In political circles, not much weight is attached to floods and resulting miseries. Immediately following one of the worst floods in the country, in 1968, the then minister for irrigation at the Center Dr. K. L. Rao left for the USA to attend a seminar on irrigation. In the Lok Sabha, H.N Mukherji expressed surprise over his departure (18th November 1968) saying that he left the country when it needed him most, and that the additional knowledge he might acquire from this particular trip would not be of much benefit to the country.
More recently, in 1998 the ruling party in Bihar was busy organizing the Ekjutata (Solidarity) Rally in Patna to fight communalism. This could have very easily been postponed to a later date as there was no emergency on the communal front. But strange are the ways of politicians. Writes Ranjit Sinha, "Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav chose not to visit flood hit areas because probably that would have shifted the focus to the natural calamity, which in turn, could have resulted in lesser number of persons turning out for the Patna Rally. Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav had appealed to the brave people of Bihar not to get upset by these little inconveniences as the country was faced with greater and more serious problems like communalism and price-rise" (Deccan Herald August 28-1998).
The army is often deployed to look after the rescue and relief operations. Army personnel, being strangers to the flood hit area, have to depend heavily on the civilian authorities for their movements. During the floods of 1982, it was reported from Orissa: "The army units at Bhuwaneshwar sector had to wait for long in the morning almost everyday before the civil guide would leisurely arrive at the Territorial Army flood control room. It was later found that the state Government did not even have a list of local level officers who were to go as civil guides. The search for an officer to go as civil guide would begin in the morning every day. The Additional district magistrate charged with liaison between army and the state Government would go from house to house to persuade one or another officer to agree to do the job. Naturally, the man who was thus persuaded would take his own time in getting ready and reaching the army control room. By the time the army unit with the civil guide drove to the point where the motor boats could be launched a good part of the day was past and the coverage could not go beyond a few villages on the day (EPW-Oct.23-1982)."
The matter of relief
While on the subject of helicopters, there is one other madness I should point to. The machines flying to drop food are often accompanied by some leader or the other. For every flying leader on board, food packets worth 80 kilograms have to be off loaded. Do the leaders not know this and the situation on the ground? Their stooges take pride in the air ride and proclaim such excitement when they return. What good can come of their observance of these floods every year?
The responsibility of providing relief in the wake of natural calamities including floods primarily rests with the concerned state governments. The Government of India supplements the efforts of the state governments where necessary by providing logistic and financial support. For this purpose, the state governments are allocated resources from a Calamity Relief Fund (CRF), which is contributed to by the Government of India and the state governments in the ratio of 3:1. Additional assistance is also provided to the states in the event of an especially severe calamity from the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF).
In 2003, as per the reports available from the Bihar government, a corpus fund of Rs.108.97 crores was available in the CRF with the state in August 2003. Out of this money, only Rs.19 Crores were released from the fund for carrying out relief operations in the state till August. Yet, the Rabri Devi government in Bihar was flaying the Central Government for not helping the state with the requisite money. Writes Anirban Guha Roy, "the state government is yet to get the central assistance of Rs.112 Crore allotted in 2002-03 under special package for relief distribution in the flood affected districts. The Central Government has not released the money as it has taken the stand that the state Government should first spend the CRF money before it seeks the release of more central funds (Hindustan Times-Patna, 13th September 2003)." Obviously, the state government was not in a position to give the utilization certificates for the funds given to it earlier, and wanted the flood victims to believe that the Central government was responsible for their neglect.
Fortunately, this year, the Central Government did not insist on accounts and utilization reports from last year, and it appears some money has come to Bihar without much of a hassle. How long this enthusiasm of the Central government will continue is to be seen. How much of this relief reaches the people, additionally, is a different story altogether.
Imagine, the word 'relief' was not known to the people in Saharsa till 1936, and when it reached them in 1938 for the first time, many felt that such handouts led to their moral degradation and tended to make them beggars. There were many middle class families, especially the widows, who did not want to take relief although their situation was no less pathetic than that of many others. I have myself observed, during the Burdwan floods of 1978, elderly people queueing up for Khichri with tears in their eyes; something which they would have normally distributed to the suffering people was now being given to them. Many of them fell out of the queue and refused the assistance although they needed it.
That was then. These days, during the rainy season, everybody is busy harvesting the fourth crop of the year: flood relief funds.