Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

Bihar floods: when home is a highway

Marooned: “Stretched over 10 km from Dumri to Buddha Nagara Radha to Rajwara, the embankment is the lifeline for the flood-hit villagers, mostly poor and daily-wage agricultural labourers.” Flood-hit residents of Muzaffarpur in Bihar go in search of dry land.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

The whirring sound of moving rotor blades of the helicopter in the sky alerts everyone in the colony on the Buddha Nagara Radha embankment in Mushahari block of Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. This is a colony only five days old. Marooned by floodwaters from all sides, breached at two places, the 10-feet-wide embankment has become a new colony of flood-hit victims — a ragtag cluster of hastily erected bamboo shanties and tarpaulin tents precariously perched even as the swirling waters of the Burhi Gandak greedily nibble away stretches of earth.

With arms aloft and eyes looking up to the sky and ears adjusting to the sound of the helicopter blades, the new settlers hope for something to fall from above — sign of some helping hand from the State government. But the helicopter soon becomes a blip. Hope is quickly displaced with despair. “It’s our fate that this government too has become insensitive… it just triggers hope but delivers nothing, not even in the time of crisis,” Sudha Devi, sitting under a tatty awning, says.

Life on an embankment

Stretched over 10 km from Dumri to Buddha Nagara Radha to Rajwara, the embankment is the lifeline for the flood-hit villagers, mostly poor and daily-wage agricultural labourers. The devastating floods having snatched away almost everything, they took refuge here clutching their meagre belongings. Some managed to rescue their cows, buffaloes and goats, now tied to a bamboo keel by the side of their shanties. Blank wooden cots, torn plastic mats, a few utensils and earthen stoves make up the rest of their possessions. Land is scarce and the first one to reach gets the right to erect a tent. Latecomers frantically vie for vacant spots. “We waited till we lost everything… now life is on loan,” says Dinesh Thakur, an agricultural labourer.

More than 50,000 people have taken shelter on this embankment built in 1954. “If this had not been here, imagine our fate,” says Subodh Kumar Suman, a primary school teacher of Roshanpur Chakki. His village and school are under water but he has been helping fellow victims settle down on this embankment.

Suman offers us a ride on his motorcycle from one breached place of the embankment to another. At both the breached places — Rajwara and Rohua — villagers are scrambling to get on the motor boats run by two different teams of the National Disaster Response Force to cross the river. It is a stampede-like situation but there is little one can do to bring order. An NDRF man helming a motor boat appears helpless as he ferries more people beyond the prescribed capacity of eight. “Yes, it’s a risk of life but what are our options?” he says.

There is no sign of government or non-government relief reaching out to those taking shelter on Buddha Nagara Radha embankment. The electricity in the entire area has snapped and no official has bothered to visit. Their meagre food ration has run out. The survivors talk about how they eat snails, fish and rats… anything they can lay their hands on, and drink the floodwaters, use mobile phones as torches and wait for days for help to reach them from somewhere. “No one comes here… who’ll come to this death trap surrounded by floodwaters on all sides with the bund breached at two places?” says Lal Babu Rai of Manika Chand village, which shares boundaries with the embankment.

Tents on National Highway-77 in Sitamarhi district provide temporary relief. Ranjeet Kumar

Tents on National Highway-77 in Sitamarhi district provide temporary relief. Ranjeet Kumar   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

 

At several places on the embankment the flood-hit new settlers crowd around us mistaking us for government officials. “The government has not given us the black tarpaulin sheets to cover our heads which people of other flood-affected areas have got… what to talk of food or anything else! We’re left at the mercy of the elements,” says Ram Pravesh Kumar. His father Sivan Bhagat is ill and had taken to the only cot the family has. “Life for us here is hell…worse than hell,” Bhagat says in a hushed broken tone. He has been suffering from diarrhoea for the past two days.

The squalid, filth-ridden narrow pathway on the embankment is marked by open defecation and a fetid stench filling the air. Stray dogs scuttle through the crowded settlement while men and women lounge listlessly under the plastic-covered shanties seeking shade from the oppressive heat and humidity. The swollen floodwaters furiously lap against the walls of the embankment. The dwellers complain of snakebites and swarms of insects who have also made their home here. Diseases like diarrhoea and viral fever have gradually started surfacing.

The other challenge is arranging fodder for the cattle. Cows, buffaloes and goats can be seen munching, almost mechanically, without fodder in their mouth. “They are starving… earlier we waded through the floodwaters to get something for them to eat but now everything is submerged,” says Janak Sahni, adding, “it’s a battle to save either our life or our cattle.”

The government records put animal deaths in the State at 192; compensation of ₹30,000 for the loss of every milch cow and buffalo and ₹3,000 for a goat has been announced. “It’s all bakwas (nonsense)… when they cannot reach us, how do they know our cattle have died? The government officials make money in the name of relief and compensation to flood victims,” complains Thakur.

The flood in Muzaffarpur has left the villagers marooned in misery. Even the relatively well-off could be seen queuing for relief food packets distributed by a social organisation named Sant Nirankari Charitable Foundation at Rohua. “Nobody is sure how long the flood will take to recede... we had never seen anything this big before,” says Mahendra Manjhi while taking a packet of chhura (beaten rice) and gur (jaggery). His family will have to make do with this and a few packets of Parle-G biscuits for the night; tomorrow is another day.

Politics of tokenism

The floods in Bihar have rendered 12.6 million people homeless in 21 districts with recorded deaths of over 370 people till August 24. The State government claims to have evacuated over 7,76,000 people. It has also been running 1,385 relief camps and 2,569 community kitchens. Overall, over 4,21,000 people have taken shelter in 1,385 relief camps and around 4,23,000 people are eating in those community kitchens. Altogether 28 teams of NDRF with 118 motor boats, 16 teams of the State Disaster Response Force with 92 boats, and seven teams of the Army with 70 boats and two helicopters have been pressed into service for relief and rescue operations in the flood-affected areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to make an aerial visit of the flood-hit areas of north Bihar on Saturday and hold meetings with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has regularly been making aerial surveys of the marooned districts and inspecting relief distribution operations. Opposition parties, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress, have demanded that the Central government declare Bihar floods a “national calamity”.

The tragedy behind this recurring narrative is best explained by flood expert Dinesh Mishra, convenor of Barh Mukti Abhiyan, an NGO challenging top-down flood control policymaking: “Unlike the British, our elected governments do not keep records of movement of rivers… they just believe in raising embankments, levees, roads and highways to stop flood and, above all, nobody is held accountable for the floods.” Today, floods in Bihar ironically mean “distribution of food packets, compensation, aerial surveys by leaders, and misuse of government funds in the name of raising heights and plug-ins of embankments, highways and roads”, he says. But what is the solution? “We’re so centrally surrounded by rivers that we cannot escape floods, but we can minimise destruction to life and cattle,” says Mishra. Veteran RTI activist Mahendra Yadav, who has been working for the welfare of victims of the 2008 floods in Madhepura, Saharsa and Supaul, says, “Nobody cares for the flood victims except providing them the customary 1.5 kg packet of chhura-gur and setting up these unhygienic relief camps”. He rues that “forget the government, even NGOs distributes relief materials to places where they can reach conveniently”.

Bihar floods: when home is a highway
 

Highway to despair

This looks true as we travel on National Highway-57, which connects Muzaffarpur to Purnea. Hundreds of thousands of flood-hit people have taken shelter near Darbhanga on both sides of the highway under black tarpaulin-covered tent houses. Here, they’re not as unlucky as those living on the Budha Nagara Radha embankment in Muzaffarpur. “Someone had come to distribute this black polythene to us,” says Garbu Ram, who along with his family of eight members took shelter here after torrents of floodwater gushed into his village Kumarpatti, 15 km from Darbhanga town. Until a fortnight ago Ram had a thatched house, three goats, a cow and ₹4,000 in hand, but today he is penniless, living with his family under a temporary canopy of black tarpaulin. Most of the areas in Darbhanga-Madhubani districts are flooded this year. Like Ram, over 50 other families of his village too have made NH-57 their home for the past 10 days.

Just inches away from the speeding trucks, lorries, luxury coaches, vans, cars and SUVs passing on the highway, the flood-affected families live in constant danger of being crushed. Their buffaloes, cows and goats loitering around are at greater risk. “At night it becomes dark and the speeding vehicle’s light blinds us momentarily… our cots shake as they whizz past,” says Ram Bhajan Sahu, who, along with his family of 12, has taken shelter on NH-57. “All the time we hold them tightly to our chests,” he says of the children in his family.

Pointing towards their submerged thatched houses in the nearby Shobhan village, the NH-57 ‘residents’ say that only three things have been on the rise in the last 10 days: “our hunger and debt and the floodwaters”. Most of them are daily-wage agricultural labourers who make 50-60 rupees a day, but ever since the floods, they have been unable to find any work.

A week ago, Manoj Mallick and Ramesh Kumar saw a helicopter dropping food packets at some distance on the highway but before they could reach there, the food was claimed by some passengers on a bus. “The government declares that relief camps have been set up for people like us but can you direct me to any of those camps nearby… those camps in faraway villages have basically been usurped and controlled by upper-caste, well-off people,” says one, adding, “They sell the relief stuffs to ration shops and we buy them from there, paying money borrowed from well-off people on heavy interest.”

On National Highway-77, which connects Vaishali to Sitamarhi, the flood-hit families are living in rows under black tarpaulin sheets near Basaitpur bridge of Runni Saidpur block, badly affected by the swirling waters of the Bagmati and Lakhandayee rivers this year. There is just one handpump half a km away for drinking water. “About 500 families have taken shelter on the highway but no one has come to take notice… if it persists for a few more days, we’ll die of hunger one by one,” says Sanjay Ram. His newborn baby is sleeping just few inches away inside the tent from the speeding tyres of vehicles on the highway. A child aged nine met with an accident a few days ago with a speeding bus but survived miraculously. As a precaution, the highway dwellers have put cement boulders, bricks, banana stems and logs outside their dwellings to keep the speeding vehicles at bay.

The condition of Sanjay Ram’s neighbours on the highway, Shambhu Manjhi and Ramesh Manjhi, are quite similar. They have been surviving on a handful of chhura-gur and snails and fish caught from the floodwaters. In 2004, there was a similar flood that hit Sitamarhi. At that time, the highway was in a poor, dilapidated condition. But the restoration work on this stretch in the intervening years has now helped those fleeing the floodwaters. “At least here we can hide our head and wait for someone to come with a packet of chhura and gur,” says Ram. He and other families also fear the dark for another reason: antisocial elements are on the prowl.

As darkness falls, silence descends on NH-77. Suddenly, a van materialises laden with khichdi (a mash of rice and lentil). The highway dwellers quickly surround it, but the van suddenly picks up speed and vanishes into the darkness. “Life has been a cruel joke for us,” says Sanjay Ram as another hungry night beckons and they all trudge back to the tarpaulin tents they call home.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2020 2:28:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/when-home-is-a-highway/article19562305.ece

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