Monday, May 12, 2008

Life on an Indian levee

Some 400 families live on the levee
Sixty-year-old Jugal Ram has been living on a levee for more than 25 years in the northern Indian state of Bihar.

"Life has been a cruel joke for me," he says, despairingly.

The 160km (100-mile) levee, or embankment, in Fatehabad was built more than 100 years ago by British rulers to check floods.

Displaced by a devastating flood in July 1983, Jugal Ram put up a one-room thatched hut on the three-kilometre stretch of the levee on the Narayani Gandak river.

The waters have still not receded in this landlocked village in Bihar's floodplains. Every monsoon, rains replenish the clogged water.

So the levee has become Mr Ram's permanent address.

He has seen births, marriages and even deaths in his family while living here.

"Everything in my life has happened here. It's been the only place where we've been struggling with life and I don't see a way out," he says.

"Life has been a real hell - it's full of misery and a burden."

Like Mr Ram, 400 other families live cheek-by-jowl in their one-room dwellings on both flanks of the levee located on the outskirts of their village.

No option

All are landless farm workers who have received no government help despite being displaced by floods.

The 1983 floods were so devastating that they submerged the villages of Balirampur, Suhagpur, Jagde, Chakmiri and parts of Fatehabad where Mr Ram comes from.

With their homes destroyed and flood waters clogging the village, the poor villagers had no option but to take shelter on the levee.

Jugal Ram
Mr Ram has seen births, weddings and deaths on the embankment

And life since then has been a struggle.

Most of them survive on one meal a day of cooked rice or a few rotis and as a result, almost all their children are malnourished and diseased. And the children here have never been to school.

"Two square meals a day is a dream for us. When we have nothing to eat, how can we think of sending our children to school?" asks Chalitra Ram, Jugal Ram's son.

Chalitra Ram and his brother, Pavitra Ram, were both born on the levee. So were their children.

"This levee has been our lifeline. It's here we're surviving otherwise we'd have died long ago," says Pavitra Ram.

Each year floods cause immense damage to human lives, cattle, crops and infrastructure in northern Bihar - affecting about 20 districts, 10,000 villages and more than 21 million people.


The 2007 floods were considered among the worst in recent times.

Officials say they have chalked out a policy for people displaced by the floods.

But the 400 families living on the levee say they have not seen a government official in the last 25 years.

"Except those volunteers who come to administer polio drops to our children, no one has visited us," says Neera Devi.

Many others say they feel they have been abandoned.

"We have nothing to survive on. No one takes care of us. We are very poor people," says Umesh Pandey.

He works as a farm labourer earning 60 rupees ($1.50) a day. But work is not always available.

"For half the year we do not get employment and are near starvation," he says.

Though the residents of the levee have ration cards issued by the government and their names are enrolled in the election list, they are among India's most neglected and marginalised people.

Crime infested

Fatehabad is a remote village where the only symbols of modernity are two recently installed mobile telephone towers.

The villagers say they have never been visited by a government official

The nearest police station and a primary health centre are 10km (six miles) away but crime is so high in the area that policemen do not dare to cross the levee even during the day.

"Criminals from across the river often come to kill, loot and rape our women. We're at the mercy of God," says another resident, Kameshwar Singh.

Mr Singh says he has contemplated suicide by drowning in the river water since it is the main source of his misery.

The residents of the levee say recently they have been asked by the state irrigation department to move out.

"We have registered our protest. We have asked the district magistrate to first provide us with alternative land and rehabilitate us," says village head Geeta Kumari.

She says the authorities have assured her that they will be rehabilitated soon.

"Otherwise I will sit in protest before his office," she says.

The state's chief minister has also asked one of his ministers to look into the matter and help the displaced people of Fatehabad.

But those living on the levee harbour little hope.

"We've been hearing such assurances for the last 25 years. They have no meaning for us. It is our fate, the fate of the displaced poor," says a pensive Jugal Ram.

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