For them, dealing with floods is an annual affair. What’s worse, there is no way out

This year, flood fury battered many ‘smart cities’ across India. Horrific pictures and videos of inundation and infrastructure-collapse shared on social media platforms and shown on news channels left us in shock and awe. However, there are many who deal with floods year after year, but their stories never become headlines and hashtags. When a fellow-journalist was visiting a few flood-hit villages in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, I tagged along to listen to the stories of these villagers. A first-person account

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Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh

I met Bramhadin, 11, on an unusually humid afternoon in August when I visited Sanaya village along with a friend, also a journalist. The village is in Barabanki district, about 28 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. He was sitting on a charpoy, his temporary ‘house’, and was trying very hard to shield himself from the sun. But the black tarpaulin sheet that was carelessly flung over the charpoy, and doubled up as the roof of his ‘house’, wasn’t helping much. He was holding a steel tiffin box in his hand. When I asked him if he would share his lunch with me, he hesitated. “Kuch khaas nahi hai,” he said. (Nothing interesting).

He opened it. There was some rice mixed with watery daal (black lentils) in it. His mother had prepared this on the roof of their house — his real home. There was waist-deep water in his house. When the Ghaghara river — the largest tributary of the Ganges by volume — started swelling, the villagers had very little time to shift some very basic belongings onto the roof of their houses and send their children and the elderly to the embankment — a wall or bank of earth or stone built to prevent a river flooding an area — in boats. Bramhadin had not seen his mother for five days, but she would diligently send lunch and dinner for him and his grandfather. When I started clicking his pictures, few more kids, who were playing close by, joined him. Giggling, they all huddled for the picture … no masks, no physical distancing even though coronavirus cases were going up at an alarming rate in the state during that time.

Bramhadin (right) having his lunch. Image: Swati Subhedar

For these villagers living in Barabanki, dealing with floods is an annual affair. Many villages in Barabanki, and the neighbouring districts, get flooded every year after Nepal — which shares its border with the state — releases water from its barrages into the rivers, or when it rains heavily in the mountain regions, said some of the villagers we met in Sanaya village.  

In the first week of August, as many as 666 villages were affected by the floods across 17 districts of Uttar Pradesh, and major rivers were flowing above the danger mark. When we visited some villages in Barabanki on August 4, the situation was quite grim.

We left Lucknow at around 11 am, wearing our masks, carrying bottles of sanitizers, and constantly reminding ourselves to maintain physical distancing. I was looking forward to this reporting trip as I was stepping out of my house after being locked up for five months because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown. The first three-week-long lockdown was announced on March 24. It was extended twice and finally ended in May. Though the country gradually started ‘unlocking’ itself in June, the coronavirus cases were going up at an alarming rate. I was a little apprehensive about this visit, but I tagged along because I was desperate to step out of the house.

The usual buzz was missing on the roads, but once we hit the highway connecting Lucknow and Barabanki, we were surprised to see police vehicles lined up on the highway and there was nakabandi at each checkpoint. At first, we thought they would stop up and ask us to go back, but later we realized that security was beefed up for the mega event lined up the next day (August 5).  

Prime minister Narendra Modi, state chief minister Yogi Adityanath and other important dignitaries were expected in Ayodhya — about 100 kms from Barabanki — for the Ram temple bhoomi pujan. Luckily, the police were stopping only the four-wheelers, so we could quickly move towards our destination — Tikait Nagar town in Barabanki district. The only hindrance, however, was the unbearable humidity. We had to take breaks in between to relax a bit.

The temporary accommodation. Image: Swati Subhedar

When we entered Tikait Nagar, there was no hint of any pandemic. People were not wearing masks and the markets in the town were buzzing with activities. We felt as if these people in small towns and villages were living in some other world where there was no threat of the virus. When we started nearing the embankment, people living in the villages seemed more worried about the constantly rising water level in the river and less about the pandemic.

When we reached the embankment at around 1 pm, we met a few people who were sitting beneath a tree facing the ‘river’. Only after I saw some submerged boats did I realize that it was, in fact, the flood water that had reached all the way to the embankment, washing away many small villages on its way. These men directed us to the spot where displaced people were staying in temporary accommodations. The government provides tarpaulin sheets to people so that they can stay on the embankment for a few days, not very far from their homes. It probably saves the government the hassle of providing them temporary accommodation or relocating and rehabilitating them.

We drove along the embankment for half an hour. Soon, we started spotting the temporary shelters. Many charpoys were lined up and families, mostly elderly and children, were sitting looking hopelessly at the gradually, but constantly, rising floodwater.

The fields were submerged in flood water. Pic: Swati Subhedar

We parked our bike and went to a spot where some boats were anchored and the boatmen were resting. A few men were anxiously waiting for the boats to arrive. I stepped into the water. It was cold. I splashed some water on my face and regretted it instantly. It was flood water and I was on an assignment. Full of guilt, I turned around. The men gathered there had been waiting for two hours. Some wanted to go home, the others were waiting for their belongings that were shipped from across. “How deep is it?” I asked to no one in particular. “kaafi gehra hai. Hamare ghar doob gaye,” said a man. (Quite deep. Our houses are submerged).

Mohan Singh, a farmer, pointed at his submerged fields. “This happens every year. When Nepal releases water from its barrages, our villages and fields get flooded. My half year’s earnings got washed away. I was depending on this crop,” he said. Two other men standing in the group, also farmers, pointed at their fields. I could see only water. When asked if they ever considered moving from here as the floods had become an annual affair, there was silence. “kaha jayenge. Hamare ghar aur khet yahi hai.” said Mohan Singh. (Where do we go? Our homes and fields are here). They said they were stuck. “The government is not finding a permanent solution to our flood problem even though the tragedy hits us annually. The authorities are not giving us alternate accommodation. What’s worse, they don’t even compensate us for crop losses. Every year, each farmer loses one entire crop, which is equivalent to half a year’s earning,” said Puttan Lal, another farmer.

We went to meet some people who were sitting on the charpoys. I met Bramhadin here. He was having his lunch. He pointed at his home where his parents were living, and his school that was completely submerged. When asked if he missed going to the school, he said: “School to kab se band hai corona ki wajah se. Jyada nahi miss karta kyoki jyada kuch hota nahi hai school me. Ek hi teacher hai”. (The school is closed because of corona. I don’t miss my school much. Nothing much happens as there is just one teacher). When asked if he remembered what he studied the previous year, he thought for a while and said, “no”. When I asked if he knows about coronavirus, he said: “Some people came and said we have to cover our mouth, wash our hands and not sit very close to each other,” said Bramhadin.

There was water everywhere, but the villagers were not getting clean drinking water. Image: Swati Subhedar

“We are not getting clean water to drink. How do we wash our hands regularly?” asked one elderly gentleman sitting close by. “Many journalists and officers come here. You people at least talk to us. The government officials don’t even step down from their cars,” he added.

It was 3 pm. I could feel my skin burning. The humidity was sapping my energy. I had always associated floods with inundation. This flood-situation was different. On one hand, the water level was gradually rising, on the other, the extreme humidity was making people sick.

Little Seema, all of five, was quietly sitting on a charpoy close by. When I went to talk to her, her grandfather joined us. He told me about the snakes that pop up at night, and how badly the children were suffering because of humidity and mosquitoes. Not many women were around as they had to stay back. So, mostly, it was these elderly gentlemen who had to look after the kids. Seema’s five siblings were playing close by.

I asked Seema’s grandfather if he was aware that a huge temple was being built not very far from there, he nodded. When I told him that a budget of Rs 500 crore has been allotted for the construction of an airport in the temple town of Ayodhya, he said: “We don’t  mind that, but the government should also set aside some budget for us so that we don’t have to go through this year after year.”

Seema will probably grow up dealing with floods year after year. Image: Swati Subhedar

My colleague was still interviewing some people, so I went and sat next to Seema. The tarpaulin sheet wasn’t helping much, but I felt better here. I wanted to throw my mask away. I took out my fancy copper water bottle to drink water. Seema curiously peeped inside my bag. I kept the bottle inside. Both of us were looking at the muddy water in front of us. While I understood what this tragedy meant for the people living here, god knows what was going on in that little girl’s mind. In all likelihood, she will grow up dealing with floods year after year. Just then, a boat arrived from across. A bicycle was unloaded with great difficulty and while doing so a man lost his balance and fell into the water. Seema found it to be funny and giggled.

Seema, Bramhadin, and the other kids waved at us while we were leaving. While returning, we took a shortcut so that we could reach Lucknow faster. We crossed many submerged fields. On one muddy stretch, a dog was standing in the middle of the road. When we neared, we realized it was a pup (baby fox). It was lost. Probably its home was inundated too. When I reached home, I realized my skin was not just tanned, it was peeling off from my nose and forehead. I took a shower, switched the AC on, and while applying aloe vera gel on my burnt skin, I thought about Seema, Bramhadin, and the other kids who have no option but to sit in that brutal heat all day long.

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Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

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