Witnessing a cycle of misery in Bihar's flood-prone villages

Published: Sunday 15 June 2008

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In two months the monsoon will arrive. And I am reminded of my visit to East Champaran district of Bihar four months after last year's "exceptionally destructive" floods. As person after person narrated his/her misery to me, it was clear that the government's relief was inadequate and acute distress did not recede with the flood waters; it lingered for months in the form of gnawing hunger, disease and deprivation. In fact, it is a cycle of misery that repeats year after year. In the plains of north Bihar, drained by a network of 13 rivers, monsoons are testing times.

Those were winter months when I visited 11 rural settlements in East Champaran and the rabi crop was yet to be harvested. I must have spoken to about 200 villagers and their common refrain was that it was a near-crisis situation. Meera Devi of Semra village in Ramgarhwa panchayat, Motihari block, said she did not have even a grain to offer to God.Ambiya Khatun broke into sobs when we were discussing the food situation in her village, Kathaan, in Motihari block. She and her neighbours had neither food stocks nor regular employment. Deep in debt, they could eat only on days they found some job.

Khatun's family was not even living in its house. Several houses in her village had caved in or had been heavily damaged by floods. They were living in ramshackle huts on the embankment, where they had sought shelter at the time of floods, vulnerable to cold wave. "You are asking us whether we have quilts or blankets. The reality is that this year we do not even have pual (straw) to keep us warm. Earlier, even the poor had some pual. But this year the entire paddy crop was washed away by floods," said Maneshwari of Semra.

According to the government's own data, the floods of July-September 2007 in Bihar were exceptionally destructive. They affected 25 million people in 22 villages, devastated crops on 1.6 million hectares and destroyed over 700,000 houses.

The paltry government relief of a quintal of grain and Rs 200 per family was quickly exhausted. Unemployment was common since until late December no work had been taken up under the employment guarantee scheme in the region. Heavy machinery was being used in road construction. On the farms women got only Rs 25 for six hours of work--half of what men got.

A number of cattle had perished in floods, while thousands continued to die due to disease and fodder shortage. No compensation was provided for the loss of farm animals. Compensation for crop loss too had not reached several farmers months after the floods. Their misery was compounded as they did not get ration under the below-poverty-line category or Antyodaya scheme. For some time after floods even mid-day meals were not available in schools and anganwadis.

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Staying afloat People suffer acute distress for months after floods
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Nowhere to go Their houses and crops destroyed by floods, people in East Champaran were forced to starve in rickety huts, exposed to wind and cold
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The situation has improved a bit since then, but for how long? Houses are being rebuilt, the employment guarantee scheme has been started and harvesting is over. But the bigger question remains is Bihar better prepared for floods?

In the case of Sundarpur in Banjariya block, the very existence of the village is threatened by river erosion, which has gobbled many fields and houses. Its resident Sheikh Mirazul was forced to move his hut a few metres away to protect it from the angry waters of the Burhi Gandak. But he was still not sure whether his eight-member family was safe even in the new house.

"This river has destroyed many. Fields have been ruined by erosion and the sand deposited by river," Mirazul said. "To some extent the entire village is threatened by erosion. Similar is the case of Ajgarwan, Jatvaan, Khairi and Mohammadpur villages," added Habibullah, Sundarpur's headman.

Cannot bank on embankments
Clearly, something more than better and speedier relief is required. The state needs to review the situation in which, on the one hand, "flood-protection" embankments are fast expanding, and on the other hand, damage from floods is increasing even more rapidly.

It is well known that embankments for flood control have several limitations, specially when constructed to control rivers which bring heavy loads of silt. In fact, embankments are not so much a method of flood control as they are a method of flood transfer. Walls can be raised to protect a densely populated area, but then some other areas where the damage is likely to be lesser will probably have to bear the brunt of diverted floods. Even embankment-protected areas are not that safe. Breaches in embankments are becoming frequent. So is the uncontrolled flow of water from the space left for controlled drainage.

Two months from now the Burhi Gandak will be angry again. Bihar still has time to escape its wrath. But will it?

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