Tuesday, August 03, 2004

A Wet Experience

I am here at home trying to finish up with the last few social visits. The last one of the lot was to my "Maahi's" (Mom's sis) place. She has been married for more than ten years now and stays in a sub-urban village in Nagaon with her two sons. At this time of the year, most of Assam is submerged in water and travelling to Nagaon amidst this was an experience in itself.

I was still at my uncle's place when I received the call from my "Moha" (Mom's brother-in-law) that he would be going to Nagaon the next day and asked if I would like to tag along. My intentions about the visit were already decided and hence I promptly agreed. The next morning I hurried back to Guwahati in order to be in time before Moha departs. The bus service had been down for more than a week now on event of the prevailing flood. It was only from Saturday when heavy traffic was allowed on the route. The frequency of the buses was too low, but atleast there was some transportation available. It was around 1 O' clock on the hot Monday afternoon when we boarded the bus (a 709) to Nagaon. I took a seat in the last row, near a window.

Everything was fine and the bus was speeding at a regular pace. Somewhere before Jagiroad (a stopover place for tea-breaks) there was a short jam but it got cleared off pretty fast. However, without anyone's notice, the traffic was growing thick and slowing down. There was something going on ahead and we didn't know what! With the decelaration being steady, our bus was bound to come to a halt at some point. So, it did. I glanced out of the window and saw the chain of vehicles already parked in front of our bus. The halt was momentary and soon the entire traffic sluggishly marched ahead. I thought its just another small jam and would clear off in no time.

Very soon it became clear that it wasn't any ordinary traffic congestion. Vehicles coming from the other side repeatedly complained of the tough time they had in getting through this way far. By now, our bus had covered more than five kilometres at this pace, occasionally halting momentarily.

What caught the attention of every passenger in the bus wasn't the huge aggregation of vehicles, but something else that turned ghastlier with every inch of road we covered. For those of us who had been following the news broadcast about the flood situation in Assam were probably less terrified, otherwise no one could ever imagine how a flood affected region looks like. My experience on this started taking shape from this point onwards.

The road we were on was a straight march ahead. Our bus was somewhere in the middle of a huge string of transports; just for some idea, 'huge' is of the order of thousands here, about 7-8 thousand. Transportation been disrupted for the past eight days, thousands of loaded trucks had lined up one after the other and waited clearance from security officials to move further. Connecting bridges over many of the rivers were unable to sustain the heavy currents in the rivers, and finally gave up to destruction. The army had been deployed to monitor the flow of traffic in these areas. They had halted all heavy vehicles from proceeding any further, what little they were allowing was happening at a pedestrian's pace. Moreover, people were talking about the relief camps that has been set up on the road itself, thereby reducing the traffic to one way flow at a time. By the time I got to know all these, it was around half past three in the afternoon and I knew things have already started getting late. And this is just the beginning of the story.

So much said about what had been going on the roads, let me say a bit on why people were taking shelter on the roads.

When we first beaded into the traffic chain, the areas on either side of the road were occupied by thatched mud shelters, dampened yards and a somewhat shabby arrangement of trees and shrubs around them. Nothing was unusual about it because houses in an Assamese village are generally of that make. Besides, it has been raining for quite sometime now and was very likely that usual appearances are altered. The drainage that ran parallel to the roads was overflowing with water and hinted on what might have possibly happened there. Soon things unfolded on its own. The condition of the houses started getting worse, water crept into the yards and it wasn't long before I could see the water from the nearby drainage and that in the houses were on the same level. As we moved a little further, I could see the water level rise above knee-height, and houses were already abandoned to avoid mishappenings.

Our bus moved too slowly and had to halt occasionally. The passengers took this time to stretch their backs and tried gathering some information on the situation from the local people. Water from a nearby river gushed into the village after the barrier safeguarding it was destroyed under heavy rainfall and strong currents in the river. These people were on the roadside, so had time enough to take out their belongings (mostly rice bags) well before water rushed into their houses, otherwise everything happened in such a small span of time that the villages way inside suffered deadly consequences. Everything surrounding us started changing very fast and in no time we were standing on a road that felt no less than being on a "Ram Setu". Huge stretches of land on both sides of the road stay submerged and all my eyes could see everywhere was pale water. The telephone and electric wires were just inches above the water surface (imagine the amount of water that had collected). I could see a few boats skimming on the water. The stories we collected from the localites soon came up in vision when we saw signs of housing way far in the
apparently limitless enclosures of water. I don't expect people to reach safe grounds from such a place, specifically when it just took a couple of minutes to flood the entire region. The government statistics were visibly some kind of joke and didn't even come close to what has been going on over there. If the situation was so terrible after water started receding from the rivers, what might it had been like when the real flood was in?

The relief camps set up on the roads were another story of pain. When I say camp what comes to my mind are shelters made of canvas, stretched over supporting poles and fastened to the ground with ropes and pegs. For the people out there, it meant four poles and a tin roof; nothing more than that. Some of the victims arranged extra tins and clothes to cover the four sides of the temporary shelter and make it more like a place where human beings stay. Most of the space inside was occupied by rice bags, a bed loaded with clothes, and a small place to cook in one of the corners. The cattle stay tied outside and most of them suffered injuries. There was no drinking water available, sanitation was at its worst, and relief materials remained swallowed in political hypocrisy. Even if the water recedes completely in a day or two, the situation won't become any better. Major epidemics, snake bites, deficiency diseases - everything's in queue waiting to play their turn. Nothing just seems to be working right for those people.

to be continued...


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