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Story Publication logo September 8, 2007

Flood Ravaged Indians Founder in Undercurrent of Class Politics


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Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...

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This woman in Bihar, India, says her husband left for Kolkatan two weeks ago to beg for money to support them after the flooding.

MUZAFFARPUR, India - In the six weeks since their village was swallowed by floodwaters, Chaitu Sahani and his family have watched helplessly as the government aid deliveries roll past their new home.

Along with thousands of other refugees, they now live in shoddy tarpaulin tents that stretch for miles along one of the few highways still operable in the dirt-poor northern state of Bihar.

Why the food trucks won't stop, they don't understand.

"I have nothing, and now I don't even expect help anymore," said the 75-year-old Sahani, fighting back tears. ``We have to beg from others. It's never been this bad."

The United Nations has called this year's South Asia floods "the worst in living memory" and the crisis has been remarkably under-reported by the national and world press.

Here in Bihar, floodwaters submerged about 40 percent of the state, killed at least 600 and affected more than 20 million people - roughly the population of New York state. Scores more - marooned in far-flung parts of the state - have yet to receive government assistance.

The bitter irony is that India is equipped to deal with large-scale disasters and about 40 million tons of surplus grain currently sits in government stores. But aid officials say Bihar is fraught by structural problems, caste and class politics, a history of corruption and annual flooding caused by the rivers that flow from the Himalayas.

There is a "fairly unfortunate mindset that people live with floods in Bihar, so they have must done their own preparation," State Relief Commissioner M. Srivastava said. Over the years, this has bred lethargy on the state side, and resignation among the rural poor. "It is a vicious cycle."

Bihar has consistently ranked "worst" of all Indian states in independent corruption surveys. This backward reputation has had a numbing effect on the media attention it receives in times of crisis. While this year's flooding ravaged the country, the pending imprisonment of a pair of Bollywood film stars stole headlines.

The net effect is that public pressure for much-needed reform to integrate the extreme poor, which still amount to 77 percent of India's population by some estimates, stays muted.

Critics say everybody loses since booming economic growth could be accelerated if the power of the rural poor was harnessed. According to Arjun Gupta, adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, this rate of growth "will not automatically spill over to the growth of the poor and the vulnerable, which has remained in that state through the years of high growth and will remain so if the policies are not targeted directly to them."

However, words offer little consolation to landless laborers like Sahani, long resigned to remote, low-lying areas most prone to flooding. When it happens they usually travel long distances to collect relief from state distribution points - if they can make the journey.

Amid 20 straight days of driving rain in July, Sahani said he and his family finally abandoned their village after trying to brave the floodwaters on raised bed frames. Luckily, they lived within reasonable distance from the highway, which they reached in a neighbor's rickety boat.

But supplies still have not come their way. Relief groups have stepped in to try and fill such gaps, rushing thousands of sacks of dry foods, tarpaulins and candles to the most vulnerable. But with climate change showing more troublesome symptoms by the year, the consensus is that top-down reforms are desperately needed.

Commissioner Srivastava, a graduate of Cornell and Cambridge, believes he has "an almost 100 percent solution."

Using a 30-year database, he explained, the government can map out the villages most likely to be flooded and factor in the population to determine how much food aid is needed in advance. To quiet state fears of losing money when perishable food goes unused, he says it could be auctioned off beforehand at a small loss that will ultimately be recouped since hefty transport costs for things like Army helicopters will be avoided.

Still, for those living on the margins of Indian society at the best of times, a sense of helplessness persists.

Raj Narayan Ray, a rice farmer whose source of livelihood lay swamped in a muddy lagoon, claimed that only a handful of families have received aid. He belongs to the musahar, or "rat-catchers" - a low subcaste in Indian society - and said the village chief was only giving food to members of his own class.

"We are waiting with our mouths open," he said. "But what can we do. We always live here and if we make trouble we are scared of what they might do to us."


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