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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September 1, 2008

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Courtesy BBC

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Purnea


Asha Devi

Asha Devi is among those who fled the floods – she paid $5 for a lift on a tractor

Outside the Bageecha relief camp in Purnea, Bihar, there is confusion.

A line of small trucks and vans carrying relief material have parked on the highway – scores of volunteers, dressed in white, are milling around.

They have just brought several tonnes of aid – but are not quite sure how to distribute it.

There is apparently no camp co-ordinator, no-one from the government.

It is symptomatic of what is happening across Bihar’s flood-affected areas.

God knows if my house is still standing
Janardhan Rishidev

“We have driven several hours to get here,” says Anil Chowdhury, whose cap identifies him as belonging to the Lions’ Club of Khagaria.

“We’ve made up bundles of supplies with rice, sugar, matches and candles.

“Since the government has unable to provide for these people, we’ve decided to step in.”

The lucky ones

Inside camp Bageecha there is more confusion.

Several hundred families have arrived here over the past five days.

The shelter they have been provided is modest – bamboo staves hammered into the ground with a plastic sheet roof to keep out the rain.

Water pump

Conditions in the camp are far from ideal

There is one hand pump for all of them to use to wash themselves.

On one corner, several men are stirring large cauldrons of lentils and rice. It may not seem much, but for many here it is their first cooked meal in days.

So despite the abysmal conditions, everyone here knows they are the lucky ones who got away.

“This is how high the water reached,” says Janardhan Rishidev, holding his hands waist high.

“When it started rising further, I knew it was time to leave. We packed a few things quickly, and placed the rest of our belongings on high shelves in our home.

“Then we fled. God knows if my house is still standing.”

Playing in dirt

Like most people here, Janardhan waded several hours through the flood waters, holding a small bundle of his valued possessions on his head.

Asha Devi and her husband Ram were slightly luckier. Along with their children they climbed on to the back of a tractor and drove out.

map

At a price – they paid the driver 200 rupees ($5) for the ride.

“We hadn’t eaten a proper meal in four days. My children were crying every day. At least here we’ve had some hot food.”

There appears to be a disproportionately high number of children at this camp – most of them unclothed, playing in the dirt.

There are no medical supplies here, or any doctors. But still everyone is grateful to have got out alive.

Sitaram is 85, and managed to come here only because his sons carried him on their back.

He squats outside his tent, smoking.

“Many people were left behind,” he says in a hoarse whisper, leaning forward.

“Old people whose children left them behind. I was lucky, my sons love me.”

Plenty of goodwill

But there is an air of restlessness as well.

Many of the villagers are concerned that eventually somebody will ask them to leave, or the supplies will run out.

“We need to go back,” says Asha Devi.

“We’ve lived off our land and that’s the only way we’ll survive. But how do we go back? When everything is under water, what will we do – swim?”

No-one has the answer to these questions, quite simply because there is no-one from the authorities here.

No government representative has been here to visit. Some international aid workers came by, but they have now left.

Outside camp Bageecha, it is complete gridlock.

Several aid trucks have blocked the road unsure of whether to pull the side or move on ahead.

There are no policemen, so a couple of volunteers decide to sort out the chaos.

“Where’s the government?” asks one volunteer angrily. “They should be here taking charge, instead they’ve left it to us.”

There is plenty of goodwill here and quite a bit of misplaced enthusiasm.

It is just not clear whether they are all aiding the relief effort or hindering it.

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