Two million made homeless by floods that greed helped to create

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The Independent Online

Torrential monsoon rain, abetted by the follies of deforestation and unplanned development, have brought death and disaster to a huge arc of northern and north-eastern India in the past week.

Torrential monsoon rain, abetted by the follies of deforestation and unplanned development, have brought death and disaster to a huge arc of northern and north-eastern India in the past week.

The ferocious monsoon has affected an immense region, bringing among other things a flash flood which raised the level of one river by 45 feet. The rains mete out punishment every year, but the perception is that this year it has been more widespread and devastating.

From the old British summer capital, Simla in Himachal Pradesh, right across to the Burmese border region of Assam, more than 1,600 kilometres away via Nepal, Bhutan and Bihar, thousands of villages have been inundated and hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee. More than two million are believed to be homeless, with several hundred killed by floods and landslides.

The monsoon, India's only guarantee that it gets enough to eat, is an awesome ally at the best of times. Rivers such as the Brahmaputra in Assam, a raging torrent at this season and so broad that you cannot see the other side, makes one understand why all the great Indian rivers are named after deities - and why the Brahmaputra, unlike the rest, takes the name of a male deity.

And when rapacious loggers and developers and corrupt authorities join hands to remove the forest cover, carpeting precipitous slopes with houses and hotels, disaster follows monsoon as night follows day.

In Assam and West Bengal, where the flooding has approached Calcutta, the army is picking up the pieces, ferrying the homeless to shelter in speedboats and dropping food by helicopter into areas that have been cut off.

Normal life has come to a dead halt in Assam, with major roads and railway tracks submerged, power lines washed away and many buildings under water.

One local government official said: "The whole region is completely cut off." A rescue worker said that thousands of the homeless were huddling in improvised shelters along the sides of roads that were still above water. The railway authorities are struggling to repair flood-damaged tracks.

In Himachal Pradesh, 200 kilometres north of Delhi, over 100 people have been killed by flash floods in the River Sutlej, which have also caused an estimated £10m of damage to dam and power projects. The Sutlej is reported to have risen an astounding 45 feet above normal, washing away everything in its path.

Nine people have died in Simla, the once elegant old hill station, transformed by thousands of homes, shops and hotels, clinging to the near-vertical slopes like barnacles. Now the valley, like the others around it, has been cut off and army helicopters are flying in essential supplies to the isolated communities.

The state's chief minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal, thanked the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, for releasing 1,000m rupees (£14.7m) for the relief effort, but when he met him face to face on Saturday asked for more.

He claimed that the flash flood originated in Lake Mansarovar in Tibet, and that according to scientists a calamity of this magnitude can be expected only once in 61,000 years. He asked the central government to press China to issue warnings when the lake level rises perilously high.

In Assam, too, local politicians blamed China, urging Delhi to demand compensation for a flood which they claim originated in a massive landslide affecting the Brahmaputra in China. An army spokesman said: "Soldiers have rescued more than 2,000 marooned villagers in different parts of the state, using speedboats and divers in the rescue operation."

Meanwhile, more than 100 people are said to have died in floods in both Nepal and Bhutan. Again landslides were said to be the main culprit, taking 87 lives in Bhutan since Friday, and cutting communications between the capital, Thimpu, and the south of the kingdom.

In Nepal, officials say that more than 100 people are missing, feared dead; thousands have been displaced and thousands of hectares of farmland washed away. Unregulated logging has been rampant in the Terai region of southern Nepal for years and now it is the poor who are paying the price.

In Bihar, the Indian state which borders Nepal, nearly one million people in hundreds of villages have been affected, and 3,000 houses and crops valued at 84m rupees (£1.25m) have been destroyed.

In Himachal Pradesh, where the flash floods have swept away 60 bridges, the state cabinet decided on Wednesday that ministers would contribute one month's salary each to the chief minister's relief fund.

A touching gesture; but in the long run the homeless and bereaved would probably be more appreciative if politicians showed a little robust responsibility - making sure, at this late date, that the human activities which make natural events of this sort so peculiarly devastating are brought under strict control.

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