THE FLOOD WATERS of river Kosi swirl around him, his house a pile of rubble, with red bricks stacked on one side. Just a day earlier, this was a home Rohit Kumar had built with his own hands. On Sunday, he pulled it down to prevent the river from washing it away.
In times like these, with a lockdown outside and fears that Covid may strike home, Rohit is keen to at least save the bricks. He can use them to rebuild the house once the flood waters recede in Govindpur, a dariya or a hamlet in Bhagalpur.
It has now turned into an island with the river changing course over the years. These days, it is accessible only by a rickety boat that transports humans, livestock, and tractors.
A microcosm of Bihar, Bhagalpur is the focus of a month-long series by The Indian Express to understand the pandemic’s effects in small-town India. It has a city that is aspirational, but its villages continue to suffer damage inflicted by floods that are an annual feature.
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The Bhagalpur town itself lies on the banks of Ganga, which cuts through the district. To its north is river Kosi that eventually merges with the Ganga in Khagaria. It is these two rivers and their distributaries that make Bhagalpur’s soil fertile and provide sustenance. Yet, for three months in a year, these rivers also ravage the district, causing widespread devastation.
“You see all this water? This was once land and the river flowed differently. The government tried to control the rivers, and now it has enveloped us,” said Rohit, pointing in the direction where one can just see water all over. And yet, even till 2019, the residents of the village could still deal with the problem. When Kosi rose every year for a few months, Govindpur would be enveloped with water. People would shift to an embankment on the other side of the river, but their homes remained safe.
“Earlier, only our fields would get submerged under floodwaters. But these days, the water has begun loosening the earth under our homes. This started in 2019, when some houses collapsed into the river. So, this year, we are taking the bricks along as we shift,” Rohit Kumar said.
It is not just him, but every other resident of the village, children included, who are frantically breaking down their homes, loading the bricks into tractors, and taking them across the river by boat.
The embankment already has bags of sand and earth lined up as a wall of defence by the district administration. The bricks will be kept near the shanties they put up by the roadside, next to their livestock during the monsoon months. When they return, the bricks will be used perhaps to build a toilet. Or a new home.
As they gather around and talk, the villagers argue about how much it would cost to put up a makeshift home. “Four thousand,” says one person. Rohit jumps in quickly to say, “Chaar hazaar mein kya hoga. It takes Rs 8000-9,000.” “Tarpaulin vaala,” the person who said it would cost Rs 4,000, mutters to himself.
Gurudev Rishidev, a ward sadasya from the village says, “I have four sons, and I had to build those many jhopdi’s on the other side. I took a loan of Rs 70,000, but it cost me Rs 1.02 lakh,” he said.
But he is unable to afford the loan. Rishidev said while some villagers do have farmland, many in the community work as labourers. “Prices for farm produce have dropped over 50 per cent, and nobody is employing labourers either. More than 200 of our young boys who used to send money back home have also returned. I do not know how I will repay my loan,” Rishidev said. Bakul, who returned last month from Meerut, said he used to work in a company that erected electricity poles. “I earned Rs 300 a day. Now, nothing,” he said.
Flooding is an annual affair in Bihar. The state’s Economic Survey for 2019 notes that 28 of 38 districts are flood prone. As much as 9 per cent was of the total capital outlay in 2017-18 was allocated for irrigation and flood control. In 2016-17, Rs 1,569.11 crore was spent on disaster management for floods.
Given the Covid pandemic, the district administration’s efforts to mitigate the adverse impact of floods has only become that much more difficult. Pratyaya Amrit, Principal Secretary (Disaster Management), told The Indian Express, “Unlike other years, flood management this year presents a unique challenge.”
“Our first responders – the NDRF, SDRF and other teams – could be the first Covid casualties, so we are making arrangements for PPE kits, etc. Additional forces are also being mobilised. On top of that, usually thousands of people are evacuated, but now social distancing has to be kept in mind. So, people will be screened. Those who are positive will be sent to isolation centres. The others, to relief centres. But even here, where one building held 50 people, we will need three. So, district collectors are looking for additional buildings,” Amrit said.
The district administration is also drawing up a list of people – from those who worked in quarantine centres that were shut in the state on June 14 – to run these relief camps. “During normal times, the community kitchens and relief centres worked well, and were unique initiatives in a way. Now, we are leaning on those who provided services for the quarantine centres. We will need more boats. Much will also depend on the timing of floods, and the stage of the Covid curve then,” Amrit said.
The larger issue is to increase peoples’ income levels. Professor Vijay Kumar, a teacher of Gandhi Studies at Bhagalpur University, who has worked on flood-affected communities for three decades, said, “The Kosi area is abundant with grass. Its strands are used for making ropes that are used for religious functions. It is also used in sikki art that is quite famous. People here can also be helped to practice masala and maize farming.”
For now, though, everyone in Govindpur is leaving, taking what they can. In the hope they can rebuild their lives upon return.
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