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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Anand Mohan Sahay

'When the water recedes, our problems will multiply'

August 07, 2007

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Coverage: The East India Floods
2 million affected by Bihar floods

Bhola Yadav has not tasted his favorite 'salted-dal-bhath-roti' for six days now; that is, ever since floodwaters drove him and his family out of their home, and to the Hayaghat-Sormar embankment, in Bihar's Samastipur district, for shelter.

Worse, it is now 48 hours since he has eaten anything at all; the family's forced fast began once the stock of dry chura (rice) and sattu (roasted gram powder) were exhausted.

"We were eating dry chura (rice) and sattu (roasted gram powder), without salt and green chillies which you need to give the food some flavor, and that too once a day," Yadav says.

"But my stock got over on Saturday, now there is nothing to eat; we are all hungry and hoping for some relief so we can survive," says Yadav, in his late 40s, while seated on the muddy grass of the embankment.

Neither the government, nor private agencies, has yet provided any relief. "I am worried about how to feed my two minor children, wife, and an ageing mother."

Sarujiya Devi, Yadav's wife, has an even more basic problem: there is no space, no privacy, for her to attend nature's calls.

"There is water everywhere near the embankment, and there are hundreds of people all around on the embankment. It is hell," she says.

Yadav's family is not unique; hundreds of families line the embankment, subsisting on the little stock of food in their possession and when that dries up, doing without. Safe drinking water is a dream; they drink the contaminated water, ignoring the attendant risk of dysentery and other water-borne diseases.

"Roti-dal-bhat is now a distant dream; we are worried about getting a handful of dry rice to keep hunger away," Rambharose says, in the local dialect.

The scene is straight out of a nightmare.

Over 10,000 people displaced by the floods have taken shelter on the embankment, milling around all day with nothing to do, nowhere to go, no relief in sight.

Life has been reduced to its primal essence: a battle for survival, every morsel of food a hard won triumph.

They have created pitiful shelters with their sodden bedsheets and saris, under which they rest during the day. At night, they cannot sleep: there are no candles, no kerosene for their lamps, and in the darkness lurks the fear of snakes, and even of flood waters bursting the embankments.

"We are living on God's mercy," Rambharose says. "There is no government in sight, people from some volunteer organizations visited us and distributed some food once, but that proved a drop in the ocean.

"Our supply of water has run out, we are now reduced to drinking flood waters. Because of that, many of us have upset stomachs. But there is no place to go to relieve ourselves; no medicines, no doctors, no health care."

The situation is better on the Rampura embankment, in Kalyanpur block in Samastipur, where a few thousand have taken shelter.

Here people received some food items like kichri and roti (bread), courtesy local NGOs, these last two days.

An estimated 10 lakh people from Samastipur's number eight block were impacted by the severe flooding; outside of the mandatory 'aerial surveys', the victims are yet to hear from the government.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi [Images] is the latest to conduct an 'aerial survey' of the flood-affected areas, in the course of which she is due to visit Samastipur, with Home Minister Shivraj Patil, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, Steel Minister Ramvilas Paswan and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for company.

The victims tend to scoff at these surveys; their suffering, they point out, is on the ground; what can leaders know what they are going through, merely by flying over the affected area in a helicopter?

Yet, they build their hopes on little things. Since VIP visits are expected, they say, they are sure to receive some relief packages beforehand. It is the kind of cunning that the need for survival teaches you.

Though their immediate problems are pressing, survivors say the worst is yet to come. When the flood waters recede, they say, is when their problems will multiply: they have no idea what state their homes are in, but they can be sure they are considerably damaged.

This confronts them with the second part of the struggle: to get their homes back in order, somehow finding the money to carry out necessary repairs.

Officials of the disaster management department estimate that over 12 million people, spread over 5000 villages in 19 out of the 38 districts in Bihar, have been hard hit by floods, that have claimed over 91 lives so far -- officially, that is, though locals suggest that the toll is actually much higher.

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