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Apocalypse now

Paramita Ghosh and Soumitra Ghosh travel to submerged Madhepura and find that the tragedy is also a spectacle and a business opportunity. See related pics. | See full coverage.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2008 21:43 IST

‘People make crores in the name of floods. The most expensive music systems and LCDs are sent to top bureaucrats once the noise dies down’

With every passing minute, Mithilesh Singh, district fisheries officer, Parwanghat, Madhepura, was rising in his lackey’s eyes. So he even took the liberty, when asked, of passing Singh off as a magistrate as his saab stood at some distance from the army trucks, barking into his cellphone, convinced of the centrality of his own importance and of the moment. “The relief material is slowly coming in, but it’s coming,” he says, even as villagers are taking the first steps to rebuild a ‘home’ on the road. “It’s more important to save people than give relief,” he says.

Floods in Bihar are not the biggest show on earth, but they’re a spectacle nonetheless. One Pankaj Kumar had rolled up his trousers to wade 10 km through water to go to Murliganj “to see” his Bade Papa. But he will not get close. Murliganj is 8 ft under water. Pankaj’s concern for his grandfather is not unmixed with a desire to be part of the spectacle. “You’ll get great pictures in Dinapatti,” he advises.

Each time floods come to Bihar, it’s halla bol. Floods mean funds. Every year, embankments break and a disaster looms. This year, it’s a catastrophe. “This time there are only two choppers. Last August, there were 12…,” sighs a resident watching the developments on TV.

“People make crores in the name of floods. The most expensive music systems and LCDs are sent to top bureaucrats once the noise dies down. When the waters recede, it is the time for NGOs to get into the aid racket,” says a local photographer who had witnessed an airdrop few days back. “If you see the flood area, count the districts, consider the population and count the food packets, you’ll understand the percentage of people who actually get help.” Everyone loves a good flood. That’s the tragedy of it. And the horror.

Families on the outskirts of Madhepura are folding up their lives, locking up their homes, piling utensils in their verandas, and going to temples for prayers as a last stop before getting into a rickshaw to go away. The orderly manner in which they chart their own displacement is unnerving. Mohammad Sadru of Zurgama village, whom we meet on the road hut-tutting his pack of buffaloes, is surely his government’s ideal subject. “If the water had come in the morning, it would have been better. I would have been able to save my family,” he says. “But it rose at night. Didn’t CM saab say we had to run for our lives?”

Rescuing the elderly is another big hurdle. Samid Hora of Choupal has left his elderly parents behind because they didn’t want to leave. “‘Come for us only when the water is neck-deep,’ they said.” He has been pleading for the last two days with army rescuers to return, but it’s always the same answer: No space. “The boats are not going into the interiors. When we offer to go along, they say we are only thinking of our families while they are thinking of saving entire villages. How will that help my father and grandfather?” asks Raj Kumar, a student who has been waiting for money from home and now will not sit for his Class 12 exams.

A yearly revisiting of tragedy is, perhaps making people lose their minds. A woman pumping a tubewell on the main road is oblivious that the snout is under water. Her family watches solemnly. No one is laughing.

In many ways, Madhepura is among the best of Bihar. It’s hospitable and the language is sweet. Flood victims are being fed at roadside dhabas for free. Coal is in short supply because of the rising water, and bread is being baked on wood fire. Where it falters is in hero worship. The town in Pappu Yadav’s constituency has several icons — from Hanuman to socialist leader BP Mandal of Mandal Commission fame.

A lot is riding on peepuls, though. In Sonepur ratta, 40 people — nearly half a locality — are up on a peepul tree. But on the 12th day of the floods, villagers have begun to complain. The administration’s steamers are faulty. Its fans give trouble. There are middlemen who demand Rs 1,000 for a seat in the boat, they say.

There’s no need to make a big deal about the poor surviving in these circumstances. Most of it is accompanied with a loss of dignity. Enquiries about missing relatives are returned angrily. “How do I know about your child? Let’s make you DM for a day and then see… .” shot a rescuer to a woman he had just saved. Her eyes are streaming. Her village is under water. The floods have taken away her home. And her husband is missing as well. She lets out a scream: “It’s the end of the world. We will all die…” One thing’s for sure, we will all be watching.