Parvinder Singh: Bihar is a heartbreaking tragedy, but world has been looking the other way

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The Independent Online

This is heartbreaking. The world has not been told the magnitude of what has happened here or the unique nature of this tragedy. We are now close to the place where the crisis began, the epicentre, where the Kosi river crosses from Nepal into India. The disaster has struck in a place which hasn't seen flooding for 150 years. We are facing a total social collapse.

Huge areas are under water. In most places the flooding is six metres deep and ordinary homes and huts have been completely submerged. Only the roofs of schools and other official buildings are still visible. People have tried to escape from the waters by climbing on to the raised parts of roads which have been built on stilts. In Supaul district I saw around 1,000 people sitting on a single section of highway.

The waters have been rising for nearly two weeks and we are still in the rescue phase. There had been no sign of help from the government until yesterday. In the absence of the state what you have here is anarchy. Private boat operators are charging survivors to rescue them. One woman told me that she had been forced to pay 3,000 rupees to get on a boat. That was all her family could afford and the others were left behind. Many women say that they have been molested, others have had their valuables taken from them while they are helpless and trying toescape the flood.

People are angry that they have been abandoned for so long. Boats are being operated by local opportunists and caste is playing a part in who is surviving.

You have to go back three generations to find anyone who has experience of how to deal with floods. Elsewhere, there is some ability to cope but here it has broken the people.

I visited a school in Sahrfa, 40 miles from here, where as many as 1,000 people were crammed into a building meant to house a few hundred pupils. There is no toilet, no cooking facilities, no beds, no sheets. Young, old, disabled and vulnerable people are camped there with nothing.

A young man, 18 years old, had lost all 15 of his relatives. The Madhepura area he was rescued from has been underwater for days.

Two women in the school are pregnant. Another gave birth at the weekend. She is alone waiting for her husband, who is trying to find the rest of the family.

Everywhere there are women left alone. This is one of the poorest parts of the country with high unemployment, low life expectancy and poor health care. The men in this region are sucked into the cities as migrant labourers. There are already serious problems with women being trafficked across the border into Nepal. Now the numbers of vulnerable people will balloon. The waters are still rising and this will continue in its full fury until November. A lot of effort will be needed to set up a long-term relief operation.

The true magnitude of what's happening still hasn't been accepted, even by the government. We've just seen the first naval boats being pushed into the water. No one here knows what has become of their relatives or homes and there is a lot of anger when the government is seen to come in and take credit.

We have calculated the death toll at 2,000 and that is a very modest estimate; we believe the true figure may be much higher. It's evolving into a worse situation.

The writer is a humanitarian relief worker with the charity Action Aid