Two weeks after Bihar’s flooded Kosi River washed away much of the state, hundreds of thousands of people are finally giving up hope the waters will soon recede. More than a million people have been left homeless and scores killed in Bihar, one of the poorest regions in India. The Indian government has already rescued half a million people and another million still need to get out. Half the state is now under water. The worst hit areas are Supaul, Araria, Madhepura and Saharsa districts while more areas were becoming inundated while many other embankments were in danger of being breached.
The problem began after the monsoon rains when the Kosi River which flows from Nepal into India, burst its banks two weeks ago. The river changed course and flooded surrounding areas. Flood waters began flowing into Bihar when a barrage located on the Nepali side of the Kosi burst on 18 August. An employee at the crumbling 40 year old barrage says the collapse was inevitable due to negligence and the state of disrepair of the facility. “The officials came here in February like every year,” said the employee. “We told them things are bad. They didn't do anything about it.”
The Kosi is known as Bihar's Sorrow for its frequent deadly floods. The Kosi is one of the world’s most destructive waterways on account of its heavy silt deposits caused by its mountainous course in Tibet and Nepal and simultaneous rapid average water speed. Its fury has been renowned through the centuries as the Kosi curse. The curse was believed to be finally tamed by an embankment at the border. But with recurring problems at the barrage, locals now believe that the Kosi curse has returned. Most recently, floods in 2004 claimed 700 lives.
Another thousand or so have died this time round. The rising river has crumpled embankments, swamped farmlands and destroyed homes. Some locals have cashed in on the troubles of others. There are reports of people with boats and tractors were charging flood victims large amounts of money to carry them to safety. One rescuer apparently demanded a man’s ox in payment for a boat ride to safety.
The federal government in New Delhi has also been heavily criticised for its lack of basic disaster planning. NGOs say there seems to be no overall coordination for rescue operations and for the sheltering, feeding and medical care for the hundreds of thousands of those who fled from the floods. The anti-poverty charity ActionAid said "lessons from the past disasters should be kept in mind - a long-term comprehensive response is necessary to deal with relief, recovery and disaster preparedness".
Many refugees have arrived in New Delhi telling their grim stories of death and survival. Umesh Kumar from Madhepur district escaped with his mother, wife and three small children. The family hasn't eaten for two days and arrived with only a bag of clothes. They lost everything else in the floods. Kumar said he lost everything. “My kirana shop, 8 bighas of farming land - all now submerged in water. My children and mother are sick and I could not get them medical treatment.” He said. “The makeshift refugee camps set up by the state are not enough as many people are still trapped.” Another survivor said "Thousands are still trapped in outlying villages and the government is painfully slow in getting its act together”.
The government has reacted angrily to these criticisms. They claim with some justice that hardly anyone could have imagined a cataclysm on such a scale and point to the large-scale army rescues already in progress. Last week Prime Minister Manmohan Singh undertook an aerial survey of the flood-affected areas in Bihar. He called the flood a “national calamity” and announced a $200m relief package to the state. Locals are phlegmatic about the Curse of Khosi. “We fear our locked house will be burgled,” said one Bihar resident, “but jaan hai to jahan hai (You have the world only if you have the life)”.