One fateful night in August 2013, Gandak River breached the Gopalganj highway in Bihar and made its way through a small habitation called Karisakatola, reaching there in the wee hours of the morning.
In a flash, the floodwaters emptied the village. Residents who had seen it coming left for higher ground – everyone except Uma Sahu (name changed) and her two-year-old son.
By the time Sahu realised what had happened, water was girdling the legs of her charpai (cot). With her son strapped to her breasts and floodwaters inching towards her, even moving to the relative safety of the roof was perilous. Her husband, a migrant worker, was away at a construction site in Delhi.
With nowhere to go and no help at hand, Sahu stood for 12 hours in chest-high water, with her child in her arms. When the sun was making its way to a watery horizon, it was a miracle in the form of a boat that saved mother and child that day.
But Punita Yadav (name changed) didn’t have the same luck. When a flash flood swept through Baiju Bhagatkatola, a few miles west of Sahu’s village, the entire family moved to the roof of the house. Tired and deep in sleep, no one noticed when her five-year-old son slid off the roof and fell into the floodwater. His body was never recovered.
Such heart-breaking stories of loss are an undercurrent to the tales of adaptation and resilience on the flood plains of Gandak River in Bihar’s West Champaran district. In the absence of state support, luck is often the only thing between life and death.
For women, being married into families living in this floodplains is akin to being wedded to impermanence. “Kua mein dakheldiya” (we have been pushed into a well) is a common refrain among those who have moved to these low-lying and flood-prone areas, locally known as diara.
In these harsh landscapes, these women have had to survive floods, dacoits on the run, crop attacks from wild animals and disease. There is little surprise that the silt-enriched soil of the diara harbours productivity and resentment.
Parul Devi’s (name changed) first tryst with floods draws a toothy grin from her mother-in-law. Marriage brought her from West Bengal to Bariarpur village in West Champaran. The sight of water gushing into her room put her in a state of shock.
“I put my storage chest on top of my bed and perched myself on it, refusing to come down,” she said. “It took a lot of effort to get me off the bed and join my family on the roof.”
Women who come to the floodplains of Bihar after marriage often have to hit the ground running, with little time to prepare for a life always under the threat of a deluge.
From keeping food grains dry to climbing onto roofs, preparing food on a makeshift kitchen and protecting children from disease and death, there is a lot to learn. The toughest, most women said, is learning how to relieve oneself. With no dry ground in sight, most of them bashfully admit, there are only two ways to cope – either stop eating or eat as less as possible.
“If the government could only tell us in advance about an approaching flood, we wouldn’t be stranded in water every year,” said Ganga Saini from Telua village in West Champaran.
However, her plea does not find a place in flood policy in India. In a world obsessed with big data, flood alerts deliver information in its sparest form to the poor.
Through the scratchy noise of old transistor sets, people get to hear how many cubic centimetres of water have been released from the Gandak barrage upstream. Then, it is up to the villagers to figure out if the water will enter their village, and how high it will reach. The state reaches out the people only through the safe distance of the long wave radio.
This information gets amplified and circulated in the male-dominated space of newspapers, radio and television. Women are mostly caught unawares, unless the male member of the family brings such news home. Rural Bihar, in the last decade, has been steadily emptied of men as they migrate out of the state to look for work.
This has left women more vulnerable to not receiving flood alerts on time. Many women, like Sahu, find themselves at greater risk if they have small children or are pregnant. Reaching the orbit of Mars has proved easier than sending an advanced flood alert to a woman in rural India.
Finding a way out
Being on the blind side of the state has led women in the Gandak river basin to find their own solutions. Mobile phones have allowed some freedom from an insulated world. In 2013, Dalit women in Navrahi village in West Champaran used their mobile phones to contact boatmen to arrange for a pick up. They also stored the phone number of local doctors to come to the aid of those who were pregnant or sick.
This left the older women in the village awestruck. “Earlier, we made makeshift stretchers using saris and bamboo and carried pregnant women out of the village,” one of them said. “Now with the mobile phone, the boatman was instructed to bring the doctor to the doorstep. How times have changed”.
Times are indeed changing, but very slowly. This year, floods have claimed 89 lives in Bihar so far. The river has breached its banks again this month and submerged 800 houses in the Gandak river basin. Behind each submerged house is a story of struggle and loss.
Such narratives will not spill over into national discourse. As national news gets flooded with footage of waterlogging, traffic jams and woes of the urban rich in Delhi and Gurugram, women on Gandak’s floodplains brace for another year of apathy and obscurity.
Amitangshu Acharya is an independent researcher based out of New Delhi. Fieldwork for this article was supported under International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development's HI-AWARE project.