“Each time it rains I stand outside our house and keep looking at the Giladhari river. It has taken everything from us,” says Momina Khatun, 58, of Bookabil Sapurial village in Assam’s Sonitpur district. Back from a flood relief camp where they had spent around 10 days, her family of three sons, their wives and children, are today living in a makeshift hut – two wooden beds with a tin roof over their heads, which they managed to salvage after their mud hut collapsed. Thin plastic sheets tied to the four sides of the beds and anchored with bamboo poles make up the ‘walls’.
Stacked around them are their entire worldly possessions wrapped in water proof sacks given as relief material. This includes rice, dal and a bag of dry clothes for the two frail infants in the family. Two cycles lean haphazardly against the far side of the shelter with a lone white hen sits tied to it. “She is the only one who survived, she was on top of a tree,” smiles Momina.
An elderly woman, who calmly chews betel nut, Momina admits that she has never seen floods like those that submerged this region recently. Outside, as the rains falls, the family watches as tiny whirlpools form. “This means water is coming from under ground and also from the river,” points out Naseeb Rehman, 30, Momina’s youngest son, who was making a living by doing ‘hazira’ (casual labour). Now his only job, he says, is to ensure his family’s safety and to keenly look out for any signs of approaching disaster.
Naseeb’s young wife Ruksana quietly breastfeeds her three-month-old baby. A lone ‘angeethi’ (charcoal stove) with an aluminum pot is their portable kitchen. She looks up and recalls those initial days of the floods, “When the breach occurred in Solmari, the waters came in slowly. First, it was up to our ankles but when it came over the knees, we knew we could not spend the night in our home.”
The family came to the road and waited but when the water came up to their waist, even at the higher elevation of the road, the men began cutting down the ‘kalagachi’ (banana trunks) and stringing three trunks together to make a ‘bhuur’, or rough raft. Using a long bamboo pole they rowed the women and children, two at a time, to a bridge nearby. The entire village had taken refuge on this bridge. “From there, on a small borrowed canoe, we reached the school, some six kilometres away, where a camp had been established,” adds Ruksana.
Ruksana reflects on the time spent at that camp, “There were so many people in that camp. Many like us had run in just the clothes we were wearing. We just sat in our wet cold clothes till they dried up. We were given rice and dal. From relatives, we got a cooking pot and made food. There were makeshift bathrooms and all of us stayed together in a classroom. The fact that so many people were the in same desperate condition helped us bear all the hardships.”
When the waters receded, Momina’s family returned to the village. But within four days they found themselves on the road once again. This time though, as they watched the waters rise, they gathered their belongings and made a temporary shelter in a knoll close by.
Today, all the homes in Bookabil Sapurial have disintegrated under the onslaught of the flood water. Floods are unforgiving – they take everything with them, leaving behind a rutted road and disintegrated mud structures. Discarded banana trunks litter front yards once brimming with life and the pungent smell of rotting grain fills the air.
Of the 27 districts in Assam, 21 have been affected by the recent floods which have wiped out the homes of 6.5 lakh people and destroyed 70,000 hectares of standing crops. Around 1,747 villages had been submerged. The Assam government has estimated the damages caused to the agriculture sector by the floods at around Rs 9920 million, with 10,57,558 agricultural families, including 1,55,989 small and marginal farmers, affected by the floods. Over 50 per cent of the state’s agricultural land has been ravaged as well.
Major Amitava of 12 Assam Rifles, who was part of the Army rescue team, clearly recalls how his troops conducted various rescue operations from the Circle Office of Sootea on July 27, “We would enter villages and find dogs howling away – it was very eerie. People would be on the rooftops. The assault boats used in the rescue operations can take up to 20 people at a time, but because of the way families clung to each other, we were forced to sometimes take up to 38-40 people at a time.”
With support structures built over entire lifetimes destroyed, the most vulnerable had the toughest time. Nirmala, 20, a resident of Phataki gaon, which is located some twenty minutes away from Momina’s home, past a wobbly wooden bridge weakened by the swollen Giladhari, has just returned home with her three-day-old daughter from the hospital. Her young face is pale and twisted in pain as she walks gingerly helped by her husband. Suman Bala, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), holds her newborn girl. “She had 10 stitches and it’s painful for her to walk, but we had to leave the car by the bridge as it was unsafe to bring it all the way here,” says the health worker. Nirmala’s home is three kilometres away and she has a long way to go on foot.
Of course, what makes the human tragedy worse is the misappropriation of relief materials like food grains and tarpaulins, which always takes place in conditions like this, making the lives of the poor even more difficult. “Our common goal is one square meal. There is no difference between us and our cattle,” remarks Ganesh Bhattarai, who works as a social worker in Bookabil. “One of the major problems we are now facing is access to clean drinking water. We have only heard of water purification tablets, never seen them.”
The waters have receded for now in the villages of Bookabil Sapurial and Phataki, but the rainy season extends up to mid-September, and the floods are expected to revisit the region in the coming days. The water levels are still quite high and the breach in the embankment cannot be fixed till the waters recede completely.
Momina knows that life will remain uncertain for the next few months, but she also knows that she and her family has no choice but to haplessly accept whatever nature doles out to them.