What remains when waters from what has been described as the “worst flood in a century” recede after wreaking havoc for three days? In Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, residents are left with is sludge, stench, fear and the clawing pain of loss.

Unexpected floods in Gujarat have killed at least 224 people since mid-July. The northern district of Banaskantha has been worst-hit, with 58 deaths and counting. The deluge was triggered by the unusual formation of low-pressure zones in the Arabian sea off Gujarat as well as the Bay of Bengal, causing torrential rains in Central and North Gujarat (and floods in parts of eastern India as well).

From July 23 to 25, Banaskantha and its neighbouring districts received a record 257 mm of rainfall, which is almost half its annual average rainfall. Overflowing dams and rivers caused flood waters to storm into hundreds of farms and villages across the region. In the week since the deluge began, disaster management teams from the Centre, state government and the Armed Forces have rescued more than 17,000 people and evacuated more than 1.3 lakh citizens from low-lying areas.

Now that the waters have finally receded almost everywhere, many of the those displaced by the floods are trudging back home to pick up the pieces, mourn and share their stories with anyone willing to listen.

Rescue teams ferry villagers across a partially-submerged state highway near Khariya village in Banaskantha. Photo: Aarefa Johari

“It took five days for me to find out that my family is safe, but now we have also found that we have nothing left to call our own,” said Natwarsinh Vaghela, a farmer from Khariya, a village on the banks of the Banas river in Banaskantha’s Kankrej taluka.

On the night of July 23, relentless rains forced the state government to release water from Banaskantha’s Dantiwada and Sipu dams, causing the Banas river to overflow. Near Khariya, at an intersection of the Banas and the Narmada dam canal, the force of the Banas waters also caused a breach of the Narmada canal walls.

The Vaghelas were in their brick house in the middle of their eight-acre farm when flood waters began flowing in rapidly. The eight-member family began running for their lives, seeking refuge on the roof of the only tall structure in sight – a 10-foot high barn for storing fodder. “But the barn roof was made of hay and it broke when we climbed up,” said Vaghela. “We got swept up by the current and when we passed a tree, my wife and I were able to cling on to it. My sons and daughter-in-law and their children went out of sight.”

Vaghela said he and and his wife spent nearly two days alone on the tree before help arrived in the form of a National Disaster Rescue Force helicopter. “But when the helicopter got closer to us, the big fan on top of it started blowing away the branches of our tree, and we were afraid it would break,” said Vaghela, who was forced to refuse the airlift. The couple was eventually rescued by boat and taken to a relief camp in Thara, the taluka headquarters.

After four excruciating days, they were finally reunited with their children and grandchildren, who had been rescued by another relief squad. “But now our house has collapsed, our crops are destroyed and there is sticky muck all over our farmland,” he said. “All our 11 cattle are dead and we will not be able to farm for another two seasons. What do we do now?”

Natwarsinh Vaghela in Khariya.

‘We have given up trying to find her body’

Vaghela’s village, Khariya, became the face of the Gujarat floods after news of 15 deaths in a single family hit the headlines on July 26. For years, residents of the village have been used to shallow flooding for a few days every monsoon. “But what happened this year was not something anyone has seen in a 100 years,” said Deshlaji Thakor, the 75-year-old patriarch of the family that lost 15 members.

A joint family of 60 members, the Thakors lived in three neighbouring houses in the middle of their six-acre farm in Khariya. One of the three houses was kacha and not cemented, and it collapsed soon after 26 Thakors climbed on its roof to save themselves from raging floodwaters on the night of July 23. Only 10 of those 26 survived, one of them Deshlaji’s grandson Pradhan Thakor.

“I survived only because I was able to find a tree and cling to it for two nights and a day,” said Pradhan Thakor, 35, who could see no one around except one cousin stuck on a thorny tree nearby. “I thought everyone else in my family was dead. It was two days of wind, rain, hunger and freezing cold, and when the water receded to five feet on the third day, I got down from the tree simply because I wanted to die.”

Pradhan Thakor (left) and Deshlabhai Thakore (centre) at a government guest house in Thara.

When he was finally rescued, Pradhan discovered that his wife, parents, brother and 13-year-old daughter had been swept away, along with 11 other members of the extended family. “We fished out 15 bodies ourselves, without government help. But we have still not found my niece Anushka, who was just one-and-a-half years old,” said Pradhan. “Now it has been more than a week, and we have given up trying to find her body.”

For eight days, the Thakors had been rehabilitated in a hostel in the neighbouring town of Thara. But on Tuesday morning, they were shifted to a government guesthouse in the town after they pleaded to the state not to send them back to Khariya. “We will settle anywhere else and do any kind of other work, but we cannot go back to farming or to the place where we lost so many of our loved ones,” said Deshlaji Thakore. “Anyway our land is ruined and we have salvaged nothing from our broken homes.”

Rotting grains

In neighbouring Ranakpur village, Vajaji Thakor and his family went back to the debris of their house a few days after the flood waters began to recede on July 26, hoping to salvage the sacks of bajra they had grown.

On the night of July 23, the 10-member family had waded out of neck-deep water with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and their children hoisted on their shoulders. When they got to higher ground, they set up camp on an empty patch of ground off the state highway, where they have been living ever since.

Vajaji Thakor and his family camping off the state highway near Ranakpur.

“The government gave us a cash dole of Rs 7,000 that we are using to buy ration and dry wood, and social service groups have given us tarpaulin sheets and utensils,” said Vajaji Thakor. “But we had several kilos of bajra back home, which we tried to rescue once the water receded.”

But the family found itself throwing the bajra along the highway in a trail leading all the way up to their campsite. “It was all rotten and stinking and there was no hope of ever using it,” said Vjajaji Thakor. “Now the rotting grain is just lying here, emitting a stink and making it hard for us to breathe.”

The stench of waste

The reek of the decaying bajra in parts of the Ranakpur highway is tame in comparison to the stench hanging thick in the air of Dhanera town, another flood-affected zone in Banaskantha.

Located further away from the Banas river, Dhanera was hit by flood waters on the morning of July 24. All the low-lying areas of Dhanera taluka were submerged in five to seven feet of water for two days, including several parts of the town. The taluka has recorded 24 deaths so far and most of the post-mortems were carried out in a makeshift, four-bed medical centre set up in a government guesthouse after the local civic hospital got flooded.

Sludge, debris and stench have come to characterise Dhanera's streets after the floods.

In addition to human life, however, one of Dhanera’s biggest casualties has been its Agricultural Produce Market Committee, or APMC, whose godowns on the outskirts of the town were hit by 10 feet of fast-flowing flood water.

“We had a store of 1.5 lakh gunny sacks of mustard seeds, jeera, castor seeds and isabgol in the APMC, and 90% of it got swept away onto the streets of the town,” said Bhagwanbhai Patel, the chairman of the Dhanera APMC. Rotting mustard is now a part of the thick layer of sludge blanketing the streets of Dhanera, forcing residents and clean-up crews to cover their noses with masks. “The longer it takes to clean up, the higher the risk of spreading infections.”

To prevent an epidemic, Dhanera's civic authorities have set up a special dumping ground for rotting mustard sacks behind the local APMC.

Since Dhanera is a thriving agricultural market in the region, the loss of a season’s worth of food grains has also dealt a severe blow to the local economy. “Just the APMC has suffered a loss of Rs 70 crore, and the total Dhanera market loss must be Rs 200 crore,” said Patel. “Since so many farms are now filled with sludge too, I have no idea what we will do during the next harvest season.”