Hardnews Bureau

In Gujarat, floods have uncovered the inefficacy of the government

Martin Macwan Ahmedabad 

While driving down from Baspa village (about 15 km from Sami) to Radhanpur in Gujarat, I was taken back to the year 2000, when an earthquake had struck the state. Except this time, it was floods. The waters of the Banas had washed away one side of the national highway. Had the canals been constructed haphazardly to complete them within a specified time? No one seemed to ask this question, especially at a time when the chief minister was distributing flood relief consisting of food packets, clothing and a cash dole of Rs 65 and Rs 45 for an adult and a minor, respectively, to cover a period of 10 days.

The Maldharis had taken over one side of the road with their buffaloes. The relief truck ahead of me was flinging bundles of used clothes, while locals were eagerly waiting for relief. They shoved the clothes they liked in an empty travel bag as soon as they got their hands on them; the rest they discarded on the road.

The highway had a great deal of police presence with numerous politicians visiting the flood-hit areas. In Runi village, Kankrej, where a Jain temple spread over 20 bighas dominates, part of its wall had collapsed. Across the road from the temple is a Dalit area where leather workers and scavengers live in homes barely eight feet by eight feet. Some had managed to empty their homes of the flood’s sludge and sand. Water levels in this area had risen to more than 13 feet, entirely submerging homes. People had taken shelter on the top floor of the village co-operative, or any other terrace they could find, braving rain and wind for about 30 hours before the Army reached them with some biscuits. In one home, we met a young Dalit man who had lost his post-graduate certificates, and two children who were drying their school books on a terrace tarred with dirt and water.

In 1979, as a college student, I had volunteered in Morbi in Gujarat after the Machhu dam had burst. We helped locals clear their homes after the floods. In Runi this time, I saw no volunteers. There were only visitors, and relief distributors. The richer folks had access to the JCB machines that could dig away the sludge, even as Dalits waited to hire tractors to remove the rotting grain, bedding and the debris the flood had left behind. Many Dalit homes remained as the floods had left them, with the geriatric inhabitants unable to clear them in the absence of the younger population that had travelled far to look for jobs. An old woman was assisted by her two sons-in-law who had come to help clear her one-room home. An old man had lost his buffalo. He earned his living by playing the drum and making supda. Each family I visited had lost an average of 800 kg of grain, part of the community system of storing a year’s supply of rations for the family. As trucks distributing packaged food occupied the narrow village road, locals refused to take the food as they were tired of the handouts. They were more worried about removing the sludge from their homes, fearing an epidemic. The stench of rotting grain pervaded the village, and there was barely any place to sleep, with swarms of mosquitoes hovering in the air.

Under a tree at the centre of the village, a heap of used garments lay, dumped by relief workers. Everybody had rejected them. Some families of the Majirana community sat in an open ground around their mud homes whose bamboo roofs had tumbled to the ground. No one from the village had ever met with such tragedy. They had been battered by the Narmada canal. A large portion of the canal had been unable to withstand the pressure of the water flow, and had quickly given away, raising water levels inside the village. Locals said the gandabaval trees’ deep roots had penetrated the base of the canal and weakened its walls.

The Dalits had been able to bargain from the village panchayat a pucca brick wall around some of their homes. Built barely six months earlier, the wall, without proper foundation, had collapsed. In fact, most structures built under new government schemes had collapsed, while older structures had stood firmly.

In Khariya village, more than 22 bodies were recovered from beneath the sand. Most roads had been washed away and several villages could be seen at a far distance submerged in the floodwaters. They were now accessible only by boats, two of which had been put into service. Police and volunteers were guarding the queue of people whose homes were on the other side and who were awaiting their turn. No one knew how many people had died. Many lived on farms scattered around the villages. Worse, there was no record of the number of migrant labourers who had lived on these farms.

At a safer distance from the Banas river, the sludge had been cleared from homes. All relief teams, however, located their distribution networks here. A large stack of mattresses was locked away in a room, awaiting distribution. The Kshatriya-Thakur Sena and the RSS relief teams were quite visible, with caste distinctions and preexisting prejudices remaining intact despite the floods. Locals often asked relief workers and visitors their castes.

As politicians blamed each other, the Army and civil society reacted quickly to save lives and provide relief. Except for the police, there was little presence of the government. The cash relief was handed out via a survey by primary schoolteachers.

The floodwaters may have receded, but the damage has been done. People have lost homes, foodgrains, and their financial savings. Worse, those who owned farmland lost the top soil, while farm boundaries have disappeared too. My colleagues suggested this was a blessing in disguise for the sand mafia. “The Banas brought sand along with it that will find its way to Ahmedabad construction sites,” they said.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2017