What will it take to notice pain?

I have spent the last ten days in Farrukhabad going from village to village. The torrential rains of mid-September left dozens of villages marooned, seventy thousand houses fully or partially destroyed, most access roads breached by water, thousands of acres of standing crop inundated and almost 100 people dead. Atleast 20 other Districts from Etawah to Jalaun suffered similar or worse fate. All over UP 800 people lost their lives. The state government has got into action but only in a routine time manner. What should have been a war footing operation is being undertaken as though nothing special is called for. No visits of the CM and Central Ministers. No public appeals for relief. No demand for additional funds from the Centre. However what is alarming is that the national media did not think it fit to highlight the extent of the loss and tragedy.

The figures tell their own tale. On 26th September 2003 the official figures were as follows: Districts affected 53, Total loss of life 802, Houses damaged or destroyed 2,90,000, Villages affected 15,950, Total population affected 1.34 crores (10% of UP), Total crop loss 38 crores, Total loss of Houses 7 crores, loss of other property 10 crores. This is no different from the cyclone disaster in Orissa or the earthquakes in Latur and Gujarat. Yet the disaster management profile is entirely different. There are no appeals to humanitarian agencies or involvement of NGOs in the relief work. Is it that damage by heavy rain does not have the same sex appeal” as the rumble of an earthquake?

There is a point to be noted here. The visible devastation caused in a flash by an earthquake or the awesome picture of strong winds bending coconut trees in a cyclone are caught vividly on TV screens. Incessant rain, that too in rural areas, does not have the same dramatic quality to capture on video. In the popular imagination, floods can cause some damage but rain does not. Mere flooding due to heavy rain, every one assumes, subsides in a few days if not weeks. So how does the loss happen and how does one record it? The seventy thousand houses damaged in Farrukhabad were largely earth houses (Kachcha) or badly constructed brick (Pacca) houses. Rain pelted down incessantly, melting the walls down, and the rising ground water sapped up the strength of the foundations. The roofs made of tree branches and mud packs can take only limited battering. The pacca houses too are made by untrained hands with little or no architectural inputs. The materials used are generally far below required standards and strength in order to cut construction costs.

Whilst the individual homes are built without scientific planning, the concept of town and country too is entirely non-existent. Nobody ever asks if they can build on a plot or how much they can build. Everybody wants a road and they get a road if they have the right political connections. But no technical study precedes the building of the road. As human habitations grow, traditional water ways, nallahs and drains get blocked or filled up, leaving no outlet for water. Our general insensitivity about living conditions does not allow us to see early warning signals. Years of deficient or normal rainfall cause some inconvenience. Then comes an unusual downpour and spells disaster all around.

The flooding of agricultural areas will disappear gradually, leaving dried and dead crops. But the stagnant water trapped in urban depressions will threaten life for a long time. Acid rain is heavenly compared to the grimy, fluid, smelly find that corrodes everything it touches, but through which people have to wade everyday to reach their homes. Epidemics are still to take their toll. We need to brace ourselves for serious crises. Of course, ultimately most will come through, as indeed we have for decades, if not centuries. But the question is, will conditions improve, as they did in Surat after the plague scare? Or will we just return to our insensitive existence once the dead are buried or cremated?

The total loss of a home is itself a frightening thought, but when the loss is of a person who has no insurance or a bank account it must feel like the end of the world. Curiously the loss is greater for people not accustomed to floods. In flood prone areas people anticipate rising waters and therefore keep their food stocks at safe levels or move out to higher ground at the first sign of trouble. Their houses are built of light disposable materials that do not cause injuries. People unfamiliar with these realities cannot figure out why there is reported loss if the flood areas have not reported major damage. Indeed even a week after the river waters recede everything look normal. But the rest of the villages will look as though they have been bombarded. However there are no reporters to fell the tales of devastation. Without those media stories life will simply go on and people will just learn to live with additional misery.

The state government has a standard price tag on misery. Rs. 50,000/- for a citizens death, Rs.20, 000/- for a kaccha house and Rs. 3,000/- for a pacca house; Rs. 1,500/- worth of food and cooking utensils for displaced persons. Some people actually begin to think they are better off if a family member dies but their house remains intact! A case of heartless state making its citizens heartless too (and of course home less). The world over there are movements for housing for all. But the condition in which a large number of people live in UP are primitive to say the least. Not 21st century, perhaps not even the 20th century. This has to change. But we need a peoples movement. I wonder if that will happen considering the fact that the humble efforts I put in with some friends to reach food to the affected persons got the following response from a non-Congress MP from the area, This is all fooling the people. Our job is not to provide relief. We only have to watch over government efforts.” Who is fooling whom? Who is watching? Time will tell, I hope. Meanwhile let me just say this – our compatriots are brave and indeed stout hearted. Every shattered village I visited still had many smiling faces and a humble offering of sweets to say Thank you. That is what I call hope.

Salman Khurshid