Rescue and Relief: Reports from the Grassroots

CPI(ML) and AIALA activists in the affected areas threw themselves into rescue and relief work alongside the affected people and people of neighbouring villages from the first day the flood waters made an appearance. Now our activists are concentrate their relief work among the areas far from the main towns and the Government-run ‘mega shivirs’, in the high spots near embankments and MBC-JBC-Gangapur canals where large numbers of flood-affected people have taken refuge, and whom the state barely counts among those needing relief. CPI(ML), AIALA, AIPWA, and AICCTU leaders closely involved with the relief efforts have demanded that the Government provide relief of Rs. 10, 000 each to the flood victims marooned near embankments and canals, so that they can put up temporary shelters. Also, demanding that the Government conduct relief efforts on a war-footing to prevent hunger, malnutrition and epidemic from setting in; provide urgent and round-the-clock medical care, especially teams of women doctors; relief of Rs 5000 each; 6 months worth of unemployment allowance under the NREGA; and compensation of Rs. 10, 000 per acre to all peasants. On 19 September, AIALA organised the flood victims in militant demonstrations at all district and block headquarters to highlight the above demands.

Below are first-hand experiences narrated by some of our activists working at the grassroots, many of whom are themselves flood-victims and helped organise the very first rescue and relief efforts; and also reports by members of relief teams which visited the affected areas.

Government and Officials Fled, People Helped Each Other

(Bharat Bhushan reports from Murliganj, Madhepura)

When papers informed us on August 19 that the embankment at Kusaha on the Kosi had broken, noone had any idea that Murliganj-Madhepura might be flooded. Till August 20, no flood warnings were issued by the Government to the people of this region; rather it was propagated that the river had turned towards Murliganj-Kumarkhand. On August 21, the flood water rose fast and by 2.30 in the afternoon the entire district was submerged and Murliganj was totally cut-off. All around, there was 8-10 feet deep water.

We formed a team including those of us CPI(ML) and AIALA activists who could swim, including some intrepid local boys too. We made boats out of the banana trunks, and used these to get women and children to rooftops. Men waded or swam to reach higher places. We took around 300-350 people to the rooftops, and then began arranging for chivda, sattu and water. AIALA activists Arun Paswan, Madan Rishidev, Munna Sah worked day and night with me in this work. Till that point, the administration had yet to reach the stranded people, since due to the swift current even the army boats could not reach. Army boats became available only on August 25, and we helped evacuate people, taking 350 of them to the Beldaur canal. After doing all that we could, I and my family took the army boat to reach the Beldaur canal.

Somehow we reached Purnea, where our party is running a relief camp near the memorial for the martyred MLA Comrade Ajit Sarkar (near R N Sah Chowk). Then, with much difficulty and after prolonged negotiation with the DM, 350 people who had come with us from Madhepura could get place in the Government-run mega shivir.

Next, we began raising an organised voice against the mismanagement in the mega shivir. People were getting just a weak khichdi meal each day and night. When we put pressure, rice, dal, and vegetables began to be provided. In spite of Government announcements there was no provision of breakfast, and women and children became especially weak. We mobilised the flood-affected people to block National Highway – 31 for several hours, until eventually the administration agreed to provide breakfast.

This mega shivir began on September 9, but till date the people in this camp have no cups or plates out of which to eat. People sleep on plastic sheets on the ground, and the surroundings are very unhygienic; as a result sickness is rampant.

When the flood victims raise their voice, officials repeatedly issue threats like “Stay if you like, or else return to Madhepura” and insults like “You’re getting all it takes to keep alive, after all you’re not guests at a wedding.” Clothes have yet to be made available, and so women are yet to be able to take a bath, or else are forced to bathe in their petticoats in the open.

When I returned with the AISA-AIPWA team to Murliganj on 18 September, we found a desolate and devastated waterscape. The despairing faces of people who remained there were a poignant indictment of the cruel callousness of the RJD and JD(U) Governments whose negligence had inflicted the flood on them.

Floods, Government and Us

(Lallan Singh reports from Bhargama, Araria)

Some sights still haunt us: the dead body of a poor woman with four of her cattle tied by rope to her waist, floating by; a mother with her child strapped to her chest, both dead, whose bodies swept past us; and worst of all, a man trying to cross the swift waters with his pregnant wife. Our efforts to reach out and help this couple were in vain, and both drowned in front of our eyes.

At Bhargama (Araria), there are relatively more high spots. The canal banks became shelters for refugees from Supaul and Madhepura, and local people too stayed back wherever they could find some spot above the waters. The local people, though traumatised and fearful, displayed remarkable spirit and humanity. For the first week to ten days, ignoring the differences of caste or creed, they collected bamboo poles, rope, flour, sattu, rice, candles, etc.., cooked food and set out to make room for and feed everyone, vowing not to let anyone go hungry.

On August 20, as soon as we got reports that flood waters had entered Bhargama block, we rushed to the Block office and submitted urgent appeals for aid. The BDO gave assurances which he did not keep. By the next day, Simarbani was under water, and water had entered Shankarpur, Jaynagar, and Raghunathpur. Repeated urgent appeals and gheraos of the BDO on two subsequent days – August 22 and 23, resulted eventually in relief camps being set up in each of the above-mentioned places. But only weak, half-cooked khichdi was provided here, until mobilisation of people in the camps resulted in dal-rice or properly cooked khichdi being provided. By August 22, people from Triveniganj, Chatapur, and Kumarkhand in Supaul and Madhepura had started coming to Araria’s JBC etc for refuge. Comrades of North Raghunathpur along with eager and willing local volunteers took up the task of cooking food in homes and providing regular meals to people at the Mehthava JBC who had come from Chunni-Kashdi in Supaul. This continued for around 8 days, also for people who had fled from Triveniganj to seek refuge at Khajuri-JBC and Kupadi and Bagheli canals – even after the Government relief camps had come up.

Kamli Devi, one of our most senior women comrades of this region, who is in her seventies, made it her habit to collect food and take it on tractors every day to distribute amongst the refugees at JBC canal and Khajuri and Kupadi-Bagheli canals. She became a familiar and reassuring presence, whom all the flood victims would call ‘Mother’, saying “Now that Mai has come, we can tell her our troubles,” and she would tirelessly intervene – rushing to Government camps, Block headquarters, determinedly pursuing officials to force them to find solutions.

AIALA Area Committee member Mustafa Khan led a team of people from the Manullapatti panchayat to provide cooked food regularly to people. We heard that some people were marooned on the roofs of a school in a village Chatapur panchayat, which was separated from dry land by swiftly running water. AIALA leader Baidyanath Mandal organised a team of 60 people who collected some 30 sacks of dry foodstuffs as well as roti-sabzi. Some brave young boys volunteered to swim across and took the relief materials to the stranded people who had not eaten for 8 days. The police station was informed and rescue boats arranged. But locally powerful criminals would take control of the Government boats and extort Rs 200 from each person for use of the boat.

A team of 20 activists rushed to rescue people stranded at Dehriya village near the Chatapur Chunni canal. Hearing of irregularities and corruption in the Government-run relief distribution in affected villages, we immediately made enquiries. At Simarbani, people began a hunger strike on September 1, which continued for two days till officials not only took corrective measures against the irregularities but appealed to CPI(ML) for help. The BDO asked if we could provide 20 tractors, and appeared surprised when peasant leader Ashok Shrivastava persuaded other farmers who owned tractors to rise to the occasion and make their tractors available.

Party General Secretary Comrade Dipankar, AIALA leader Rameshwar Prasad, Barsoi MLA Munnaf Alam, Madhavi Sarkar went to oversee the relief efforts.

The Government relief camp at Bagheli started on September 5 – after Sukhni Devi from Raghunathpur Musahari died of hunger. We investigated and found other reports of hunger and starvation to be true. In spite of this, food supply at the 14-RD JBC canal camp was stopped on September 15 itself. Refugees who had been hungry for three days blockaded the National Highway 57.

One persistent complaint was that rescue boats are not letting people take any belongings – and the boats are in fact being used later to loot belongings left behind. Criminals are not only using government boats to extort money but even for child trafficking. There have been many complaints of sexual harassment and violence against women by police jawans during rescue operations. There is no medical camp, medicines are short in the hospitals, and epidemics are on the rise. We raised these points at a relief meeting convened by the government on 12 September.


(Mukesh Mukt reports)

On September 5, CPI(ML) activists marched to the Collectorate on September 5 to protest against the sluggish rescue and relief efforts by the Government, and presented a memo to the DM setting out the needs of the flood victims in detail. The procession was led by Karakat MLA Arun Singh as well as the party’s Bhagalpur leadership.

With the help of Dr. Gautam, activists of the party’s Raghopur branch distributed food in Khairpur. The party collected relief materials in Bhagalpur town; a team of women collected relief house-to-house. Food was provided for flood-affected people who had come to Bhagalpur town from Murliganj. Food packets were taken by boat to Mirjafri and Nagartoli in Kharik block where people were stranded. The party’s base in Suraha (Khatik) are mainly agricultural labourers, who on their own initiative collected funds to provide 2 quintals of sattu to the flood-affected. On 13 September, people distributed relief amongst the affected people (mostly handloom workers) in Usmanpur (Kharik), which can be reached only by boat. CPI(ML) was the first to get some relief to this village.

Here, CPI(ML) activist Bindeshwari Mandal, who has been active since August 25 in organising struggles of the flood-affected for relief, was assaulted by SAP jawans who tore his clothes and threatened to shoot him. The relief effort is being coordinated by the District Secretary S K Sharma, Town Secretary Mukesh Mukt and Comrade Suresh Prasad Sah.

Chief Minister Faces the Music in Purnea

(R N Thakur reports)

At our main camp near Comrade Ajit Sarkar memorial, we have been cooking food to take to people at the Government mega shivir. We have also been distributing relief amongst people who have come from Bhargama, Belari, Banmankhi, and Murliganj. The relief efforts here are being coordinated by R N Thakur, District Secretary Pankaj Singh, Chandrakishor Sharma, Madhavi Sarkar, as well as Bharat Bhushan from Araria.

From September 2 onwards, when Government or non-governmental agencies were yet to reach relief, we had begun collecting and distributing relief. Our relief efforts have been pretty well organised and have also reached the far-flung rural areas.

Dr. Manish from Siliguri sent three truckloads of relief material through Bihari labourers and others. Realising that large sections of relief materials being deposited at the local BDO’s were liable to ‘disappearing’ overnight at the behest of local RJD leader Anil Yadav, they sent word to Siliguri, suggesting that it would be better to distribute the relief through the CPI(ML) camp. The people at Siliguri appealed to the Darjeeling DM who called the Purnea DM on September 12 and had the material sent to the CPI(ML) camp. Other private agencies too, who had been sending relief to the Government mega camp, had similar complaints, and some have contacted the CPI(ML) centre to make sure the relief reached those who needed it.

On September 11, CM Nitish Kumar came to inspect the Purnea mega shivir. He was all set to leave after a superficial visit, but the people at the camp, along with CPI(ML) activists, surrounded him, saying, “Leaving so soon – after talking to your own officials – what kind of inspection is that? How can you get a real picture unless you talk to us, the flood victims living in the camp?” The CM had to stay back and hear out the complaints of the flood victims.

On September 12, 70 people who till then had been marooned in Banmankhi, arrived at our camp. We immediately got down to providing them food, and then working to get them space in the mega shivir.

We then set up another major centre for relief distribution at Murliganj Branch Canal of Supaul district. On this Branch Canal as well as on the Janakinagar Branch Canal, some 50, 000 flood victims have taken shelter on a 15-kilometre stretch. There is as of now no Government relief camp in this area. Whatever camps had existed no longer provide any food, except to local powerful criminals. Only the ‘mega shivirs’ are providing food for all – but the quality of food is so bad (watery and half-cooked khichdi) that often people are seeking us out for food. Those who have taken refuge on the canals are in a bad way – and are condemned to remain here for the next six months to one year. There is no provision for food, shelters, and more, crucially, for drinking water. At Triveniganj, a pregnant woman Gulmain died due to negligence at the hospital. From Triveniganj to Supaul, hospitals abound with diarrhoea cases. Mohammad Sagir, who has taken shelter at the Murliganj Branch Canal, told us that there are long queues for water, since the hand-pumps are a kilometre apart. Ramdev Yadav, who has taken shelter on the embankment, said “We left thousands of cattle to drown, and somehow escaped with our children. The Government is neither providing food nor even fuel so that we can cook.” A team of 30 activists led by AIALA General Secretary Dhirendra Jha are working night and day to provide relief to these people. Local people of the Muslim community have come forward in a big way to join the relief efforts. Thousands of people who have taken refuge on the embankments and canals gheraoed the Triveniganj Sub-divisional Office on 19 September, protesting against the sheer neglect by the administration.

Relief Collection

The entire party set itself to the task of collecting relief for the flood victims. Two instalments of relief collected in Bihar have been sent to the party’s Purnea and Triveniganj relief distribution centres. In Patna, a team of 15 students and youth from AISA, RYA and JSM collected relief from August 31 to September 4. All over the state, people conducted mass collection of relief. In Tamilnadu, agricuktural labourers collected relief and submitted it at a Public Hearing at Kumbakonam. In Delhi, teams of workers and party activists organised mass collection in Mandavali, Patparganj, Gobindpuri, Khanpur, Jaitpur, Okhla, Nehru Place, Azadpur, Wazirpur, Narela, Motinagar and various depots of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). Apart from this, students from the JNU Students’ Union and AISA in JNU as well as Jamia Millia Islamia also collected relief, and a team from these two universities visited the flood relief camps and affected areas to distribute the relief. The relief funds collected by the party in Delhi were mostly used to buy good quality tarpaulin which was then distributed by our Bihar relief centres among people in far-flung areas who needed them to construct temporary shelters.

Three Days Among the Flood-Affected

(As recounted by a team of activists of AIPWA and AISA who visited the affected areas)

A 17-member team of AIPWA and AISA activists, led by Shashi Yadav, National Secretary of AIPWA, Sangeeta Singh, National Council member of AIPWA, and AISA National Vice President Abhyuday, left for Purnea from Patna. Travelling in the jam-packed general bogey of the Capital Express, we reached Katihar, and from there to Purnea.

At Purnea, AIPWA leaders Shashi Yadav and Sangeeta Singh along with Madhavi Sarkar were allowed to enter the Government mega shivir, thanks to Madhavi Sarkar’s identity of being the slain MLA Comrade Ajit Sarkar’s wife. But the officials prevented other members of the team from entering, claiming that the entry of ‘outsiders’ was prohibited. When the DM was contacted on phone, he said ‘visiting hours’ were from 8-10 am only – as though the place were not a relief camp but a jail or a hospital! We found that flood victims from all over have come to the relief camp but are not being given room in the camp. Officials are making announcements on mikes, telling people to return home since the waters have receded.

We met around 5-60 people, many of them women and children, waiting outside the camp. One youth among them said there was nothing to eat in their village and they had somehow managed to reach the mega camp, but here too they were being chased away. When we along with the local CPI(ML) leaders took up the issue, some of them got registration in the mega shivir.

At the mega shivir, we found that there were no special arrangements for women and children. Women told us that when they went to the camp doctors for their own and their children’s treatment, they were scolded and told, “Just because you see a doctor doesn’t mean you have to concoct an illness.”

When a large number of flood victims including many women and children from the Bela Refugee Colony, post Basmatiya Bazaar, in Araria district, tried to enter the Purnea Maranga mega shivir, they were stopped at the gates and spent two days on the streets, depending on the charity of local people. We spoke to Dilip Chandra Das, Kajoli Das, Vibhendra Chandra Das, and Dayal Varma from among these people and heard that eventually tired of being hungry, they broke the bamboo barricades and entered the mega camp, but were beaten up and thrown out by police and officials. We took up their case with the DDC, who told us that these people were from Araria and so we cannot provide for them. We insisted that now that these people are here, and in dire need of help, the officials cannot refuse to feed them on any bureaucratic pretext. As this stand-off continued, JD(U) leader and Chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, Lacy Singh along with another JD(U) goon Babbu Jha came up and began abusing and threatening us. They boasted that they could get us lathicharged or even shot at, and in fact Babbu Jha even boasted that he was the biggest local goonda. These abusive threats to flood victims and flood relief activists by representatives of the ruling party were captured on videotape by students. We stood our ground and challenged the police to do whatever lathicharge or firing they liked – we would not budge as long as there were hungry flood victims who were being denied relief. Eventually the DM intervened and ordered the administration to feed those people. But we heard that later, after we left, those people were once again chased away.

At Purnea, we met Sunita from Forbesganj whose foetus died in the womb itself due to negligence of doctors at Sadar Hospital. Yet, the hospital refused to perform the operation to clean out her womb. Writhing in pain she was taken to a private nursing home, where the foetus was removed and the woman’s life saved. The Government has announced relief of Rs. 10, 000 to anyone giving birth to a child (Rs. 11, 000 in case of a girl child) – has this amount been given to Sunita, she could have paid off her hospital bills. As it is, the hospital refused to let her leave till she paid her bills. So having lost her home and also her child, a traumatised Sunita was further forced to face the callousness of both the Government and the private health system. She could leave the hospital only when local people came together to collect funds, even in a time of their own misfortune, and helped her to pay off the bills. Many other women and children have needlessly died due to lack of medical care.

Next, we left for Murliganj, which entailed an 8-hour-long journey by train, tempo, on foot and by boats, accompanied by Comrade Bharat Bhushan. The people we met there told us we were the only team to have come to check on their fate. They warmly recalled the role of Bharat Bhushan and other party comrades in the first days of flooding. We heard many narratives of people’s courage in helping each other to survive the flood. People used electricity wires to get 60 people across the flooded water to safety. They said no Government aid or relief had reached them – not even food, though foodgrains are rotting in the FCI godown nearby.

We met Ashok Mandal of Murliganj who told us that around 50 people of two wards of Jorgama panchayat are missing. There is no provision if medical care though diarrhoea cases abound. Mahendra Bharti, a CPI comrade who is a member of the Zila Parishad too met us and warmly appreciated the role of our party comrades in the rescue and relief work. He too said we would now have to wage struggles for rehabilitation of people – the Government machinery was going to remain as callous as ever.

Delhi Students’ Observations

(From JNUSU Team's Report)

A seven member team (including four students from JNU and three from Jamia Millia Islamia) led by JNUSU President Sandeep Singh visited flood-ravaged areas to distribute food, tarpaulin and medicines. The team visited a mega relief camp at Purnea, and also the Billori camp in this district on September 11th. The visit revealed dismal conditions even in the relief camps located in cities.

On September 12th, the team visited Parvata and Gothiyari villages in Barhara block of Purnea district. The flood waters had inundated the area for 15-16 days. It is indicative of the government’s attitude that according to the official surveys, this area is not flood-affected. Our team distributed tents and food in both Parvata and Gothiyari villages.

On September 13th, the team visited the Janakinagar Branch Canal (JBC) relief camp in Araria, the Kupari branch canal relief camp, Muraliganj Branch Canal relief camp, and the Raghunathpur village. The villagers alleged that any small relief supply that had managed to reach the camp was being siphoned off with the abetment of the entire district administration, from the Sarpanch Gram Panchayat to the camp supervisor. Hundreds of families were sleeping in the open. Even though there were supplies of water bottles, these were not being distributed. Only when the villagers, accompanied by us, gheraoed the camp director were bottles of water finally distributed.

Near the JBC relief camp, apart from the official relief camp, we saw camps being run by the Hindu Seva Dal. We were told that relief meant for the government-run camp was being sent to this camp: an obvious collaboration between the Nitish government and the RSS.
The conditions in the Kupari and Muraliganj branch canal relief camps were even more appalling. There was absolutely no facility for food or shelter. The JNUSU-led team distributed tents, medicines and food in the Muraliganj branch canal relief camp.


Baseless Game of Blaming Nepal

There has been a concerted effort by the officials and Governments to blame Nepal for the floods. Such blame flies in the face of facts. It is the Indian Governments alone which have the whole responsibility and control over not only the Kosi barrage but also the dams on the Gandak and other rivers – and for that purpose India has also got a substantial section of land from Nepal on a 199-year lease. It is Indian contractors who get the work done; the only compulsion is that local Nepali labour must be employed. Decisions to release water of the Kosi, Gandak, and other barrages are taken and implemented by the Indian side.

Recent reports indicate that the damage to the relevant spur was not corrected on time because of rivalry between two contractors – Uday Goit who belongs to the RJD, and Ganpat Yadav who is the brother-in-law of the present Water Resources Minister of Bihar. Also, Nepali labourers have been protesting because Indian contractors insist on paying them their wage amount in Nepali rupees – that have 54% less value than their Indian counterpart.

On Nepali PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s recent visit to Delhi, he reiterated that the Kosi treaty ought to be reviewed – and even Manmohan Singh expressed agreement: this means that this demand can hardly be an ‘anti-Indian’ one.

The game of blaming Nepal is simply to evade responsibility for the rampant negligence of Indian Governments.


Assam and Orissa: Same Story of Negligence and Devastation

Assam faced its usual yearly bout of severe floods, while Orissa is facing a unprecedented flood fury that is threatening to break the record of the Kosi floods in Bihar.
In these cases, too, however, the catastrophe is less natural and more man-made – specifically, made by negligent Governments.

An NDTV report (September 03, 2008) observed about Assam that “the misery this time is entirely manmade. At Kendukona in lower Assam, embankments constructed in 2008, have already given away... While predicting a natural disaster may still be difficult under Indian conditions, there is no reason why a work of civil construction like an embankment constructed as early as April should give away.”

At Orissa, where embankments on the Mahanadi have given way at 61 places, it is a man-made tragedy. Analysing weekly data released by the Central Water Commission, and daily data from the Orissa government about water flow in the Mahanadi river and reservoir levels in the Hirakud dam, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an NGO, has pointed to a total disconnect between information and action by the government. It has highlighted how despite having a flood control cushion, apathy in operating the dam—filling up the reservoir to full capacity before the end of the monsoon, in violation of an official expert committee recommendation—has led to an avoidable flood disaster. As Orissa confronts the enormously destructive floods, CPI(ML) will do all it can to aid the relief efforts, and will also demand accountability about the role of Government negligence in causing the floods.

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