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Months after the disaster, little relief for Bihar’s flood victims

Months after the disaster, little relief for Bihar’s flood victims
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First Published: Fri, Apr 25 2008. 10 51 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Apr 25 2008. 10 51 PM IST
Devna, Darbhanga (Bihar): Chaitu Sadai stopped eating rats two decades ago. But with his village’s rice paddies still buried under a thick blanket of silt washed up by last summer’s devastating monsoon, he’s thinking it may be time to start again.
“We have no food, we have no work. The people say they don’t know what to do,” said the gaunt 70-year-old. “I know we can eat rats.”
Sadai and his fellow villagers are at the bottom of India’s elaborate caste system. They are outcasts, so low that rat eating is in their tradition.
The monsoons are often said to be one of India’s few truly democratic forces, striking equally the rich and poor, high caste and low. But across this broad plain below the towering Himalayas, the fiction in that conceit is clear.
The villages of landowners or politically connected castes have concrete houses sitting behind well maintained dikes. Their settlements may be inundated but buildings withstand the assault.
It’s the mud huts of the lowly that are washed away when rising waters rush through shoddy embankments, as they did last summer during floods that killed more than 2,200 people in South Asia and left 31 million others homeless, short of food or with other problems.
The United Nations called the floods the worst in living memory.
The start of this year’s monsoon season is only less than two months away and much of the damage wrought by last year’s calamity remains.
In Devna, nothing has been done to restore the village’s fields or plug a gap that stretches across 100 yards of the embankment needed to prevent new floodwaters from pouring in.
After the floods, officials pledged crores of rupees to help rebuild. But many of the worst-hit places were bypassed for reasons ranging from caste-based politics to rigid bureaucracy to corruption.
Devna, a collection of mud and thatch huts that is a day’s drive down crumbling roads from the nearest airport, is one of the forgotten hamlets.
“For five years the hole”—in the embankment—“has gotten bigger and the floods have gotten worse,” Sadai said. “Every year the monsoon takes away more of the village.” But no reconstruction has been done.
Who is supposed to fix Devna’s embankment? Central government officials say it is the states’ responsibility, in this case Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. Bihar officials refer questions from one department to another. Disaster management says call public health engineering, which passes the query along to water resources, which says it’s disaster management’s issue.
That is not to say money is going unspent. There are villages near Devna, ones closer to the main road, that bear only faint reminders of the floods, such as water marks high on the cement walls of the sturdy homes. But these fortunate villages are mostly home to higher castes.
When there is a disaster, “they have connections. They get help,” said Gujreet Singh, an engineer with the international aid group Oxfam, which has done flood relief in Bihar.
For their part, villagers in Devna also suspect money is being siphoned off by crooked officials.
Local officials deny any malfeasance and say they are doing their best.
In Devna, villagers scoff at the excuses. The breach in the embankment first opened during monsoon flooding five years ago and officials “are always saying they will fix it,” Sadai said. But they haven’t, and “we have nothing.”
Except rats.
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First Published: Fri, Apr 25 2008. 10 51 PM IST