Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Life & death: A flood story

The youngest member of the relief camp is two days old. She has no name.

Her grandparents-to-be had cried desperately as the water swept them away last week in Kolaipatti village and hundreds fled. Her mother, nine months pregnant, had begun a long walk that would decide the fate of both mother and daughter.

For Nazrun Khatun, 35, it was a battle to save her life — as well as that of her baby, ready to be born any minute. “The water was rising so fast.. I was losing my mind,” said Khatun, holding her baby in her lap as other homeless villagers looked on, smiling at the baby and trying to play with her. The baby half-smiled; then changed her mind and began to frown.

The family’s dramatic tale began on the morning of August 21. The Kosi was in fury. In Khatun’s home in Madhepura district, people screamed and ran from their homes. Many carried children, and cattle, on their shoulders. Khatun and her husband Mohammed Abbas, 35, decided to flee as well.
Before they knew, they were up to their chests in floodwaters. The family considered its options: waiting it out to see whether the river would rise further, or flee and leave their two buffalos and two bulls behind.

“I had to choose. It was tough but I had to leave behind the cattle,” said Abbad, wearing an undershirt and red-checked scarf hung loosely over his shoulder.

As Khatun groaned in pain and walked, her husband held her hand and walked ahead of his father Ahmed Ali and mother Jebun Khatun, who were supposed to follow. “They got left behind. They ran here and there. Then they disappeared and died,” said Abbas, a farmer who has lost all he had.

Khatun walked 15 kilometres, then took a train, then walked to a relief camp three days ago. She began experiencing labour pains soon after she joined the camp — a large school of two dozen classrooms where more than 2,600 people live now in a helpless, hostel-like existence.

Two days ago, she was ready. “There was no doctor, so two of my friends from the village helped me,” said Khatun, her face weary and sunburnt.

Khatun’s Hindu friend, who helped deliver the baby, takes her into her arms now, swaying her amid laughter from the crowd.

“What’s the name,” someone in the crowd asks.

“We don’t know yet,” says Abbas. “Who has had the time?”

India's Shame

The prime minister reacted to the crisis on August 28, ten crucial days after the flooding began. Too few military rescuers have been sent by New Delhi, and too late.

State police are missing from rescue and relief sites. There is a complete collapse of support from local government and panchayat officials.

Relief distribution is so unplanned and tardy that the able-bodied get relief again and again, and the weak watch helplessly.

The cataclysmic flooding in Bihar, the worst in India’s modern history, isn’t the national calamity. It is what is unfolding now.

Eighteen days after India’s most notorious and unpredictable Kosi River suddenly breached an embankment and changed its course uprooting millions of people, thousands remain trapped in homes, crushed in poorly resourced relief camps or just sleeping hungry on the road. It is a stunning indictment on how India’s central government, the Bihar administration, and local and international NGOs reacted to the tragedy that has touched the lives of at least 25 million people.

Across the misery-seeped expanse, there are no facilities set up to help trace missing people. No trauma care facilities. There are no international NGOs, who have in the past complained that India did not give them access in such situations.

“The prime minister came here and called it a national tragedy. If this is how our nation reacts to this tragedy, this is just a cruel joke on us, isn’t it?” said Giraj Rishi Yadav, as he sat in a relief camp after walking the whole morning in waist-deep water.

A jeep appeared with food packets from a local donor. Hundreds mobbed it. Hands lunged inside. Men and women screamed and fought over plastic bags.

An old skinny woman with white matted hair got crushed near the bonnet. Another woman had her blouse ripped as the mob pushed her.

An old man wept, desperate he couldn’t fight his young competitors. “First we lost our lives. Now we are losing our dignity,” said Mohammed Saleem, 47, of Chandpur-Bhangha village.
In the chaos, seven-year-old Salauddin tugged at this reporter’s denim jeans. “Can I please get food? I haven’t eaten,” he said, matter-of-fact. Two reporters from HT and NDTV lunged into the crowd to get him a packet.

An hour later, breaking the deathly silence of the submerged Sukhasan village, a mobile phone ring echoed on a rooftop. Sarita Kumari, 21, took the call from an Hindustan Times reporter.
Behind her, the conversations of about 100 people could be heard, trapped on the roof for ten days now. “We are trapped here, Sir… What shall I say about myself? We are all sitting here for ten days now. Not a single boat has come here to evacuate people or with relief,” she said, the phone line faltering.

It began raining.

“We sleep here. We eat here. We sing prayers. When it rains, we go down and stand in the water. Then we come up again. We eat sattu (powdered fried gram) to survive,” she said, her voice choking. “We told the headman, at least give aid to the Dalits and the poorest, if not us – he said ‘what can I do’?”

If the day brings out the worst face of the governments, the night brings out the worst in the humans. Robbers are roaming the submerged villages in the night, robbing homes of whatever jewellery, grains and possessions they can loot.

“Locals are telling us, there are a lot of robberies in the night. We have been trying to check the local boats,” said Lt. Commander Geo Matthews of the Indian Navy. Behind him, a woman walked in her bridal dress, a bright red and yellow sari with brocade. “That’s all I had left,” said Ranjana Devi.

Back at Chandpur-Bhanga, seven-year-old Salauddin was quietly walking away, his eyes lowered. He had a large packet of rice in his skinny hands.

Killer Kosi could leave Bihar barren

Modern India’s worst ever floods continued to eat up vast swathes of farmland in Bihar, with a much larger war to fight: thousands of acres of barren farmland, property squabbles, no cattle to plough the land, and homeless millions.

The flooding in the Kosi River , currently pulverizing several parts of northern Bihar , has affected almost a third of Bihar ’s 83 million people and submerged 1.1 lakh hectares (2.75 lakh acres) of farmland. That is 1,100 square kilometers, slightly less than the entire area of New Delhi .

It is the mother of all floods: the river is now 32 kilometres wide.

Unlike other rivers which bring fertile silt with them, the soil brought by the Kosi is like poison for the soil of the affected area. The river has been notorious for centuries for destroying the land it touches.

“The Kosi brings with it coarse sand and gravel from the upper reaches of the river system … it will make the land almost barren,” said Dr. M.A. Khan, a top eastern India official with the Indian Council for Agricultural Research.

“It will badly affect the food security of the state, and will take a long time to repair,” said Khan, speaking by telephone from Patna.

At the largest relief camp in Purnea town, many of the 2,600 villagers rushed to have their name written on an HT reporter’s notebook, hoping that simple act would help bring them back their lost land.

Young men elbowed their way in, announcing their names, and the names of their village, post office and district. Old men folded their hands. Women stood on their toes.

Those who do not have barren land will have a worse crisis: their seeds are all washed away, they have no fertilizers, thousands of cattle are dead, leaving no way to plough the land in the impoverished area that has small land holdings and cannot afford tractors.

“This is a matter of very serious concern … There is a saying in those parts: wherever the Kosi goes, not even a blade of grass grows there for 20 years,” said Pratyaya Amrit, additional commissioner in the state’s disaster management department.

World Bank officials met state officers on Tuesday to discuss the issue, and the central government will send a team of agriculture experts in two weeks to assess the road ahead, Amrit said.

For many, that does not matter: their land just disappeared.

“Where there was my land, there is now the river. I don’t know what to do,” said Mohammed Wasi, a farmer from Murliganj village, as he stood in a relief camp in Purnea some 75 kilometres from his home.

New land will apppear elsewhere, on the original course of the river, and revenue officials fear widespread land squabbles.

Monsoons are always tough times for northern Bihar, home to 13 crisscrossing rivers. But when the river began changing its course mid-August, it tore down a straight path rather than a meandering curve it had traditionally taken.

“India has sent many floods but this is unprecedented … I don’t think anything like this has been seen before,” said K.M. Singh, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority whose rescuers are saving lives and scooping up survivors in submerged areas.

Even as the central and state governments came in for tough criticism for tardy relief work, officials said thousands of soldiers were on the ground. Some 6.5 million people have been evacuated.

Thousands of people are choking the 260-odd relief camps across several districts, with long uncertainty before them.

“Please write down my name, Sir, I had my wife, three children, six bighas of land, two buffalos and a pair of ox,” said Sudarshan Shah, 45, of Murliganj village.

“Now there is just me.”

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times on September 4)

Beijing to Bihar

I apologise I have not written anything for a long time. Many friends have wondered why, some have gently reprimanded me, and I intend to make up for it.

My life has been on a rollercoaster for the past few weeks (I'd like to tell you that I am terrified of rollercoasters and never get on them). First the terrorist attacks happened and we were swamped at work, then I was in Beijing during the Olympics, then Bihar, and in the middle of all this my father went through a surgery.

But I am back now, and to prove this I shall first file some pictures from Beijing -- and then Bihar. I know many of you friends do not like it when I do it, but I will post a few stories I did in the past several days from Bihar.

I am very angry, and I hope it shows.

(All photos by the author, except when credit mentioned otherwise)