Print Edition - 2017-09-02  |  On Saturday

A flood of grievances

  • A reporter’s diary from a week-long field visit to the flood-hit Tarai
Even days after the waters had receded, flood victims from Dhanusha, Saptari, Morang, Sunsari and Rautahat, among other districts, were living in deplorable condition, lacking drinking water, safe shelter, food and medicine

Sep 2, 2017-I was born and brought up in a village in the Tarai, and floods always were a part of our collective consciousness, even though many of us had never experienced a flood first hand. Growing up, you’d hear tales of how neighbours had survived flash floods, of how entire farms and livestock had been swept away clean, how families had been saved in the nick of time by taking refuge in a school building. Everyone, it seemed back then, had a flood story to tell; and they told and retold them with a cautionary tone, as if the next one was just one cloud burst away.

I remembered these stories as we hovered over Janakpur, angling to land. Through the windows of the aircraft we could already see that large swathes of the farms on the outskirts had been inundated. My maternal home is in Janakpur and I like to think I know the city well. It is true that the city is poorly governed; it is perennially dirty, it has terrible drainage infrastructure and no waste management plan. But unlike my village, no one in Janakpur talked of floods, rare as they were. This year, however, that was not the case. If Janakpur hadn’t been spared, what of the rest? 

Reporting at a time of crisis, staying calm and objective amid chaos is never easy, but doing so in a place you know so intimately is even harder. When we reached our first stop—Dharamban, a Dalit neighbourhood in Janakpur’s outskirts—we were immediately surrounded by locals. Less interested in our identity, they were clamouring to see whether we had anything to distribute.

We had reached Dharamban on Monday evening (August 14) and flood water had entered the settlement on Friday night. In the three days, no help had arrived. No food had been cooked at home—rationed beaten rice was all there was to eat. Two dozen houses in the settlement had been completely flattened by the water, and the locals were clearing debris while keeping a wary eye on the road, hoping that relief would come. 

Because I was speaking in Maithili, my mother tongue and the language spoken in the region, they must have seen a part of them in me; and the grievances poured out. Everyone, it seemed, was clamouring to tell their story—how they managed to escape the sudden flood, how their children were hungry and falling sick; and how no one from the state had even paid a visit. This Dalit community already felt marginalised and ignored by the state mechanism as it was; these floods and the perceived lack of empathy would only work to drive the wedge deeper. 

“Please! Come with me to see my house,” and “Please! Write my name as well” echoed from all sides. I kept scribbling names on my notebook.

“Gayatri Mahara. 

Sabina Khatun. 

Sangita Paasi. 

Sabita Sada.

Sonabati Sada.

Geeta Paasi.

Raaj Kumari Devi Mahara.

Patasiya Devi Malik.”

I read out loud. They all sighed in relief, convinced that the list would make its way to the hands of those who would eventually come with aid.

Patasiya’s 18-year-old daughter, Binita Malik, escorted me to her house. Lifting her baby, who was sleeping on a thin plastic-sheet laid on the wet ground, she said, “There is nothing left now. Our day begins and night ends under the sky. No one has reached out to us. One Janakpur local came in and distributed some beaten rice, but how long can we survive on that?” She seemed desperate to show me what her house looked like inside, but neither of us could push open the jammed door. 

In Dharamban, which lies on the banks of the Jalad River, floods are frequent. Almost every year, flood waters seep in and cause damage. But because the predominately Dalit community cannot afford to buy land and relocate to safer areas, they continue to live in harm’s way. Those who could afford relocation left years ago.

“The government, the political parties, they’re all the same—they don’t care about us,” Binita said as we walked back from her home, “They will come back, no doubt, because we are all on the voter’s list. But we have learned by now that no one is willing to fight for us. We are on our own.”

The same grievance rang out in every village I travelled to over the course of the week.

Shibo Devi Khatbe, 45, another Dalit, from Rampura Malhaniya of Hanumanagar Kankalini Municipality of Rautahat, had survived on rainwater and beaten rice after floods submerged her home and her entire neighbourhood. 

When we arrived in her settlement, four days after it was inundated, Shibo was busy preparing a cooked meal for the first time that week. A hand-pump at her home was submerged by the flood and her family had been collecting rainwater and drinking it without adding any purifier.  

“We stayed under open sky for hours before security forces rescued us at midnight. But, we couldn’t save food grains and our clothes. We don’t have anything to wear now,” said Shibo, pointing to her four-year-old granddaughter who only had a pair of dirty shorts on. Shibo too was angry that no help had arrived, four long days after the calamity.

At Shivanarayan Tole of Itahari Sub-Metropolitan City in Sunsari, Dev Narayan Yadav, who had lost his house and all income sources in the flood, claimed he had to plead for days just to try to get his hands on a tarpaulin. So far, the pleas had yielded nothing. His settlement, one of the worst affected in Itahari, was still grieving the loss of lives when we reached there and had not received anything from the state. Let alone food and medicine, its residents had little other option but to drink contaminated water as all the water-pumps were buried in the deluge. 

“If we drink this water, chances of falling sick and dying are high,” he said, “But if we don’t drink this water, we will surely die.”

Even where government’s support had arrived, it was either delayed or meagre or laden with supplies that weren’t necessary. Flood victims of Fatuwa Bijayapur of Rautahat were left infuriated when exactly a week after the floods, all they received was packaged bottles of water and some food rations when they had expected medicine and rice. 

“I just don’t understand how the government is gathering logistics. We have no problem of water here. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. It’s ridiculous that they fly in on a helicopter and just distribute bottled water,” grumbled Ram Ekwal, one of the locals. 

About 40 Mushar families of Khoriya Tole of the same rural municipality also felt left high and dry. After waiting for a week for help to arrive, when we reached Khoriya, Bikau Majhi, 55, was stacking together firewood that he planned to sell in the bazaar to buy medicine for his sick wife.

“Helicopters went over us so many times, but we received nothing. We have been waiting all week,” he said, adding, “I am going to the market to sell the firewood. Hopefully I will make the Rs 200 I need to buy the medicine for my wife.” As we chatted, the children ran towards an open field as a helicopter momentarily hovered over head. But like many others, it too didn’t land with aid and flew on.

Even days after the waters had receded, flood victims from Dhanusha, Saptari, Morang, Sunsari and Rautahat, among other districts, were living in deplorable conditions, lacking drinking water, safe shelter, food and medicine. And everywhere we went, entire settlements were pessimistic about when and if relief would arrive. 

As my reporting assignment drew to a close and I waited for our vehicle beside the East-West Highway, the situation in the Tarai was succinctly summarised by Radhe Mandal, who had walked up to us to chit chat. “We have seen what happened with the earthquake victims, so many of them are still waiting for support from the state two years after the disaster,” he said, “We are nothing in comparison to them.” 

“Please! Visit my house. At least write my name in your paper so that the government will know,” he then implored, as we boarded and bade him farewell. 

Published: 02-09-2017 06:43

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