Thursday, September 13, 2007

Strength in numbers after Bihar floods

ere is a saying that it takes a great tragedy to bring a people together, and it couldn't be truer for northern Bihar.

Six weeks after some of the most severe flooding to hit this part of the subcontinent, thousands of people, extended families and communities, are huddled together on embankments and roads, often with their livestock - all sharing the same space, and trying to stay clear of the rising water.

Many of them keep an eye on each other's livestock, homes, and belongings, and share what little they have amongst themselves. Women tend to their neighbours' children when the men have to tend to other matters, which right now means going to the distribution points for relief materials.

More than 2 million continue to be affected across 20 districts of Bihar in northeastern India and about 300,000 people are living outdoors or in more than 1,000 temporary camps. To date, Bihar has recorded 539 deaths.

Surrounded by the Burhi Gandak and Bagmati Rivers on either side, these areas in Muzaffarpur begin flooding with the onset of the monsoon - and remain water-logged until the very end.

En route from Samastipur, after monitoring UNICEF's maternity health camps and community kitchens, we drive for two hours along low-lying roads, until we arrive at Kwahi Chowk. We're told the road ahead is completely submerged for the next 12 kilometres.

We count more than 60 trucks on this peninsula in the middle of nowhere. The majority of them are transporting grain and other relief items from the government, destined for the neighbouring district of Sitamarhi. We notice a smaller truck with a UNICEF sticker - the driver tells us that he's carrying educational materials. He's been stuck here since yesterday afternoon when the roads went under.

Everyone from the nearby settlements has either moved or is in the process of moving onto this stretch of the road. Men smoke or share khaini, an Indian variety of chewing tobacco, and some women have set up small stalls right under the trucks, selling everything from eggs to candy to vegetables. Across from them, the bigger traders sell potatoes, lentils and rice. It's amazing to note how life goes on despite the hardships and uncertainties all around them.

"This is the fourth time that we have moved out of our homes this year," says Akhilesh Sahni a father of four, without a hint of emotion or anger for someone who has spent the better part of the last two months living outdoors.

Boarding a boat, we take up Akhilesh's offer to see how the people in his village are coping. We glide slowly over the brown waters, navigating past bamboo groves and the tops of sugarcane fields, and peer into peoples' homes - almost intrusively.

We row past a group of women in knee-deep water, preparing dinner around a wood-burning stove that has been carefully constructed above the water. Children wave and shout at us, some from raised machans or platforms of bamboo, and a lucky few from the tops of their concrete homes. They smile at us, safe in the ignorance and security that only childhood can provide - and the exceptional ability to find moments of bliss even during the grimmest of times.

Around the stove, Parmila and her neighbours take turns to prepare dinner. "I have to feed six family members and she has to make food for seven," says Parmila, pointing to a woman in a red sari bent over the stove.

Further ahead, we come across a septuagenarian and his grandchildren on a bullock-cart, minus the bullocks. He says he'd returned two days earlier and fears he might be leaving again soon.

We're told that most of the women return during the day, only to check on their belongings and to prepare dinner. By nightfall, everyone's back on the embankment where it's dry and safe, especially from the snakes that come out at night. Only the fortunate few that live in concrete houses are willing to take the risk and stay back.

On the return journey the boat stops for two women - a grandmother named Sonamati and her neighbour Nirmala. Shy at first because talking to male strangers is not really encouraged in rural Bihar, they tell us they're tired of moving each time the waters rise.

"And to think that we just planted rice yesterday morning," says Sonamati, shaking her head with displeasure. This year, she says, they have been forced to move out six times. "Last year was better - as we only moved thrice!"

This induces laughter from the men on the boat who had been silent for the last hour or so, while we had been preoccupied with our photography and questions to their neighbours.

After alighting from the boat, we catch up with Sonamati who is already pushing past the crowds at Kwahi Chowk. "I'm here to buy food for my family and then I will return tonight," says the timid-looking grandmother.

As if sensing our disbelief, she adds matter-of-factly, "It is Teej (an important Hindu festival for women) in a few days. We have to prepare for that!" And she disappears into the crowd.

On the drive back to Patna, we reflect on the day's events and wonder whether the waters will rise again. Each of us hopes it won't. But even if it does, we know that the fortitude of these people will definitely help them live through this, as it has in the past.

No comments: