The tragedy of Bihar — the devastation wrought because the mighty river Kosi changed course after it breached its embankment in Nepal on August 18 — has slipped off the pages of newspapers and TV screens. The calamity has also been virtually ignored by most international humanitarian aid agencies, and even national relief organisations. The people affected are among the most impoverished in this land, and floods seem to be part of the periodic tribulations that these hapless people stoically cope with, along with caste violence, deaths by starvation and militant violence. Surely this cannot continue to make news!
But it would be a grave mistake to regard the destruction by the Kosi river in Bihar as ‘just’ another flood. One of the major tributaries of the Ganga, Kosi is often called the Sorrow of Bihar because of frequent floods and changes in its course. However, what transpired since the embankment collapsed was no ordinary flood. The river impetuously traced a new course, across fields and dense settlements for 150 kilometres, often 15 to 20 kilometres wide. Its untamed waters swept away more than 300,000 houses in 980 villages in the districts of Supaul, Madhepura, Saharsa, Araria and Purnea. It destroyed standing crops of paddy, wheat and vegetables in 110,000 hectares of fertile land. An estimated 3.2 million people lost their homes and livelihood, many times more than in any natural disaster in the country in recent history.
The loss of life has been fortunately small for a disaster of this scale. The government estimates are that 194 people died in the floods, although the figures are hotly contested. But even if the numbers of the dead swell manifold with evidence of missing and drowned people burgeoning over time, it will still be far below the levels of other national natural disasters of the past decade, such as the Orissa super-cyclone of 1999, the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and the tsunami of 2004, in each of which deaths mounted to tens of thousands of people. But the devastation of homes and livelihood by the wayward river far surpasses the worst of these other disasters.
These are people who had never faced floods in their lifetime because there was no river near their homes to flood its banks. As they incredulously saw with terror the raging waters of the unfamiliar river enter their villages and fields, many declared that this was no flood; they were witnessing pralay or the destruction of the world predicted in the scriptures. In regions with no history of floods, there were no country boats and motor boats for rescue locally available. These had to be requisitioned from other districts, and military, paramilitary and the civil authorities launched one of the largest evacuation operations ever, rescuing hundreds of thousands of people who had taken shelter on embankments, canal walls and the roofs of homes that were still standing.
More than 400,000 women, men and children were housed in relief camps in tents and school and college buildings, whereas others took refuge with relatives and some even left the state. Given the enormous scale of devastation, and relatively very small assistance from international and national humanitarian agencies, the state administration has managed to house large dispossessed populations in orderly camps, with arrangements for food, milk and schooling for the children. Winter will come with fresh challenges for camp residents.
However, as the flood waters have begun to recede, we found that anxious villagers are gradually leaving the camps for their villages, to assess their losses, protect what may be left of their homes and possessions, and pick up the string of their lives. Apart from almost an unprecedented scale of devastation and severe constraints of resources and the impoverishment of the affected people, the greatest impediment is the uncertainty over the future course that the capricious river may choose to take in the years to come. It is being debated among experts whether neglect and corruption in the maintenance of the embankment caused the destructive breach, or whether the design of the embankment was itself intrinsically defective and this was a disaster waiting to happen.
Villagers seek one guarantee from the authorities before they rebuild their homes and try to reclaim their lands and livelihood, and that is that the waters of the river Kosi will not return to their villages in the coming years. But officials off the record affirm that they are unable to provide any such assurance.
The challenges of reconstruction are aggravated further by the fact that the people affected include some of the most chronically indigent in the country, and one of the most unequal and divided societies. Caste and patriarchy made themselves felt even in the orderly government relief camps, where people of disadvantaged castes, single women and old people were denied scarce relief assistance. The majority are landless or unrecorded tenants, and with the landlords’ fields silted over, there is little prospect of work and food unless the government gears itself for massive wage employment public works.
Farms in Punjab may be their only hope for oppressed survival, but they fear that if they leave Bihar, they may miss out on the little relief the government may offer. Even a few thousand rupees are a small fortune for people who survive on nothing. There is a grave danger of the trafficking of children in these areas because of extreme poverty and family distress, or their dropping out of school into child labour. In the face of a human tragedy of this scale, it would be unconscionable for the country to simply look the other way.
Harsh Mander is Convener, Aman Biradari