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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Rain, rain, go away

Assam and Bihar are synonymous with annual floods. An uncounted tragedy of it are the children, more susceptible to the waters and fighting for the attention of a system now grappling with Covid-19. The Indian Express spoke to two such children from Guwahati and Saran, on living with the floods, and living with loss.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Santosh Singh | Updated: August 9, 2020 3:52:58 pm
A drawing Rima made of her village shows people in chest-deep water, carrying their belongings on their heads.

Nazma Khatun, 14
Barpeta district

She was only four, Nazma Khatun remembers. The Beki river, which surrounds Majidbhita char, the riverine island where she lives in Assam’s Barpeta district, had reached right up to the foot of her bed, where she and her mother Shahnaaz Parbin lay that afternoon.

“I had never seen the water so close,” recalls Nazma, her memory still vivid 10 years later. As her mother napped, Nazma crawled to the edge of the bed, tied to four poles to raise it above the ground — the only “safe” space in the inundated home. “I reached out to touch the water, and fell right in.” The splash woke up her mother, who scooped her out just in time.

Two years back, her cousin’s five-month-old son fell into the water, the exact same way Nazma had all those monsoons ago. This time, “the river took the baby away”. Like for the 14-year-old, floods are a part of life for Assam, a cycle of destruction and rebuilding affecting hundreds. Many of its victims are children — for reasons not unlike that which almost killed Nazma.

In the past two years, 86 minors have died in Assam in floods. This year, they account for 49 deaths (45.5% of the total 110). UNICEF puts the number of them affected at 27 lakh. The 2020 floods have been particularly devastating, with two waves of heavy rain in close succession in July. M S Manivannan, Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) Chief Executive Officer, said they are planning a panel to look into the deaths of children.

Explained| Why Assam is prone to floods, and what the solution is

Nazma recalls escaping death. Express Photo

Nazma’s Barpeta district, one of the worst-hit, has seen 21 deaths, 12 of them children. A few drowned playing; others fell from boats, or slipped while bathing; while, another, a two-year-old at Kalgachia Circle, rolled over in his sleep into the water, just like Nazma and her nephew. “In school, they tell us not to go near the water,” Nazma says, “but when you are young, you do not understand the risks.” Nazma is a student of Class 9 at a school located 2 km away, accessible only by boat.

She, her parents and her brother, 7, share a one-room house, with walls made of mora paat (jute), which they cultivate. Their two cots are still the safest ground when the rains come. The family owns barely two bighas of land now, having lost at least 10 bighas to the river.

Her father used to teach at a local school, but hasn’t been getting his salary since it shut due to the pandemic.

Till a few years ago, the family would go to a make-shift relief camp — a platform with a tin roof — when the floods came. But now, they prefer home. “Those camps are crowded, and we have to share space with animals,” says Shahnaaz, Nazma’s mother. In one such flood a couple of years ago, the 14-year-old lost all her school notes and drawings to the water. “I salvaged some. But the ink had run, the writing barely legible.”

So now Nazma keeps her textbooks, notebooks and drawings — along with the family’s birth certificates, PAN cards and NRC papers — in plastic bags. The family stocks these on a shelf called saang built under the roof. “Once you lose your documents, you lose everything,” she says.

The family has stopped trying to save the few pieces of furniture they own — a clothes shelf or aalna, and some tables.

This year, the rains started pelting down in June. One morning, Nazma saw her parents running around, stacking tables, putting the stove right at the top; packing their clothes, food items and documents in bundles; and stowing everything away in the saang. And, she knew, the flood was here.

Bihar rain, assam rain, assam flood, bihar flood, monsoon india, india monsoon, indian express Rima Das of Kohora 1 village on the edge of the Kaziranga National Park, escaped the floods on bhoors or rafts made of banana tree trunks.

It’s toughest to keep the fear away at night, Nazma says. She used to have nightmares earlier of falling into the water, but has outgrown them. At eight, she learnt to swim. The family talks or plays Ludo on the solitary mobile phone they own through such nights. The village is yet to get electricity, and depends on solar panels.

A few days ago, in the last heavy downpour, four of Nazma’s family six goats and several hens and ducks were washed away.
“The government has not provided us any facilities,” says their neighbour, 28-year-old Zahedul Islam. “There is nothing here except for a lower primary school.”

Dr Madhulika Jonathan, Chief of Field Office, UNICEF Assam, says the children in the state have been rendered even more vulnerable due to Covid-19. “We could not carry out flood awareness programmes as we have been busy,” admits Nandita Dutta, ASDMA Project Officer in Barpeta district.

Debarati Guha-Sapir, the director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster in Belgium, who has studied floods in India, says children are more susceptible as they can’t gauge the depth of the waters. “Moreover, often many mothers have more than one child. She is able to only protect her youngest,” Guha told The Indian Express.

Some 300 km away from Nazma, 11-year-old Rima Das of Kohora 1 village on the edge of the Kaziranga National Park, escaped the floods on bhoors or rafts made of banana tree trunks. The family took shelter in a shop on National Highway-37. A drawing she made of her village shows people in chest-deep water, carrying their belongings on their heads. Rima took this drawing with her to the shelter.

Nazma wishes the government would give them money to at least raise their huts to a level that the waters can’t enter them. “Or, maybe, build a bridge so that we don’t have to take the boat to school.”

In earlier years, the government would hold classes for older children in schools that were not flooded. “But now with Covid, schools are shut,” says Preetom Saikia, Commissioner and Secretary, Elementary and Secondary Education, admitting they are yet to consider an online initiative for flood-affected children.

Rima says her wish is to live across the other side of the national highway, a higher ground where she has heard the floods are not as devastating. Nazma laughs that she can move “just about anywhere” with her family — “Just that place should not flood”.

Srikant Kumar, 12
Marhaura, Saran 

The family of seven is now living under a tent on a railway platform. Express Photo by Santosh Singh

Silhauri Halt barely stirs to life at most times — with all of two daily train stops, that too now paused because of the Covid crisis. The “Halt”, as locals call it, was more the product in 2007 of Saran having an MP in railway minister (Lalu Prasad) at the time, than any real demand, with the Marhura Railway Station just 1.8 km away.

Srikant Kumar, 12, had never been more thankful for it as on August 1 night, when water gushed into the family’s house.

“My sisters, brother, mother and I, we ran with what we could to the Halt,” says Srikant. In the panic to save their six sacks of wheat, four cows, the fodder, utensils and clothes, the 12-year-old forgot his books and notebooks. He salvaged some later, but not the register with his math notes. “It is important to survive first,” reasons the Class 8 student.

For a week since, the railway platform has been home to 50 families like Srikant’s.

Located near the Ganga and Gandak rivers, this is Saran’s worst flood in 20 years, with over 75% of the population (3 lakh-odd people) of Marhaura, Amnaur and Masrakh blocks affected, and two deaths. Across the state, says Disaster Management Department Principal Secretary Pratyaya Amrit, 69 lakh people are affected, and 21 dead. Of the dead, eight were children.

“About 4.8 lakh people have been evacuated. We are running 1,402 kitchens for about 10 lakh people,” the official adds.
Bihar is not new to annual floods and devastation, with more than 50 lakh people affected every year. The state Disaster Management Department does not keep a separate record of deaths of children.

Marhaura is located around 50 km from the Gandak embankment, and got flooded after a major breach in it on July 24-25 night.
The waters took Srikant, who had never seen such a flood before, by surprise.

Water Resources Minister Sanjay Jha said, “The main reasons for the floods this year is the breach of approach roads to bridges and embankments, caused due to largely rains and surplus discharge of water from Nepal in the Kosi, Gandak and other rivers. We repair enbankments before every monsoon, but excess water often causes breaches.”

Srikant’s home still remains under water, and the family of seven now lives under a tarpaulin tent.

The family had sown paddy on their two bighas, which is lost. Mother Lilauti Devi had saved some money by selling milk, and they used it to buy rice. Srikant’s father died three years ago of a heart attack, leaving her with seven daughters and two sons. Three of the daughters are married.

Srikant’s elder brother Chandan, who is in Class 12, got married last year. His wife is with her parents in another Saran village.
Less than 2 km away, over 1,500 people have made the Marhaura Railway Station platform and a train stationed there home. Ravi Ranjan Rai, whose 35-member family is living in a compartment of the train, says: “I have never seen such a deluge.”

The state government has opened a community kitchen at Marhaura, where lunch and dinner are served to around a thousand people. Srikant’s family seldom goes there; the road too is under water.

Lilauati cooks on wood fire — “we have not got the Modiwala cylinder (Ujjwala scheme benefit),” she says. But the cow-dung cakes are moist after the floods and give out a lot of smoke.

Srikant has heard that the people at the Marhaura station got government help. “We too need chivda (beaten rice), jaggery, tarpaulin sheets, a separate kitchen to feed us,” argues the indignant 12-year-old.

Srikant is grateful for the fact that he learnt swimming young, like most children in the village. So, it’s not the water that scares him, but what comes after. The family owns no TV and he has not been able to follow the classes being telecast by the state government. Recently, the family bought a smart phone, on which they mostly watched YouTube. But it is now dead as the area has had no electricity since August 1.

The Special Project Director of the Bihar Education Project Council, Sanjay Singh, says they are trying their best to reach out to the children. “We telecast a devoted five-day programme for Classes 1 to 12. For rural and flood-hit children, we will start a bridge course once schools open. Children with smart phones can access Mera Mobile, Mera Vidyalaya on the Bihar Unnayan app.”

However, Singh admits, connecting with children who do not have TV sets or mobile phones is “still an area we have to work on”.
The student of a local government school, Srikant is banking on his math tuition, costing Rs 200 per month, to help him catch up. With his notes gone, Srikant hopes he can convince his tutor to refresh some lessons. “I used to be average at math, but after tuitions, I scored 86 (out of 100) in a recent test. I enjoy it now,” he says, adding his mother can’t afford to provide him tuitions in other subjects.

If he studies hard enough though, Srikant hopes to fulfill at least one ambition. “Mud and brick houses fall after floods but concrete houses keep standing. I hope to earn enough to make such a house someday, which is not threatened by floods.”

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