Lessons from Bihar floods: how Aadhar can drive flood relief in future


As the people of Bihar battle devastating floods, relief and rehabilitation work need to be shared equally and responsibly among all stakeholders — the government, the local leaders, and citizens.

Over 1.3 crore people living across Bihar battled catastrophic floods recently. The downpour began on August 12 and 10 days of incessant rain led to the death of 514 people. The water swept away not just houses with thatched roofs, but the floods robbed the public, once again, of their savings and properties.

Even a month later, the people of Bihar continue to reel under the aftermath. Sleepless nights, mosquitoes, empty ration containers, diseases, cold and flu and half-submerged houses await them. The only question in their minds was when would the relief material arrive.

Relief underway

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar inspecting the Food Packaging Centre at flood relief camps in Purnea.

On August 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted an aerial inspection of the flood-prone state. A sum of Rs 500 crore for immediate relief and Rs 2 lakh each to the next kin of those who died in the floods was announced by the Prime Minister’s Office. The government is currently engaged in providing food and monetary compensation to the flood-affected people. The State Disaster Management Authority has reportedly airdropped 31,908 food packets in flood-prone areas.

Working on ground and supporting the relief work in his constituency, Madhubani, former Union Minister of State and Member of Parliament Hukumdev Narayan Yadav, says,

They (the government) are helping the displaced with relief, shelter, and running camps to provide food. The government - both from BJP and JD(U) - have put their full strength towards the relief work and are providing assistance to the public. The government is ready to work and provide full support. But to what extent it happens, how it is executed, and whether we get results - it is not under our control.

On 15 August, the state government announced distribution of food packets — ration comprising of 5kg rice, 1 kg dal, 2kg potatoes, 0.5kg of turmeric and salt—- among all flood affected areas. However Bihar’s Disaster Management Department principal secretary Pratyaya Amrit admitted that, “due to bad weather in worst flood hit districts, air dropping of relief has become difficult and is a big challenge.”

Rikābagan̄ja, a road in Purnea district completely submerged in water. Image Credit: Girindranath Jha

After the rains slowed in Bihar, relief and support started to pour in from all communities, organisations and institutions. Many college institutions became a make-shift shelter with medical and food supplies. People have taken cover under the government offices and tents have been pitched on available dry lands. High-rise offices have opened their doors to commoners and highways have become a source for the residents to get instant food packages from passersby. The state government initiated community kitchens along the highways for the first time.

Shweta Singh, the mukhiya of Sakkadi village in Arrah district, Bihar, traveled to Darbhangha in Bihar with a group of BJP Mahila Mandal workers to distribute chuda (flattened rice), biscuits and jaggery.

People are forming living spaces in highways and whatever high points they can find. Tragedy is everywhere. When we went to give Chuda, many people kept coming back to us repeatedly. Maybe they feared that today they are getting food, tomorrow they may not; so they were trying to store as much as possible, she recalls.

Her team of seven women witnessed the havoc created by the floods first hand. The images of stagnated water, drowned schools with visible name plates to their credit, hunger, people squatting in groups along the small vegetation patches along the highways, and disarrayed children remain fresh in her memory.

They are getting fed properly in relief camps but you need to understand that the area is vast. How do we ensure that the relief reaches till the end of the remotest locations? The government, the local leaders — everybody wants to provide relief work but how do we make sure that corruption doesn't happen at the lower ranks? she questions.

Aadhar for future relief work

Shweta Singh traveled to Darbhangha with a group of BJP Mahila Mandal workers to distribute chuda (flattened rice), biscuits and jaggery.

Shweta advocates the usage of Aadhar to check corruption and ensure a smooth flow of distribution of relief material in the future. “Currently there are problems with Aadhar. I have seen this with pensions; those who are poor have no access and often face difficulties to get their pension.”

She explains that either their bank account numbers do not match with the pension documents or there are spelling errors in their own or parents’ names. Hence despite the government releasing the money, it doesn't reach the right people and gets blocked.

Aadhar is now making a difference. Everyone has an identity and a bank account now. The UIDAI will become a huge support for distribution of relief materials and will keep corruption in check, she adds.

Aadhar is not widely used for distribution of food and other relief material currently. Girindernath Jha, a resident of Purnea who runs the Chanka residency programme, however is sceptical about the usage of Aadhar.

“Aadhar and PDS can work but when you are in trouble and in situations such as these — you need immediate help! Even if you get money in the bank how will you visit the bank in a flood situation? How will I access the ATMs to get money? When the water recedes, what will I do with the money? I needed it at the time of the floods,” he says.

Inspecting the ongoing flood relief works and medical centres in Motihari.

He advocated for strengthening of the State Disaster Management and the presence of primary health care (PCH) centres which work round the clock in these flood prone areas. Further, additional PHC primary health care centres need to become active closer to the monsoon.

Aadhar and PDS is good but during crises you need access to family health centres immediately. You also need access to relief materials at a place safe from flood water, he adds.

Double-dealing is a concern

The BJP Mahila Mandal team faced immense trouble while procuring grain from local stores.

“In that area (Darbhanga), some people were also involved in black marketing. We went to pick up chuda for relief work and were told that it is not available. It might be true that the groceries got over, but when we offered a little more money, we got the items,” Shweta recalls.

Voicing a similar concern in Mathurapur village in Khagaria district, Mahesh Kumar who laments the soaring price of rations in his locality. The village had been warned about the upcoming flood and the local public busied themselves in preparation for the flood. He says,

Floods had already hit the neighbouring villages but my was untouched. We come to know only two-three days before about the impending flood situation; people who live within a 10-km radius inform us about the water level.
A family building temporary shelter using a tarpaulin sheet provided by Welthungerhilfe India in Rasiyari. Image Credit: @WHH_India

To prepare for the floods, villagers tend to store groceries, rations and other basic facilities in plastic bags and tie them to their roofs or other nearby high altitude blocks. “We try to build a makeshift home on top of the roofs and store essentials there. We go to mills to get wheat crushed; people who don’t have gas cylinders arrange for coal and firewood. There is no government provision to access food grain; and if we actually wait for ration from the government then we will die of hunger. We have to spend our own money and the shopkeepers loot us sometimes,” he adds.

A quick chat with locals reveal that hoarding and price rise are a common phenomenon experienced every year. With no checks, even those who dependent on government food packets and assistance face a multitude of problems. Corruption within the block administration and untimely delivery of relief material have been cited as a major hurdle.

We were providing relief materials till late evening and then we had to leave. We went to the State government offices and left the remaining relief material there for distribution. My driver told me, ‘These materials will not reach the needy. These people will take these items and keep it in their homes. I am sure of that, Shweta says.

However the government fails to recognise this as double-dealing. Hukumdev says, “Workers and labourers are taking money for shifting relief materials to homes and other places. They are affected by floods too, and if they don’t charge money for their labour, what will they eat?”

Responsibility needs to be shared

Devastating floods have become a norm in Bihar. While it is important to work towards prevention of an epidemic, it is equally important to work around the year towards preparedness and providing relief on ground during tough time.

Shweta adds, “As providers of relief material we can only give the items but it is the responsibility of the ground workers to make sure that the items reach the needy. Until the ground workers don't do their work with loyalty and honesty, nothing can happen.”

With inputs from Arjun.

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