Nearly a month after cyclone Amphan battered the Sunderbans, the archipelago appeared to be healing — its clay embankments were being repaired and connectivity had been restored. But a visit to one of its most isolated areas, which has braved the cyclone and lockdown, threw up interesting sights.
Also read: Cyclone Amphan batters West Bengal, Odisha
Hundreds of trucks
On Sunday morning, there was frenetic activity at the Godkhali ferry ghat, which connects the remote islands of Ghosaba, Bali, Satjhalia and Kumirmari. Hundreds of trucks and thousands of people had arrived there with what they called relief supplies for cyclone-affected people. There was a rush among large mechanised boats to make it to the jetty and unload the materials. By the time sacks full of rice, packets of puffed rice, and potatoes, were brought down from the trucks and quickly loaded into motorised boats, the groups of people, who had mostly arrived from Kolkata, gathered for a small speech or a pledge.
Within minutes of the boat leaving the Godkhali ferry ghat and sailing in the waters of Sunderbans, there were more unusual sights. People began appearing on both sides of river Vidyadhari, waving at the boats. As the boat moved further, the number of groups of people, mostly women and children, appearing on the embankments, became more frequent.
Along the banks
Initially, it appeared that they were waving at the boats but then, when their voices were audible, it became clear that they were trying to get the attention of the boat carrying relief material. By the time the boat reached Ragabelia, a few boats that had left Godkhali had arrived at the banks and began distributing relief to the island people.
“People have been affected all over by the cyclone, yet there are only a few destinations which got highlighted and now relief is flooding there. We wanted the relief to be routed through the Block Development Officer, but then people want to do it on their own,” Jayanta Naskar, MLA of Gosaba, told The Hindu.
The MLA admitted that there was distress, but more than Amphan, which caused the breach of embankments in some areas, it was the lack of work forced by the lockdown that had added to the woes of the people.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I can say that for some people coming from the city, relief distribution has become an opportunity to visit the Sunderbans,” Mr. Naskar said. Referring to certain places like Rangabelia, Kalidaspur, Pakhiralay, Mollarkhali and Jyotirrampur, he said that relief has arrived more frequently to areas located on the edge of the river and creek. “There is not much need of relief in some areas, but people will not refuse in such times,” the MLA added.
Kumirmari, one of the remotest islands of the Sunderbans, derives its name from kumir, the Bengali word for crocodiles. It takes a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Godkhali to reach Kumirmari. People of the island had been informed that a relief team would arrive from Kolkata, and had lined up from Noon. The team arrived at 4 p.m., with about 280 packets.
About eight persons, employees of a private company, had meticulously organised the relief supply, with almost 80 families contributing funds. Each packet contained essentials worth ₹1,500, which mostly included items of food and some other essentials like mosquito nets, tarpaulin, torches, batteries and sanitary pads.
Lakhi Mondal was one of the first in the queue to receive the relief supplies. She said that she had received some essentials three to four times since the cyclone. “We have received rice, pulses, soaps, oil and other things,” said Dipak Mondal, another resident, who had come to collect the supply in a small wooden boat.
Islanders waited on the earthen embankments, in ankle deep clay, with Aadhar cards and voter IDs. People distributing the relief supplies also risked the mud, laboriously walking through it and reaching the villagers lined up on the edge of the island. The process of distributing relief was completed in two hours, and was followed by a short speech and cheers by the villagers.
‘Masks inside packets’
“Almost 11 years ago, the employees of the company had come with relief materials during [Cyclone] Aila, how can we not stand by the people now?” one of the members of the relief team asked. When a few villagers asked for masks, which the members of the team wore along with face shields, they were told the relief packets contained masks.
From Godkhali ferry ghat, where the trucks had lined up, to these islands, where people stood in queue, the State administration was largely absent. Physical distancing was not maintained, but neither the visitors providing relief nor the islanders accepting it could be blamed for it.