More than 16.61 lakh people in 11 districts of Bihar have been affected by the floods that started in June. Of these, 1.10 lakh people have been evacuated safely, according to a July 23 report by the disaster management department of the state government.

The data for death and property loss has not been released by the government. Department officials, on the condition of anonymity, claim that there is “no flood-like situation” in the state this year and called the evacuation a “minor incident”. Senior officials, too, have publicly dismissed the occurrence of floods.

Additionally, the government has not established any flood relief camp in the state so far, according to information provided in its July 23 report. The government set up 216 community kitchens from where 1.92 lakh affected people are getting food, but there is no arrangement for their shelter. The Covid-19 pandemic is making the flood crisis worse. On June 7, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar instructed officials to vaccinate flood-affected people on priority.

Daily flood reports by the disaster management department of Bihar have also stopped. Usually, the department releases a daily flood report every year during the flood season and till last year, this report was uploaded on the department website. In response to a Right To Information application filed by Mahendra Yadav, a social worker, working among the Kosi river embankment victims on the non-publication of this data, the reply stated that there is no such rule stating that the government has to release the data of the daily flood report in Bihar for the public.

Meanwhile, Eklavya Prasad, a social activist who keeps an eye on these irregularities, said that data transparency is the first condition in dealing with any disaster. “We are stunned when we see the details of the Assam government’s data related to floods,” said Prasad. “We do not know why the government of Bihar does not want to reveal the figures.”

The flood victims are living on roads without shelter. The government set up 216 community kitchens from where 1.92 lakh affected people are getting food, but there is no arrangement for their shelter. Photo credit: Madhav

Budget constraints?

Experts and activists say they believe that due to the Covid-19 pandemic the government is facing a budget constraint and avoiding expenditure on flood relief.

Many affected people are yet to receive compensation for last year’s flood. In the Bihar Assembly, two MLAs raised the issue on March 19 asking why 11,850 flood victims of the Saran district and 10,866 victims of Alamnagar and Chausa tehsils of Madhepura district were not given last year’s compensation (of Rs 6,000 for each family). However, the government has replied to these MLAs that the process of providing compensation to these victims would be completed within a week.

An official of the disaster management department, on anonymity, explained the reason for the delay saying that these are very small cases. “Last year, we distributed compensation to 2.2 million (22.92 lakh) people,” the official added. “There is never any shortage of funds to help the disaster victims in the state. If there is a problem, the budget from other departments is also diverted to us.”

Bihar has a massive budget for disaster victims with the emergency fund of the state this year totalling to Rs 8732 crore to be spent on disaster relief.

However, this year’s challenges are different due to the Covid-19 pandemic and free vaccination program which is provided via this fund. For free vaccination, Rs 4,000 crore fund has been reserved. The government is also providing compensation of Rs 4 lakh to the families of people who died of Covid-19 in the state. According to government figures, 9,639 people have died due to the virus in the state so far. Of these, families of 7,500 will get compensation in the first phase.

Flood-affected women are lined up to get the food at a community kitchen. Photo credit: Madhav

Ranjeev, a veteran activist working on floods, said, “This time flood arrived in the state a bit early.”

“It may be a reason that we are witnessing negligence from the government,” Ranjeev said. “Usually, the floods in the state occur from September-October. The government is probably trying to manage disaster relief in such a way that if there is a flood in the later days, it will have money to manage it.”

Around Rs 3,500 crore to Rs 4,000 crore is spent in dealing with floods each year. The amount spent in dealing with calamities like floods and cyclones in Bihar can be estimated from the fact that In 2019-’20, Rs 3,539 crore was allocated for managing calamities like floods and cyclones in the state and in 2017-’18, Rs 4,461 crore was allocated, according to Bihar State Economic Survey 2020-’21.

As of now, it is not clear how much the total amount has been allocated by the government for flood relief this year. The first supplementary budget of this year, released on July 26, was presented in the Bihar Legislative Assembly, in which Rs 600 crore has been dedicated for relief from natural calamities so far – this is a supplementary amount in addition to the emergency relief fund.

Community kitchen

“I feel government employees are trying to run away from their responsibility,” said Yadav. “For the same reason, the department brought the concept of community kitchens during floods in the year 2017 instead of relief camps.”

“There is a set standard for the operation of relief camps, where every adult victim has to be fed 2400 calories, every child 1700 calories,” Yadav added. “The camps also have to provide milk, clean drinking water, toilets, beds for sleeping, medical camps, security and lighting for small children. In the pandemic, few other rules came into place for relief camps, such as protocol for social distancing and the Covid-19 test. It takes a lot of money and a lot of effort to do all this, so the disaster management department prefers community kitchens over relief camps.”

Flood-hit villages relocating after flood in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar. Photo credit: Madhav

To avoid all these responsibilities, some amount is given to the local public representatives who feeds the people. But it is not a guarantee that this food would reach the real flood victims, Yadav said with suspicion.

Yadav also pointed out some shortcomings in the relief mechanism. “Along with Rs 6,000 as compensation for flood victims, there is a rule to pay Rs 3,800 for utensils and clothes, but this rule is never applied,” Yadav said. “Community kitchens were arranged for emergencies before the start of the relief camp, but now the government has made it a permanent arrangement.”

Centre’s help

The economic condition of Bihar has been affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. On May 11, 2020, the then finance minister of the state, Sushil Kumar Modi, demanded an advance from the Center citing a lack of funds. But since then, the situation has deteriorated considerably due to the pandemic, and the income of the state has also been affected.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar demanded Rs 3,328 crore from the Center in September, 2020, which was later revised to Rs 3,634 crore to deal with the floods. But the Center, five months later in February, gave only Rs. 1,255 crore to Bihar.

Previously as well, Bihar has sought help from the Center for flood relief four times between 2016 and 2020. The total demand over the four years was Rs 19,683 crore, but the state only got 20% of the demand – Rs 3,908 crore from the Center in these four years.

Under the 15th Finance Commission, the Center has fixed Rs 10,432 crores for the next five years for Bihar’s disaster management.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.