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Long after floods, Indian villagers can only say rats

Untouchables' rice paddies are clogged with sand a year after a monsoon disaster; officials pass the rupee.

May 25, 2008|Matthew Rosenberg | Associated Press

DEVNA, INDIA — Chaitu Sadai stopped eating rats two decades ago. But with his village's rice paddies still buried under a thick blanket of silt washed up by last summer's devastating monsoon, he's thinking it may be time to start again.

"We have no food, we have no work. The people say they don't know what to do," said the gaunt 70-year-old. "I know we can eat rat."

Sadai and his fellow villagers are at the bottom of India's elaborate caste system, which divides people into hundreds of social tiers defined by ethnicity, class, history and livelihood. They are outcasts, so low that eating rat is in their tradition.

The monsoons are often said to be one of India's few truly democratic forces, striking equally the rich and poor, high caste and low. But across this broad plain below the towering Himalayas, the fiction in that conceit is clear.

The villages of landowners or politically connected castes have concrete houses sitting behind well-maintained dikes. Their settlements may be inundated but buildings withstand the assault.

It's the mud huts of the lowly that are washed away when rising waters rush through shoddy embankments, as they did last summer during floods that killed more than 2,200 people in South Asia and left 31 million others homeless, short of food or with other problems. The United Nations called the floods the worst in living memory.

The start of this year's monsoon season is only two months away and much of the damage wrought by last year's calamity remains. In Devna, nothing has been done to restore the village's fields or plug a gap that stretches across 100 yards of the embankment needed to prevent new floodwaters from pouring in.

After the floods, Indian officials pledged millions of dollars to help rebuild. But many of the worst-hit places were bypassed for reasons including caste-based politics, rigid bureaucracy and corruption. Disaster officials say they can't say precisely how much money was pledged or distributed to flood victims.

Devna, a collection of mud and thatch huts that is a day's drive down crumbling roads from the nearest airport, is one of the forgotten hamlets.

"For five years the hole" -- in the embankment -- "has gotten bigger and the floods have gotten worse," Sadai said. "Every year the monsoon takes away more of the village." But no reconstruction has been done.

Sadai, like all the people in Devna, is a dalit, a person whose status is even below the caste system, an outcast in Indian society. Before the floods, the village, like tens of thousands across India, had almost no services -- no piped water, no electricity, no phones.

After the waters began receding in late August, the villagers found "sand had poured out from the river with the water. When the water went away, we saw it left the [rice] paddies buried" along with many houses, said Hiram Prasad Paswan, 45.

Some tried to dig out. But they soon realized that their homes and the fields they had worked -- the land is owned by members of a higher caste who live elsewhere -- were buried under more than a yard of mud. Digging wasn't an option.

The $4 and 55 pounds of wheat in government disaster aid given to each of Devna's 150 families quickly ran out, leaving the villagers to subsist on a single daily meal of rice and lentils provided by an Indian aid group.

It's not that India, a country of 1.1 billion, lacks the money to help people like Devna's residents. The country's economy has been growing by more than 8% a year, and tax revenue was expected to be up by about 24% in the fiscal year that ended in March.

Attempting to find out why no money has reached the village means untangling the overlapping, conflicting and amorphous responsibilities of myriad ministries and departments that make up India's notoriously unresponsive bureaucracy.

Who is supposed to fix Devna's embankment? Federal officials say it is the states' responsibility, in this case Bihar, one of India's poorest states. Bihar officials refer questions from one department to another. Disaster Management says call Public Health Engineering, which passes the query along to Water Resources, which says it's Disaster Management's problem.

That is not to say money is going unspent. There are villages near Devna, ones closer to the main road, that bear only faint reminders of the floods, such as water marks high on the cement walls of the sturdy homes.

But these fortunate villages are mostly home to higher castes. For example, not far from Devna sits Chchwa, whose citizens belong to the land-owning Yadav caste, which has important political connections -- one of Bihar's most powerful politicians, national Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, is a member of the caste.

When there is a disaster, "they have connections. They get help," said Gujreet Singh, an engineer with the international aid group Oxfam, which has done flood relief in Bihar.

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