Remains of the day: A trail of devastation

ByShaunak Ghosh

Jun 5, 2020

After cyclone Amphan ravaged Kolkata, many iconic sites now remain a skeleton of their former selves, as both lives and livelihoods went for a toss

Md Naser Ali owns a small nursery in the AE Block of Salt Lake. A plant lover from childhood, he always dreamt of opening up a nursery of his own. After working for years as a botany lab assistant in a reputed college, he saved up enough to quit the job and start this nursery of his own. He pays a rent of 10,000 every month, and his monthly income is around Rs 20,000.

The nursery is nowhere in sight now. A huge bael tree on the border of the small plot crashed into it on the night of Wednesday, 20 May, when Cyclone Amphan stormed through the city, leaving unimaginable destruction in its path.

Like Naser, Surajit Santra too lost everything in this devastating storm. His small metal welding workshop in Behala was completely broken down in the storm. “A nearby tree fell on the tin roof of my workshop and completely ripped through it, destroying some of my machines. Now there is literally no roof over my head”, says Santra.

According to him, he has suffered a loss of Rs 1-1.5 lakh. “On top of this we have no income due to the lockdown, so this cyclone acted as a bolt from the blue”, he adds, his voice trembling.

Categorised as a Category 3 super cyclone, Amphan, which originated at the Bay of Bengal, was the worst cyclone to hit West Bengal in nearly 300 years. It ravaged the state capital along with the South and North 24 Parganas districts and the coastal district of East Medinipur at speeds of more than 130 km/hr.

This caused widespread damage to the state, with an estimated damage of around Rs 1 lakh crore, according to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Thousands of houses were damaged, many people were rendered homeless, and 86 people were declared dead.

More than a thousand houses fell in what meteorologists call the eye of the storm, which is the strongest part of any cyclone. “The damage that has happened to the city will take a long time to repair, maybe even four to five months”, a source from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation was quoted as saying.

“We are yet to make a monetary assessment of the loss, but it’s in the range of no less than Rs 3,000 crore and that is the minimum we are expecting”, he further went on to state.

Pages turned

There’s a popular belief around Kolkata that if you can’t find a book in College Street — the city’s very own boi para(book lane) — the book has certainly gone out of print. It is the largest book market in Asia, attracting thousands of customers everyday. A visit to the area on any normal day and one would find a crowd of people milling in front of several bookshops — from the big stores stacked with shelves of books to the several small stalls — to buy or just browse through the multitude of books on display. The smell of books used to dominate the air.

However, post-Amphan, College Street looked a shadow of its former self. Several books, drenched in rain, torn and tattered, were lying on either side of the road. Amidst the broken trees lay heaps and heaps of books that were washed away by the storm.

“I lost books worth Rs 2 lakh”, says Samiran Das, owner of a small unnamed stall right in front of the iconic Coffee House. “I stay far from here, and when the cyclone lashed out I just stayed home praying to God that nothing happens to my books, but when I came here the next day, I saw the street flooded to the brim with books floating in the water”, he continues.

He then went to his godown further down the road inside a small alley beside Soorajmal Jalan College, and he found that flooded too. “Somehow I managed to save some of my books but most of them were soaking wet”. Das says that though he managed to dry some of those books as the rainwater receded, most of them were damaged.

Heavy rains along with showers led to flooding in the heart of Kumortuli in the city

“I sent two mini-trucks loaded with damaged books to the dumpyard. My heart broke into two seeing that scene. Those books are like my own children”, he says, his voice choking.

A little ahead from Das’ stall was another, whose owner Somnath Mondal says that he lost books worth Rs 30,000. “Most of the books that I, or any small bookstall owner sells are mostly second-hand text and guide books for school and college going students, and hence their binding quality is anyway not that of a new book. Hence most of our books have been completely ruined by the cyclone”, Mondal explains.

He goes on to say that the lockdown had already hampered his business, and now the cyclone acted as a double whammy. “I don’t think my business can be revived in the next six months at least”, he says, worried.

Mondal then points to a stall to his right. “Okhane jaan, oder sob theke besi khoti hoeche ( Go there, they have had the biggest loss in this cyclone). The stall, named Parents Book Stall, is unmanned and locked. On enquiring with the rest of the stall owners, all of them said this is the stall that was most affected, the owner losing books worth Rs 12 lakh.

In fact, most of the stall owners that Patriot talked to suffered losses in the range of Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 and some even in lakhs like Samiran.

The Publishers and Book Sellers’ Guild of Kolkata, estimates the loss of the books in College Street amounts to Rs 5 crore. A representative of the guild says that the loss might take two years to recover.  NGOs like “Quarantined Student-Youth Network”, and ex-students unions of the area’s prestigious institutions like Presidency University and University of Calcutta are helping out with monetary relief for the vendors of College Street. Even Shashi Tharoor started a crowdfunding campaign to raise some help for the area. The government, however, is still to declare any support for the businessmen of the area.

Artisan’s paradise lost

China Pal’s studio lies in the heart of Kumortuli, the artisians and idol makers colony in the northern part of the city. In other years, the Bengali month of Baisakh is the peak time for orders. It is at this time that she, and the other artisans of the area, get the first orders for Durga Puja.

In addition, they earn their livelihood from small festivals to celebrate goddess Sitala and Annapurna. The making of Viswakarma idols to commemorate Vishwakarma Puja in September are in full swing.

Pal says that the lockdown had anyway slowed down the business, with almost no orders coming in. Then Amphan came as a curse at this point of time. Her workshop now is completely tattered, with the forceful winds of the cyclone blowing away her roof.

Like Pal, almost all the 700 idol makers residing there now stare at an extremely bleak future. While the tin roofs of some workshops have been blown away like Pal’s, some workshops have been completely damaged. Clay idols have completely been washed away by the downpour, many lie with half a head or without an arm.

Babu Pal, the secretary of the Kumortuli Idol Maker’s Association, says that most of his idols have been broken. The 18-20 Durga idols that had just begun taking shape were completely washed away

“There were 20-25 Annapurna and Sitala idols and about 30-40 Lakshmi idols lying outside. All of them have been destroyed by the storm. The price of Annapurna idol is Rs 5,000-10,000, Sitala is Rs 3,000-5,000 and Lakshmi idol is Rs 1,500-2,000. In all, about seven hundred artists from Kumartuli are facing a financial crisis. It is impossible to turn around this time without the help of the government”, he says.

Idols being made in preparation of upcoming festivities were destroyed by the strong winds and rain

Though no concrete monetary assessments of the loss have been made as of yet, Babu Pal says that more than Rs 1-2 lakh worth of idols have been washed away completely.

“When I came here the morning after the cyclone, a Laxmi idol I had made was floating in the water. It seemed as if the goddess had been immersed even before her Puja took place”, quips Sontu Pal (name changed), another of the 700 artists whose livelihoods have taken a hit.

However, the artists remain hopeful, as most of them say that in the month of June, they would start working hard as the lockdown gets lifted slowly and steadily. They are confident that if they put double the work, their livelihood can be sustained..

Green casualties

A 270-year-old “Grand Banyan Tree” — the world’s largest tree and India’s national tree — used to be the main attraction at the Shibpur Botanical Garden, as thousands of visitors thronged the park to see the marvelof nature spread across 4.67 acres of land. It has weathered the cyclones of 1864 and 1867, which caused some part of its trunk to be damaged.

In the years since, it has weathered many storms like Aila, Bulbul and Fani, and not a single branch of this tree was torn off. However, even the grand old tree could not survive the wrath of Cyclone Amphan. Most of its prop roots have been uprooted and “the density of the tree’s peripheral stem and branches have been damaged. The exact extent of damage will be figured out only after further inspection”, says an official statement from the Botanical Survey of India.

Besides, the botanical garden in Shibpur which hosts around 15,000 trees saw more than 1,000 trees damaged in the storm. ““Not a single part of the garden seems to have been spared,” garden director Kanak Das said. “Cyclone Amphan has totally devastated the botanic garden. A huge number of trees in almost all the divisions have either been uprooted or broken”, says Kanak Das, director of the garden.

Firhad Hakim, the mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, says that more than 5,000 trees in the city of Kolkata have been uprooted by the cyclone. The damage was such that the army was called in to help municipality workers remove the debris from the streets.

On a drive through Raja Dinendra Street, which stretches around 4 km, one could see the line of trees strewn around the road. A huge banyan tree on the same road  near Deshbandhu Park, which had a cement structure and a mandir erected at its base, was completely uprooted, blocking the lane. Even the temple was uprooted with the tree, such was the force of the storm.

Park Street, one of the major green covers of the city, looked like a jungle with uprooted trees in the aftermath of the cyclone, with cars manoeuvring through the carcass of the greenery. The two large trees outside the iconic Tata Centre  were not only uprooted but crashed into the gate, blocking the main entrance of the building.

Post-Amphan, College Street looked a shadow of its former self

“To clear the trees, a total of 10-15 days will be required, but the loss that the greenery of Kolkata suffered is nothing short of devastating”, says an officer at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. “The loss of greenery has almost sucked the lung of the city”, says environmentalist Subimal Mukherjee . “The loss is such that even a mass plantation drive will not be able to repair the damage. The mass concretisataion has anyway led to the loss of many trees, and this cyclone has further enhanced the chances of  more pollution and rising temperatures in the city in the coming years”, he adds.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation recently announced the mass plantation of 40,000 trees to enhance the greenery in the city. “Over 15,000 trees have fallen in the city. Right now we have to plant 30,000 to 40,000 trees to fill this vacuum. We have to select the right trees for the city and will consult with experts before starting the drive”, said Firhad Hakim, in a press conference.

A life lost (Box)

Pavneet Singh Sethi was at his home in the Southern Breeze Apartment in Behala on the night of 20 May, three days before his birthday, when the cyclone Amphan hit Kolkata. At around 11 pm, he found that his father had run out of blood pressure medicine. So he went out after the storm receded to fetch the medicine from a nearby shop.

But hours went by and there was no sign of Pavneet. His frantic family called the police control room for hours, but no one had the faintest idea as to where he was.

Around 4.30 am on 21 May, locals saw a few bodies floating on a puddle of water. They were of people who had been electrocuted due to electrical wires being torn by the storm and falling into the water. One of the bodies was identified to be Pavneet’s. The 31- year old fell into the laps of death unexpectedly, leaving behind a grieving father.

Pavneet had ordered a birthday cake for himself the very day he passed away, and had an elaborate celebration plan with his friends and family, says his best friend since school, Priyanjit Poddar.

“He was such a jovial person. He used to hang around with friends most of the time, and was the life of the group. We still can’t believe that he is no more with us”, reminisces Poddar.

Pavneet’s birthday cake did arrive on Saturday, but his family refused to take it and instead distributed it among the security personnel at their apartment.

(Cover: More than 1000 trees were uprooted by the destruction brought on by Amphan in Kolkata  Photo: Shaunak)