Update on Flood Relief Work since August 25, 2008
On August 23rd, 2008 Ashish and I had come back to Araria, after a short stint in Patna (which has been our base since our shift to Bihar in February this year). The Jan Jagaran Abhiyan, Araria (JJA)1 had planned the NREGA training scheduled for the 1st week of September. We were not sure the training would happen, there were stories about the flood and it sounded really bad but we were not sure. Floods in Araria and its neighboring districts are recurrent and annual phenomena (The recent translation of phaniswar nath renu’s story will give you some idea of what this recurrent flood ritual entails). However by the next day, after our first visit to the flood affected Sursur G.P of Narpatganj block, we were sure that this was a different situation and we decided to do whatever we could in this crisis situation.
The need of the hour was rescuing people who were stranded in areas where the Kosi had inundated over 900 villages. The SDO (sub divisional officer, araria) clearly needed boats. Abhiyan members approached G.B Pant institute’s NREGA team to find boats. With Sunil, Siddharth and Jean’s exemplary support the boats were arranged. Meanwhile Ashish arranged for a motorboat in Patna and the Abhiyan found a country boat in the neighboring block of Joki Haat. It was an expensive proposition for us to move the boats to the rescue point in Araria but a simple letter from the administration stating that boats were needed would have allowed the movement of boats free of cost. However the letter did not come. We feel that the administration could have used the support of groups like ours to add boats to their fleet but they preferred not to!
Unable to be of use on this front but still committed to help in the crisis we turned our attention to those already in relief camps. At the same time we requested AID community to float a petition to pressurize the government to step us the rescue operations manifolds (http://petitions.aidindia.
So Far …
Distribution of Relief Materials
Over the next few weeks JJA volunteers distributed relief materials to people staying in various governmental and non-governmental camps. Our first experience was purchase and packaging 1000 Kg of Choora, Mudhi (puffed rice) and mixture. Volunteers spent a day making 2000 packets of ½ kg each and then distributed them amongst flood affected people in Raniganj block. Volunteers waded through three feet deep water to reach people who had refused to move to camps but were nonetheless surrounded by floodwater. These affected people were not ready to leave behind their cattle and belongings. By 30th September when JJA consciously decided to stop direct relief distribution we had reached out to 16 relief camps with support from local volunteers and teams from Patna, M.P and Bangalore.2
So high was the commitment and energy of the volunteers to reach cut off areas with relief materials that when a truck of materials arrived from Patna on 7th Sep, volunteers headed out from Araria at 8 am on 8th sep to return only at 4 am the next day (9th) and were ready to head out at 10 am the very same day. Materials distributed included dry food items (sattu, choora, moodhi, biscuits), plastic sheets for shelter, clothes (bed sheets, gamcha, and old clothes) and other miscellaneous items (candles, match boxes, soap, hair oil, tooth powder). One round of distribution of cloth sanitary napkins was done at the Subhash stadium relief camp in Araria city. This was a very useful but much ignored item that we were able to provide to women, thanks to the goonj supply. We were lucky to have Parijat from MAYA who was able to communicate in Bengali (language spoken by many women in the camp) greatly facilitating the distribution of sanitary napkins. We still have some stock of napkins that we hope to distribute with a team of women volunteers. (JJA has only a very few women volunteers).
The visit of NAPM and NBA activists further energized our group. Medha Patkar gave new direction to work when she crossed the dangerously flowing flood waters, which had cut off Bhargama block, on a boat. She galvanized the group to continue with its relief work. After Raniganj, Bhargama block, neighboring Supaul district (one of the worst affected districts) became the focus of our direct relief work.
One month of direct relief work was a very fulfilling experience and a good learning for a new group. For one it is clear that just collecting and leaving relief materials with camp in-charges is not enough. At many camps materials are dumped in one place and there is not enough motivation or ability to distribute these materials. One clear example of this was when our paths crossed with relief materials collected by CII (Confederation of Indian Industries). On the day MAYA and JJA volunteers were distributing relief materials at the Araria College Mega Camp, CII had come with 4 trucks of materials, but with few volunteers and complete dependence on Government functionaries it was clear that the distribution would not go very far. In fact our team had some small items (soaps, hair oil, gamcha) as against the CII blankets, sheets, saris but having the system of a coupon and putting things together in one packet definitely made distribution easier, something the CII team had not thought of. At times JJA went out in teams of over 30 volunteers so that distribution amongst thousands of people could be done without any mishap and no case of undue duress and fights were reported by the team, while many such cases did happen around.
Survey and Interaction with local administration
The first focused survey by the JJA team was done on 1st September to take stock of the situation around us on a regular basis. Our survey showed that 3000 flood-affected people were living in relief camps set up across Araria city. The Government supported none of these camps, but NGOs and citizen’s groups were running all these camps. Today there are 4 Government run camps in the city.
From 20th September the JJA along with relief distribution focused on intensive surveys of relief camps with two broad aims:
- Need Assessment
- Giving feedback to the Government so as to strengthen Government functioning
Based on the intensive surveys, letters giving feedback to the local administration were given to the administration on 22nd and 25th of September and also 3rd October. A representative group was also able to meet the District Magistrate (DM), Araria on the 4th of October. This meeting was rather fruitful as we found the extremely receptive to our suggestion about having transparency at the camps to alley anxiety amongst camp residents. Infact the DM instructed to have such orders issued on within minutes of our meeting with him. We see this openness and acceptance as a good sign and hope that orders of the district administration will be openly posted on notice boards in each camp.
Around 16th of September Darshan’s medical relief team came to Patna. Thanks to Anand Mazgaonkar and Swati Desai, Darshan had been in touch with us. The JJA decided after it’s interaction with the Civil Surgeon (CS) and ACMO, in Araria, that the more affected district of Madhepura would benefit more from the medical team. Now we are trying to tie up with Dr. Shakeel at CHARM, Patna to do a one-week medical camp in Araria (focusing on areas of Narpatganj and also Chatapur and Triveniganj blocks of Supoul, which are cut off from their block headquarters and are being provided for by the Araria administration). Earlier, in the last week of August, we had requested CHARM to provide a list of medicines required to set up medical camps. With their help we were able to send appeal for medicines. Jaya Jha from Bangalore and Subojini from Warangal were some of those who noticed the appeal from AID and promptly dispatched medicines worth 70000 Rs (we are trying to trace one consignment at Patna jn). With these medicines in hand we were able to support medical relief provided by IDPD (Indian doctors for peace and development) in Saharsa.
Transit Camp at Araria Court Railway Station
When the railways decided to setup camps across railway stations in affected areas, our volunteers chose to support one such camp at Araria Court Railway station. Our prior experience in direct relief work and knowledge of the local people and area was useful in efficient working of the camp. The camp has been working like a transit camp for the flood-affected people who are heading to different relief camps. Initially our volunteers were physically present at the camp but now we have withdrawn from the camp and provide support depending upon the request from the railway authorities.
The sections below are sketchy and I hope we will flesh them out as the ideas sketched out in them grow.
Some Issues at large …
There are many issues associated with the floods that need to be addressed that we have not focused on but we need to grapple with:
- Life on islands: On 21st Sep 4 volunteers went to Chunni (Supaul District, neighboring Bhargama block, Araria district), from there we visited mega camps setup in Supaul district. Here we met one local resident Munnaji who suggested we actually see some of the villages which are engulfed in flood waters, so we stayed the night in a nearby village and went next morning on a boat to the GPs of Rampur, Jakkhargarh, Tilathi and Chatapur. The area is fully submerged in floodwaters. Only Rampur GP is partially affected and we were really concerned about the situation of people who have decided to stay back in this GP. Rampur is an island, but people do not want to move to camps, to take care of the few belongings they have managed to save from the floods. What is to be done for these people living on islands? This issue has been raised by Somu and Swati in Supaul district and reading there press release will give some idea of the conditions prevailing in areas of submergence.
- Mega camps vs. camps: Also there is the issue of mega camps. Araria district has 10 mega camps and many other relief camps. The number of other camps has fluctuated from over 70 to about 30 (as of 29.09.08). The administration plans to shut down all these other camps, but is it a good idea? For one, many people affected by floods are not ready to move to mega camps, as they are far away from their villages and they will be unable to visit their villages and keep an eye on the happenings there. Secondly mega camps are becoming high-density places and will have problems of concentration of population and limited resources, which might be dealt with better if there are smaller camps. But, at the same time mega camps promise much more to residents like an Anganwadi center, school, PHC etc which can’t be done at smaller camps. This then becomes an issue that needs a better understanding.
- NREGA and Flood Management and Rehabilitation: People in flood-affected areas can work under NREGA in rebuilding their lives. What kind of works can they do? An attempt to plan this out is being made by a team of people from GB Pant Institute’s NREGA team, local activists on flood issues from Bihar and Jayashankar ji (knowledgeable in water management and harnessing). The tentative plan is for this team to travel in the flood affected areas from 20th to the 26th of October. Will keep you updated on the travels and suggestions of this group.
- Spreading Awareness about entitlements: The Kosi Navnirman Abhiyan initiated by NBA and NAPM volunteers along with local people from the flood affected areas has already printed a detailed brochure on the entitlements of those affected by floods, whether living in camps or otherwise. We would like to reach out to as many people as possible making them aware of these entitlements. Alongside we are also trying to interact with the administration and find a way that they would agree to publishing a pamphlet not only stating the entitlements but also associated with entitlements two other things:
- The procedure for getting these entitlements and
- In case a person is unable to get his/her entitlements, what is the grievance redressal mechanism they can turn to.
- Thrift Stores: During relief work we found that many people and groups were ready to mobilize old clothes. At many times distributing old stitched clothes was a very difficult task, as sizes had to be matched with people and there preferences in clothing taken into account. But this is a very challenging task in a camp. Also at some places people do not want old clothes. Given this situation and the fact that we are still expecting some more old clothes packages to reach us, our group has been thinking of the idea of running thrift stores. Maybe some of you in US who have seen such stores run by Salvation Army would know the lines on which we are thinking.