'Officials aren’t here, it’s a Sunday’
Hindustan Times tracks the journey of a sack of milk powder in Bihar, the saga of a misdirected relief effort. Neelesh Misra reports. How you can helpUpdated: Sep 09, 2008, 14:56 IST
The Rajasthan government has sent thick blankets worth crores of rupees as relief material to flood victims in Bihar's sweltering heat. But that isn't really the biggest joke in Purnia.
The joke is on Bihar's citizens – it was what happened to two trucks crammed with sacks of powder milk; what happened to the elderly man shunted around by government offices when all he wanted was to set up a free medical camp, and when an official accused all non-government people trying to run relief camps of being corrupt.
Hindustan Times tracked the journey of a sack of milk powder after it travelled from Rajasthan to Bihar – a slice of government sloth in relief distribution.
It was evening on August 31 by the time the sack of milk began its journey with truck driver Sooraj Mal, 40, from Rajasthan's Bhilwara town, carrying the 25-kilogramme sacks as donation from the local milk cooperative. He and the other driver, Laloo Singh, had 1,500 kilometres to cover.
Hundreds of miles away to the east, in a camp in Purnia, the relief hub, seven-year-old Ajay Kumar Yadav watched silently from a distance as children queued up in a milk distribution line only for those under five years.
"I like milk," he said simply.
Back on the highway, Sooraj Mal and Laloo Singh had lots of it.
The trucks were stuffed with 1,200 sacks worth Rs. 39 lakh, the cargo weighing a total of 30,000 kilograms. At 200 millilitres a cup, that meant milk for 14,400 children.
Mal is from Agra and has not seen any floods in his area. But he was stuck last year in flooding as well.
"My truck was stranded in the same spot for one month and ten days … We had to drink the same flood water. It was hell," he said. "We didn't get roti. One roti cost five rupees and a cup of tea was Rs. 15. This year we brought ten kilograms of rice each with us."
This year, it wasn't a flood – it was a catastrophe in which the Kosi River changed its course. And this wasn't just a job.
"I saw the images on TV, my heart just shook. It was like a scary scene from a movie," said Mal. "I really felt bad. And slightly content that were helping in some way."
On the evening of September 5, the sack of milk had finally reached Barauni town, 250 kilometres from Purnia, where the Bihar State Co-operative Milk Producers' Federation Ltd is located.
For 24 hours, nothing happened.
"Yesterday afternoon they asked us to go to Purnia," said Mal.
So the milk sack travelled 250 kilometres to Purnia, where it reached Saturday night.
There was no one to give it to. Even in the thick of disaster, there was no government office open for the milk to be deposited.
So the sack of milk waited outside the town all night, and at 11 a.m. the next morning, it was outside the office of District Magistrate Sridhar Cherevellu. After hours of waiting, the drivers were asked to go to the DM's house.
So the milk sack went there.
At the DM's office meanwhile, Lakshman Prasad Singh, 55, and five others trooped in. They were from a voluntary group, the All India Community Health Workers' Association. They wanted to start a medical camp.
The offices were closed. But the state's labour minister, Avdhesh Narayan Singh, was in for a meeting. An HT reporter intervened on behalf of the six men.
In the middle of a designated "national calamity", why aren't officials at work distributing relief?
"Officials are not here perhaps because it is a Sunday," Singh said. "These people should go to the Red Cross if they have to donate medicine. If they have to start a camp, they need to give an application. The DM will study it and approve it."
The group returned home,
The milk sack, meanwhile, stood for some more hours, on a leafy street outside Cherevellu's sprawling bungalow, until Mal the driver returned from the building with some bad news.
"I don't believe it. They have asked us to go all the way back to Barauni," he said.
The sack of milk had to travel 250 kilometers, all the way back to the milk cooperative.
It was interesting what would happen to it next.
It would come all the way back again to be distributed in Purnia and other towns.
Some five kilometres away in the relief camp, seven-year-old Ajay Kumar Yadav was still looking forward to a glass of milk.
"I didn't get it. They are saying my number will come tomorrow," he said.
How can you help