Blog: Vignettes from the past: Reporting on floods from Bihar

Villagers lose lives, animals, houses, crops and put up with hardship for months. And when you have to do it every few years, you lose a part of your patience and finer sensibilities

Blog: Vignettes from the past: Reporting on floods from Bihar

Uttam Sengupta

“When I was young, flood water would arrive stealthily, one step at a time like a cat. It allowed us to move to safer places. But now the water rushes in like a tiger, pounces upon us leaving us with no time to move.”

:An old woman in her seventies quoted two decades ago

Parts of Patna were flooded in 1975. Residents of Pataliputra Colony saw water reaching up to the ceiling of their ground floor, forcing them to move to the first floor or to the roof. Mazharul Haq Path or Fraser Road had waist-deep water and country boats were plying around the Dak Bungalow crossing. Ironically, the road adjacent to the Gandhi Maidan leading to the university and running parallel to the river was completely dry and life remained normal there.

Memories of that flood were fresh even 12 years later when I moved to Patna. I was advised to take a first floor flat on rent. Hailing from hilly Ranchi, I had no idea of floods and when the alarm was sounded a few months after I shifted, panic struck me. It was raining heavily and the road in front of the house was already knee-deep in water. A friend called and advised me to stock up on drinking water, dry food and candles.

I put on a raincoat and waded into the water. The current, to my astonishment, was strong and it was tough to maintain one’s balance. One had to step also cautiously because of the many potholes and manholes with the lid missing. The water level receded by the time I reached the main road though. The shops were crowded and fifty odd people were jostling to draw the attention of the salesmen. It was impossible to get in. But I noticed that people were coming out faster from one particular shop and I approached it and discovered why.

The smart shopkeeper had anticipated the requirement and had made neat packets with candles, match boxes, playing cards, pounded gram (sattu), rice (Chura), torchlights, batteries, bottled water, etc. He would collect the money and hand over the packets. With nothing to do and with no electricity, playing cards, I was told, would be invaluable as a pastime.

Luckily, Patna was not flooded and the scare lasted just a day.

But the next month, I decided to accompany a neighbour, Gautam Banerjee, who worked with UNICEF, to visit flood-affected Darbhanga. The highway to Darbhanga was largely dry and while one could see fields and villages submerged in water on both sides of the highway at some places, it did not seem very alarming.

Blog: Vignettes from the past: Reporting on floods from Bihar

Our first halt was the district hospital, where a relief team was getting ready to leave for an embankment. Was it possible to go with them? The Civil Surgeon, possibly in a hurry to get rid of us, quickly arranged for an extra boat and sent us off.

The boat curiously was anchored at the back of the hospital where water had reached the hospital’s steps. They had put a cot on the boat and pillows had been placed there for us to sit comfortably. My amusement was shortlived when two boys, hardly twelve years old and each carrying a vessel, jumped into the boat. To my quizzical look, the attendant sent to guide us pointed to the water rushing into the boat from the planks below. The two boys were there to bail out water and ensure that the boat would not sink !

I was the only one on the boat who didn’t know how to swim. So, while my face turned ashen, others laughed. Soon the boat was gliding over flooded fields and roads and trees which were partially or fully submerged. The water was surprisingly clear and one could see occasionally the carcass of a dead animal at the bottom.

After what seemed like an age, we could see an embankment at a distance. About 25 to 30 feet wide, thousands of people seemed to have taken shelter on it, some with their domestic animals. A few families had managed to salvage some of their belongings but the sea of humanity braved the scorching sun and the rain together.

They were there for a few days and were waiting to be rescued. But boats were in short supply and they had been asked to wait. A few boats were ferrying the seriously ill to the district hospital and carrying some dry ration to feed the multitude. They were defecating in the open. Children were being delivered under the sky and I felt guilty watching them.

We met a group of young doctors who were treating those who had fallen ill. While we talked to them, we could see a patient being administered glucose. One of the doctors held the bottle in his raised hand while four villagers were holding a plastic sheet over the patient in a vain attempt to provide the patient some relief or shade.

Soon a doctor sidled up to us and whispered that he and his team members would like to borrow our boat for an hour or so. They pointed to a building at a distance. It was a double-storeyed school building of which only the roof was visible above the water. They would like to go the roof, relieve themselves and then return.

“We haven’t been to a toilet for 30 hours and we have no idea when the next team will arrive. And while these villagers are used to relieve themselves next to each other, we are not,” they explained.

It would have been comic but for the grim situation around us. It brought home the real horrors of a flood. Villagers lose lives, animals, houses, crops and put up with hardship for months. Living on highways or on embankments, with water all around them, is tough. And when you have to do it every few years, you lose a part of your patience and finer sensibilities.

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