The national media and the national government in India developed an Amphan-sized blindspot as the strongest and costliest cyclone of the 21st century formed over the Bay of Bengal. And as Odisha and West Bengal started evacuating millions from the coastline, most Indians, including the Narendra Modi government, were binging on denial. They were social distancing from us, many in Bengal say.
Now, as a battered Bengal and Odisha pick up the pieces, we must ask, did India just deliberately look away from Amphan and its aftermath in the East?
Maybe, it had to do with the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown — perhaps that’s why Bengal was ignored. But then again Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli and the map controversy was a bigger newsmaker in Indian media than cyclone Amphan last week. India and the other countries around the Bay of Bengal faced two enemies — one visible, Amphan, the other invisible, the coronavirus. These countries, also affected by the coronavirus, were preparing for the storm — Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and even landlocked Bhutan. Ships were called back, coastlines cleared, people evacuated, disaster management teams put in place.
The story of cyclone Amphan — pronounced Um-pun and meaning ‘sky’ in Thai — is not just a tale of natural disaster and destruction, but also of political distancing, media apathy, climate change, and a UNESCO world heritage mangrove fortress.
But that story hasn’t ended, four days after the worst was over.
The natural disaster story
On 13 May, a low-pressure zone formed in the Bay of Bengal. In three days, it became a depression, and soon, as it moved northwards, it gathered steam to become a tropical cyclone. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah held meetings with Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik on 18 May to assess preparedness. On 19 May, Shah assured the chief ministers of all help. Across the Indian Ocean, however, the circling winds had other plans.
In just 18 hours, by 20 May, Amphan had grown into a category 5 cyclone. For reference, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in the US was category 5. However, Amphan was downgraded to an “extremely severe cyclonic storm” from a super cyclone before landfall. Those words aren’t exactly reassuring or soothing, when you are about to be hit with 155 km/hr, and higher, winds.
For a storm that was already generating so much data and warning, you would think the media and political satellites of India would have focused on the east. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and most other ministers, tweeted the same-old ‘thoughts and prayers’ template, followed by the ‘we are monitoring the situation’ one.
The political distancing story
There was radio silence from political leaders of the country as Amphan lashed and battered Bengal for hours. And for millions huddled in evacuation shelters — coronavirus and two-metre distance wasn’t the scariest thing out there.
When the truck full of political thoughts and prayers from all over India arrived in Bengal — I say truck because Shramik trains were cancelled due to the storm — there was nothing left to save. The storm had passed — the mangled insides of Kolkata remained, districts upon districts, especially South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas, had been pummelled, and Amphan had engulfed the Sundarbans whole and spat it out.
The political silence was deafening, and the protests on social media grew louder about the Modi government’s apathy. Two days later, Narendra Modi set foot in Bengal. An aerial tour to survey the ravaged state, followed by a Rs 1,000 crore relief fund was on the menu. This, while the Centre owes the state Rs 11,230 crore in taxes and destruction from Amphan could have cost Bengal over Rs 1 lakh crore.
Modi’s supporters and party insiders, however, reportedly said the Bengal tour was a pre-election year strategy.
Bengal was done. “Everything is gone” became the most predominant headline in news articles and Facebook posts. Even the most hard-core Leftists, while interacting on social media, were standing by their chief minister. At least she was there, they said. But the greatest storm of this decade had taken a toll on Mamata Banerjee — in her videos, right after the eye of the cyclone passed Kolkata, she looked defeated, but called a spade a spade. “Everything has been destroyed,” she said while she sat at Nabanna, adding that Amphan was worse than the coronavirus. There were no thoughts and prayers, or hope. And that night, there was none.
The media apathy story
The national media had loftier pursuits last week — celebrity videos about staying at home, Nepal’s map controversy, Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary, Adityanath and Priyanka Gandhi counting buses. It was only after complaints of being shortchanged did most take notice of the destruction in Bengal. NDTV 24X7 was one of the few channels which covered Amphan in detail and even asked on Prime Time: “Why Isn’t National Media Covering Aftermath Of Cyclone Amphan In West Bengal?”
On their digital sites, most media houses ran a perfunctory live blog and published the same technical who-said-what wire articles. While Covid-19 and jobless labourers got the ‘human stories’ from the ground, as they say, most Indians got to know of the severity and destruction of Amphan through viral videos, WhatsApp forwards and social media. By the time Amphan had reached Assam and Bangladesh, it was out of sight, out of minds of Indian English media.
But the Sundarbans did their duty
If you wish to take one thing away from this story of cyclone Amphan, then let it be that of the Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans are in the largest delta in the world — and shared by both Bangladesh and India. It also has the largest single tract mangrove forest in the world. Here reside hundreds of flora and fauna species — among them, the Royal Bengal Tigers. Humans and tigers live side-by-side in a unique biosphere. Even before Amphan, this fragile nature’s bulwark was threatened by rising water levels engulfing islands, increasing storms, and pollution from tourism.
But the delta’s mangroves act as nature’s shock absorbers, as cyclone after cyclone hits the coastline. They keep the mainland safe from the harshest impact of storms.
And that’s exactly what they did when Amphan came. But in the process, the Sundarbans were battered, flattened, and the islands destroyed. Homes and cattle were swept away. Saline water seeped into fertile land. And jobless workers who came back home to these islands during the lockdown now face an even bleaker future.
As global warming increases sea temperatures and water levels, more such powerful tropical storms will become the norm. And if these destroyed mangroves do not regenerate and regrow in a protected environment, disaster awaits Bengal.
Residents of Sundarbans, both Hindu and Muslim, will continue to pray to ‘Bon Bibi’, as they have for centuries, to protect them from the forest’s dangers. Kolkata will continue to cut and clear 5,000 fallen trees and the wires in their branches. But India will continue to test, test, test.
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