Flooding in India: Why wasn't the government ready?

Three million people have been displaced. Critics call for more help from the Indian Army.

More than two weeks after floodwaters inundated the impoverished lowlands of the Indian state of Bihar, untold numbers of residents remain perched upon their rooftops, still waiting for help to come.

An estimated 3 million people have been displaced by the River Kosi, which is now 10 miles wide in places. The state and central governments have struggled to cope.

Local media suggest that residents in some villages have had to coordinate their own relief efforts, including setting up refugee camps in college dorms. A group of prominent Indian scholars has criticized the government as "virtually a mute spectator" and called for relief operations to be handed to the Army.

Monsoon floods are a yearly occurrence for India. Yet even among experienced aid workers, there is a sense that this is something different. "This is the mother of all floods," says Unni Krishnan of Action Aid.

When the Kosi first broke through the embankment intended to contain it on Aug. 18, the breach was only about 1,300-feet long. Now it is more than a mile. Eighty percent of the river is pouring through the gap and into some of India's poorest districts. The strong flow of water from the Himalayas means that engineers might not be able to plug the gap until December.

The task of rescuing and then organizing food and shelter for 3 million displaced people "is such that only the Army can handle it," says Parshuram Rai, director Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) in New Delhi.

His letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demanding that "relief operations be launched on a war footing" was countersigned by 49 Indian scholars and activists.

Mr. Krishnan of Action Aid, who was in Bihar until Tuesday, agrees that only the Army has had any effect. "Wherever the military has been deployed, it is saving lives," he says. "But why is it taking so long? Why have so few military people been deployed?"

Until Wednesday, the Army had 2,500 soldiers in Bihar. It has since added 2,000 more. It has also deployed 450 boats and six helicopters. Officials have said they hope to recover all the stranded people within three days.
This strikes some critics as overly optimistic. As of Sept. 1 – some 12 days after the flooding began – 90 percent of the 3 million displaced people remained to be rescued, according to Mr. Rai of CEFS.

Yet even if all the displaced are recovered, the greater task lies ahead: finding them a place to live, perhaps until December at the earliest. The government has set up relief centers in schools, and sent doctors and medical supplies. But more refugees are pouring in.

“As more people are being rescued, there is a sudden influx in the camps,” says Krishnan.

A student at Saharsa College is running a refugee camp out of his own dorm, and villagers in Supaul district have taken in 250 refugees who were denied admittance to a camp, according to a report on the website of NDTV, an Indian news channel.

It is indicative of a lack of diligence in disaster preparedness, critics say. For example, local engineers had sent letters to Delhi in April warning of the need to reinforce the embankment, which is in Nepal but is maintained by Bihar by mutual agreement. “Some of the disaster could have been averted,” says Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in New Delhi.

Of course, disasters lead to intense scrutiny in every country, but given that floods come with virtually every monsoon season, Bihar’s lack of a plan is particularly troubling, Krishnan says.

He notes that Cuban children learn hurricane drills in school and storm announcements are made on TV. Bihar, he notes, has had a complete lack of information. He suggests that the government could disseminate information by text messages, since mobile phones are widespread even among the poor here. and service is still intact.

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