This is a story of a survivor of the recent cyclonic storm Amphan. Amphan, (150-160 mph) a super cyclonic storm caused widespread damage in Eastern India and Bangladesh. This is the first super cyclone in the Bay of Bengal region since the Odisha cyclone of 1999 (160 mph). This is the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Gangetic deltaic region after 2007 Sidr (130 mph) and 2009 Alia (120 mph). In India, it has particularly affected the Sundarban deltaic region.
Amphan put the deltaic region in a triple whammy situation. This region was already dealing with the fallouts of climate change. Countrywide Covid-19 lockdown induced unemployment in the region, as hundreds of internal migrants were forced had to return home as income avenues dwindled in the cities.
This is a story from, as anthropologist Annu Jalais puts, the “up” part of the Sundarbans. Canning is the part of the ‘stable delta’ region and has a railway connection (Canning is the last point of rail contact to the entire deltaic region), as opposed to the southern islands that witness far frequent fluvial activities of erosion and accretion. These are not just geographical categorisation, but reflective of the social positionalities. Living in a space with modern transportation facilities always carries some sense of privilege. Canning looks wrecked post-Amphan, one can only imagined what is at play in the “down” parts of the delta.
Soma Tanti is a Research Scholar at a government university. She lives with her family in Canning, South 24 Parganas. She was back home from Delhi (university residence) due to the Covid-19 lockdown. She describes Amphan to be something she has never witnessed herself. Trained in Geography Soma gauged that the while the intensity of the storm dropped, at one point it was over 100 mph in Canning and overall lasted for 12 hours. It started with heavy rainfall and steady wind. “It was really very scary night… Noise was so high and loud. I could not even hear what my family member talking about that time.” The only point of reference she has was that of cyclone Alia, stressing upon “but that was mainly flood not this type of cyclone”.
Climate wise, the situation has normalised with occasional monsoonal rain. But on all other parameters, this place stands as a mess. “No death in my area but hurts some domestic animal like cow because of the trees fallen down. The civil police brought the people who live in mud houses to safe places, like school and temples. They announced about the cyclone in the whole village by mike. All big trees have fallen due to Amphan and almost 300 hundred of electricity post fallen too. Whatever little online teaching was happening during the earlier phase of lockdown, is now all gone. My research work is also very much affected. Two weeks have passed since Amphan came but no sign of electricity being restored. No one knows when it will be restored – not even the electricity department. It is too hot and humid no one can sleep at night due to no electricity. I cannot even use my laptop because there is no electricity. Phone charge is limited, which means we can hardly maintain communication outside our village. Here we have a shop charging our electronic gadgets by generator and charge us 10 for per phones and 20 rupees for other gadgets like home electronic lights, laptops power bank etc.” Soma’s words take us to author Naomi Klein’s famous idea of disaster capitalism, which contends that disasters are employed as an opportunity for capitalist growth and profit. Long term implications of this dynamic, however, is unclear and would require follow-up researches. This is also a case of failure of intergovernmental responsibilities. In disaster-prone areas, like the Sundarbans, it is critical that government bodies at all levels – block to state and even central level – have clearly defined responsibilities concerning disaster (planning, mitigation, response and recovery). It is disagreement around responsibilities that creates a situation like in here, that of electricity.
Photo by Soma Tanti. Post-Amphan. This is adjacent to her house. This has been the situation for two weeks now. The utility pole with dropping electric cables bears a damaged and defunct look.
“Government is not working enough. I understand that this is a very tough time because of covid19, but they should give us electricity as it is a basic necessity. It is a pathetic situation to live like this. Thankfully they have worked towards providing us safe drinking water and ration, which otherwise is an issue after such disaster. These aspects are also looked after by the local NGO”
She reiterated, “It was a very scary experience and I will never forget it. Our cows were so scared they were making noise too. We just could not sleep at that night.” This narrative shows how while remembering or talking about a disaster, the physical body becomes central. That is to say, as anthropologist Annemarie Samuels would argue, we remember disaster not only through songs, poems, prayers or a dedicated museum but also (rather importantly) by recollecting how our bodies felt (like, sleep loss, goose bumps, jitters) in that moment of disaster.
Sampurna Das is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India. She has been working on the issues of water and land governance, and agrarian relations in the wider context of environment and development discourse.