Witnessing a cycle of misery in Bihar"s flood prone villages


In two months the monsoon will arrive. And I am reminded of my visit to East Champaran district of Bihar four months after last year's "exceptionally destructive' floods. As person after person narrated his/her misery to me, it was clear that the government's relief was inadequate and acute distress did not recede with the flood waters; it lingered for months in the form of gnawing hunger, disease and deprivation. In fact, it is a cycle of misery that repeats year after year. In the plains of north Bihar, drained by a network of 13 rivers, monsoons are testing times.

Those were winter months when I visited 11 rural settlements in East Champaran and the rabi crop was yet to be harvested. I must have spoken to about 200 villagers and their common refrain was that it was a near-crisis situation. Meera Devi of Semra village in Ramgarhwa panchayat, Motihari block, said she did not have even a grain to offer to God.Ambiya Khatun broke into sobs when we were discussing the food situation in her village, Kathaan, in Motihari block. She and her neighbours had neither food stocks nor regular employment. Deep in debt, they could eat only on days they found some job.

Khatun's family was not even living in its house. Several houses in her village had caved in or had been heavily damaged by floods. They were living in ramshackle huts on the embankment, where they had sought shelter at the time of floods, vulnerable to cold wave. "You are asking us whether we have quilts or blankets. The reality is that this year we do not even have pual (straw) to keep us warm. Earlier, even the poor had some pual. But this year the entire paddy crop was washed away by floods,' said Maneshwari of Semra.

According to the government's own data, the floods of July-September 2007 in Bihar were exceptionally destructive. They affected 25 million people in 22 villages, devastated crops on 1.6 million hectares and destroyed over 700,000 houses.

The paltry government relief of a quintal of grain and Rs 200 per family was quickly exhausted. Unemployment was common since until late December no work had been taken up under the employment guarantee scheme in the region. Heavy machinery was being used in road construction. On the farms women got only Rs 25 for six hours of work