Nurjahan Khatun and her two children have been living on their bed for the last few days, surrounded by muddy water and under a rusty tin roof. Raised to a height with bamboo sticks, the bed is their only refuge from the floodwater that has inundated their home in Sonpura village in Assam’s Barpeta district.
Khatun’s husband is a construction labourer in Andhra Pradesh. He has not been able to send home any money because of the floods. When this reporter met her on June 17, she said she had just about managed to cook a meal in the morning. “I don’t know what will feed my children in the evening,” Khatun said.
The rain, meanwhile, refuses to let up. Incessant rainfall has raised the water level in the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries, flooding the surrounding regions. While 33 of the state’s 35 districts have been affected by the floods, Lower Assam’s Barpeta district is the worst hit.
Almost every village in the district has been flooded, leaving thousands like Khatun displaced. According to the June 20 report of Assam’s Flood Reporting and Information Management System, over 12.30 lakh residents of Barpeta district have been affected and over 28,000 hectares of crops have been damaged.
Villages on chars – inhabited sandbars in the middle of the river – are the most badly affected in Barpeta. Residents of the char-chapori, or riverine, areas have gathered their livestock and gone to the precarious safety of higher ground.
For lakhs of people displaced in Barpeta district, food is running out. So is cattle feed. With fields and grasslands under water, there is nowhere for livestock to graze, either.
While floods are an annual occurrence in the region, this year has witnessed unprecedented havoc. Many in Assam believe this may be the worst flood in living memory.
Food running out
Sonpura village is surrounded by river – bordered by the Beki river on one side and a smaller channel on the other. The Beki flows down from Bhutan before joining the Brahmaputra river. According to local authorities, heavy rain in Bhutan had swelled rivers in Lower Assam, leading to devastation. Like Nurjahan Khatun, other residents of Sonpura also tell stories of hunger.
Abdur Rezzak and his family have also been perched on a bed in their flooded home in Sonpura village. Rezzak, a mason, has had no work for days because of the heavy rains. While the firewood is damp, the family has stopped filling their gas cylinder because money is running out, which means cooked meals have stopped.
“We had our last meal yesterday,” said Rezzak’s wife, Narjina, when this reporter met her on June 17. “Today, we ate kathal [jackfruit] in the morning.”
Meanwhile, 60-year-old Fulmala Khatun has been stranded with her cattle in a cowshed, the safest spot she could find.
For days, Fulmala Khatun has barely managed one meal a day. With no boat, she has been unable to move to a safer place. “We don’t have any food for the cattle, either,” she said.
The floods have taken an alarming toll on livestock – as of June 19, 8,26,509 animals had been affected in Barpeta district alone, according to state government figures.
Water everywhere, little to drink
While villages are under water, there is little to drink. In villages close to the river Beki, sources of potable water have been submerged, forcing already stricken residents to search for safe water.
According to Fulmala Khatun, all the village tubewells are under water. “We have to go to the roadside to collect water,” she said. “We cannot collect water if we do not find a boat,” said Fulmala Khatun, who does not have a boat or makeshift raft of her own.
Neither does Nurjahan Khatun, who also has two young children she cannot leave behind for fear they will drown. That means she has not been able to go and fetch drinking water either.
Data from the June 19 report states that 1,86,424 residents of Assam are currently sheltering in relief camps – 13,178 from Barpeta district. But most relief camps, too, are struggling to ensure health and hygiene.
Jafar Ali, president of Govindapur gram panchayat, said there are four elevated platforms in Alipur village, constructed under the rural employment guarantee scheme, but there was no water or sanitation.
Ali said he was in contact with the district disaster management authority to get relief material, water supplies and temporary toilet facilities for the raised platform shelters. The lack of essentials has led to unsanitary conditions and open defecation.
No place to shelter
Where shelters are not available, flood-affected residents are camping on the slightly elevated ground along main roads, along with the dry crop produce they could salvage, their livestock and other essentials.
On June 18, 35-year-old Chan Bhanu, from Sonkuchi Reserve, was waiting along a highway close to Sonkuchi Reserve with her three children – the youngest just five months old. Their home in the reserve had been flooded overnight. Bhanu said her husband had gone in search of shelter.
Residents of Bheragaon, Rangapani, Pubjahurpam and a few other villages have been sheltering close to the Barpeta-Abhayapuri highway as there is no other safe higher ground close by.
An embankment – raised ground along the riverbank – on the Chaulkhuwa river close to Bheragaon village had served as a safe spot during devastating floods in 2004. But that embankment was destroyed some years ago. Half the soil from the embankment was removed to build the state highway while some part of it vanished, presumably washed away.
Following this year’s rainfall, many homes were inundated fast. Rahim Ali, 45, has put together a tarpaulin tent by the road for his family to shelter in. “We did not get any time to shift our things,” he said. “We found no place to go, so we took shelter near the highway.”
With the Chaulkhuwa river overflowing, residents fear it will wash away what remains of the embankment in Bheragaon. They have tried to stop the erosion by placing sandbags and tarpaulin sheets along the banks.
Limited government relief
Even with widespread devastation, the government’s relief measures have been limited, say local residents. According to Assam’s Flood Reporting and Information Management System report, there were 96 relief camps in Barpeta district as of June 20.
Nandita Dutta, the programme officer at the District Disaster Management Authority, told this reporter that relief materials had been sanctioned for the Barpeta and Chenga revenue circles and had been distributed. In most places, however, local residents said they had not received support.
Residents of char-chapori areas such as Kharballi, Sonpura, Tapajuli Pathar, Rasulpur and other places nearby alleged that the Barpeta division of the state’s disaster management authority had not carried out rescue operations. According to the disaster management authority, however, one rescue operation was carried out in Kharballi village on Friday.
As of Monday, the situation remained grim. After Bheraldi village in Barpeta district was inundated, residents took shelter on a bridge close by.
Even if the water recedes, for many, the years of floods have taken a huge toll. Badshah Miya from Amguri village said his home has been swept away seven times, including this year. Not only does he lack the money to rebuild his house, the land where he once lived has steadily eroded over the years, leaving him staring at an uncertain future.
Kazi Neel is a writer based in Assam. As of Monday, his home in Bheragaon village had been under three to four feet of water for three days. He is sheltering at a friend’s home in Jania village which has been spared so far.
Here are some scenes from the district.