Travails of a ‘floating’ population
By Priya Khandelwal, Darbhanga
Mansara Musahar is a village, in Gaura Bairam area of Kiratpur panchayat, about 75 km from Darbhanga district headquarters. This area is the confluence of three major rivers in this part of eastern Bihar, Kamla, Gehuan and the dreaded Kosi, historically known as being relentless, merciless as its flood fury swallows up land and living beings.
Here there is extreme poverty. People earn a living by working on farms of bigger landlords or as laborers, wherever they get work mostly carrying mud or stones. Access to education or health is poor and the community largely dalits have a difficult existence keeping their body and soul together. Their problems however do not end there. Being a flood-affected zone, life itself is compromised with the waters disrupting the flow of activities and events that mark the life of a community, a region. Being vulnerable to natural calamities is unsettling, unnerving to say the least, What is probably worse is dealing with the fall-out of systems and arrangements put in place by the government. This land looks forlorn, like a forgotten part of the country.
Rajendra Prasad and his wife Rathia Devi, part of the ‘Musahar’ community, which figures in the extremely backward communities of ‘Mahadalits’ identified by Nitish Kumar’s government- speak about the futility of listing out their problems to ‘anyone with a notebook’, a euphemism for government officials. The speed and the impact of the gushing waters is such that the villagers sometimes do not have time to react, to collect their things, to take charge of others in the family. Laments Rajendra Prasad, “ We live in constant fear, panic… at any moment, we may be separated from our loved ones, our family members may suddenly be lost, untraceable in a land in the grip of floods. We know deep in our hearts, that at any moment we may lose our life or that of our loved ones”.
For those far away from such a scenario, the vice-like grip of fear, the shadow of doom may be hard, nay impossible to imagine. You have to live in the area, watch the waters rise, see the familiar areas, the pathways, the trees, fields, your home being submerged, even sometimes see people or animals being swept off. The toll, apart from the tangible one, of loss of lives and property is a horrifying one on the minds and psyche of the villagers in Mansara Musahar.
The area being flood-prone over decades, there is little evidence of measures taken by the government to meet the challenge, both in terms of concrete steps to prevent, block, divert the flood waters or to address the situation, once it envelops whole villages in the region, like Mansara Musahar.in its watery hell.
Yes it has been active in one aspect, building embankments. The actual role that these structures play in preventing or curtailing the flood is highly debatable. Its raison-d’-etre lies more for the money that has changed hands in construction, the whims of local heavyweights rather than the benefit the masses. However, the embankment has one significant benefit, more by chance than by design. It provides the ‘higher ground’ for villagers to climb to and escape the furious, swirling waters. Hundreds of people from this village and adjoining villagers are perched atop these structures of packed mud and stones during the monsoons, around July, August. It is hard for anyone living in areas where floods are not recurrent, to imagine a life of extreme uncertainty and insecurity when the waters rise. During this time, ever aspect of life is compromised, food, shelter, access to sanitation, to health facilities and yes to earning a livelihood.
Leaving the fields where many from Mansara Musahar work as agricultural labourers, they would migrate to Jhaggaruan, some 2 km away to find work.
For the rest there is precious little choice. Kamla Devi says that once the waters start to come in, the village community, almost in unison moves towards the embankments, to live out their lives till the waters recede. “ When it rains incessantly, we cover ourselves with plastic and remain there, hungry and thirsty…” Those who do not have even the plastic sheets, get drenched over and over again.
Why is no one asking any questions and confronting those who govern the place? It is a shame that the embankments meant to protect the villagers in this and other areas does nothing to prevent the calamity. They only serve as protective structures after the calamity, providing the bare minimum support to an embattled community. Yes it is important at the time, even life saving but it does not justify its construction or design, which does not meet the original purpose of containing the fury of the waters. There is another lapse too. According to Lalpari Devi, “ No one comes to give us relief at the time of floods”
There are others, common citizens who come from more ‘privileged’ backgrounds, moved to action by the plight. Manas Bihari Varma, a scientist at the Agricultural department cooked and served khichdi and chokha, a nourishing pancake of lentils to the flood victims for 15 days. He also distributed blankets and also some clothes. While the spirit is commendable, the effort too, does it absolve the government from taking up the cause of the people of Mansara Musahar who for no fault of theirs are rendered homeless, hungry, helpless and pushed to the brink for days and days during the monsoons. Can we expect someone there to heed this plight, to take urgent and corrective action?