As the ravenous waters of the River Kosi submerged her village, Nanhki Devi, 30, lost track of her husband and two of her eldest children - a ten-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. She remembers that scramble to safety well, as the panic-stricken family desperately tried to outrun the rising levels of water that was fast engulfing their village, Janakinagar, in Purnia. Nanhki, tightly gripping her three under-fives, waded her way to the relief camp in Purnia. But her husband, who carved statues for a living, and two children are untraceable. Every day, Nankhi Devi waits for news of them, very nervous, very scared and with growing hopelessness. At the moment, her only worldly possessions are a few clothes and some utensils.
On August 18, due to a breach in the embankment at Kusaha in Nepal, the River Kosi changed its course after nearly 200 hundred years, submerging several districts of Bihar and forever changing the lives of millions in the state. In the worst affected districts of Supaul, Araria, Saharsa, Madhepura, Purnia, Katihar, parts of Khagaria and the northern areas of Bhagalpur, distraught, emaciated people are still drifting into the relief camps set up by the government.
As is invariably the case, women and children have been the worst victims of these floods. Today there are women left utterly destitute, camping at railway stations. Most of them have lost everything they have ever had to the waters and are reduced to standing for hours in queues for the meagre relief that comes their way.
There are women who have given birth in the most trying circumstances or died in labor because they could not access timely medical care. Take the case of Sunita Devi, a resident of Majruha (Triveniganj) in Saharsa district. She passed away after a very painful and horrific three days of labour. Uncared for at the Sadar Hospital in Saharsa, Sunita, in her late twenties, breathed her last even as those who could have made a difference chose to look the other way. Her husband, Ganesh Yadav, too, reportedly, abandoned her when he saw that her condition was deteriorating rapidly.
On the midnight of September 5, Sunita was spotted moving towards the labor room with heavy feet, her sari drenched in blood. According to sources, she was not even given a bed at the hospital and died of the neglect. She had already lost her home and two children in the catastrophic floods. Like Sunita there are many women in full-term pregnancy being turned away from teeming government hospitals without any medical attention or aid.
When the flood waters began submerging Jargaon village in Madhepura district, its 300 residents took refuge on the roof of a local primary school. And that is where Anita Devi, who is in her early twenties, recently gave birth to a girl. It was only 15 days later that rescue parties came to the village, and even then Anita and her husband chose to stay put along with their newborn, saying that it was better to remain there as they had no other place to go to. "Life, as such, holds little hope for us," commented Anita.
There are many in this flood-ravaged region who would echo her words. Every woman here has a story of loss and great physical and mental suffering. Many young mothers, suckling their newborns, remain hungry and bereft of medical aid. They have no option but to stand in queues for relief material within a few hours of childbirth. For those who have been separated from their families, particularly their children, there is no one to provide emotional or moral support. They bear their individual burdens alone.
As if all this tragedy was not enough, women here have had to face sexual harassment and molestation at the hands of those whose role is to provide a modicum of security - like the police. Cases of sexual assault involving strangers, and even boatmen, have come to light. On September 7, an Assistant Sub-Inspector K.K. Chaudhary was arrested for molesting a woman in a relief camp at Araria. He has been suspended with immediate effect and an FIR has been filed against him. Ironically, Chaudhary was responsible for extending assistance and protection to the flood-hit people. According to police sources, he was inebriated when he allegedly attacked the woman who had taken shelter at a camp.
State police spokesperson, Anil Kumar Sinha, when asked about this incident hastened to say that now woman officers are being deployed in the camps. But even he was forced to admit that, "irrespective of gender it is the responsibility of police personnel to provide security to the flood-affected people."
Many women are undertaking long journeys from their villages to cities like Patna because they live in fear that they and their dependents would have to face such assault if they stayed back in the camps. But they are equally vulnerable in their new setting, absolutely clueless about what they should do to get on with their lives.
Sumita Devi, a resident of Madhepura, was recently spotted at the Patna Junction railway station waiting for her husband and four children who she said had been left behind. "I was rescued by some people in a boat. As there was place only for one person, my family decided that I should go first and the others would join me later. Little did I know that it would take so long," she said. Sumita, who is in her late thirties, is desperately awaiting news of her family. "When we are together again, we will decide what we should do. Our home and belongings have all been lost forever in this flood," she said.
Although relief work is now in full swing - with the assistance of the defence forces and a number of national and international agencies as well as corporate houses that have pitched in to provide relief in terms of food, clothing, medicine, footwear, utensils and other essential items - the millions left stranded by the hungry tide are likely to spend the next six months, at the very least, in state-run relief camps. Like the River Kosi, it will take a long, long while before their lives assume normalcy once again.
The authorities will, of course, rebuild homes, roads and river embankments, but how can they redress the immeasurable loss of a lost child or bring back a lost way of life? Like Anita Devi had put it, "Life, as such, holds little hope for us."