Story Publication logo September 15, 2007

Relief Bypasses Bihar


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

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People fording water on foot in order to bring food back to their marooned village.

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

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

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

"I have nothing, and now I don't even expect help anymore," said the 75-year-old Mr. 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."

Here in Bihar, they submerged about 40 percent of the state, affecting more than 20 million people and killing at least 600. Scores more marooned in far-flung parts of the state have yet to receive any assistance from the government, or for that matter, the national press, whose coverage has been dismal.

The bitter irony is that India is equipped to deal with large-scale disasters like this; about 40 million tons of surplus grain sits in government stores. But aid officials say Bihar is fraught with structural problems — made worse by corruption and class politics — that stall emergency relief to victims.

"India has the funds, resources and manpower to cope," said Ajay Reddy, a relief manager for CARE International. He cited quick, state-led recoveries in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh after the tsunami of late 2004 as examples. "The problem is more an issue of the efficiency of the state system to deliver, and transparency along the way. They are not prepared for contingencies here."

Bihar's flat terrain is carved by many rivers that flow down from the Himalaya Mountains to the north, making flooding an annual problem. State Relief Commissioner M. Srivastava said it would be "ridiculous" to think that no preparatory plan exists, and ticked off a bevy of measures already in place.

But there is a "fairly unfortunate mind-set that people live with floods in Bihar, so they have must done their own preparation," he 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, both in India and abroad.

While this year's flooding affected 38 million across the country — more than the entire state of California — the pending imprisonment of a pair of Bollywood film stars stole headlines in recent weeks.

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

Critics say everybody loses since booming economic growth to the tune of 9 percent a year could be accelerated if the power of the rural poor were harnessed instead of ignored. 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 Mr. Sahani, who have long been resigned to live in remote, low-lying areas most prone to flooding. When it happens they must 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, he said he and his family finally abandoned their village after initially 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 relief has still not come their way, proof that solid ground doesn't guarantee security.

As members of the Dalit underclass, formerly known as "untouchables," the odds of getting immediate help were never in Mr. Sahani's favor. A report by Dalit Watch, a network of rights groups, found that members of his class always "bear the brunt of caste-based ... discrimination towards more effective and inclusive disaster management."

In a survey of 51 villages in early August, the group learned that 60 percent of deaths and missing persons were members of the Dalit community. In Kusaiya village, a Dalit ward member who had demanded a share of state relief measures was beaten up by an elected village leader and her son charged in the false theft of 440 pounds worth of wheat, says the report.

In another documented instance, Dalits who tried to take water from an upper-caste locality after their pump was destroyed were assaulted, forcing them to drink polluted water.

When asked why some locals were complaining that they had not been given the 220 pounds of wheat promised by the government, Nabin Kamar, a "mukhia," or village headman, in Muzaffarpur district, said that some added transportation costs had to be covered by those in his position, who took a cut of the delivery just to break even.

"That's why only 70 kilograms is sometimes distributed in the end," he exclaimed, neck and hands dripping with gold jewelry.

A state official later confirmed that all transportation fees were in fact paid for by the government, though some village leaders still tried to "double-up."

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.

Mr. Srivastava, a graduate of Cornell and Cambridge universities, thinks 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 be ultimately recouped since hefty transportation 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" — the lowest subcaste in Indian society, scorned even by some Dalits — 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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