A heart wrenching article on the after math on 'The' flood in Bihar...
Not a sexy story to tell
Special Correspondent, NDTV
Thursday, September,25 2008 (New Delhi)
We live in such voyeuristic times that it's often difficult to feel anything anymore. Blasts. Floods. Torture. Terror. Every news piece is a story of victims of some sort or the other and after a point it's all deafeningly similar. An endless stream of tears, loss, and above all of that, viewer and reporter fatigue.
So when I went into Bihar to report on the floods, I was carrying the enormous weight of that weariness with me. `Oh, you're going in three weeks later...huh. ..,' said a colleague or two. `Well, there are stories to do yaar, but it's no longer a headline. Not a sexy story.'
So it took a while for these layers to peel away and for the true horror of what I was in; actually dawn on me. Realisation came nearly two weeks into reporting in flood hit Bihar. Relief camp after camp.. Tens of thousands of people queuing in long lines to get food. But it seemed like the Nitish Kumar government was doing the impossible. Moving a state machinery that had become defunct through decades of misuse and getting large relief camps into pretty decent shape.
Then, we drove down a stretch of national highway in Supaul. It was a sight that suddenly changed everything. One never ending road...stretching far beyond the horizon....miles and miles of people huddled into plastic sheets...in what looked like the longest camp in the world. It wasn't even a camp.. It was a vast plastic slum. We measured it the next day. It was 6 kilometres of road...dotted by plastic tent after tent...at least 4 lakh people on one stretch of road alone, all from just this one district. Lined
up like an army of ants. This was no flood.
It was I now realised, the largest displacement of people in India since the partition. Perhaps the largest displacement of people anywhere in the world in the last decade or more. We're talking about a river getting up and moving 120 kilometres east. We're talking about 35 lakh people displaced. Homeless overnight. 3.5 million people. That's nearly half the population of
Bihar. Out in plastic shanties. Homeless, penniless and struggling to survive. Or nearly the whole population of Orissa, the neighbouring state that's also flooded.
Imagine feeding 35 lakh marooned shelter less people everyday. Even if you give them only two instead of three meals, and imagine that you can get one meal for 10 rupees...that adds up to 7 crore rupees or 7 million in just one day. Now know, that their villages are either completely submerged or at best, floating in at least 3 feet of water. That's not receding yet. The water may take another six months to find alternate routes and leave behind vast tracts of ruined, bare land.
Imagine what it's going to be like to feed that many people out on the streets for 6 months or more. Ok, let's pretend, we're going to be optimistic and hope this will all somehow sort itself out in three months and the villages, now unidentifiable tracts of land will be ready for these people (if they survive until then) to move back to in three months.
It will still cost a minimum of 630 crores just to feed them for three months. That's not factoring in the cost of transporting the food there. Or the cost of cooking pans (that nobody has thought of transporting there so far). Or fuel. Or tents. Or medicines. Or clothes.
And the Prime Minister's relief Fund is 1000 crores. Given the scale of this disaster, that's nothing.
Now look at the picture already in front of us. A disaster on a scale India hasn't seen since it's independence. But one that's somehow being reported as `The Bihar Flood.'
And therefore a localised problem. Like a bad annual rash you may get on your arm in the monsoon that some ointment will set right. Oh the annual floods again! Something that should ideally make the central government push panic buttons for on a war scale. That the national media should report on as if we're in the grip of a war. And only then will these people have a fighting chance at even receiving 10 rupees a day worth of rations.
But now, a month has gone by. The Delhi blasts have happened. India's nuclear deal is on the verge of being pushed through parliament. The financial world as we know it has crumbled and America is getting ready for it's Presidential debate. Where's the space in all of that for The Bihar Flood? Oh yes, wait a minute! There IS space. It's now clubbed together with other flooding - Orissa, Nasik. It happens every year. It's the same story. Poor people. They're used to it.
Try telling that to Rajender Sardar, living in a 8 x 6 feet plastic tent in what I'm going to refer to here as the longest camp in the world. He's ill, so is his wife. The top of the plastic sheet is so hot when the sun's overhead that if your skin accidentally touches it, it will get singed (as mine did).
Yes, he is poor. Yes he earned money before the flood as a daily wage labourer. But go look at how daily wage labourers live in their villages. Not in plastic. Mud walled huts covered by thatch and bamboo. One hut, with mosquito nets in it is meant for sleeping. The hut next to it is meant for cooking and a third serves as a cattle shelter. All of this near a hand pump connected to a tube well that pumps sweet, clean groundwater. And located in the midst of vast open fields.
Here, it is possible even for these subsistence level miserably poor workers to get a good night's sleep. To stretch out under the mosquito net at night and not be bitten by mosquitoes. To know that tomorrow, they may not get much more than dry rotis to eat. But maybe the day after they may be able to have two or three meals.
Contrast that with life under a plastic sheet. Six people lie here huddled. No space to even lie down. And the heat is so unbearable, that in 5 minutes you're drenched in sweat, your body demands water, more food, salts and sugar that's drained out of you. You get no sleep and certainly not enough to eat. You cook in a chullah made in front of your tent. That's on the road.
You've lived in the same pair of clothes for a month. There's not always water at hand to wash it, and what by the way will you wear if you wash the only set of clothes you've got? If you're a woman, this means living through your menstrual cycle in this state. Blood on your clothes.
An NGO told me horror stories of women who in these times, were used to using many pieces of cloth, and changing their clothes, now have to live in that one set of soiled clothes. Some, in desperation, use polythene bags to stop the blood. Yes, this is a gory story but needs to be told. This NGO provides sanitary napkins to women and they get used in a second. Oh, what are you talking about, said some people I told this to. These women have never used napkins in their lives before. True. They've also never had to live in one pair of soiled clothes before.
In less than a month, from being extremely hot, it's going to be extremely cold. Thirty-five lakh people are going to need blankets and shawls. But Bihar is no longer a sexy story. Soon, it's going to disappear off the news altogether. The relief trickling in now, will become a slow staccato drip. Like the last drop from a stubborn tap you're trying to shut.
The thirty five lakh people also includes many who aren't in camps or plastic slums I've described so far. They're wading through three feet of water everyday in their villages. Staying on there for fear of losing their only means of livelihood - their cattle. What do we call these people?
Stupid for staying on? Oh, how stupid you want to save your house and your money. Get out, go live...erm, where......go live on the street like the millions of others...Sleep piled up one on top of the other, wait your turn for the handful of food. And for a fresh set of clothes; chucked from a truck or tractor to many desperate, flailing anonymous hands. So that when you return in a few months when the water clears, you see a neat little piece of land. One small problem that might arise.
Where exactly on that vast stretch of mud is your village? And in it, your piece of land. With all the recognizable markers washed away, how do you tell one village or field from the next? So many say, no thank you. We'll take our chances, live in semi submerged villages amid disease and carcasses of cattle. But at least this is ours. Only, the Bihar story is no longer in the news. Orissa is now flooded. The last few boats connecting these floating villages to supplies of food grain are now going to retreat. The army and central industrial reserve force boats are after all, meant for rescue missions. Not suppliers of daily rations or ferry rides for pregnant women cut off from hospitals.
If the boats stop, well...let's not imagine what will happen if they stop.
Let's look at the bright side. These people are after all mainly daily wage labourers. Extreme poverty is all they've ever known. They're used to starving. They'll survive.
Sounds good, sitting here in Delhi, where we haven't a clue what subsistence level existence is or what starvation really means. We think India's poor starving millions somehow have a different biological clock from the rest of us. Somehow, they'll be able to take weeks and months of only one meal a day (as opposed to intermittent days when they may miss the odd meal). They can live under plastic. They can survive endless mosquito bites and acute diarrhoea. Somehow the data on malaria deaths, on kala azar deaths and people dying of starvation amongst these poor don't tell us anything about this imagined resilience.
Or one very crucial fact. When you're at subsistence level, you are at bottom rung. One rung lower means below subsistence. Death. But who's listening. Right now, I'm back from Bihar with all these stories to tell. But it's not on the news yet. Bihar floods every year yaar. Terror. The nuke deal. Freddie and Fannie collapsing. Will our markets survive? Never mind thirty five -lakh people. Bihar is always flooded at this time of the year.
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