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Missing, in inaction

It is 3 weeks to Bihar's great flood now. But a laggard state has no relief in place for hapless refugees hunting for their missing kin. Chitrangada Choudhury & Arun Kumar report.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2008 15:27 IST

It is 3 weeks to Bihar's great flood now. But a laggard state has no relief in place for hapless refugees hunting for their missing kin.

Under a blazing sun on a sprawling 200-acre defunct diary and cattle camp reincarnated as a relief site for 7000 flood refugees in north Bihar's Purnea district, Babul Gupta moves from one bottle-green coloured tent to another.

Increasingly weary, the shopkeeper, 26, who has lost his shop and home in the great flood of Kosi is seeking Rita, his 1-year-old baby daughter. His only child and her grandparents are missing since an angry surge of water submerged their village of Miriganj in Madhepura district, over 75 kilometres away. The village is still under water, and Babul cannot access it without a motor boat trip of over 2 hours over submerged villages, roads and rice fields.

So the widower who was in his shop 25 kilometres away from the village in the town of Murliganj when the waters came, has been moving from one campsite in the past fortnight across 50 kilometres. Since their administrators—the state, non-profit groups, or politicians—do not have a basic list of names yet, he has simply made do with scanning thousands of faces, hoping to run into his daughter and aged parents-in-law somehow, somewhere.

This morning, he moves to the tent of the official in charge of the Purnea megacamp, Animesh Pandya, a state government official "airlifted from Patna" for the job. It is "the most well planned relief camp", in the words of the administration, set up on September 12, to take over 7000 flood refugees from villages in adjoining districts who fled eastward, to the dry parts of Purnea district.

But Babul only encounters bureaucratese as a bored Pandya makes the job seem as complex as rocket science: "The system of recording details of missing people and uploading it on a website has only started from today. It will take time. This is something new which we are trying out."

Babul says volunteers deputed at the camp by officials for the purpose took details of his missing daughter as many as 5 days ago. But the camp administration has no knowledge of his case. In fact they have no details of any missing complaints.

When HT asks, how many missing people have been reported by families at the site so far, Pandya says, "One". [This when HT stumbled across three such families in the space of one hour at the camp, all of whom had no help from the administration to trace their relatives.

When the newspaper asks to see details of the one case, officials are unable to find "the register, which is kept for recording missing complaints." After a perfunctory oral questionning, when Pandya finds that the intimidated Babul is not from Purnea but the adjoining district of Madhepura, he dismisses the worried father, without telling him how the administration plans to help him, or guiding him to a relief boat plied by the army or the state government to reach his marooned village, or informing him whether the camp officials will guide him through a special website set up for scores of people like him.

290 km away in the capital of Patna, are putting together the special website in collaboration with IBM to collate details of missing people and unite families torn apart after a great flood submerged 800 villages.

However 3 weeks after the great flood, this measure means little for flood-hit families on the ground. That is because nobody is carrying out the simple task of systematically speaking to families who have members missing, and then sharing them with their counterparts in each of the four affected districts to help reunite families.