News & Current Affairs

September 3, 2008

India’s belated flood relief operation

India’s belated flood relief operation

Flood victims in Saharsa in Bihar

Hundreds of thousands are still stranded in the floods

Aid is beginning to reach the flood-affected in the Indian state of Bihar, but some say it is too late.

A long convoy of Indian army trucks is driving on the highway between the towns of Purnea and Madhepura in north Bihar.

They are carrying soldiers as well as rescue equipment, including boats.

Further ahead, they will be joined by Indian navy divers who will assist them in evacuating those villagers still stranded in flood waters.

Officials say they expect to bring out everyone in 72 hours.

At the Purnea air force base, two helicopters are being loaded up with emergency supplies – mostly food and medicines in packets.

These will be dropped from the air to the flood victims who are still cut off.

After facing a barrage of criticism for not doing enough, the Indian government has begun responding.

But for some, it is too late.

Sanjay is a migrant worker employed in the northern Indian state of Punjab hundreds of miles to the west.

He has rushed back to Murliganj in Madhepura, to try and save his grandfather who is marooned and very ill.

An army rescue team takes him to his village but by the time he gets there, his grandfather has died.

Overflowing camps

“He needed medicines – but they were unable to get any in the past 10 days because of the floods.”

Wrapped in a white shroud, his body is lifted on to the rescue boat to be taken away.

With the rescue operation in full swing, attention is now shifting to the relief camps which are all overflowing.

C Sridhar, the district magistrate in Purnea who is overseeing the relief effort there, says the government is doing all it can.

Villagers in Bihar gather relief material dropped by an air force helicopter in Madhubani district on 2 September 2008

Many people are still waiting for aid

“The government is prepared to provide assistance to all these people who have nowhere to go,” he tells me in his large colonial-era office where his phone is constantly ringing.

“We are in the process of building a mega-relief camp in Purnea district headquarters which will eventually have semi-permanent tents with roofs made of corrugated iron,” he adds even as he sends out instructions over the phone.

At the moment though, the focus is on just getting people into camps and getting them some immediate assistance.

Aid agencies and government medical teams have begun visiting some camps, where there are already reports of some people suffering from diarrhoea.

They are distributing oral rehydration salts and other medicines.

‘Fairly organised’

But sanitation levels at the camps are poor and there is concern that preventive measures may be too late.

Bjorn Nissen of Medicins Sans Frontieres has visited several camps to assess the situation.

“Aid is getting through and seems fairly organised.

“But yes, there is always a potential for water-borne diseases to affect large numbers of people. We are still trying to see what is needed and what we can do.”

Flood victims scramble for food packets in Saharsa in Bihar

The scale of the floods has overwhelmed relief efforts

India has not asked for international assistance. There is a strong sense here that it is not needed, that the government has enough resources to provide for those affected.

But it is not refusing all offers of help.

“We will certainly welcome international aid particularly those who can offer certain expertise,” says Mr Sridhar.

“Floods are a traumatic experience. Those who have suffered will need help in coping with their situation and eventually rebuilding their lives. This is an area where international groups can offer immense help.”

So why has it taken so long for the relief effort to hit speed?

There was one clue on Monday.

Minutes after the army convoy drove down the Purnea-Madhepura highway, it was followed by a long line of cars with flashing lights.

A senior Indian cabinet minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is also a former chief minister of Bihar, had come visiting.

Bihar is currently governed by his political opponents – and so the state and federal governments have spent a lot of the past week blaming each other for the mess.

In between, the flood survivors wait for someone to take note of them.

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August 23, 2008

Montana meth ads winning drug battle

Montana meth ads winning drug battle

They call Montana “Big Sky Country” or “The Last Best Place” – and it is easy to see why with its wide open spaces, majestic mountains and meandering rivers.

But there is a far less wholesome side to this wilderness, a problem more associated with grim urban despair – drugs.

And one drug in particular – Methamphetamine.

Also known as crystal meth, the stimulant is more addictive than heroin or crack cocaine.

It is also relatively easy to get hold of the basic ingredients, including drain cleaner and cold medicines, although more dangerous to mix them.

The day that meth walked into our house was the day our life took a spiral
Gerri Gardiner

That said, Montana’s wide open spaces have provided the perfect cover for makeshift meth labs, which are used to make the deadly cocktail.

Until recently, the north-western state was ranked among the top five in the US with the worst meth problem.

Fifty percent of the children in foster care in Montana were there because of meth, while 50% of the prison population was there because of meth-related crime.

‘Life-destroying’

It was a drug destroying lives, like that of Gerri Gardiner, whose daughter Angela starting using meth in school as many of those who eventually get hooked do.

METHAMPHETAMINE
Methamphetamine crystals (US Drug Enforcement Administration)
Sold as powder, tablets or crystals
Can be snorted, smoked, injected or swallowed
Can alter personality, increase blood pressure and damage brain

Addicts talk of the initial highs, the burst of energy, the loss of weight. But for Angela it ended with depression and despair and her eventual suicide.

About a year later, Gerri’s grieving father took his own life too.

“The day that meth walked into our house was the day our life took a spiral,” she says.

We also met Katrina, who started taking meth when she was 11 years old – and carried on until she was 20. She got the habit from her mother.

“I did it all the time… I liked everything about it,” she says. “I didn’t have time for my boyfriend or my daughter.”

Now she says: “I think it’s retarded – I wish I had never done it.”

‘Un-selling meth’

Katrina managed with help to break the hold of the drugs. Many others have failed.

Tom Siebel

Tom Siebal said it was easy to “un-sell” meth as it is “pure evil”

But fortunately for Montana, there was a rich part-time rancher in their midst. The good, among the bad and the ugly.

Tom Siebel made his millions in the computer software industry and he approached the scourge of meth as if it were any other business.

“We took an unusual approach,” he said when we went to meet him at his holiday home.

“We viewed it as a consumer product, researched it as a consumer product and marketed it… or un-marketed it as a consumer product.”

Mr Siebel says the task of “un-selling” meth was particularly easy because it is so nasty – “pure evil” in his words.

He then used his money to set up the Montana Meth Project.

Shock tactics

The project came up with a “shock campaign” – a series of hard hitting adverts and posters that graphically portrayed the costs of taking meth.

If you live in Montana, the chances are that you have almost certainly seen or heard the ads… ending with the slogan: ‘Meth – not even once.’

He brought in Hollywood directors to produce the ads, which were shown on prime-time television.

They illustrate all too well the breakdown in family relationships caused by meth, and the physical decay for those who use it – the dramatic weight loss and the scabs on the skin.

If you live in Montana, the chances are that you have almost certainly seen or heard the ads on television or radio, ending with the slogan: “Meth – not even once.”

Two years on, the posters are still on prime billboard spots around the state.

The campaign has been a remarkable success.

In just two years, meth abuse in Montana has nearly halved.

Teenage meth use is down by 45% and adult use down by 75%. The state that once had the 5th biggest meth problem in the US is now ranked 39th.

More than that, about a dozen other states are now in the process of following Montana’s lead.

Montana still has a problem – but one that it is now rooting out and something that will no longer overshadow its image as “The Last Best Place”.

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