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'We are in a battle with time'

Despite Govt pleas and warnings of a new deluge, hundreds of thousands of people are refusing to leave their village homes. HT spent a day in a marooned village of 5,000 people in Madhepura to find out their untold side of the story. Neelesh Misra reports. How can you help| Full coverage

india Updated: Sep 10, 2008 15:38 IST
Neelesh Misra

The young men of Ratanpatti build the shiny symbols of the new India – the gleaming, airconditioned towers in New Delhi’s Gurgaon suburb, home to the call centres and the information technology kings.

The young men are back in their faraway villages now, facing questions of life – and, god forbid, death.

Despite government pleas and warnings of a new deluge, hundreds of thousands of people are refusing to leave their village homes. So Hindustan Times spent a day in a remote, marooned village of 5,000 people in the worst-affected Madhepura district to find out their untold side of the story.

For three weeks, armed with little keen survival instinct, the village has survived by boiling dirty water before drinking, sharing dried rice, gram and pain, and waiting for the sounds of a relief motor boat.

Prayers are abundant, but food – and more importantly, fodder for the animals – is in short supply.

The paddy and jute crops are ruined. There is water is every single home, waist-deep in some. The villagers spend their days on the road; their nights on the roofs of the few neighbours with brick houses.

On the main street running right through the village, there is no place to walk. It is crammed with cattle. Until four days ago, the road too was completely flooded.

“These cattle bore the plough in the fields and fed us. How can we leave them now, Sir? They are all we have, we are trying to save them as long as we can,” said Vinod Mandal, 35, a mason in Gurgaon. He works at a new multi-storey office project.

Fodder is running out. It will last up ten more days. There were 100 hand pumps in the village; only two are working.

Keen to feed on tragedy, cattle smugglers are in the region, looking out for desperate sellers, villagers say. The cattle are transported to West Bengal, for eventual smuggling across the border into Bangladesh.

“One bull is worth Rs. 15,000 and all of us have two or three,” said Sadanand Mandal, 43, who works as a labourer in Gurgaon. “And if we leave now as the government says, they will die of hunger in a few days. Then how will we plough the field when we return, and how will we survive?”

Three people have died here since the night of the 20th, when the raging Kosi swept past the village.. It was 2:30 a.m. People screamed and began to rush curiously towards the water, rather than away.

Jaimati Devi, 60, lost her balance and fell from her roof into the swirling waters. A 70-year-old man and a boy drowned.

Cut off, five men lugged the only generator in the village to a dry spot, where they now charge the ten mobile phones in the village, their only link with the world.

In two days, their families would have to perfom the “shraadh” ceremonies and village meal for the dead. But there is no money.

To eat, people rummage through the water for any wheat, rice or maize they can find. Then they dry it in the sun, crush it and have it with water.

Ten educated men of the village go door to door every morning.

“We tell everyone to boil water before drinking. That is the only thing that can save them from disease,” said 41-year-old Vidyanand Mandal.

All afternoon, “we just look at each other’s faces,” he says. Some play cards. Few talk.

In the evening, a dholak is pulled out. They sing bhajans. The women float clay diyas into the river.

“We pray to Kosi Maiyya (mother) that she should spare us,” said 50-year-old Vinodini Devi.

At 7:30 sharp, villagers tune in to hear the regional news on All India Radio, on the only radio transistor in the village. There were two – the second is broken.

“We don’t want to hear songs on the radio, our hearts are heavy,” says Nirtun Mandal, a mason in Gurgaon.

There is no kerosene, so everyone eats early, and then they sit in the darkness, alert for thieves, until someone dozes off.

The government insists the villagers must evacuate to safety.

“It is not possible for them to live there. Complacence has set in, they think the floods are over,” said Pratyaya Amrit, a senior disaster relief official. “It is not a question of providing them food and medicine, it is a question of their lives.”

The villagers say they have little choice; they cannot leave their cattle or homes.

So both sides wait to see if the river blinks first.

“We are in a battle with time,” said Nirtun Mandal.

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