When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Bihar floods as a 'national calamity' he could not have been more accurate. The sight of people - men, women and children - wading through neck-deep water, with fear and disaster written all over their faces, flashed day after day through TV screen and front pages pf the newspapers. Pictures of bodies floating, people struggling to stay alive, and fighting to snatch food packets being air dropped and distributed, makes us actually stop short in our track and wonder - Can this be real?
Stories - frightening and tragic - are being reported every hour, about lives in danger, lives being lost, lives struggling to survive and lives waiting and waiting endlessly for help. Pictures of women, children lined up in serpentine queues for milk and food, makes one's stomach churn; the frail and bony frames - almost an excuse for bodies - sitting huddled at relief camps, waiting for food, for shelter and medical attention - leaves one with a haunting feeling, something that makes one ask - Can human life be that cheap? And when you see pictures of rampaging Kosi unleashing its fury, destroying everything in its path, one can't help but ask - Can nature be that cruel, they merciless, that unforgiving?
The catastrophe triggered by river Kosi breaching its embankment has been unprecedented in its proportion. Almost 2.5 million people are marooned in 8 districts of Bihar, and the state faces a cycle of destruction, large-scale migration and tremendous loss of lives, property, crops and cattle. The flood has also inundated 65,000 hectares of land, which now faces massive amount of silt deposited in the plains of Bihar that is not just alluvial but also of infertile nature.
What's really shocking is the government's response during this whole disaster. The very first sign of breach in Kosi's eastern embankment in Nepal was seen on August 18, but the state government stirred to action only a week later. And where time is so crucial that every second counts, a whole week was lost. If the government had at least evacuated all the inhabitants along the banks in that one week, the tragedy would still have occurred, but the proportion and the loss of lives would not have been as much.
The most disturbing question that the Kosi tragedy has raised is - why is the government not equipped to deal with the flood menace, which has been an annual recurrence since time immemorial? The last attempt to tame the Kosi river, which is known to have a history of shifting course once every 50-100 years, was made way back in 1956, after the 1954 floods which devastated the whole region. The embankments were completed in 1959, with a barrage built in Birpur to regulate water flow - a project that proved beneficial to both India and Nepal. But after that, there has been no permanent arrangement made to address the flood problem, which continues to hang like a sword decade after decade.
But the water has literally 'gone over the head' now and the government needs to seriously rethink the flood relief measures. New efforts need to be worked out - and urgently - to tackle disasters of such high magnitude. People should hold those elected to seats of power in the country's Parliament to ensure that such tragedies do not repeat themselves due to government's callousness. Human lies are beyond political gains and losses, and it's imperative that all those evacuated and uprooted from their habitat, are well taken care of. It's been a 'national calamity' no less, and it's also a national responsibility to see that those affected by this tragedy, are rehabilitated and their livelihood restored to them - with full support and dignity.