By Ishteyaque Ahmad
It’s around 10 – 10.30 at night in Saharsa Railway Station. The place is teaming with more than 2000 young people - youth without youthfulness- jostling for space, rushing to stock up Moorhi (rice puff) and dalmoth for the long journey. This has been the regular phenomenon since the 2008 Bihar floods receded. Every month more than 100000 youth leave their homes from districts such as Supaul, Saharsa and Madhepura of Bihar in search of livelihood.
The young men travel to all corners in the country. Punjab and Haryana are the favored destinations where they find work in the farms for 2 – 3 months during the Rabi season. They work for 12 to 16 hours a day and are paid about Rs. 150 / day. During this period they manage to save about Rs. 6000 -8000, to come back for Kharif cultivations.
But this year their story is very different. The young migrants are not sure of coming back. The raging flood-waters of the Kosi in 2008 swallowed and destroyed the agricultural fields in Supaul and Madhepura Districts. They are are now covered with dunes of sand which are as deep as 3 – 5 ft and stretch for miles over the fields, at times rising as high as 10 – 12 ft above the ground.
The floods due to the breach in the afflux bund of Kosi Barrage at Kushaha in Nepal on 18th August 2008 have ravaged the houses, roads, the sources of life and livelihoods. More than 50 lakh people were effected by the floods. The younger ones opted to move to safer places along with children and valuables. The elders remained there for looking after the assets and houses. Around 30-35 lakh affected families were compelled to leave their homes to take shelter in relief camps situated far away from their original dwellings. The majority of humanitarian agencies wound up their relief and rehabilitation programmes after serving the flood victims for 3 to 4 months after the floods.
The laxity of the government in conducting relief and rehabilitation work is revealed by its own data and reports. In its press note dated 6th November 2008, the government declared that flood victims have started to return to their respective villages. This was a completely false claim. We met a large number of people from flood effected areas of Supaul and Saharsa district and all of them said that they had no option but to return because the relief camps being run by government were closed. But the state government decided that the people no longer needed its support and it closed down its flagship relief programme “Mega Camps”. Twenty two such camps were run by the government for not more than a thirty days for a population of at least 35 lakh ( Give the figure higher up) in the four of the flood-affected districts such as Supaul, Saharsa, Madhepura and Araria. ( give this important information higher up in the article). This is when the government had itself announced that the most of the flood-affected areas remained submerged under water for more than five months which means till the end of January in 2009. On 3rd November there were only 49 relief camps operational including two Mega Camps. Just two months earlier in September there were 290 camps functional in the four flood ravaged districts.
During his election campaign Nitish Kumar proudly claims that people will vote for him because of the excellent work his government did for the flood victims. The truth however is reflected in the data published by his own government. The government statistics clearly indicate that out of over 35 lakh flood victims, looking out for shelter, only around 3.5 lakh found shelters in the government-run camps. It means that government was able to take the responsibility of providing relief to only 10% of the population. There have been numerous reports that government relief did not reach those who could not attend to the government-run camps. So, we can say that 90% of flood effected people were not on the government's priority list. ( evidence?) However, during the same period state government generously distributed money for celebrating Chhath Puja to gain cheap political mileage amongst one section of the population. ( not essential para)
In its guidelines for relief works, the government has given strict instructions that 'anyone wanting to donate money should do so through cheque/ demand draft drawn in favour of the Chief Minister's Relief Fund.' On its website (http://www.disastermgmt.bih.nic.in/) the state government has published that Rs 5.14 crore were distributed till 28th November 2008 under Chief Minister Relief Fund. But there is no mention about how much money this fund received. The central government sanctioned Rs 1010 crore after declaring the floods as 'National Disaster'. The state government again asked for Rs 14808 crore for reconstruction and rehabilitation. A civil society group Humlog Trust asked the government through RTI about the rationale of asking Rs 14808 crore and demanded the details of the budget.
The Trust also asked for the district-wise data of the damages caused by the floods to the private and public property like houses, schools, panchayat buildings and hospitals. The head of the organisation Parveen Amanullah got the reply in January 2009 which gave no information that was demanded in the RTI. The reply stated that her request is being forwarded to the districts and concerned departments. It clearly means that the state government did not have any concrete information and data about the devastation. In absence of concrete details of the damages and requirements, how did the government arrive at the figure of Rs 14808 crores? The same organisation filed another RTI asking for the total amount the Chief Minister Relief Fund received and how they spent Rs 1010 crores given by the central government. The response was that since CMRF is a trust, RTI cannot be used in the case. This shows that government does not want to be accountable and transparent about the funds its has received. This then begs the question, why should people donate their hard earned money to such trusts which grossly fail to share their accounts with their donors?
Now the humanitarian agencies have wound up their work, the government has closed down its relief camps and people have been forced to return to their villages but without any infrastructure or support systems in place. The political barons have echoed their concerns by declaring the floods as the National Calamity, exchanging unworthy words, making policies for rehabilitation and resettlement. And that is all. Till now no compensation has reached to any of the family in lieu with the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) and National Calamity Contingency Funds (NCCF) norms.
Some of the families have earned, after hectic efforts at block development offices and officers, some pieces of paper resembling Bank Cheques with some numbers in the amount section. This is supposed to be the compensation for the loss of their crops at the rate of Rs.100 per Kattha or Rs. 2000 per Bigha. However people are unable to cash these cheques without bribing the bank officers. The cheques that are above the amount of Rs. 2500 are crossed and can be deposited in the bank accounts only. The bank officials demand a cut of 20-25 per cent from victims to deposit the compensation amount in bank. The application form for opening a bank account are being sold for Rs. 100 per form. The government officials employs canes and throws abuses to manage crowds of people outside the banks.
The experts of Planning Commission at the Centre had a point when they said that NREGA could be creatively used for rebuilding the lives and infrastructure of the flood effected region. These words did not make any sense to the flood affected people. Till now the administration has completely failed in engaging the people in NREGS works. And there is no possibility in the near future as well, at least till May 15th due to the general elections and the model code of conduct. This means that works under NREGS can be implemented only for a month between 15th May and 15th June. After that the works will again be officially closed till October 15th. In January-February it will be the turn of the rich farmer's and landowner lobbies to subvert the NREGS works so that the labours can work on their fields. (NOT CLEAR)
The model code of conduct is unable to correct Varun Gandhi's or Advani's or Lalu-Rabri's words, neither it could stop several dozens of chargesheeters from getting tickets from all the major parties and contesting election. I was in Jehanabad when the sitting MLA from Ghosi, Jagdeesh Sharma was going to file his nomination with more than 500 Jeeps and cars. Interestingly, I was in Supaul when some other candidates were filing their nomination papers, again with hundreds of big vehicles. But the election commission was blind and silent enough to ignore all that. But if a work got sanctioned under NREGS, ensuring a few days work for unemployed youth during the election period, the democracy and the democratic processes will be disturbed and devastated. ( Delete para,)
(VERY POWERFUL QUOTE. Bring it up front) An old farmer at Balbhadrapur village of Basantpur Block of Supaul District says, “Wait for few more months and there will be nobody to claim the compensations. The farmers are about to commit suicides in a big way, youth and landless farmers have started shifting to other places, young girls are being sold off for all purposes. So, who will remain there to collect the compensations and what for?” One can ignore Montek Singh Ahuluwallia or Nitish or Lalu's words, but ignoring this old man's words will be leading to a society with no civilisational evidences or footprints.
The relief materials distributed by NGOs, corporate houses and religious institutions have been utilised long back. A quintal of grains and Rs 4250 distributed from the block offices among those who were present in the relief camps and some cash for crop destruction received by a very few number of people are evaporating with the increasing temperatures. Nobody knows what the future holds for them. Young men have an option of migrating in search of livlihood, but what about the women, elders, children and disabled, where can they escape from the desert-like situations and with no food, shelter and any hope?
We were in Sitapur village, near Balua, the home village of former CM of Bihar Jagannath Mishra and veteran Congress leader Late Lalit Narayan Mishra. One of the farmers took us to his farm. The PUSA vice chancellor had promised him and his 70-plus father that they will be able to grow pumpkins, cucumbers and watermelon. And they delivered their promises, providing hybrid seeds. The Brahmin farmer invested around Rs 3600 from his pocket and planted those seeds which never germinated. When the farmer gave another look to the packets of the seed, he found that the expiry date has lapsed long back. The PUSA experts positively took back the seeds and supplied new set of seeds with a stronger promises that these will make the required change. Another Rs 4200 were spent by the farmer's family. And fortunately plants came out, but the speed of growth is so slow that till 10th April, when the market is flooded with cucumber and water melon, the farmer has not seen any flower in his farm. The farmer was not complaining when he was sharing that he has spent all the money his family had and there are very bleak chances that he will be able to harvest anything. The PUSA experts should be congratulated that they thought of helping out the farmers from siltation problem and reached them and helped them experimenting with their luck. But the experiment did cost dearly to the already impoverished farmer. ( delete para)
It was the election season and all the tea stalls and public places were full of discussions about the elections, which was scheduled to be held on 30th April ( give past tense, since article will be coming out after the elections) . People were talking about caste equations in the constituency, the rise of the Yadav power during the Lalu era and Nitish's 'sushasan' (good administration) but not a single word was heard about the failure in the disbursal of compensation to the flood victims, the present economic condition of the region and large number of men migrating from this region. These are not in the peoples' agenda who themselves are the victims of apathy and negligence of the governments. This clearly shows the success of the political parties and their leaders in diverting and subverting the issues which directly impact the lives of several million people. It also substantiates Einstein's statement that the oppressive system convinces the oppressed to imbibe the symbols of oppressions as their own and start believing the norms set by the system are correct.
The author is working with Aman Public Charitable Trust, New Delhi