Last month’s floods in Bihar have killed at least 514 people and affected 1.72 crore people across the state, according to the Bihar disaster management department. Over 8.5 lakh people have lost their homes, with Araria district alone accounting for almost 2.2 lakh homeless people.

While these figures convey the scale of the disaster, they do not reveal the extent to which the floods have upturned people’s lives and the fact that its repercussions will be felt for months to come.

For instance, in Kharaiya Basti in Araria district, where most people have lost their homes in the floods, the waters have also damaged stocks of grain that would have sustained the households over the coming year. Several members of this basti are daily and seasonal wage labourers in the district, and neighbouring Nepal. Most also have small plots of land on which they produce enough foodgrains to last them a year. When the floods came on the morning of August 14, their homes were stocked with wheat and rice harvested in the winter. Two weeks later, the neighbourhoods still reeked of rotting grain.

Additionally, household goods, livestock, and supplies of small businesses have been washed away, leaving little for the people in this area to salvage. Residents say that from experience they are not certain that they will be adequately compensated by the government for their losses.

Damaged houses and walls in Khariya basti in Araria town. (Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya).
Damaged houses and walls in Khariya basti in Araria town. (Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya).

Swept away

“The waters rose so quickly that we fled with our children and parents, to save our lives,” said Zafar Alam, a resident of the basti, who works in the plywood industry in Nepal for a few months every year and cultivates his nine-cottah (approximately 67 square metres) plot of land for the rest of the year.

The surging waters from the river closeby inundated the containers in his home that stored 10 quintals of rice and wheat. They also washed away his cow, a goat, 10 chickens, and almost all his household belongings.

Shahid Alam, Zafar Alam’s neighbour, lost 10 quintals of wheat, five quintals of rice, 10 jersey cows that were the basis of his dairy business and six goats that were to be offered for sacrifice on Bakr-Eid on September 2.

In the villages, the flood waters uprooted and swept away ancient trees, sometimes carrying them kilometres downstream. Bridges and roads were washed away as embankments of canals caved in.

In Shankarpur panchayat, stocks of most of the shops in the main market, including cement and sand supplies worth Rs 6 lakh, were swept away. In the neighbouring Laxmipur panchayat, the rising waters brought in dead bodies from Nepal.

“It was almost 4 in the morning. The waters were rising rapidly and I was preparing to leave the house,” said Jagdish Sah. “It was then that I saw a dead body float into the house. The man was a Nepali, and had been carried by the flood waters.”

When Sah returned home after the waters receded, he found that everything barring a couple of trunks and the bed had been swept away. The flood waters had taken everything that could pass through broken walls and doorways.

Local residents complained that the flood waters were toxic because it led to itching and inflammation on their bodies. People in some areas said they received bleaching powder and water purification tablets from the health department. However, nobody, including local doctors, seemed to have a clue about what had caused the itching.

Zafar Alam's family had started cooking in their washed-away kitchen. (Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya).
Zafar Alam's family had started cooking in their washed-away kitchen. (Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya).

Compensation process

A Bihar government document titled SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] for Flood Disaster Management states, among other things, that following flooding the government should pay “gratuitous relief” to flood affected families. Circular number 1973 of the Bihar government’s disaster management department, issued in May 2015, gives the prevalent rate for this relief. Every adult and child not housed in relief camps and left without food reserves must be paid Rs 60 and Rs 45 per day respectively, for a period of 30 days (extendable up to 90 in case of serious calamities), it states.

It is this gratuitous relief that is reaching people’s bank accounts via electronic transfers now. The principal secretary of the state disaster management department, Pratyaya Amrit, said RTGS (real time gross settlement) transfers had been completed for nearly 13 lakh of the 38 lakh affected families in Bihar. Given that the total number of flood affected people is 1.7 crore, taking the average family size in Bihar at 4.2 persons, the total number of affected families comes to 38 lakh, said Amrit.

The website of the state disaster management department shows Rs 769 crore has been distributed among 12,81,995 families upto September 9. This comes to Rs 6,000 per family.

Gratuitous relief, however, is only the first of relief measure governments are asked to undertake in the SOP document. It goes on to state further relief measures: loan disbursals to kisan credit card holders to enable farmers to buy agricultural inputs for a fresh season of sowing; payment of insurance claims for damaged crops; housing of flood-affected in mega camps where there is a need; prevention of epidemics, and drainage of water from low-lying, waterlogged areas. Circular 1973 provides the rates and measures to be followed for implementing these relief measures.

A survey to capture these varied aspects of loss, crucial to the compensation process, is now underway. It is being carried out by block and panchayat level disaster management committees. But the exercise was delayed, said residents.

“Some of us from the [Shankarpur] panchayat had gone to meet the block level committee members in late August, to urge them to initiate work on the survey,” said Rakesh Vishwas from Shankarpur panchayat on August 27. “But we could not manage to meet them despite three to four visits to their offices.”

On September 6, Vishwas said that the appraisal committee had started functioning. “A four-member team has been constituted and they are conducting a daily house-to-house survey,” he said. “Four wards have been covered now and nine remain…There were some delays, but we are working on it now.”

Even if the data is generated accurately, and soon, it is not clear what it will lead to.

The bridge over Parman river that connects Zero Mile in Araria town to north-eastern parts of the district was washed away by the flood waters. (Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya).
The bridge over Parman river that connects Zero Mile in Araria town to north-eastern parts of the district was washed away by the flood waters. (Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya).

“After last year’s floods, the government merely paid gratuitous relief,” said Ashish Ranjan from the non-profit organisation, Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan. Compensation for lost clothes, amounting to Rs 1,800 per family, and utensils and household goods, amounting to Rs 2,000 per family, was not paid, he said.

Bihar Disaster Management Department Joint Secretary Anirudh Kumar said that the department was awaiting the survey reports on losses from the districts.

“Once the reports come in, we will prepare a memorandum and submit it to the Central government,” he said. “The Centre will examine it and release funds according to availability and requirement. The lists of beneficiaries will be verified by the state government and it will make recommendations on who should receive benefits before compensation amounts are handed over.”

This is the second of a two-part series on the aftermath of the Bihar floods. The first part can be read here.