End of the Day

Clockwork orange on the Kosi

Photo: Ranjeet Kumar  

Like Kanwariyas - worshipers of Lord Shiva who throng the banks of rivers during the monsoon - the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is liveried in bright orange. Villagers on the islands and backwaters can spot them in their motorised orange rubber dinghies from miles away.

The only music that accompanies this dedicated band is the boisterous roar of a 45 horsepower outboard motor and the crackle of wireless sets. The main distinction between the NDRF and devotees is that the latter have lost the skin between their toes due to constant exposure to the muddy Kosi waters.

Head Constable Ramesh Chand frowns at the waters. Usually, still waters indicate a dune in the river bed and choppy waters indicate depth. But it gets tricky as the current gets faster. The deeper we sail, the lower Chand can sink the motor and the faster we move. If he gauges the depth wrongly, the motor can get wrecked by rocks. The only barrier preventing us from going rudderless and drifting off downstream, is Chand’s experience in sailing these waters.

As we head back from Simraha, a village of less than 500 souls, the wireless crackles: “You’re moving towards shallow. Change course right.” It’s from the other boat-- call sign Virender-- led by Inspector Abhay Singh, a tall, lean and jovial officer from Udaipur, Rajasthan. No sooner than the radio goes silent we run aground.

Singh is a charmer. He is skilled at pacifying irate villagers and has a knack of convincing women - torn between the cattle they’ve left behind and children they’ve brought to the relief camps to save them from the Kosi - to remain in the camps. The river has been dammed by the debris from a landslide in Nepal and can ravage the plains of Mithilanchal like it has for centuries, if the dam breaks.

Legend has it that Satyavati, the sister of sage Vishwamitra, reappeared as the ferocious Kosi - known as Bihar’s sorrow - after she lost her husband Richik. “You may call Kosi our sorrow, but she brings us soil from the Himalayas that give us five crops a year without using fertilizer,” Om Prakash Kumar, deputy leader of Simraha’s village council told this blog.

When her fury lasts for more than a few days, women sprinkle vermilion on her in an act symbolising matrimony, which may tame the river. But Muktveni or the unbraided one as the river is also called, returns every year, changing her course and breaching the massive embankments that attempt to bind her in wedlock.

Simraha literally lives on water. Kosi washes its doorsteps and cattle sheds. No one has footwear as the entire village stands on light clay, navigable only with bare feet. The goats of the village in Bihar’s Supaul district, which borders Nepal, resemble the breeds found in the Himalayan nation. They are short, with comically large heads and small bodies. Their milk is delicious and their curry of their meat is unforgettable.

The NDRF men, through Maithili speaking Constable Anish Jha, try to reason with the villagers. They’ve been successful in getting most of the village out but a few remain to tend to the livestock. This includes 10 women, tasked with cooking for the men folk and feeding the cattle. The trouble is that the rubber dinghies can manage people and goats, not cattle.

The previous day, the rescuers were cheered as heroes when they extracted student records of the local school along with the headmaster, who refused to budge without the progress reports of his students. Last year, people named their children Endyaref, after the Force helped deliver babies in motor boats. But today, no one wants to move without their cattle, partly for economic reasons and partly because cows are worshiped as images of god.

Larger country-made boats are needed to save the cattle, but the rescuers are too busy saving people let alone livestock. The argument continues until the richest man in the village - the jaundice-eyed and bedraggled Ganga Ram Mandal, who stands to lose 150 quintals of grain if there’s a flood - intervenes.

“Bring tea for the jawans,” he asks the villagers. “If we refuse the tea, he’ll get offended. If we have it, we violate orders. We are not authorised to accept anything, especially food and drink from anyone,” says Inspector Ajit Singh, on deputation from the Border Security Force. “Waging a war is easier than staging a successful evacuation.”

Chand remains calm after we hit the river bed, as if we are relaxing in his wheat fields in Eastern Rajasthan. He lifts the 100kg motor with the ease of a potter lifting clay. Jha removes the reeds and uses the oar to push us into the deep and we are off. Sailing against the tide, it seems like the tall aquatic grass flanking us have a life of their own.

The radio crackles. It’s Commandant Vijay Sinha - call sign Tiger, a veteran of such operations - from 9 Battalion’s Tactical Headquarters in Gurmeta High School. Another set of co-ordinates are given; another village to save.

(This blogger travelled with the NDRF during relief operations on August 4, 2014 on the River Kosi in Bihar. Thankfully, the dam still holds and no flooding has taken place yet)

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 6:47:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blogs-end-of-the-day/article6301153.ece

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