In the nine days since flood waters from an unprecedented deluge receded across northern Gujarat, an unusual silence has enveloped most flood-hit villages and towns in Banaskantha district. Defeated by the monumental loss of farmlands, houses, food grains and personal belongings, displaced residents have returned home to mounds of debris and sludge that need to be cleaned out before they can begin rebuilding their lives.

As they labour silently, with little to say to each other, the only sound that stands out is the hum of trucks and tempos rolling in and out of villages to drop off disaster relief packages. Few of these trucks belong to government agencies. They have been sent, instead, by scores of social service organisations that mobilised themselves immediately after floods ravaged North Gujarat from July 23 to 25.

In the aftermath of this deluge that has killed at least 224 people across the state, the outpouring of spontaneous support from volunteer organisations has proved indispensable to disaster relief operations. While government agencies have been occupied with immediate rescue and evacuation work, and are now carrying out surveys to assess the long-term needs of the affected population, volunteer teams from various religious and community charitable organisations have been involved in crucial ground work of distributing drinking water, ration and ready-to-eat food packets, utensils, blankets and donated clothes.

“Right now my family is completely dependent on the food and clothes donated by the seva groups,” said Godabhai Bhangi, a Dalit auto driver from Banaskantha’s Runi village whose mother died during the floods on July 24. Bhangi received a government cash dole of Rs 7,000 for rations a few days after the floods, which the 13-member family has already spent. He also received a cheque of Rs 6 lakh as government compensation for his mother’s death. “But the bank says it will take another 10 days before I can start encashing it, so we would be starving without the help of the social workers.”

The volunteers are conscious of their role in helping people across different communities.

“We may be community organisations but for flood relief we are helping all people, irrespective of caste or religion,” said Bhagwanbhai Bandhu, an organiser at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Jalaram Seva Kendra in Deesa city.

In Dhanera town, 35-km away from Deesa, Mohammed Rafiq Rahim is one of the 3,000-odd flood-relief volunteers of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. “Hindus and Muslims have always lived peacefully in Dhanera so what we are doing is not really unusual,” he said. “But at a time when so much communal hatred is being evoked in the country, it is important to show the world that communal harmony exists on the ground.”

Godabhai Bhangi’s auto has been defunct since the floods, and he has no cash to get it repaired.

A dharamshala-turned-relief camp

On August 1 and 2, trucks plastered with posters of dozens of different community organisations trundled across Banaskantha’s highways, distributing relief kits from village to village. These organisations included the Banaskantha Valmiki Yuva Vikas Parishad, a youth group working for the rights of the lower Valmiki caste, the Shri Umiya Mitra Mandal, an Ahmedabad-based Patidar organisation, and several groups affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

On the outskirts of Dhanera town, one of the worst-affected urban zones, the district branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had converted a local restaurant into a relief centre on July 23 itself, when flood alerts were announced across the region. In Deesa city 35 km away, the Jalaram Seva Kendra has converted a community canteen into a similar relief centre, where volunteers have been collecting donated food and clothes from across the state to be distributed in nearly 150 villages across Banaskantha and Patan districts.

The most prominent community organisation working in the taluka has been the Bharwad Dharamshala, which runs a large hostel for Other Backward Caste youth from the Bharwad community in the centre of Thara town in Kankrej taluka. When the floods hit the rural areas on the night of July 23, the Dharamshala immediately volunteered its campus to serve as a relief camp for more than 500 displaced people from the flood-hit villages of Khariya, Odha and Katkor.

“When we arrived at this camp, all arrangements had been made for us – food, blankets and a medical camp,” said Saritaben Patni, a farmer from Odha village whose family had been stranded on the roof of their house for four days, without food or water, before they were finally rescued by National Disaster Rescue Force boats.

Saritaben Patni and other villagers from Odha at the Bharwad Dharamshala-turned-relief camp in Thara.

Although flood waters have now receded from Odha, Patni and at least 200 fellow-villagers are afraid to return home. “Our men tell us that our homes are filled with debris, but we cannot clean it out because there are rotting cattle carcasses lying across the village that the government has not yet picked up,” said Patni. “We are thankful that we have been allowed to stay at this camp for 10 days, but we would like to be given some temporary houses to stay in for a few months while we clean and rebuild our village.”

A carcass lying in a flood-hit farm in rural Banaskantha.

Communal harmony

In Dhanera town, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind volunteers have chosen to focus their flood relief efforts on cleaning up sludge and debris from public institutions and private homes – something that flood-affected villagers have not had help with so far.

“When we arrived in Dhanera on July 26, many places were still flooded with four feet of water,” said Atiq-ur-Rahman Qureshi, the general secretary of Jamiat Ulema’s Banaskantha branch. “When the water receded, the first thing we did was start cleaning out muck from temples, mosques, schools and hospitals, and now we are doing the same in people’s houses.”

Volunteers from the organisation – who come every day from across Gujarat to work in rotating shifts – are camping in a half-constructed buildings that they have taken on rent. The group, prominent in their white skull caps, has already attracted local media attention, and have been heaped with praise.

Generosity in excess

While the mobilisation of charitable efforts towards flood relief has come as a much-needed complement to government-managed disaster management, some locals cannot help noticing that in certain areas, donations have reached the point of excess.

Khariya, the village that has been in the national news for the unfortunate deaths of 15 members of a single family, is one such area. The first thing visible at the village centre on August 2 was a large heap of clothes – shirts, jeans, salwar suits and dupattas – donated by well-wishers across the state through a dozen different charitable organisations.

“These are leftover clothes that no one has taken because they’ve already got enough,” said Amrutben Patani, a Khariya resident who returned from the Thara relief camp on Wednesday morning to start cleaning up the debris of her broken home. “The rations and other supplies provided to us by seva groups has saved us, but I wish we could also get some help with all the cleaning up we now have to do.”

Amrutben Patani stands near a heap of excess clothes donated to Khariya village.

All photographs by Aarefa Johari.