How WhatsApp and Facebook are driving flood relief in remote Bihar

19th Sep 2017
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Many people living in remote locations took refuge in Facebook and WhatsApp, and connected with support groups to gain access to relief material in the aftermath of floods.

A villager carries grains on a banana raft as he shifts from a flooded village in Araria district of Bihar. Image Credit: Milaap

Floods — the word often invokes images of houses submerged in water, destruction of agricultural land, distraught men, women and children; crying babies and howling of despair. The media, especially the broadcast industry, thrives on highlighting the misery created by nature’s wrath.

While one cannot deny that the above mentioned incidents are indeed caused by floods, but, in reality they hardly capture the scale of the destruction caused.

Facebook and WhatsApp to the rescue

Hostellers from Vidya Vihar Institute of Technology, Purnea, packed 1500 packets of Chuda (flattened rice) and Gur (Jaggery) to distribute in nearby flood relief camps. Image Credit: Vidya Vihar Institute of Technology.

Residents living away from the city complain about the second-hand treatment meted out to them by the government, media and sometimes, by those providing relief.

“The media highlights only the problems of those who live near the city. Places which are located even 50 km away from the cities fails to get noticed. Even the government, at times, fails to reach the remotest locations. Till last week Debinagar village, Srinagar block, had zero access to relief material and people had problems to eat even one meal a day. They don't have gas or a chulha,” Girindranath Jha, a resident of Purnea who runs the Chanka residency programme, complains.

Recognising the problems, many youth independently formed support groups and actively participated in relief work. Many people living in remote locations took refuge in Facebook and WhatsApp, and connected with support groups. The youth in turn reached out to their immediate family and friends, nearby city folk and the larger public through social media for help and access to relief material.

People like us read, travel, write - but our limit is Facebook. There are a lot of places where help still does not reach, he adds.
Vidya Vihar Group distributed packaged water and bread as immediate relief at Champawati, Balutol and Kishan toli. Image Credit: Vidya Vihar Institute of Technology.

Economics of floods

The economics and damages caused by the floods are drowned by the visuals of the floods, and weeping, distraught villagers. What remains after the floods are damaged crops and destroyed paddy. While compensation is evaluated and promised by the government, residents complain that the payments are negligible and often delayed.

Aerial view of the affected areas in Purnea.

In 2015, Girindranath's corn fields were destroyed by a cyclone and he was promised a compensation of Rs 16,000. Three years later, he still hasn't received his payment. “I am empowered and I can earn a living by doing other work. But what about millions of others who do not have any other way out and are depending purely on compensation?” he questions.

Vast expanses of land and tonnes of crops get destroyed by the floods. An acre of land requires a minimum expenditure of Rs 15,000 for cultivation with an expected income of Rs 30,000. Further, constructing a house costs about Rs 50,000. Hence, a small scale farmer stands to lose a minimum of Rs 5 lakh each year due to floods.

Highways in Purnea is submerged in floods. Image Credit: Girindranath Jha.
People view loss as poetic. You see an image of floods and get emotional. But we need to engage in economics of the floods. The losses amount to thousands of crores. Everything depends on money, whether it’s building a house and cultivating the land, Girindranath says.

While compensation can never truly account for all the losses incurred by a family, residents maintain that a long-term solution to this devastating cycle is urgently needed.

Floods are intense

Bihar faces a cycle of floods — a small flood every five years; a medium ranged flood every 10 years; and once in every 30 years, the state faces disastrous floods. The eastern state is currently facing its worst floods in decades affecting 1.3 crore people across 20 of its 38 districts. The death toll has crossed 500, 7000 villages have witnessed severe damage and more than 150 animals have perished. The last devastating floods of this scale occurred in 1987.

Bihar faces a cycle of floods — a small flood every five years; a medium ranged flood every 10 years; and once in every 30 years, the state faces disastrous floods. Image Credit: Girindranath Jha.

As 8,54,936 people seek refuge in government run shelters and relief camps, questions needs to be raised about the preparedness of the state to deal with these natural calamities, year after year.

When flood waters come, roads and bridges are destroyed. The force of the disaster is similar to earthquakes. We don’t know where the river breaks from. Everything is either destroyed or drowned, says Hukumdev Narayan Yadav, Member of Parliament representing the Madhubani constituency.

“We can never say for sure where an embankment will break. The government can’t predict such things. We would assume the embankment is weak at a certain place, but it breaks at the other side where people were feeling safe. The force of water that gushes out when embankments break during the rainy season is massive, the water spreads fast. Only the people who live there know how disastrous such situations can get — houses, people, and cattle drown. It is beyond human when such things happen,” he adds.

Given the yearly cycle of floods, people living in these areas remain vigilant.

Residents often build houses of tin, because they don’t cost much. They build their lives around the natural calamity. But this time the water was more than they expected. Hence, even the safety net that they had built was of no use, Girindranath adds.
Submerged houses remain a common sight in across Purnea. Image Credit: Girindranath Jha.

Focus on health

The districts that are affected the most and record the highest number of deaths — Araria and Purnea — are distant from the main city. Residents complained that the dead carcasses continued to float freely in the water for a week.

As the flood water begins to recede, the challenge of health and sanitation looms large in the state. The primary health centres become the nodal point for medicine distribution and vaccinations. However, the residents claim that the centres at remote locations fail to store enough medicines.

Flood-affected villagers carrying an ill relative on a charpoy while wading through waist-deep waters in Gopalganj. Image Credit: Milaap.
We have asked the government to start putting bleaching powder in places already submerged in water, says Shweta Singh, the mukhiya of Sakkadi village in Arrah district, Bihar, who witnessed the “tragedy” firsthand when she travelled to Darbhangha to help with ongoing relief work.

She says that general medicines are not reaching the general public.

“We need to strengthen the area’s Primary Health centres and keep a stock of medicines ready to be disbursed as soon on any sign of trouble. We need to be on high alert throughout the year,” Girindernath says.

Since most villages are located in close proximity to the block panchayats, he advocates the usage of block against zilla headquarters for disbursement of relief material.

(With inputs from Arjun.)


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