Disasters, it is said, divide people only in the short run; the long-term manifestations unite communities based on similar experiences. In the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, hundreds of school students from Calcutta came together to help Shuffle, an organisation devoted to social welfare. They created kits containing essential items for people in the Sunderbans who had faced the effects of a devastating combination of Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan.
Each kit contained rice, pulses, biscuits, sanitary napkins and soap. They were distributed to families in the village of Enpur in Gosaba block. The distribution was conducted by Shuffle volunteers who were instrumental in each part of the process — from collection of relief kits to its packaging. While preparing for the journey to the Sunderbans, it was alarming to discover most people’s misconceptions about the area. Most school students assume that navigating the Sunderbans is a Herculean task and our decision to visit it in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan was not very wise.
Through our journey, we not only wanted to understand the sentiment of the locals facing the brunt of two disasters, we also wished to break the stigma surrounding the Sunderbans: if you know where you are going, you will find a way to help.
The livelihood of the people in the Sunderbans is dependent entirely on the environment. Coastal and estuarine fishing engage most of the workforce but shrimp farming and honey collection have also gained prominence. Due to Covid-19, most of these operations have been suspended, with no sustainable model for food production. “Villages that have good relations with the government get regular aid from the buffer stock, but those with opposing views can only depend on the occasional distribution of essentials by non-government organisations,” says a senior teacher in the Enpur pathshala.
What was surreal was that despite the destruction that Amphan had wrought, most villagers simply said that it was normal for them. Cyclones Bulbul and Aila, too, had destroyed the fishing industry and houses in the Sunderbans. While the magnitude of Amphan was much greater, there was little difference in the damage caused.
Armaan Ahmed, coordinator of Project Sunderbans by Shuffle, said, “The government has to come up with better disaster management schemes to help tackle calamities. Most of the relief is temporary and although distribution of kits by organisations such as ours helps, it’s not a permanent model that the people can depend on.”
Lack of sanitation and menstrual hygiene is also a problem in the Sunderbans. Taboos surrounding the use of sanitary napkins and menstrual cups have restricted young girls and women to cloth, which is dangerous due to the susceptibility to urinary tract infections. Though our kits contained sanitary napkins, the question remains that how many women would actually use them.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the position of women in the workforce influences their position at home and vice versa. While interviewing fishermen and farmers, we understood that the conservative notion of women being household managers and not seeking employment resonates with the majority of people in Enpur. Although young girls go to school, they are unable to channelise the knowledge gained unless they move out of their villages in search of better prospects.
Poor crisis management systems and lack of infrastructural facilities have influenced the socio-economic dynamics of the Sunderbans and curtailed development in places that had a lot of potential.
Certain governmental work is commendable. Aid from the West Bengal State Emergency Relief Fund was speedy and helped initial recovery after the cyclone but for long-term relief, it is essential for students, organisations and the government to collaborate and come up with measures to preserve the world’s largest mangrove forest.
The writer is the founder of Shuffle