(the image to the right has been taken by me from wikimapia... the red circle was added by me to highlight the affected areas in bihar...click on the image to see it enlarged)
Below is an from-the-ground update:
Subject: [nbapresslist] UPDATE ON THE FLOOD SITUATION IN BIHAR
To: email@example.com September 2008
UPDATE ON THE FLOOD SITUATION IN BIHAR
Everyone has been hoping that the rescue operations in the calamity-affected areas of Bihar would get over, if not after 5 or 10 days, at least after 15 days. However, till today even after 12 days, there are thousands of families who seem to have been ensnared by the Koshi's waters – either on marooned chunks of land in the affected villages or on the rooftops on some lone structure or on the embankments, rail lines, roads nearby.
With the army boats coming in and the country boats being contracted by the Government with the boatmen, it is being claimed that enough boats have now arrived and the rescue operations are in full control. But, in reality, though the army and navy camps are in place and there is an improvement in the rescue operations, the task is far from over.
Yesterday we reached Beldaur in Madhipura districts, where the army camps appeared to be active. Shockingly, the people coming out of the boats are screaming and complaining that their kith and kin in the villages who are sick and starving, should be rescued immediately. Even as the 'operations' continue, the Army Commander did not even have a list of the villages along with the number of families and people to be rescued. How can this situation be acceptable? It is simply unacceptable that hordes of people have been waiting for not one or two, but for more than 15 full days. We also gathered that diseases, particularly diarrhoea and skin ailments are breaking out in the villages and camps. Thousands of cattle, unattended, lay scattered all over the relief camps and are also visible in large numbers on the roads that lead from the flooded villages to the relief camps. Even those people, who at times thought of staying put in the villages, had to take a decision and leave the villages, as the meager food grains, which was until now saved from submergence, got exhausted. The shrieks and cries of the people are simply unbearable.
Our intervention could only help convince the Army Officials, to send the first boat to the villages where there were problems and the rescue of people began only after they were forced to wait for days and weeks. Just as we reached, there were two deaths reported, within a span of half an hour over the wireless. One was in Ratanpatti, the village visited by us, where we witnessed the horrifying situation of hundreds of women, children, elders and men, waiting for hours together to get space for only 8-10 persons on the boat, to cross just a few meters. Thee boats reached after 15 full days of awaiting and hunger.
It seems as if death has become a part of life in these areas in Bihar, its shadows hovering on the waters of Koshi, sinking the humans and cattle alike.
The Government has declared a figure of 'twenty two', as the official number of dead, over the last few days, but none of the villagers, who have witnessed the dance of death of Koshi would buy these grossly underestimated statistics.
All this and much more has deeply shocked and shattered all of us, when we reached the spot at Pratapganj in Supoul. The moment we started enquiring with the people who had come out, all of whom were visibly looking crestfallen, there were no answers to our questions initially, but the people slowly opened up, speaking hard and narrating poignant stories of pain and deprivation.
People of Dharampur had started walking yesterday and reached today. Those from a comparatively nearby village, Lalitgram, also had to walk for not less than 6-7 hours in the flooded waters of Koshi. "Seventeen people died in my village", said Harish Chandra Bushkuriya of Pariyahi village and many are critically sick. He was desperate that at least one boat be sent to his village the same day, but by the time we could speak with the army chief there, Pradeep Sharma in command, they had left. No doubt, the boat was stocked with food materials, but there was no guarantee of it going back to Pariyahi. Such major news, the Army officials did not even disclose, based on the operations of their contacts with the interiors.
Another person from Lalitgram could not wait for a minute and interfered and insisted that he should be heard first. "Three to four deaths a day are occurring every day and where is the administration?", he yelled. He poured out his woes that his community brethren are lying on the river bank with no food, the food packets thrown from the aircrafts, they told us, were mostly spoiled and wasted by the food getting mixed with the soil and at times even hitting people from above. Whatever little remained was consumed, for one half meal a day. This person was none other than the ‘mukhya’ (village chief).
The most poignant incident was narrated by the people of Lalitgram. The army boat crashed into a railway line near a culvert, causing the death of seven persons on the spot, including 4 children and a 21 year old pregnant woman, Saira Khatun. The only person who escaped was her husband who had in fact warned the army officials against going in the fateful direction. “His advice was not only not heeded, but he was in fact abused and beaten up”, his relatives, in utter grief and sorrow narrated the incident. He was however keen to do anything for saving his people from drowning. What was more of a shock and surprise was that the diametrically opposite information about the incident was provided by the Army to the District Collector, that all persons, but one, on board the boat were rescued.
The news of thousands of families having been camping on the Arraha canal was first disbelieved, both by the SDO and the Collector, both of whom we spoke to.
The SDO was present right at the spot, but with no active intervention.
Chattapur, has not less than 17 wards, with the boats finding it difficult to reach out to at least 500 persons still left out and stranded. Mohd. Sadiq who managed to come out is as much concerned about cattle, as human life.
The Government has not and is still not following a simple yet vital practice of interacting effectively with the people who are coming out and reaching out to the people still stranded inside on this basis. This just seems to be missing. All of this requires a simple input with about 20 volunteers and one senior official from the Army for rescue and multiple actions in a quick and better way.
How is it that the Centre and the State governments have not been thinking of joint planning and execution when this has been declared as a national calamity? Why hasn't a dedicated Central team been constituted to over see the entire process? Co-ordinated planning, by mobilizing aircrafts, boats and resources from all over, to the maximum extent necessary could have and still can avert a lot of loss to the life, limb and livelihood. With the boats coming in this late and water receding slowly and some villages being after the culvert, the pace of rescue is not to the required momentum.
We all must keep up the pressure on the Government and ensure that boats from all over are diverted for this purpose. Just as we questioned the State as to why more motor boats were not called in from Mumbai, after days of persuasion and challenge, 24 boats came in with a cadre of 60 personnel. The same could have happened with the Cast Guards or the machine boats available in large numbers at the Howrah port.
We were able to gather more information today as well, with our intervention and the little intervention in the system-building also did have an impact. We worked as a team of volunteers on various tasks, including gathering information on the inside situation.
There has, however, not been much of improvement on the other front. Civil society and NGO camps still do not have food grains, in adequate quantities from the State (FCI).Large organisations seem to be active in relief work only in Supoul, foe whatever reasons. Hand pumps have reached many camps. Though, through our persistent intervention to provide adequate rations, some of the Government camps are now being provided by the same.
Even as relief and aid goes on, there is inept talk from various Govt. and political quarters in favour of construction of the high Dam on Koshi, and arguments to re-construct the broken embankments or even putting forth the dangerous proposal of inter linking of rivers. As against this, civil society must initiate and the state must welcome a healthy public debate on the issue of large dams, embankments and their relative merits and demerits.
We must be able to clearly put forth out perspective of preserving the natural ecosystems and human livelihood by alternative ways of harnessing water, instead of bilaterally favouring mega hydel initiatives despite innumerable past failures, not to speak of the current Koshi barrage debacle.
Let us all synergize our efforts in preserving the rich Koshi ecosystem, with seven rivers upstream and sixty tributaries downstream. This is an opportunity, though at a very high price, for all of us to open-mindedly consider pro-people and pro-environment flood management as the real and sustainable answer. The coming few days, will be a test of the political will and capacity of the Government in reaching out to the million of devastated people.
Medha Patkar Vijay Bhai Pervin Jehangir
09423965153 09431068555 09820636335
Lal Babu, Atik Ahmed, Braj Kisjhore Chaurasia, Babulal,
Sanjay, Lokendra, Rajkumar Sinha, Rajaram