Apathy to Bengal
The devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan did not make national news or social media trends smacking of bias
Wednesday started as just another day with cloudy weather, overcast skies and gentle breeze. We could not revel in the pleasant clime as we waited ominously for Cyclone Amphan. There had been fair warning about this super cyclone slated to the second-strongest ever in the Bay of Bengal preceded only by the 1999 Super Cyclone in Odisha. Loudspeakers had frenetically patrolled Kolkata's streets and 'paras' cautioning the locals. Bengal had prepared for the worst with over 5 lakh people being evacuated from the coastal regions of the state. North and South 24 Parganas along with Kolkata would be in the direct path of the cyclone, and the state administration had taken proactive action to save lives. Kolkata police had barricaded flyovers, removed and lowered hoardings; the city's municipal corporation had prepared for flooding. We were prepared and waiting.
By morning, the super cyclone had weakened slightly to an 'extremely severe cyclone' but could still pack more than a punch with wind speeds of over 100 km/h, weather experts predicted. The breeze outside still not revealing nature's dangerous designs as I sat on my balcony after lunch and pondered the word, 'Amphan' (pronounced um-pun) and its etymology. I was bemused to find that the name was given by Thailand. In fact, a host of nations actually propose names for cyclones, and Amphan was the last in the older list, and a new one had already been finalised. While I perused the names given by India for forthcoming cyclones (a morbid but intriguing exercise) such as 'Neer' (meaning water) and 'Jhor' (storm) etc., the wind started picking up in spurts. Amphan was scheduled to make landfall at 4 pm and with still a half-hour to go, the tension in the air was palpable; what would follow would be 6 hours of absolute hell.
When you are born on the eastern coast of the country, heavy rains and cyclones become annual normalities. But Wednesday night was nothing I had ever seen before. The last severe cyclonic storm, Aila (2009) with wind speeds of 110kmph had done considerable damage but seemed like an errant teenager compared to the mayhem that would be unleashed by Amphan. When in Kolkata, I live in a multi-storeyed residential complex near Tollygunge with a rustic lagoon/pond bordering a well-maintained community swimming pool. Palm trees and some wonderful greens dot the area, flora and fauna can be observed daily. When Amphan was directly passing Kolkata, the scenes in our complex turned apocalyptic. The evening brought with it heavy sheets of rain with glass doors shattering, chunks of concrete falling everywhere. The otherwise safe and secure high-rises were braving the onslaught
of torrential rain and gusty winds; a sight to be seen and experienced to completely understand the fear that it generates.
While the storm raged on, the State administration was not sitting idle. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee spent the night at the control room as did Mayor Firhad Hakim and other senior bureaucrats. Even before the storm subsided, Kolkata Police and rescue workers were on the streets removing fallen trees. Only the next morning would show the ghastly reality. Kolkata was a graveyard of trees, foliage, and electric poles. The city and neighbouring Salt Lake lost over 4,000 trees, some over 75 years old. The pride that we took in the green cover that protectively shields the city was reduced by over 40 per cent. Roads blocked, flooded localities, telephone and internet lines down; the City of Joy a silent spectre to the trauma of nature's fury.
The official word from the Chief Minister put deaths at 72 and counting, and economic loss of over Rs 1 lakh crore. The districts would have had it worse with the Sundarbans ravaged, coastal areas razed to the ground, Digha made a miraculous escape along with Odisha. Amphan had dealt a massive blow on Bengal, coming most inopportunely at a time when the state was already battling the Coronavirus outbreak. Days of lockdown, the dread of a deadly disease with no treatment or vaccine in sight, and now this. Let me paint a picture of how different Kolkata now looks. That beautiful Park Street stretch that you would love to walk on barely has any trees left. The wide Red Road flanked by the Maidan has lost a sizeable portion of its greenery. The book stores of College Street destroyed, hundreds of books ruined by the rain. There is damage, debris, yanked out poles everywhere around the city.
By the time, some connectivity was restored and we could watch news channels, another blow came to the people. The national media had all but forgotten one of its most populous states, home to national icons, and the cultural capital of India. I flipped news channel after news channel that discussed all other issues except this utter devastation that had befallen one of their own states. Except for NDTV, no other channel adequately focussed on Cyclone Amphan and the damage and destruction that Bengal bore. The complete apathy of the national electronic media (newspapers were still more gracious) once again spells the truth — news from the capital only and always makes news (something that I had learnt and abhorred in my years of being an active journalist). Kerala floods, Assam floods, Tamil Nadu floods — no one gives a damn. The Uttarakhand flash floods of 2013 received air time largely due to scenes of unimaginable destruction and during a time when TV channels had more news and less communally charged filth to disseminate.
Only when internet resumed could some of us share the pictures and videos of the ravaged night and the wreckage that it had left behind. Scores of people reached out to me, shocked and amazed at the carnage that was not showing on their TV sets — 'Wow! Strong rooted trees have come down. That's crazy scary', 'That's depressing, especially after lockdown!', 'This looks bad', 'It's pathetic how national media is ignoring Bengal', 'I am so angry with national media. It's shameful'.
Even in the world of social media, no trending hashtags, no special profile picture filters saying, 'Pray for Bengal' or 'Save Bengal'. No bleeding hearts for the Sundarbans mangrove forest that is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. Over 2 lakh farmers are likely to lose their livelihood because when Amphan hit with the strength of three hurricanes reaching wind speeds of up to 190km/h. Reports suggest that the mud embankments were breached, allowing seawater to enter agricultural land. Little chance of reverse migration to Kolkata to earn a living because COVID-19 is still very much at play. So, do pray for Australia when it fights the bushfire crisis but 'Go Vocal about Local', and pray for Sundarbans too!
Of course, there can be no appreciation for the state administration — the round-the-clock work of Kolkata Police to clear up blocked roads, the NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) that is bearing the brunt of the tree-cutting, the State-led COVID-19 relief and food distribution that is still underway, RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group's power utility company, CESC, that resumed uninterrupted power within less than a day of the rampage, Kolkata Municipal Corporation for restoring water supply or a proactive chief minister who sits overnight in control rooms, stands in ankle-deep water while taking stalk of the situation, and who believes in leading from the front.
Whatever may be your grievance against Bengal or her politics, remember that you come here for delectable food, intricate weaves, rich history, majestic colonial buildings, India's oldest cricket stadium – Eden Gardens, and 'mishti' (desserts) as sweet as the people themselves. Let bias not come in the way of appreciating
the heroic efforts of some common yet tenacious people propped by whose efforts, the city is inching back to life. Spread awareness of the devastation that has hit a state, garner help for the people of Bengal, contribute to relief funds — extend a hand to 'Rebuild Bengal'.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal