A sight in Hasuanha village. Photo: Abhinav Prakash.
Around Bihar: “My house was here…Yours was there…The old peepal was right in front of my house. Look, if you don’t believe me, then bring the map. Call the bailiff or it will become a criminal offence. Then the same old story will be repeated.
And before the land can dry up, a surge of diseases will bring new fatalities. Diseases like malaria, kalazar, cholera, smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid or some other disease that no doctor can diagnose. Humans screaming, wailing, flailing about and dying…”
Phanishwar Nath Renu, one of the prominent names in Hindi literature, wrote Dayan Kosi (‘Kosi, the Witch’) in 1948, after covering the Bihar floods.
The lines quoted above have been reiterated year after year in media reports on Bihar’s catastrophic flood situation. The names of rivers, regions and people may have changed, but the pain and suffering of the people affected by the floods has been permanent.
Moreover, there are umpteen agonies afflicting the country at present. As Bihar is emerging as a hotspot of the coronavirus pandemic, floods are wreaking havoc in various parts of the state. Entire villages have been submerged in several areas.
North Bihar is one such region where nearly all districts are in the grip of disastrous floods as water levels surge in Gandak, Lal Bakaiya, Bagmati and Burhi Gandak rivers, affecting millions of lives.
However, Bihar’s Minister of Water Resources, Sanjay Kumar Jha, claims that the state government has employed artificial intelligence this year in order to forewarn the district administration about rain and floods in an effort to reduce the impact of the disaster.
After visiting flood-hit areas of Burhi Gandak, Narayani, Lal Bakaiya, Bagmati and Gandak, and speaking to affected local residents, The Wire found that flood victims have not yet received any sort of government aid.
The Sikrahana division of East Champaran district is now facing a renewed flood threat as water levels in Lal Bakaiya river have risen way above the danger mark. Here, the portion of the highway that links Bairgania to Dhaka (East Champaran) near Sirni village has been washed away.
The main road is submerged under four feet of flood water. Several huts and jhuggis have drowned in the swirling current while people have been trying to reach safer areas.
“Three days ago, this road was washed away,” says Mahesh Thakur, a local resident of Sirni village. “One day ago, district magistrate Shirsat Kapil Ashok visited this region but till now neither a rescue boat has arrived in our village nor relief material has reached us. People are trapped in their houses surrounded by water.”
Paswan Tola village of Gurhanwa panchayat is located in the flow of Lal Bakaiya river stream. Around 25-30 families of the village claim that their houses have been destroyed due to the swelling river.
The affected families have taken shelter near Gurhanwa railway station. Chanda Devi, member of one such family, says that their house, which was made of bricks, collapsed and the whole family is now forced to live at the station.
“It’s been seven days since we arrived here,” says Devi. “But the government has done nothing for us. Some people from neighbouring villages bring cooked food for us sometimes. That’s how we are surviving.”
“Two days ago, a block officer visited us and told us that it is not flood but water logging due to heavy rainfall, therefore, we will not receive any relief,” she adds.
Widowed Sulakhi Devi and her children are also staying at the Gurhanwa station. “Our pallet house collapsed in the flood,” says Sulakhi Devi. “We are living here now. No leader has come to visit us. The same thing happened during the floods in 2017. We had not received any aid then also. In fact, we have not even received the Rs 6,000 from the flood relief fund yet.”
Last year, the Bihar government had announced that Rs 6,000 each would be credited to the bank accounts of flood victims. According to the government, the step would benefit the needy. However, people claim that when they have not even received the amount due for last year.
In this regard, Dhaka’s circle officer Ashok Kumar insists that people of this village habitually leave their homes every year and come to stay at the station till October.
When asked as to why people have not received relief funds so far, Kumar says, “This money is given to flood victims, not to people affected by rainfall.”
He further added that Gurhanwa panchayat head has been asked to distribute plastic among affected people.
In 2017, nearly 20 million people were affected by floods across 19 districts of Bihar and 514 people were killed.
That year, the embankment built on Lal Bakaiya river had collapsed which led to flooding of several panchayat areas. There have been reports of breach at several places in the Lal Bakaiya embankment this year as well.
Minister Jha conducted an aerial survey of the flood-hit region and claimed that there has been a surge in water level due to incessant rainfall in Bihar and Nepal but there was no report of any loss of life or property.
The Lal Bakaiya river in East Champaran merges with the Bagmati river in Sheohar district. This has led to flooding in Sheohar, Sitamarhi and Muzaffarpur districts.
“The flood situation this year is similar to 2017,” says Sitamarhi resident Mohammad Seraj. “Flood waters have reached areas surrounding Sitamarhi while many blocks have been completely submerged. The flood is at its peak in the district. The water is flowing above the Sitamarhi-Pupri road at Bazpatti. It has caused widespread destruction.”
Millions of people have been affected due to the floods in areas of Bazpatti, Parihar, Runni Saidpur and Riga block.
I reached East Champaran’s Hasuaha village, situated along the Burhi Gandak river, only to see a population of approximately 2,000 is surrounded by water like an island.
People allege that they have been left to die by the government and the administration.
According to the villagers, the MLA of the area who is also a minister in the Bihar government, Pramod Kumar, arrived in the area but returned after carrying out inspection of the dam (situated around 1.5 km from Hasuaha village). He merely said that something will be done (about the situation).
Every local resident in this submerged village is facing the same issue. They are all in chest-deep water. With houses flooded, they have been forced on bamboo stilts.
A four-foot deep stream is flowing through the house of 60-year-old Jiani Devi. For the past four days, members of the family have been stuck on a makeshift overhead platform, unable to even move from one room to another.
Jiani Devi says, “There is no government for us. We have been surrounded by water and struggling to survive for four days but no one has come to enquire about us. We are somehow managing to cook food on a small stove up here. Then there is the fear of being bitten by a scorpion or a snake. Had the government sent a rescue boat, we would have moved to a higher place.”
“Our leaders survey [the flood-hit areas] on planes,” says Lal Babu Mukhia. “They should visit our villages on boats instead and see the conditions we are living in.”
According to Mukesh Mukhia, the village has to face disastrous floods every two or three years but neither is compensation paid properly nor is any relief work done. “We have also not received rations for this month,” claims Mukesh. “If the flood situation persists for another week, we will have a food crisis.”
“In our village, paddy usually gets washed out with the water,” Mukesh further states. “We only grow paddy and sugarcane. But during the last few years, people have carried out illegal soil excavation which has resulted in the surrounding land caving in. So, there is no proper crop yield.”
Illegal mining has been going on for several years in various villages situated on the banks of Burhi Gandak. It causes tremendous harm to the crops in the region.
Residents of Hasuaha village claim that the water may recede in another 10-15 days, but since large pits have formed because of soil extraction, it will not be possible to grow crops.
Due to floods, road connectivity has been affected, as a result of which people are struggling to receive medical assistance.
A villager Kishore Mukhia tells us that a few days ago a person called Ramdev Mukhia died as he could not receive medical treatment.
“Water surrounds the village,” says Kishore. “Ramdev Mukhia didn’t suffer from any disease. He suddenly fell ill. We called the hospital, but could not take him there as there was no conveyance. He died as a result.”
Jagannath Mukhia’s mud house is on the verge of collapse. Though his own family is affected by the flood, he has been busy ferrying people out of the water-logged region to dry areas on his small boat.
“At the time of floods every year, the government employs small boats of the area as rescue boats and after the flood passes, they refuse to give money,” alleges Jagannath. “Many people have not received payment for the previous year yet.”
Bihar’s Art, Culture and Youth Department Minister and MLA of the region, Pramod Kumar surveyed the Hasuaha dam along with several block and district level officers on July 23.
According to the villagers, instead of announcing immediate relief package for the flood victims, the officers present with the MLA only said that they have surveyed the area and would declare it flood-affected.
The circle officer of Motihari could not be contacted on phone. His views on the matter will be added in the story as and when a response is received.
The district’s Sugauli block is also reeling under the destructive flood situation of the Burhi Gandak river. A local resident of Sukul Pakad village, Mohammad Sagheer, says, “The Lal Parsa Ring embankment has collapsed. The embankment near our village is also on the brink of collapse. The village is submerged. We have been staying up for several nights out of fear.”
According to Sagheer, neither has any official from the district administration visited the area nor has any relief reached them.
West Champaran is also facing a flood threat from the overflowing Burhi Gandak river. Almost all blocks are affected by the floods, including district headquarters Bettiah. Four people have been killed in the area due to the floods so far.
The Kesaria block, situated in the southern region of East Champaran, is also in the grip the rising water levels in the Gandak. As the river embankment near Bhawanipur broke down, water gushed into the Nagar panchayat area as well.
“We are surrounded by water on all sides. There is no help in sight,” says Chunni Kumari, a village local.
Similarly, Muzaffarpur’s Minapur, Katra, Aurai, Gaighat, Kanti and Sahebganj blocks have been affected by the Gandak river.
“District Magistrate Chadrashekhar Singh toured the flood affected areas of Gaighat on Friday,” says Vivek Kumar, a Muzaffarpur resident. “But instead of providing any immediate assistance, he offered to give an aid of Rs 6,000 which is already provided under the Disaster Relief Fund.”
“There is no arrangement for government-run boats in the district,” says Vivek. “If the diversion breaks, movement will be completely halted.”
According to the Disaster Management Department of Bihar, two SDRF teams in Sitarmarhi district, one SDRF and NDRF team each in Muzaffarnagar, two NDRF teams in East Champaran and one SDRF and two NDRF teams have been deployed in West Champaran.
Despite the government’s claims of flood preparedness, at the grassroots level, people are battling even for basic necessities.
Today, nearly all districts of North Bihar are struggling on various fronts. Suffering due to incessant rains, heavy floods and the rising spread of coronavirus, people are distressed and angry with the government.
Abhinav Prakash is an activist associated with the media team of Karwan-e-Mohabbat.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.