Saturday, November 22, 2008

At the mercy of Mother Nature

August 2008

Growing up in Bombay, I thought I understood the downsides of monsoon well – the unceasing rain, the flooding, bus and train delays and cancellations... I prided myself on not just coping but also enjoying the season. Of course, things were much worse for the slum dwellers and people living in low-lying areas. But the rains would eventually stop and things would get back to normal, right? It took spending a few weeks in Sitapur in July-August to really appreciate the short-term and long-term impacts of the monsoon.

Most of the SKMS members are agricultural labourers or marginal landholders. They live in 'kuchha' mud houses with thatched roofs. This year, the monsoon was so fierce that it was, in the words of an SKMS supporter, 'Nature's terror'. All the fields were flooded through July and only the paddy seemed to be surviving. But further downpour through August and during the critical period of harvest damaged the paddy crop as well.

In the second week of August, it poured nonstop for 3 days. Houses, already unstable with the water-logging, began collapsing by the dozen – in some cases just one wall, in others the entire structure. These humble homes provided very basic shelter; with their collapse, people were all the more vulnerable to the elements. In one village, entire families spent days under plastic sheets hoisted next to a statue of Ambedkar, the one area in their 'basti' that was not waterlogged. Fevers, diarrhea etc. were rampant. The spring's wheat crop had been a bumper one and many families had stocked up on grain for the entire year. This grain was now wet, spoiled and mostly unusable.

While all this was playing out, we were hearing of the calamity in Bihar where the Kosi changed track and inundated entire districts. The suffering of the people in the affected districts was unprecedented. Even in Sitapur dt., certain blocks such as Rewsa were completely flooded and people were camped out on the roads and highways. Was the suffering of those people worse than that of the people here? After a point, can one quantify suffering?

We were ourselves staying in Surbala's house in the village of Satnapur. Surbala, through sheer determination and some financial strength, had constructed a concrete 2-room house. Unless there was severe waterlogging, her house was safe. But her husband was sick, one of the walls in her in-laws' house had collapsed and she was busy with personal and SKMS work. We were in a quandary – should we leave 10 days from now as we had planned or leave earlier? If we stayed, should we move to a hotel in Sitapur? Our utility to the sangathan was limited – we could help out with the applications for compensation for all those who had lost homes and property, but there were more experienced people already doing that. We could not work on long-term projects in this emergency situation. So we decided to leave early. It did not feel good to leave at such a time...

The rains have now stopped in Sitapur. It is likely that the damage to families' food stocks will have an effect in the coming months, though work through NREGA can mitigate that. It is to be seen how the winter will be. We will be back in Sitapur then and will hopefully contribute in a better manner than we could in the midst of the monsoon fury.

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