FOR TWO days now, Parvesh Kumar, a rescuer from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), has been trying to persuade Rina Begum, a resident of Tulsibari village in Assam’s Morigaon district, to leave her half-submerged house.
Over the last 48 hours, as rescuers shuttle her neighbours from their marooned homes to dry land, Begum, a 50-year-old grandmother of four, watched but remained defiant. “How can we leave our home?” she says, standing in waist-deep water.
Kumar says Begum’s family isn’t the only reluctant one. “There are many families who are refusing to leave their homes,” he says. “Yesterday, we went to a very remote area. There were 20 people stuck in one house, but only seven came back with us.” The team still gave the villagers their phone number, in case they changed their mind. Later at night, as the water rose, Kumar got a call. “When it gets worse, they change their mind usually,” he says.
In minority-dominated areas of Assam, home and land are tangible markers of identity in a state that is days away from the July 31 deadline for publication of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC). “This could be one of the reasons that they feel so scared to leave their homes,” says an official from the local administration.
According to Kumar, the families who agree to be rescued make sure that their documents are safe too. “So many times, we brought them to safety only to go back again because they realise they have forgotten their documents,” says Kumar.
For Begum, her daughter, and four grand-daughters, the youngest a six-month-old, the only safe space is their bed, supported by two sticks, and tied up at a higher level. On it, the infant sleeps, as floodwaters from an overflowing Brahmaputra swivel around. Their clothes have been washed away, upturned chairs float in the brown water, and at a distance, the tin-roof of their toilet is bare visible.
When the rains came on July 8, Begum did not pay much attention. This was regular. When the waters started rising, it still did not perturb her. This had happened the previous year, too.
But by Sunday afternoon, when two embankments in the Laharighat and Bhuragaon revenue circles were breached and the water rose above their waists, Begum and her daughter started stowing away their paddy on the roof. As did her sister-in-law and niece, in the house next door. Their husbands, daily wage workers, were in Dibrugarh.
Begum’s family is among the 52 lakh people who have been affected by the first wave of floods this monsoon. At least 30 out of 33 districts in Assam are reeling, with 1,47,304 people in 695 relief camps. About 95 per cent of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kaziranga is under water. Many say it’s the worse deluge in more than a decade.
In Morigaon, more than 5 lakh people have been affected. In Laharighat revenue circle, where Begum’s home is, 1 lakh people have been affected, with the NDRF in action for the past five days.
Sofikul Islam, a 45-year-old farmer, lost not just the two bikes his family owned, but goats too. “Our house has gone under but that happened two years ago as well,” he says. “The flimsy embankments don’t help. All of them are made of sand and are not strong. What we need is better rehabilitation when the flood strikes.”
While rice, salt and dal have reached the village, residents claim it’s neither enough nor equally divided. At the revenue circle office, an official says, “Relief takes time to reach us. And even the villages which have not been affected come for food. It is hard to ensure that everyone gets their share.”
On Tuesday, the Centre announced Rs 251 crore in assistance to the State Disaster Response Fund, but Begum and her family haven’t eaten all day. Her husband reached earlier in the morning, and has gone to get Seera (flattened rice) for the family.
“Today is the first day in a week that it hasn’t rained,” says Begum. “Maybe, it will get better.”
Kumar says it will be a while before the water recedes. Till then, he will wait for Begum to change her mind and make that phone call.