Sep 19, 2008

India - Bihar's braveheart runs biggest relief camp

At the crack of dawn, Jhulan Rai wakes up and sits on his cot outside his mud hut. The 36-year-old headman of Abhayram village sleeps under the open sky so people can wake him up easily if they need help.

Very soon, he heads straight to a mango orchard where he has set up a relief camp for nearly 22,000 villagers who began arriving in trickles from nearby areas on August 22, when the Kosi river rose to submerge an area almost the size of Belgium.

His first task is to ensure that the roughly 11,000 children in the camp get breakfast. “I doubt I will ever face a bigger challenge,” said Rai, a former jeep driver who was elected to the village council last year. He expects to continue working in public life.

There were no government officials to be seen. The apathy of the administration has given Rai an opportunity to prove his mettle.

As the refugees began pouring in, Abhayram’s 18,000 residents generously pulled out their own grain stocks to share with the newcomers. For ten days, they did this. Only then did stocks from the government begin trickling in, Jhulan said. Even now, a month later, the government’s stocks aren’t enough for all the refugees.

The indefatigable Jhalan remains unruffled. “It is a gargantuan task,” said the burly, bearded man. “But we cannot ask these people to leave, surely. Where will they go?”

Only half the refugees have received tents from the government. Yet, in Purnea town, about 60 kilometres from Abhayram, at a huge camp the administration has set up, tents are going for the asking.

“That site is convenient only for officials,” said Suresh Yadav, a refugee. “They do not bother to see how far it is for us. Our villages have been submerged. But from here, we can take boats or wade through water and feed our cattle and check on locked homes every few days.”

Original sin

The indifference of the state was on display even before the Kosi River breached its embankment. Four days before it did, villagers of Abhayram Chakla repeatedly called local officials to get them to repair a broken sluice gate. “Officials came, saw it and went back, saying there were no funds to repair it,” said Rai.

After the flood, a stream of people headed eastward for the nearest dry spot – Abhyaram. “It began with 2,000 people, then 5,000, then 10,000, 12,000, 17,000,” said villager Bhim, standing in the village’s biggest mango orchard. “People are still coming in.”

As Rai walked through rows of tents that morning, residents milled around him enthusasistically.

Jaikishan Yadav, whose ten-member family is at Abhayram, says “We are surviving because of the headman. At the big camp in Purnea, we will encounter bureaucracy. Here we feel warmth.”

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