When the gale died down and the squall ended in the early hours of May 21, Chandan Patra thought the worst was behind him. Cyclone Amphan tore the roof off his modest two-room house in Harinhula village in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal and smashed most of the belongings, but everyone in his family was safe and the hutment was still standing. Their biggest worry was the water swishing around on the floor – the cyclone smashed at least 22 river embankments in the area, allowing waters from the Bidyadhari river to gush through – but Patra estimated that in another week, the water level would plummet as relief reached the village. He was wrong.
Roughly three weeks after the fiercest cyclone hit the region in a century, water levels are rising once again, courtesy the full-moon tide that threatens to maroon the entire village and overwhelm the recently repaired embankments. Patra, who works at a leather factory near Kolkata, was forced on June 4 to shift his ailing mother and sister to a relative’s house on the other side of the river.
“In our house, the water is nearing waist-level. We fear if it rises again, it will destroy whatever we have left. The current sometimes is so strong that we feel we will be swept away,” said Patra.
The road approaching his house has almost been washed away, making it difficult for relief workers to access his family. The male members of the family take turns perching themselves on a bed atop a small pile of trunks and belongings while another one goes to get dry food and ration from the local government office.
“We are regularly getting relief material and food, but we are not sure how long our house will stand the gush of water. It is our home after all; we built it after much hardship. How do we abandon it?” asked Patra.
The village of roughly 1,200 people stands in an under-developed part of the state that is dependent on agriculture and manual labour. Patra’s father is an agricultural labourer, his brother is unemployed and his sister is studying in a local college.
Their nemesis, the Bidyadhari river, is one of the scores of waterways that form a unique interconnected network of channels, marshes, and salt lakes in the Sunderban delta. It once cradled a glorious ancient civilisation that now survives only in the form of a ruins and fort at nearby Chandraketugarh.
A lifeline for the local population – dominated by marginalised castes, for who the local assembly constituency is also reserved – are the decades-old embankments that protect the area against storm surges. Local residents allege these structures were slowly weakening because of insufficient maintenance – hastening soil erosion in the area. “Over the years, we have lost chunks of land to the river,” said Shyamal Mondal, a local school teacher.
Amphan crushed 22 of them, but within weeks, local residents and the administration were able to rebuild about 20.
“About 500 labourers worked day and night to repair the embankments. But in two big ones, the water pressure was so high that it was dangerous to work there. These have not been repaired,” said Mondal. As a result, columns of water are gushing towards the low-lying Harinhula that falls right in the direction of the current.
Two additional factors are complicating relief. The area is without power because Amphan uprooted all electricity poles in the vicinity and the lingering threat of Covid-19, which has infected at least 1,000 people in the district. The administration has provided generators and local residents have pooled in money to buy portable batteries to be installed in the main chowk of the village. Their biggest concern: keeping mobile phones charged.
The administration is aware of the challenge in a block where roughly 60% of the houses were severely damaged. “The damage is extensive. We are trying our best and giving relief and food to the locals,” said Usha Rani Mondal, the local legislator.
She said the water surge was too much for the workers to bring it under control. “It may take up to one month for the water to completely go down,” she added.
The state government admitted that some areas were still inundated.
“While most people have returned home and have started rebuilding and repairing their huts, there are some areas which are still inundated and people have not been able to return to their house. They have been kept in makeshift camps. More than 16 lakh tarpauline sheets have been distributed. Disaster kits with stoves, utensils for cooking, and water containers have been distributed. They need to stay in camps till the water recedes,” said Javed Khan, state disaster management minister.
But for Patra and his family, the threat is more immediate. “We don’t know if our house will remain standing when the water surges again. Where will we go?”