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The aftermath in flood hit Bihar

Sep 22, 2008

A month after river Kosi inundated large parts of eastern India and left millions stranded, journalist Rashmi Sehgal takes a trip to the flood-affected areas. Food shortage, lack of medicines, and the absence of facilities for pregnant women reflect the state's failure to provide relief, she notes.

Behli camp, located in the northeast of Supaul, one of the worst flood-affected districts in Bihar, is the last outpost of dry land after which, the turbulent waters of the raging river Kosi take over.

Behli is the largest relief camp in Supaul with over 10,000 inhabitants. It is from here that the army and private entrepreneurs are ferrying boats to bring in marooned villagers who have been living on rooftops and dry patches of land for the last four weeks.

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When I reached Behli camp on the morning of September 7, an emaciated, semi-conscious woman was being lifted out of a boat and laid on dry ground.

“What is your name?” an army jawan asked her. She was too ill to answer. Two unconscious children were hauled out of the boat and placed next to her.

The woman, whose name and identity remain unknown, was put on a drip and taken by ambulance to the Sadar hospital in Supaul. Judging by her condition, and knowing the poor facilities available at government hospitals, I wondered whether she would survive.

Lakhs of women and children who have survived the flood waters and are desperately seeking shelter in poorly resourced relief camps set up in the districts of Supaul, Saharsa, Purnia and Araria find themselves not only having to face the brunt of nature’s fury but also government apathy.

Raghopur has 6,000 inmates of whom 3,500 are women and 500 are old men and children. Saraigarh has 1,375 inmates of whom 445 are women, 490 are children and 90 are old men and women. Triveniganj has 1,230 inmates with 400 women, 500 children and 100 elderly men and women.

There are few able-bodied men at the camps; most have chosen to stay behind and guard their homes. Many were probably not in their villages at the time of the floods, since Bihar’s rural population is sustained by migrant labourers who work in various different parts of the country.

A few of the flood-affected men have already migrated to larger cities in search of employment.

A daunting task

All across Bihar’s affected districts there is clear evidence that the state administration has collapsed and cannot cope with providing relief to the three million people who were rendered homeless when the Kosi breached its embankments and abruptly changed course to flood over 1,000 villages.

The floods are being described as a catastrophe. No one knows how many people and cattle have been washed away. The National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and the army, which has requisitioned around 200 boats to rescue people marooned in their homes for several days, often without food and water, admit it is a daunting task.

Although the army is providing emergency medical relief to marooned villagers, but it’s obviously not enough

On the night of August 19, the flood waters came so unexpectedly that thousands of families were caught unawares. Everyone was desperately searching for someone, clutching at tiny morsels of information, staring blindly at the sea of people in the relief camps in the hope that they would spot at least one identifiable face.

Omiya Devi, a wrinkled grandmother who was brought to Behli camp by army jawans, was clearly traumatised by all that had happened in the preceding weeks. Mistaking me for a government official, she asked: “Can you take me back to my village? I am feeling desperately alone,” she muttered.

Basmati Devi, in the nearby Triveniganj camp, was equally distraught. “The waters came so suddenly. My sister and her son were both swept away before my eyes. I managed to reach the rooftop and remained there for 12 days eating dried maize to survive before I was rescued by the army,” she said.

It’s not just women who are searching for their families; the men are equally traumatised. Bachu Mandal of Parhaiya village, who witnessed his son and daughter drown, is now searching desperately for his wife, Lallu Devi.

I wondered how the government was going to put this whole jigsaw puzzle of missing people back in place. Now that the waters have begun to recede, the task of finding out how many people have died and how many are rendered homeless has begun.

Senior Bihar bureaucrat Pratyam Amrit, who heads the National Disaster Management Authority unit in Patna, said: “We are using the same software that was developed to track down missing people when the tsunami hit south India. Every individual who has sought refuge in the relief camps will record his name, the village from where he/she came, and other details. Once these figures have been compiled, the next step will be to launch a major reconstruction process which we expect to start around mid-October”.

The million dollar question before the flood victims, however, is how soon will the Kosi breach be repaired, and will the river return to its old course

Shortage of food, clothing and essential medicines seems to be the biggest problem facing the flood victims who live in 450 huge camps being run by government and private agencies. Political leaders are also working actively to ensure that aid reaches the camps.

Many camp inmates have their cattle tied outside their huts. Being a largely agricultural community, cattle remains the main source of income and livelihood.

Lack of medical care

Pregnant women are among the worst affected in this sudden dislocation, and maternal mortality deaths are suspected to be extremely high at most relief camps.

Take the case of Sukhiya Devi who gave birth to twins at the main Sadar hospital in Supaul, in early-September. On being discharged, she returned to the Behli camp where both her infant sons subsequently died, one after the other. Sukhiya, died two days later of diarrhoea.

An informal survey conducted by an Oxfam activist on 81 households in Behli camp revealed that there were 28 pregnant and lactating mothers.

There are no doctors or proper medical facilities at the sprawling Behli camp built on both sides of an elevated road, although the army is providing emergency medical relief to marooned villagers who are being brought here by motorboat, but it’s obviously not enough.

Dr Ganshyam Singh, who is attached to the National Disaster Relief Management (DRM) camp being run at the BSS Degree College in Supaul said: “Why are you telling me about the deaths? Where are the doctors? There is a paucity of medical staff. We are doing a 7 am to 7 pm shift, but that is not the case with camps located in the interiors. Pregnant women require special care which is simply not available.”

Ruby Kumari who had a normal delivery was informed that her son had died a few hours after he was born. A distraught Ruby said: “I walked for six days to reach this hospital. As it is, I have already lost my two girls to the floods.”

Shaheen Nilofer, project director at Oxfam, believes “the state government must appoint a senior medical officer who can coordinate the entire medical emergency services being offered in the five flood-affected districts”.

Supaul’s newly appointed district magistrate Shravan Kumar said: “We are working on this front also. We have already evacuated two lakh people and are now working to ensure that every flood victim gets two hot meals a day. Pregnant women will be given iron tablets and high energy biscuits.”

Yearning to go back

The immediate concern for the thousands of people who survived the raging waters of the Kosi and managed to seek refuge in the camps is to track down their missing relatives and try to ensure that the property they have left behind is not looted.

It’s believed that gangs of robbers operate in these areas and are known to be emptying out entire homes in the dead of night.

Buchaiya Yadav, mother of six daughters and one son, is determined to take the boat back to Madhubani to check whether her home is intact. “My only son drowned before my eyes. He was bringing the buffalo to safety. The buffalo got saved but he was trapped in the swirling waters and was swept away,” she said.

Kanhaiya Maurya, who lost two sons to the flood waters, is adamant about returning to his village of Tirasi Basti. “My younger brother stayed behind to make sure our cattle is safe. Please request the army jawans to allow me to carry some fodder back to my village so that my cattle can be fed,” he said.

Meanwhile, the army contingent watches helplessly. “If we turn them away, they simply use boats run by private operators,” a subedar pointed out. “The water in several places is between 30-40 feet deep. The marooned villagers are located 40-50 km away from this point. It takes an entire day for us to go and bring the villagers back. Many don’t want to return. They are asking us to bring them dry rations and medicines instead,” he added.

“We do not know whether we will be able to grow anything in the coming rabi”

“We keep warning them that the waters are not going to subside in a hurry. With rotting carcasses and dead bodies floating around, they are susceptible to disease. Malnutrition is also a major concern,” a health worker who is assisting the army effort pointed out.

Problems galore

In fact, the most profitable business at the moment is the building and renting of boats. When I drove from Patna to Supaul, I saw villagers building boats of all shapes and sizes. These would be used to carry food and supplies to villagers who refuse to move out of their marooned homes.

The local administration is preparing for a long haul. They do not see the victims being able to return to their homes for at least another three months.

Kuldip Rajak, who heads the panchayat in Koria Pattu village, said: “The Kosi is known to leave a great deal of sediment behind once the waters retreat. We do not know whether we will be able to grow anything in the coming rabi”.

Bureaucrat Pratyam Amrit agrees: “This is a real danger. We hope to provide a Rs 25,000 subsidy to every farmer, apart from giving an additional Rs 6,000 for de-silting. We will also be distributing Rs 2,000 to each family so they can buy clothes and utensils”.

The million dollar question on the lips of the 27 lakh flood victims, however, is how soon will the Kosi breach be repaired, and will the river return to its old course.

Engineers insist they will use giant concrete mesh cones to bridle the river and rebuild the breach. The next step will be to rebuild the embankments.

But water experts are not sure this will work. Everyone is keeping their fingers crossed. No one quite knows what turn this ferocious river will take next.

Source : Infochange
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