Indian villagers desperate as floods spread

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It is a landscape of despair. The carcasses of dead animals lie adrift in the flood water, rotting and stinking. Entire villages in one of India’s poorest states have been washed away and millions of people have been forced from their homes by the worst flooding in the region for 50 years.

One aerial photograph showed a train station - seemingly the only piece of land above water for miles in all directions - onto which countless people were crowded.

India’s prime minister flew over the disaster zone in the eastern state of Bihar on Thursday and has declared the situation, a “national calamity” He has ordered £100m in emergency relief.

The official death toll stood tonight at 55 but that number is expected to rise sharply as aid workers reach all the affected areas. One aid group believes that the death toll could reach 2,000. An estimated 2 million people have already been forced from their homes. Troops dispatched to the worst hit areas have already helped more than 120,000 people evacuate to emergency camps as fears grow that swollen rivers will continue to overflow.

The disaster has struck in a region notorious as one of India’s most impoverished and densely crowded. The flooding happened after the Kosi River burst a dam upstream in Nepal and unleashed huge waves of water that tore south and smashed the mud embankments located in Bihar.

In the broken, battered Bihari communities many villagers have been saying prayers and sacrificing goats in order to appease the Kosi, known by local people as the “river of sorrow” as a result of its regular flooding and ability to change course. In this instance the force of the water breaking the dam in Nepal caused the river to move 75 miles east of its original bed. “We are praying to the river goddess and offering her blood since only she can help us”, one woman in the Supaul district - one of the worst affected - told a local newspaper.

The images produced by the disaster are remarkable. The landscape that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew over on Thursday is a landscape of near-helplessness. Some reports claim that half the state is under water. Countless thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed.

Amid this horror, people are surviving in the most wretched conditions and aid agencies have warned of the threat of disease from dirty water, polluted by rotting animal carcasses. Brahmdeo Yadav, a villager in the Saharsa area, said their community had in effect been reduced to a tiny island amid a landscape of dirty, surging flood water. “We have nothing to cook with so we are soaking this grain in the filth in order to survive,” he told the Agence France-Presse.

While Mr Singh, who visited the disaster area with the Congress Party head, Sonia Gandhi, has promised a considerable sum of aid for the flood-struck areas, there are some claims that he is not doing enough. Pappu Yadav, a jailed but influential MP from northern Bihar, wrote to Mr Singh threatening to go on hunger strike if relief did reach those in need by tonight. “I will not have any food and water from 30 August if people of these districts do not get a full meal and are not evacuated to safer places,” he said.

In the immediate-term aid agencies are scrambling to respond to the floods by distributing food, clothes and medicine. Around 100 temporary relief camps have been set up for the 120,000 so far evacuated but continuing bad weather is slowing down relief operations. “We have the army, disaster management teams, police and other groups of rescuers making every effort to save the population,” said RK Singh, a senior government official involved in the relief effort.

The charity Action Aid said that thousands of people have been reported missing but not yet listed as dead. It said the eventual death toll could reach 2,000. Meanwhile, countless thousands of people were scrabbling to reach higher ground and abandoning their homes and livestock. Road and rail routes in the area are completely blocked and helicopter and boat are the only means to reach people.

Dr PV Unnikrishnan, the charity’s emergencies advisor for Asia, said: “A large number of people have gone missing. The reason is that the floods have happened in places where floods have not happened for 50 years.”

The Indian government said it will also provide more helicopters and motorised boats to help in the evacuation effort, which is involving both troops and paramilitaries.

But experts have warned that for all the destruction caused in Bihar by the Kosi, the situation could yet get worse. The peak of the river’s annual flooding usually comes in October. The people of Bihar may have more torment ahead.