It was in the middle of the night last Sunday (August 13) that Iqbal Najmi woke up to check the water level in his courtyard. It had rained incessantly for the last few hours. In no time, his hunch that water level is increasing turned out to be a nightmare. Water in the courtyard was rising at a menacing pace, giving him little time to wake up his family members and reach for safety. His aging parents, two little children, and other family members managed to move to the stairs leading to the terrace of their building. They spent the next 15 hours on that stairway.
A week on, water has receded in the flood-hit Seemanchal region of Bihar and parts of West Bengal, but what is left behind is only wreckage, telling the stories of death and destruction. Apart from human lives, livestock have been lost and crops destroyed.
Hatwar on the National Highway 31 in Uttar Dinajpur is one of the worst-affected villages. Inundated with water, most people of this village were forced to camp on the highway for several days. “There was over 2.5 feet water in our living room. Eighty per cent of the houses in our village, which has a population of over 1,600, are damaged or destroyed. People have nothing to eat,” said Iqbal.
With the government being slow and grossly inadequate in its relief efforts, a few self-help groups like Ummeed have pitched in with food, medicines and other relief material. “They distributed food and poly sheets to those who lost their homes,” said Iqbal.
A few kilometres south of Hatwar is situated Lalbari village, on the banks of the Mahananda. When the ravaging river unleashed its fury, the entire village was submerged with its people taking shelter on rooftops. “The poor of the village have lost everything. Not only the houses, the floodwater washed away their stocks of rice and clothes as well,” said Rinku Kumar Yadav of Lalbari.
Amour Baisa in Purnia is a low-lying agricultural area; Kankai and Parman rivers pass through this region. Rice and jute are the main crops during this season of the year. “The flood has destroyed everything. Rice crop was especially looking good this year. But it’s all under water now,” said Yadav.
Though the administration claims to have provided relief material in flood-affected areas, there is palpable anger on the ground. “With each passing day, people are becoming desperate. Victims are decrying government’s apathy and its unresponsiveness. We saw this first hand at Lahra Chowk near Kishanganj,” said Dr Hasnain Sarshaar who runs Ummeed.
The fear of an epidemic outbreak is also lurking. In many parts, drinking water is already contaminated. “There are many cases of stomach infection in our village. People are not getting clean drinking water,” said Yadav.
When contacted on phone, officials in Purnia District Control room said water has receded and the administration was focussing on providing relief. But Minhaj Alam of Chilhana Majgama Haat said the government’s efforts were far from enough. “There is an urgent need of medicines. Privately, these are being sold at steep prices. The administration must provide basic medicines at least,” he said. Though the Bihar government has put the death toll at 253, Alam said the figure will be way higher. “We can see bodies of humans and animals floating in the water right now,” he said.