September 04, 2008

life in general: dire situation in bihar due to massive floods

(Update: There is a 7 September follow-up post to this one)

Last week, overflowing rivers have flooded the villages and other habitats in the state of Bihar in India. The situation is extremely dire even upto now.

(The photo to the left has been taken from Its a Xinhua/Reuters photo)

Below is a report from the ground in Bihar:

Date: 2008/9/3
Subject: [nbapresslist] Bihar Flood Update: More Volunteers and Support Needed
3 September 2008
The situation in the flood affected areas in North Bihar is probably well-reported in the media. After having visited the people in the affected areas as well as the resettlement camps, one feels that the situation is indeed beyond the imagination of many people, as also beyond the control of the number of authorities and agencies, including the civil, which are trying to reach out. Since we have moved from Purnia to Areria to Muraligunj in Madhepura District, we cannot, as we understand, waste any more time in describing the already known human disaster. There are, however many things that have become clear in this ongoing saga.

First and foremost, rescue operations are unjustifiably slow. To begin with, there was an avoidable delay of about 20 days, with the Army and Navy boats, through the disaster management authority, having only day before yesterday. Until yesterday night, some were still in the process of setting up their own camp bases and the work seems to have started, in some measure, only now. Most of the villagers are still there, though a few hundreds are coming out by paying to the private boatsmen, who are tying to make business in this moment of emergency as well. We have received many reports of people being forced to pay hundreds (about Rs. 200/- – Rs. 500/- per adult & Rs. 50/- per child) and in a few cases, being asked to pay a few thousands! It is unthinkable that these private boats, were, for this long, not taken into possession by the Government, by Order, and the entire process was so laggard.

The Government has, only in the last two days started taking into possession private boats, country boats even with the machines, all of which have proved woefully inadequate. The Army and Navy are bringing in the boats, to rescue the hundreds of families and thousands of people who continue to be stranded in the interior villages and tolas (hamlets), including those of dalits and Jadhavs.

Hundreds of people from Murliganj who have now landed in Purnea, have somehow managed to get some money from their relatives by contacting them over phone or spent the little, whatever, they could salvage before everything got lost. Many women and children also narrated horrific accounts of they holding onto single cables, that were thrown in by some youth into the water, and how they came out clinging onto those. Some of those, who lost, grip, fell into the running waters and got washed away. There is no doubt that many of those who are still languishing inside or who are slowing coming out are dalits, as we confirmed in the Areria district, who could not afford to pay, even a paisa.

Kabilasa, Golaha, Bagulaha and other villages, with many many dalits, Jadhavs, the landless and small land owners as well as Bistoria, with some Santhals, adivasis and dalits are some examples of villages in Areria where people are somehow surviving on the banks of the canals, where they are putting up, even without plastic tents, but they are not declared as flood – affected and they are not even receiving any aid. For them, to reach the market place at Raniganj, they require to come out, when water slowly recedes, walking for not less than 4-6 km and have to wait for long hours, before they start walking towards the market. The pathetic situation of inadequate boat transport has resulted in hundreds of elders, stranded and moving out in exodus with empty stomachs, without food for days nor transport to cross. Landless labourers, with no or meagre cash in hands, were found only feeding only wafers to their children, as there was virtually no food available. The situation could have been easily transformed, if only all the country boats, were under the control of the administration and if those were efficiently managed.

In Murliganj, the situation is even more grave, since there are more and more villages, reported to have thousands of people, without boats having reached even once or having just touched and gone a few days ago. The villagers of Bhelai, Ratanpatti, Gangapur, Hanumanpatti, Ramani, Bhalli, Jhakiran and others on the south bank of Murliganj and those of Bhittatol, Sikian, various wards of Murliganj township are on the rooftops are not vacated even after 20 days. The key question is, why has this been happening and happening for these many days? The observations are very obvious.

As already pointed out, the extreme delay in the boats reaching and being operationalized has aggravated the crisis. There has been much talk of the Army, Navy, CRPF, ITBP, RPF, etc. while their presence even late, has made a difference. The Navy has brought in 45 boats, out of which, only 15 are working. The DDC and the Programme officers, very young appointees for the NREGA were the only ones on the spot, with no control on the situation. We were told that they had informed the District Magistrate (Collector) repeatedly in the last few days, with nil response. We were also told that the CRPF boats had reached a particular police station, but not beyond, for no known reason. The Navy, BSF and others who had come under the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) are neither provided with guides nor maps of the region. The maps, they have in hand, are useless for location and searching the hundreds of thousands, within the huge water body. The boats did not have the required fuel in the tanks. The boatsmen were complaining of not having any mobiles or communication devices, in frequent cases of emergency for contact. They were apparently asked to produce documentary proof, which they obviously did not have. The Army commander could have easily given a written direction to ensure his personnel has mobiles, with local SIM cards in hand.

The motorboats of Water Sports Academy at Mumbai and Goa or the Coast Guards, seem to have been only kept on stand by, but not called for. It is obvious that the rescue operation itself is incomplete and the State needs to be moved with full force, with questions as well as support, if it is willing to take the same. It is not just news, but information, with all contact numbers, which we have provided to the CM's office that at least 10 special boats and divers and drivers are kept ready, with this organization, but cannot start for Bihar unless there is a call from the state governments.

The scenario of hundreds of those, who have and are coming out of their villages and their relatives, standing on the banks of the water, fighting for the boats to go to their villages, complaining about the sick and the weak, hungry and helpless, without even potable water at many places, arouses much sympathy, with anger and anguish both.

At both the points, Raniganj – where the Army and Navy are establishing new bases for rescuing people, or at Murliganj, there seems to be no preparation for either receiving the people, transporting them to the camps, or check ups and service, then and there itself. The mess very obvious at Muraligunj, where, apart from the inadequate boats, no channel for people to launch an estimate of the number of people stranded or to note their grievances did exist. Proper guidance at the rescue Centers is indispensable.

There is presently very little transport facility at the rescue centres. Once people come out of the stranded villagers, many of them are just having to walk in different directions, to fend for themselves. There seems to be no proper mechanism to record the names and details of all those who are coming out. The people could simply not comprehend, as to why no boat had reached some of the villagers. The junior officials kept mum, even when the people kept nagging and even challenging them. While a person from the ruling political party seemed to be the only in charge and spokesperson, he was also complaining of no action by higher ups, in spite of complaints. Regular complaints have brought out that the District Magistrate of Madhipura, who is a relative of the Chief Minister is most irresponsible and inefficient. We had to convey to the political leaders that this not the way to administer and that people would teach a lesson, if action is not taken sooner or later.

Relief by a number of organizations, especially from the districts of Bihar and a few from outside, which included people from Sikkim, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, a few corporates, like Tata Motors and some pharmaceutical companies, as also the National Alliance of People's Movements, which has brought in few vehicles of relief, which was helpful, though inadequate to meet the need. The NGO's support was not quite recognized and welcome, as we were told by many organizations in Purnia, Areria and much more so in Madhipura.

Among those coming out of the camp included even dead persons. Many people coming from inside narrate varying though large numbers of dead people, running into hundreds. There is also no mechanism in place for the decent exhumation of those who are dead. What is saddening is that there seems to be little response to the concrete suggestions, being made from time to time by people, civil society and experts, which though are reaching the top officials, are not heeded to or acted upon. And the Chief Minister exudes confidence of the number of boats not falling short even on the 23rd day, though the ground reality is very much different, which is regularly being informed to the officials at the highest levels.

The resettlement camps is another story altogether. Whatever is within the capacities of the local people, whether in Purnia, Areria, Raniganj, Banbankhi or others, they seem to have tried their best in reaching out with whatever support; small and large. We witnessed that every camp has different issues, but no camp has satisfactory arrangements for record-maintenance. Food supply is however on, though health and hygiene continue to be of prime concern. Food grains were not reaching the NGO camps, such as one in Banbankhi or in Purnia. The Government camps are receiving few grains, diverted from mid-day meals. Only at one camp (Raniganj) we were able to see a Government doctor. We could also witness many people were not happy. In this situation, the Government declaring that they had taken over the camps, causing the NGOs to withdraw is leaving the people in the lurch. Resettlement camps are really in need of support and organizing inputs, seeking participation of the inmates. For the next few days, this may be in the preliminary stage, but as soon as possible, organizations working with women, children and those who are capable of using the human power in the camps would require to be there. Volunteers for giving management inputs, including keeping the family record for follow-up, cleanliness drives and counseling, helping the family to plan the future, should reach out and find their own way relating with the organizers and the people.

The Public Distribution Sysyem (PDS) in Bihar, which is already in shambles is totally absent in this hour of need. The local markets have shops selling the ration cards, we are told, even otherwise. However, in the present situation, for the flood affected, to get the kerosene at the rate of Rs. 40/- per litre is just unimaginable. This may be the time when the Supreme Court Orders, directing the State, not to allow any citizen to go hungry and to deliver 35 kgs of food grains per person per month needs to be more strictly implemented. In the specially challenging situation, it would require planning of decentralized centres for distributing grains and kerosene with minimum proof, whether a ration card or a relief camp certificate. Right to food campaigners can play a role to make the Government go in this direction, at the earliest. What is to be noted is that there is no effort as yet started to link PDS to the affected families, also pro

Many of those coming from the interiors are in a dire state of malnutrition and hunger .It is the duty of the State Government to ensure that all the Interim Orders of the Supreme Court in the Right to food case, must be implemented at all camps. The State Advisor (Bihar) to the Supreme Court Commissioner in the Right to Food case, along with the Commissioner himself, must immediately undertake a visit of all the rescue centres and resettlement camps in all the affected districts, and ensure proper and full compliance of all the Interim Orders of the Supreme Court.

Rescue and Relief is on at the moment with much more wanted. Each family to get even the minimum to start the life, beyond the relief camps is going to take some time, no doubt. But even in the relief camps, the requirements to urgently reach and cover each inmate, would include a plastic sheet for spreading on the floor, a blanket for the coming winter, undergarments as well as a small lamp or at least a torch, a mug, bucket and other basic cooking and eating utensils. Those who have received packets from the voluntary agencies have received some things, but not all. There are families who have started staying in the open, either because the camps are crowded or they don't feel free and settled therein. These require a plastic sheet, utensils and a number of minimum items, whether it is a small water drum, a stove or a bucket. Provision must also be made for adequate quantities of washing and bathing soaps, to each family. At present, the estimate is that there are thousands of families in each township, adjacent to the affected area. For example, Areria has 3000, while Purnia has about 15,000 – 25,000 families and Raniganj, another 3000.

It is very expedient that proper record-maintenance of all the inmates of each and every camp must be available at the camp site itself and the DM must have a regularly updated database of all the people at various resettlement camps in his/her district. Timely and sensitive pyscho-social and trauma counseling must be provided to the people at the camps. The children must be engage in constructive activity at the camps and the State Government must deploy 2 full -time residential teachers and one anganwadi worker who would take care of the educational and nutritional needs of the children at the camps.

Health is one of the major areas, no doubt. Doctor's teams are working on behalf of various organizations, as we met those from the Indian Medical Association and Bihar Jharkhand Sales Representatives' Union. The IMA doctors had spent for the medicines on their own and they have also received assistance from the Shashwat Trust in Pune, through us. There are some commitments received of doctor's teams as well as stock of medicines coming in. A Group of citizens from Bangalore through Mrs. Jagdale is offering a large stock of ORS and so on and a health activists - volunteers team with Dr. Ashish Gupta, Amulya Nidhi and others are to come on behalf of Shilpi Kendra, who we expect would take stock of the macro level situation in health, including where is the Government providing the service and where are doctors employed. The State Health Dept, must by Order, ensure that a Govt. Doctor make daily visits at each resettlement camp. People coming out in mass exodus with cattle and bullocks in the flooded water also has some dead bodies. Veterinary and general physicians must be adequately available and all necessary precautions of hygiene needs to be used to stave of any epidemic.

The situation, thus, on every front, whether it be rescue and relief in the interior marooned villages, access to food and nutrition, health care, relief, basic necessities at resettlement camps etc, is very bleak and a lot needs to be done, before even an iota of normalcy returns to the shattered lives of the people of Bihar. We would require the continued involvement of all of you to keep writing to the Governments in Bihar and at the Centre and also provide any and all support you think, you can ... Volunteers who can come for a few days and offer much needed support at the rescue centers and resettlement camps are most required.

Contact for more details,

Medha Patkar Pervin Jehangir Rajkumar Sinha

09423965153 09820636335 09424385139

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