Gone with the wind

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

in the Sunderbans

CYCLONE Aila, which struck West Bengal on May 25, left a trail of devastation along the length of the State. It killed 137 people and affected the lives of more than seven lakh. The Sunderbans, spread over the districts of South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas, bore the brunt of Ailas fury. More than 75 per cent of the victims belong to this region.

Ten days after the cyclone struck, when this correspondent toured the region, the people of the Sunderbans were still groaning in misery. Along the course of the river, on the battered embankments of every passing island, one could see people, including women and children, pleading for relief. Their cry for water rent the air. More than anything else, they needed drinking water since saline river water had flooded their villages and polluted their freshwater ponds. Even little children stood in waist-deep turgid river, braving the crocodile menace, to catch the attention of passing relief boats.

With the spring tide coming, the residents were engaged in a futile endeavour to repair embankments that had been damaged or washed away by the storm. They had just three days before the full moon on June 7, when fresh tides were expected. It was a losing battle; yet they chose to fight it in a desperate bid to survive. Even women and children pitched in. They worked tirelessly, without food or water, but by June 8 many parts of the region faced fresh tidal floods.

More than 400 kilometres of the coastal embankment in West Bengal was breached in the impact of the cyclone. Many families had left the islands and could be seen living on small boats on the river with whatever possessions they could salvage after the storm. Most of these boats were heading towards the mainland as part of the exodus from the region.

In stark contrast to the human turmoil on one side of the river stood the forest land on the other side lush and pristine in its beauty. The cyclone has hardly had any effect on the forest land thanks to the presence of mangroves, S. Mukherjee, field director, Sunderban Tiger Reserve, told Frontline.

In Jamespur island, people lined up on the embankment with whatever utensils and containers they could salvage from the disaster and cried out to approaching private relief boats: Dont throw [the relief material]. Whatever it is you have to give, hand it to us; but please dont throw. There have been instances of relief material falling into the water; in one incident, a child died in the desperate scramble to collect relief material.

The situation inside the villages was worse. Hamlets have been reduced to wasteland with submerged crops, uprooted trees, shattered homesteads and emaciated cattle all around. Ponds, which have been the only source of potable water, lay contaminated and stinking. Not even stray dogs that survived the disaster would go near them.

Sixty-year-old Biren Mandal broke down when he said: I have lost everything my house, all my possessions, my land. He was carrying, for his family of four, a small tin container of drinking water he had got from a private relief agency. The water, barely enough to quench three peoples thirst for one day, would have to be rationed to last at least three days. The gamchha (traditional handloom towel) he had around his head and the lungi (traditional informal wraparound used by men) he wore were all the clothes he was left with. His three-bigha (a bigha is 0.33 acre) land in which he grew kharif paddy had been rendered unproductive for at least a year now by the ingress of saline water. This was the plight of all the farmers in the region.

Another one and a half kilometres inward in Binapani village, 72-year-old Abhiram Haldar, stricken with illness, sat inside his house, eating for the first time in two days a fistful of puffed rice. The roof over his house had collapsed and there was no room even to stand inside.

The situation looked more horrifying as one travelled further down. Those who had made it to the banks had it easier as they had more access to relief. The plight of those marooned further inside was inconceivable. My parents are stranded there, said Binati Haldar, pointing to a distant village surrounded by water. Nothing has reached the people there. No water, no food for the past 10 days, she said. Most of the boats in the villages have been destroyed, so no one could attempt a rescue or get news of their family and friends in those parts.

The condition of the people in Chargheri village in the neighbouring island was just as bad, if not worse. Not a single house in the village was intact. Renuka Chowkidar, 65, lost even the title deed to her land. This piece of cloth I am wearing is all that I have to my name. My house and everything inside it was washed away, she said, struggling to hold back tears.

The main road in the village has been badly damaged. Inside the village, it was as if large parts of the village had simply blown away. All one could see were empty spaces with the debris of houses lying around.

Anango Mandal now lives with his wife and four-year-old son under a tarpaulin cover supported by two bamboo poles on the spot where his house stood. We are truly helpless. This is all that is there to protect us from the wind and the rain, he said. Often a strong wind blows their shelter down, and Anango has to run to retrieve the tarpaulin before it gets blown away.

Silent crowds gathered around their neighbours who were voicing their grievances, with defeat and desolation writ large on their faces. They had nothing new to add; they burst out in anger from time to time each one of them being exactly in the same situation as the other. A young man standing by with just a wet gamchha around his waist smirked, Here, take a picture of me. Cant you see Im in my best clothes.

In a shattered house with just two walls and a damaged roof lay six-year-old Supriya and her 14-year-old sister Tia, their bodies burning with fever. Supriya fell ill on the day after the cyclone, and as of June 3 there was no supply of medicine to the village to help get her fever down. There was hardly any food or drinking water for her. After nine days of continuous fever, she did not even have the strength to cry. Outside the hut, their grandmother Kalyani Mandal wailed, My grandchildren will die. We will all die. With the walls of the hut broken down, there was no way to keep out the wind and the intermittent rain. Their father, a fisherman, was at the battered embankment more than a kilometre away with the others, trying to hail passing boats and plead for water and medicine.

Though the occasional rain provided drinking water, it also brought with it the fear of fresh floods. All our crops have been destroyed, and the fields cannot be cultivated for a minimum of two years. At least now we are getting some relief, but that cant go on forever. What will we do after that? Nimai Mandal, a farmer who had shifted his family to the riverbank, told Frontline. Even the meagre relief that people such as Nimai got was unavailable to the thousands who were stranded inland. Most of Bidhan Colony, another island in the Lahiripur Anchal, was submerged. Those with boats could make it to the riverbank to collect whatever relief was coming their way, while others had to wade or swim through the putrid, stagnant water.

It was better to die, said Sudhangshu Gain, his skeletal frame trying to manage his dinghy. I have not had anything to eat in days. I cant do this anymore, he said more to himself than in reply to this correspondents question. In the distance a little girl was running toward the embankment at the sound of a boat approaching the island. When the road ran out, she did not hesitate to jump into the contaminated water and swim across to collect her meagre share of relief a packet of biscuits or puffed rice, and maybe something to wear.

As is the case of all the villages, the devastation inside Bidhan Colony is also massive, but the village has had one advantage a tubewell that gave it fresh water. Being close to the riverbank, this village had better access to relief boats.

Samaresh Mandal, a tailor and a homoeopath, lost, along with all his possessions, the four cows he owned. Even the little container in which I kept all my savings has been washed away. This is the case with everybody here. We have all been reduced to nothing, he said.

For those in the neighbouring village of Parasmani, life was even harder. The village remained cut off from the riverbank because of flooding. For Anil Mandal, 50, collecting relief meant rowing through polluted water in his little boat. We are so cut off that most of the times we dont even know when relief boats come by.

The condition inside Parasmani is grisly. Bajwara Mandal, 70, sat under the shed of her broken house with a few utensils all that she was left with after the storm. She shared her little shelter with her friend Debala Mandal whose house was swept away. Behind her house lived Karuna Mandal with her 75-year-old mother, Bilati. All that was left of their home were a few pieces of sticks and some straw from the roof. My mother and I live alone. There are no men in our family to help us rebuild our house, said Karuna.

Behind Parasmani lies Santigachhi village. Minati Mandal, 60, had a hard time reaching the embankment carrying her little granddaughter when a relief boat arrived. But by the time she reached the embankment, there was nothing left. I came too late. I have not been able to get anything. This child [sleeping on her shoulder] has not had any food. Nothing is reaching our village, she told Frontline.

Water is the most necessary commodity, especially for those stranded in the interiors, to prevent starvation deaths and outbreak of epidemics. As for rehabilitation, the short-term requirement is assistance to reconstruct all the mud houses destroyed in the storm. The long-term requirement is to repair damaged embankments at the earliest and pump out saline water so that people can resume normal agricultural operations. Any delay can only make the land more unsuitable for cultivation for longer periods.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment