stood watching. When approached by The Wire, he said, “We have cleared hundreds of trees already, without waiting for other agencies. The headquarters has ordered us to work with locals and civic volunteers. But we have our limitations. Huge banyan trees have been uprooted and they cannot be removed without mechanical saws. Police do not have that equipment.”
Faced with this Herculean challenge, the police brass took to Twitter to reach out to the common citizens. Debasmita Das, DCP, South East Division, tweeted a video on Friday afternoon of policemen removing a half-broken log of a huge tree on the city’s Bullygunge Circular Road. DCP South Meeraj Khalid tweeted a series of ‘before and after’ pictures showing policemen at work making roads accessible by removing uprooted trees. Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma too tweeted similar messages and videos with #AmphanCyclone. Earlier it was only #FightAgainstCorona.
— DC SED Kolkata Police (@KPSoutheastDiv) May 22, 2020
The chairman of the board of administrators of KMC Firhad Hakim, who is also the and state’s urban development minister, met the press on Friday afternoon. He said around 5,500 trees were uprooted in the city. “There is no magic wand. It is an unforseen disaster. Police, KMC and CESC have to work together. You will have to give us time,” he said. He appealed to the common people to have patience with the system. Earlier in the day, he tweeted about the tireless work being done by the Kolkata Police.
At the moment, it’s a Sisyphean task for the Kolkata Police. A highly placed source within the Kolkata police headquarters at Lalbazaar told The Wire, “All our personnel are working under tremendous pressure right at this point. Nearly 40 police officers have tested positive for the coronavirus infection in Kolkata so far. It’s a miracle that the number is not higher. The frustration within the ranks reached a tipping point and resulted in the ruckus at the Police Training School (PTS) on Tuesday night. The cyclone has compounded all our woes many times.”
In an unprecedented development on Tuesday night, around 500 constables of the various special forces of the Kolkata Police housed at the PTS attacked DCP (Combat), N.S. Paul, with non-lethal arms because long-standing demands such as sanitization of police barracks and lack of adequate resting hours were not addressed. They chased him along the AJC Bose Road near the Kolkata maidan. The chief minister personally visited the PTS to assuage the anger of the lower-rank officials. The DCP had to be hospitalised.
Indradeep Bhattacharyya teaches literature and is a former journalist based in Kolkata.