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Remembering the Super Cyclonic Storm, ‘Amphan’ turns the City of Joy into a State of Sadness



The onset of the super cyclonic storm; Amphan in West Bengal, India was a package of petrifying winds, consistent rainfall, collapsing of trees, overflowing sewages, shattering of glass windows, blowing off tin roofs and many other things to recall and revisit. The Super Cyclonic Storm ‘Amphan’ was a powerful and deadly tropical cyclone that caused widespread damage in West Bengal and Bangladesh on 20th May 2020. This article is an ‘ethnographic’ account of the experience of Amphan winds and the collateral damage done to the social and ecological structure at large.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) issued warnings of high-speed stormy winds, ‘Amphan’ (pronounced as UM-PHAN) to make landfall on the coastal region of West Bengal at 4 PM of 20th May 2020 (Freeman, Slater, 2020). Previously, IMD had alerted the Chief Ministers’ of West Bengal and Odisha to evacuate residents living near the coastal regions and advised fishermen not to venture out into the sea. In a prolonged media briefing, the IMD Executive, Dr. Mrutyunjay Mohapatra categorized Amphan as an ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’ with a wind speed of 165-177 Kmph(IMD, 2020).

The lull before the storm was particularly very peculiar on 20th May 2020 when the climatic conditions roughly changed from humidity to a sudden drop in the temperatures followed by pleasant winds in the red alerted areas of West Bengal. Simultaneously there were hourly announcements by local authorities with a list of precautions such as the closing of doors and windows, removing of pots from balconies, charging phones and battery banks and stocking up of essential especially in the regions alerted by the IMD. This advisory was largely circulated in the urban areas of West Bengal, whereas in coastal and rural areas the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was taking precautionary measures and shifting 5 lakh people out of the low-lying area.

As the storm made landfall near Sunderbans, West Bengal with a wind speed of 155 to 165 kmph gusting to 185 kmph. The winds gradually moved towards the southeast of Bengal and by 7 PM (Indian Standard Time), the winds started blowing at a speed of 110 kmph making noises when coming in touch with any surface, to the extent it often banged doors and window panes.

The magnitude of nature’s revenge was such that extensive damage to all types of mud houses, some damage to the old badly managed red brick structures; the potential threat from flying objects; uprooting of communication and power poles, disruption of rail/road link at several places, extensive damage to standing crops, plantations, orchards, falling of palm and coconut trees, uprooting of large bushy trees and large boats and ships may get torn from their moorings. Causing over US$13 billion of damage, Amphan is also the costliest cyclone ever recorded in the North Indian Ocean, surpassing the record held by Cyclone Nargis of 2008.

The harassment of the high-speed cyclonic winds was felt up till 10:00 PM (Indian Standard Time) and after that the wind speed reduced but the rainfall continued. The residents of red alert areas complained of water entering into their bedrooms either through windows and balconies. They added that the force of the wind was such that often glass windows were shattered on the marble flooring creating a pool of water that consequently hampered furniture and electronic items. Simultaneously, some residential complexes had reported long hours of power cut, no water supply, and mobile phone networks being snapped. Interestingly, those areas that suffered a power cut before the onset of the storm continue to live in dark zones for 6 days or more, and in other areas power cut was done only on 20th May night. Areas within Hooghly, Howrah, and Kolkata have complained that waterlogging has resulted in falling of electrical poles/ transformers and trees in public spaces creates obstruction space for movement too. With live wires swimming on the water, this has resulted in many deaths and injuries across the state. As per the government records, the death toll as per Amphan assault as of now stands at 98 with lakhs of people living out of the safety net of essential items such as food, water, electricity, and medical services (PTI,2020). The stagnant water in residential areas can be warnings for dengue, wild snakes, and other animals. It will be a double whammy situation for the state which is currently steering a tough conquest between the Amphan woes and the COVID crisis (Mazumdar, 2020).

The Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee and her political aides continued to monitor the situation closely and conducted a press conference late in the night. She stated that devastation by Amphan is incomprehensible and she requested financial support from the Government of India.

The City of Joy turns into City of sheer Sadness:

Metaphorically, the City of Joy was turned into a City of despair, it seemed like the capital city; Kolkata was beaten black and blue by the severe cyclonic winds. The images showed that enormous trees fell on buses and cars damaging public spaces to a great extent. The mobile towers had collapsed in many places. The cable Tv lines and Wifi connections were either completely shattered into pieces or were submerged in deep sewerage waters. Many shops were closed or even ran out of supplies. For example, in many parts of the state, the supply of milk was extremely skewed.

In posh parts of Kolkata reported lack of drinking water and insufficient water supply for household chores. There were reports on media portals stating that how residents’ protests against lackadaisical attitude of electricians, councilors, sweepers to restore normalcy in highly affected areas. To the extend, that some local newspapers reported that the state didn’t have electrical cutters to cut the trees that have fallen on roads and public spaces. The citizens also argued that IMD had raised an alert much before the outbreak of Amphan, but still the administration never made requisite preparations for mitigating the crisis.

In such times, the Narendra Modi government decided to donate about 1000 crore rupees to West Bengal (after an aerial survey) for uplifting the state from the post cyclonic crisis. Subsequently, donations were made to West Bengal Chief Minister’s relief fund. A state which has about 10.09 crore population, the donated amount for relief funds may appear to be obscure but can at least help in the starting the process of rehabilitation and restoration of displaced communities and ecological areas. To assist the State official and NDRF with a quicker response for Amphan, the State has deployed the army too. In the wake of destruction, the responsibility of the army is the restoration of essential services and infrastructure. They are equipped with road and tree clearance machines that can expedite the process of restoration.

For State like West Bengal that faces the wrath of cyclones periodically must be prepared well advanced before the outbreak any such storm such as Aila, Fani, or even Amphan . A Proper drainage system must be created to ensure water-logging doesn’t take in residential complexes. The very idea of rainwater harvesting must be taken up earnestly by residential welfare associations. Moreover, the West Bengal’s power utility company, CESC (Calcutta Electrical Supply Cooperation) should assert the use of solar energy as a way to least provide some level of electricity to homes that have received many hours of prolonged power cuts. With the world at large suffering from global climate change, states at large must pool in more stakeholders from Non Governmental organizations and ecological activists who can provide interesting inputs to combat storms and save the planet at large. Holistically, individuals must not see the environment and its changing moods being associated with celebrating environment day or earth hour, or planting of trees, the ozone layer. We need to move beyond these compartmentalized opinions on a sustainable environment because the concerns are real and they need practical solutions with an immense level of determination and integrity for resolution.



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