When a national highway becomes home for hundreds

By Imran Khan, IANS

Darbhanga(Bihar) : Munheshwar Jha and Sambhu Singh are just two among hundreds of people in flood-ravaged Bihar’s Darbhanga district who have been living on the national highway for days, endlessly awaiting relief.

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There is nothing left to eat except a little dry chura (beaten rice). They do not know when the wait will end.

“We have no food left after our stock of sattu (roasted gram powder) provided by a voluntary organisation ended Monday. For the last nine days we have been living dangerously on the highway, hoping to get some relief,” Jha said.

“Two days ago, a few food packets were dropped by air force helicopters. But it was impossible for old people like us to catch them as hundreds of hungry people fought with each other for it,” a frail Jha said.

Both Jha and Singh are proud to belong to upper castes in caste-ridden Bihar. But they are now forced to share space with Dalits and other backward caste people on the highway – their common open-air house.

“All sections of society … from landowners to landless labourers, the poor and the rich are forced to take shelter on the national highway. Nature’s fury hardly discriminates,” said Narayan Chowdhary, a schoolteacher.

A few feet away, Devki Devi is helpless as she sees her two-year-old child cry of hunger. “What can I do when my baby cries? There is nothing left,” says Devki, in her twenties.

A tattered polythene hut is the only shelter she has. “Luckily I collected some polythene before I fled home after floodwaters entered my village. It helped me shelter my children,” she said.

Devki, whose husband is a labourer in Delhi, has so far been surviving on some chura and sattu given by her neighbours on the highway.

The floods in Darbhanga have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, now living either on the highway or on embankments without food and water for days.

More immediate than hunger and thirst is the problem of lack of toilets, especially for women. “There is water everywhere on both sides of the roads. There is hardly any space for us to go the toilet. It is like hell,” rued Aarti Devi, who works at a mother-and-child-care centre.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Bihar have been displaced and are without essentials including medicines for days in the floods the UN says are the “worst in living memory”.

District officials admitted that large areas were faced with acute shortage of food, drinking water and health and sanitation facilities. At several places, the food scarcity had sparked riot-like situations as people fought over food packets.

According to the preliminary estimate made by the disaster management department over 12 million people spread over 19 of Bihar’s 38 districts are affected by floods. The disaster has claimed 91 lives so far.