15 million now homeless in Bengal floods

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The Independent Online

Rioting broke out in villages in the Indian state of West Bengal yesterday when famished victims of the worst floods in 30 years fought over food.

Rioting broke out in villages in the Indian state of West Bengal yesterday when famished victims of the worst floods in 30 years fought over food.

Late-monsoon rains have devastated parts of this impoverished, densely populated part of north-east India for a week, leaving at least 350 people dead and forcing 15 million from their homes.

As the waters rose the authorities were forced to release huge amounts of water from dams and barrages in danger of being destroyed. In the process more villages were washed away and the north of the state cut off from the south.

Floodwaters have poured into parts of neighbouring Bangladesh, killing at least 20 people and making an estimated 400,000 people there homeless.

The worst-hit area in West Bengal is Murshidabad, a low- lying region on the floodplain of the Ganges that has been cut off from the rest of the state for most of the past week.

Thousands of villagers have taken refuge in stranded trains, moving in with their cattle and other livestock and cooking and sleeping inside. All surface transport in the region has been paralysed. Army helicopters had to wait for days before parachuting emergency supplies to the victims because of the ferocious rain and strong winds.

Many of the victims died when walls or whole buildings collapsed under the pressure of water, crushing those close by. There were also said to have been many deaths from snakebites.

West Bengal's calamitous week came as the state was locked in conflict with the Indian central government. The 86-year-old communist Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, who has ruled the state since 1977, was accused by his regional political rival, a populist, Mamata Banerjee, of losing control of law and order. Ms Banerjee's party is a member of the ruling coalition at the centre, and the central government obliquely threatened to impose direct rule unless the position improved.

Ms Banerjee made what political capital she could out of the rains, prompting the general manager of the Eastern Railways (Ms Banerjee is Railways Minister) to describe the flood disaster as man-made, because the state government had failed to keep the water in dams and barrages at a prudent level.

Yesterday the floods were easing as the weather improved but the difficulty in getting relief to victims of the monsoon brought law-and-order problems of its own.

Hungry villagers attacked a police station in the village of Debagram in their efforts to reach the food inside and officers fired their guns in the air to disperse them.

In another village, Guptipara, there were reports that mobs beat up railway officials and plundered relief supplies being transported by train.

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