Floods affect 77 lakh in Bihar but relief shelters can house only 12k people
In their battle for survival amid floods, villagers have been treating the Covid-19 protocol — wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing — with disdain. Photo: PTI

Floods affect 77 lakh in Bihar but relief shelters can house only 12k people

Radheshyam Prasad, 63, a resident of flood-hit Baikunthpur block in Gopalganj district in Bihar, spends his time resting at a makeshift bamboo structure under a polythene sheet as his home remains flooded.

On July 26, a group of social workers came to him and handed him 5 kg of flattened rice. Since then, no one has reached him. With his grain stock at home damaged in the floodwaters and the government machinery missing from the scene, the poor man battles a severe crisis for survival. He is now entirely at the mercy of other villagers.

The condition of Buchun Manjhi from Bankati village in the district is no different. His entire food stuff, clothing and beds got wet after floodwaters inundated his village. He now helplessly looks for relief, which is nowhere in sight.

The plight of Nand Kishore Mahto, a resident of Paru block in Muzaffarpur district, is worse. He has been forced to live on a river embankment, along with other villagers, for over a fortnight as his mud home got damaged due to floods in his village.

Hapless villagers are finding survival a big challenge with each passing day. Flood victims, angered by the lack of relief from the administration, have resorted to blocking roads, staging protests and assaulting officials.

Last week, villagers raided the Bandara block headquarters in Muzaffarpur district and assaulted the block officials who were holding a meeting. In another incident, flood victims attacked a police team in the Sakra block of the same district for not being provided relief.

There are also several reports of victims blocking national highways, road traffic and shouting slogans against the government, highlighting the desperation among villagers.

Floods are nothing new to Bihar, but this year, people have been pushed over the edge because the natural disaster struck when they were already stressed trying to grapple with the restrictions imposed to deal with another calamity — Covid-19. The coronavirus claimed 474 lives and infected more than 90,000 people till August 12.

In their battle for survival amid floods, villagers have been treating the Covid-19 protocol — wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing — with disdain.

As floodwaters rise, not only are they fleeing homes in crowded boats but also staying together at temporary shelter camps they have themselves set up along river banks, railway lines and national highways.

“Villagers stayed in their homes, but floods have forced them into cramped makeshift shelters, increasing the risk of the coronavirus spreading. The government has no plan to save the lives of the villagers,” said flood expert Bhagwan Pathak, coordinator of Kosi Consortium, an NGO.

According to him, the only priority for villagers right now is to save themselves from flood and hunger. “Coronavirus is the last thing on their mind. If they have to follow social distancing while using boats, it will take them months to vacate flooded villages since the number of boats are few,” said Pathak.

“Given the norms for physical distancing, fewer people have to be accommodated in a shelter. Hence, a greater number of shelter construction needs to be promoted aggressively,” said a report titled ‘Overlapping Hazards, Increased Risk—Need for Immediate Action’.

The report, authored by Eklavya Prasad and Nirmalya Choudhary working with water campaigns Megh Pyne Abhiyan and Vikas Anvesh, respectively, had suggested that the state government should work on shelters keeping in view the need for physical distancing amid Covid-19 and ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Meanwhile, the crisis on the ground is getting severe. “If we are alive, it is only due to the mercy of God. The government has no time for us, while political parties are busy chalking out strategies to win elections,” said Ramakant Sharma, a flood victim.

Assembly elections in Bihar are scheduled to be held in October.

The state government, however, says that it has been proactive in providing relief. “The disaster management department is alert to the prevailing flood situation in the state and sensitive to the plight of the flood victims. We have set up seven relief camps, where a total of 12,449 flood victims have taken shelter. In addition, 1,121 community kitchens have also been set up to provide food to flood victims,” said state disaster management department additional secretary Ramchandra Du.

The number of people provided relief by the state administration is minuscule, given that Du’s own department has said that over 77 lakh people in 1,271 panchayats across 16 districts of Bihar have been affected by floods. The report also states that more than 5.47 lakh people have been evacuated from flooded homes.

“The report is self-explanatory. When only 12,449 people out of the total 77 lakh affected population are taking shelter in government-owned relief camps, that means the remaining population is taking cover elsewhere in shelters they have arranged themselves,” an NGO official said, not wanting to be named.

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