The cyclonic disaster and its patterns recently are receiving considerable attention from climate scientists who study the connections between storms and climate and has reported that “there is a substantial uptake in the frequency of the most intense tropical cyclones, and increases in rainfall rates within 100 km of the storm center of up to 20% since 1970 (US National 2018 Assessment report). However, climate change, above all, is an issue of social and environmental justice often overlooked by the state when hit by a natural disaster. In developing countries, like India, the hackneyed management by the state and the impractical policies of international bodies makes the vulnerable population suffer the most. Those most vulnerable to the negative impacts are, to a quite remarkable degree, are the least responsible for causing the problem in the first place.
The super cyclone Amphan which crossed West Bengal-Bangladesh coasts at a speed of 155-165 kmph gusting to 185 kmph across Sundarbans on 20th May opens up the historical narratives of suffering from recurring natural disasters on Sundarban islanders and the politics shrouded behind the sudden uproar about the Sundarban and the locals being affected by Amphan especially through the several mass media platforms.
Social media has been an asset to society, connecting the world with regular updates on various events happening around. Unlike the devastating images being shared around post-cyclone, the pre-Amphan description in social media was ‘romanticized’ by many, sharing photos of chai, pakora and cigarette with a ‘backdrop’ of black clouds hovering with a monsoon melody, sitting on their aram kerdara (armchair), watching the turn of events through their verandas!
However, once the wrath of the cyclone started to backfire the aesthetic ideal of ‘monsoon moment’ twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram was taken by storm with various stories, clipping and visuals of uprooted trees, flooded roads, damaged electricity poles, dark clouds, thunderstorms, objects flying with an unimaginable speed, the wind blowing off roofs of houses and people screaming for help. With no time, we saw a wave of solidarity, the social media became a platform for sharing emotions and anguish, empathizing and anticipating with the vulnerable-victim population, worst hit by Amphan. While for few, the calamity evoked the memories of the 1999 Odisha Cyclone but for many, it was a first-time experience, a nightmare the Sundarban islanders have been facing since inception.
The Relation of Sundarbans And Cyclone
The Sundarbans are a part of the world’s largest delta formed by the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra & Meghna. Among the calamities that overtake the region are great inundations caused by cyclones or hurricanes. In fact, the monsoon in this part of Bengal consists of a series of severe cyclonic storm or depression, which follow each other in more or less close succession up the Bay of Bengal. In other words, the area experiences the most severe storm surges in the world. O’ Malley while composing his Gazetteer of 24 Parganas (1914) noted that there is “no safeguarding against the sudden fury of a cyclone and its record show that though they occur at irregular intervals these violent storms are far more destructive of life property than either droughts or floods”.
If we make a journey back to Bengal’s past cyclonic events, we have evidence of innumerous super cyclone, of which few dates back to as early as 1582 AD which swept over Bakergunje, in Bangladesh, Barishal district causing a loss of 200,000 lives, hectares of farmland and cattle. In the recent 1990s from last century, Sundarbans was hit by two major cyclones, Bhola cyclone of 1970 at Bangladesh (then East Bengal) and West Bengal on November 3, 1970. It remains one of the underdog deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded to hit over the Bay of Bengal. The devastation was beyond comprehension, especially during the 1970s refugee crisis. Between 1940-1970s, West Bengal faced massive waves of migrations from then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) With no proper refugee settlement plan and the Bengal political structure going under shambles, one can hardly imagine the plight and sufferings the refugees and the vulnerable population living in the low-lying Bengal coast, especially in Sundarbans, have experienced. Most refugees during 1960-70s belonged to lower caste and class and lacked the means to survive on their own of which many settled in different islands of Sundarban and eventually faced a series of catastrophes with mere or no economic stability.
What happens when the Urban-Elite are Swayed by Cyclone?
Indeed, amongst the few aforementioned mammoth cyclonic disasters, Amphan has ‘the’ most devastating effects of all, as reported by various media sources which have not only hit the marginalized dwelling land of Sundarbans but also the Urban- Elite, the Bengali Bhodrolok society inhabiting in their opulent residences in Kolkata. In 2020 where the world is fighting against the worldwide pandemic COVID-19, it adds up an immense pressure on the State government and the victims to undergo proper preparedness and precaution to mitigate the after-effects of Amphan. The social media did make the world connect to records of damages to the city, but not many from the rural Bengal or Sundarban, because most islands of Sundarbans do not have the privilege of electricity access let alone forget internet connection. So, on the D-day, the world could only witness the vulnerability from an Urban-Elite perspective. On the subsequent days, social platforms turned into a cauldron of Empathetic-Sympathetic drive for the Sundarbans dwellers. People around small and big cities of West Bengal came together to help and rescue the marginalized victims, an alternative for the much-required central government relief aid and declaration of National climatic emergencies. Sundarban was yet again on the news, this time not for its man-eating tigers but for the natives, for its uprooted fragile ecosystem, crying for help.
In between all this cataclysm, a question that keeps hovering that why hasn’t the other cyclonic disasters, flood or epidemics when hit in Sundarbans not exhibited to the world like the Amphan? One may argue that internet connectivity and social networking wasn’t really prevalent during the 1990s, but the takeaways from failed preparedness and flawed relief management could have been reported and used to plan a more inclusive and cohesive mitigation plan for the vulnerable population.
A cyclone generally comes every few years but exploitation prevails at every step of life for vulnerable people. As a result, they lose more through ongoing struggles than through cyclones. A cyclone impacts everyone indiscriminately, but not everyone can withstand and recover at the same time and at the same pace. People’s marginality is mediated through their daily position within the society and connections with the political and administrative powers (Nadiruzzaman et al, 2015). For the Sundarban islanders, it is manifested in everyday livelihoods, in the fishing, honey collection, the struggles over land, in the right to use certain forest resources, and many more. Whether it’s a good start or bad, Amphan has made the rich and urban- elites face a minuscule of what being ‘defenseless’ may look like, for example, no access to electricity (if only it was for a day or two) which have turned many from being a sympathizer to empathizer. However, one should remember that the poor and marginalized people will always have to bear the brunt of natural disasters and tackling disaster collapse will always be a matter of class, racial and gender hegemony where the upper class continuously want to act as a saviour for the marginalized/ the lower caste Sundarban dwellers to advocate the acceptance of and support for classless and casteless margins.
Camellia Biswas is a Doctoral Student in the department of humanities and Social Science at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. Her doctoral research focuses on Human- Nature Interaction in the Indian Sundarbans from the lens of Political Ecology under the larger discourse of Conservation and Climate crisis.