After the deluge

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

After the floods, government aid trickles into the worst affected areas of Mumbai, even as fears of an outbreak of epidemics remain.

A PERVASIVE sense of weariness hangs over Bharatnagar, Dyaneshwarnagar and Valmikinagar - the slums of Bandra East that were severely affected by the recent floods. Their residents are numbered among the poorest of the poor, and their recovery will inevitably be a slow and difficult process. How have they coped in the weeks after the floods? Has relief reached them? And, what is it that they would like the government to do?

Anxiety prevails at Dyaneshwarnagar on the banks of the Mithi river. Newly placed bamboo frames leaning over the river indicate that people have started rebuilding houses. Clearly, the urgency of immediate needs is pushing away memories of the floods. A camera is not welcome here, and stories are told hesitatingly with no identities revealed. Caste and religion play little part - all are held together by the label of `recent immigrant'. They say they have "bought" the riverside plots, but the reality is probably that they pay a `rent' to the local tough who allows them to erect shacks. When the Mithi rose the shacks vanished and the fear of these newcomers to the city is that they will be unable to rebuild their homes because the municipality will fence off the land. So they ensure that at least one family member stays back on the plot while the others are away - a feeble attempt to protect their vulnerable lives. Their only desire is expressed graphically by a man: "Sir jhukake, kandhe pe boj leke aage chale" (Lower our heads, take the weight on our shoulders and forge ahead).

Across the river, Bharatnagar's residents are trying to piece together their lives. It took three days for the water to subside, and it left behind unimaginable chaos and filth. The slum's 1,50,000 people earn their living by rag-picking, doing various jobs or running small struggling businesses that survive on credit. About 80 per cent of the population are Muslims with average monthly incomes between Rs.1,000 and Rs.18,000, inadequate for families that number between eight and 14.

Abdul Wahid Sheikh of Bharatnagar made a living by stitching for a fee. The 15 embroidery and specialised sewing machines in his tiny room helped him to make about Rs.15,000 a month, just about enough to feed his family of eight. When the water rose, Sheikh and his sons tried to save as many things as possible by carrying them up to a loft. But the machines had to be sacrificed. For three days, the family watched as their only means of livelihood rusted and jammed irreparably, submerged in water. Sheikh is caught in a vicious circle. His employer will recover the losses by cutting his fee on future orders. But, this elderly man says, "How will I work if my machines are ruined? And how will I pay for the machines, which were rented? Has the government got any schemes for me?"

Mohammed Umar Ansari lost goods worth Rs.40,000 that were bought on credit. He has restocked on a further credit of Rs.45,000. With no insurance, Ansari has just one wish: that the government assist small businesses like his by offering soft loans or partial pay-offs on goods bought on credit. So far he has received nothing.

Shop No. 59 is across the road from the Mithi and when the waters rose, most of Mohammed Ashrafali Ansari's stocks were washed away. He has taken a double hit with losses of about Rs.40,000 in his cloth shop and structural damages to his home. Fearful of the future of his 14-member family, he says he does not have the means to restock his shop. He salvaged whatever he could, washed it and put it up for sale again at a discounted price.

But the situation at home was far worse. Like many slum dwellers, he lives with his family on the first floor of his house. The ground floor, which too he owns, is rented out. When government officials distributing cash compensation came to his house and gave his tenant Rs.5,000, Ashrafali Ansari asked for his share but was told he was not eligible since he lived on the first floor.

Pointing to the water marks on the walls of his low-roofed mezzanine, as well as a deep crack that he says formed during the flood, he laments: "We have to pay for the repair of this house. Touch the walls - they are soft with water. We were like a ship at sea - water soaking upwards and the roof leaking so heavily that we were wet for those three days."

His family received no foodgrains. His daughter-in-law, Afroze, says a rationing officer stamped their ration book granting them free kerosene. At the ration shop, they were told there was no supply and when they went back the next day they were told that the `authorisation date' was over. All Afroze asks for is that the government help them get back on their feet. "We don't want more than that. We are not beggars," she said.

Perhaps the saddest story is that of Kamubai Gaikwad, a widow of Valmikinagar, the Dalit quarter of Bharatnagar. The walls of her house have literally melted away since they were made of thick cardboard that she collected during her daily rag-picking rounds. Her `house' was unregistered, she has no ration card and has never bothered to be on a voters list. She would have been invisible to all agencies of aid distribution, except that her neighbours vouched for her. But then, she refuses to have anything to do with strangers and disappears when government officials arrive. Her neighbours, who have been looking after her, say she has lost her mind after the floods. When asked if a photograph could be taken she hurled wet gunny bags, weeping and screaming, "I want my old life back."

While distributing aid, the Relief and Rehabilitation Department took a conscious decision to be slow but steady, ensuring transparency rather than botched cases of rushed aid. From the administrative point of view, it is an admirable decision. In fact, the careful distribution resulted in the jailing of three government officials in Thane district who allegedly siphoned off aid. However, from the point of view of the recipients, slow and steady disbursals only add to the desperateness of their situation.

Residents of Bharatnagar were full of praise for local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Rabat Welfare Trust, which distributed food kits immediately after the floods. The Trust has been running the Shaheen Urdu High School for girls for 25 years in the slum. "The idea of immediate relief is that we take immediate action. We didn't wait to see where money would come from. We've spent about a lakh from the trust on food kits so far," said Trust president Irfan Merchant. The Trust continues to distribute food kits because many residents have not yet received any foodgrains from the government.

A surprise participant in the relief work was builders. Shaheda, a widow with three children, said Dewan Builders, with whom she has been in negotiation for her Bharatnagar plot, provided local residents with packets of milk, rice, sugar and dal within 24 hours of the crisis. "They saved us," she said.

Merchant, who has been actively helping others, is unsure of what compensation his school will receive. While books will be provided by the government and negotiations are under way for other school supplies, no assurances on replacing furniture and equipment have been forthcoming. The school has lost furniture and equipment worth about Rs.30,000. Of the lessons learnt from this crisis, Merchant says it is imperative that powerful pumps be made available to control the spread of disease. Despite assurances from the government, one of the areas of concern of NGOs is the health of the poorer sections. Low immunity induced by poverty makes these sections vulnerable. Their living conditions also do not help matters. Fumigation, distribution of tablets, and medical camps are under way, but the fears are yet to be allayed wholly.

Three weeks after the floods, over 42,000 cases of cholera, gastroenteritis, leptospirosis and dengue have been treated across the State. Initial media speculations about an epidemic were way off the mark, but the government took the situation seriously enough for a Central team to base itself in the city. Although the number of new cases reported has fallen drastically, there is a big challenge - gastroenteritis. Dr. Athani, Medical Director of the All India Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, says, "This is a public heath issue and is not in the control of the health sector. Garbage disposal is crucial to preventing outbreaks. A multi-sectoral approach is needed now." So far, 2,073 cases of diarrhoea and gastroenteritis have been treated in Mumbai and 39,324 in the rest of Maharashtra.

The media may have misjudged the health scene, but there seems to be no end to the government's underestimation of the situation. First, the extent of the flooding was miscalculated, then the extent of the damage, and now, the extent of relief required (this last resulting in less relief for the worst affected areas). Initial estimates of flood relief presented to the Cabinet sub-committee mentioned Rs.1,600 crores. "It was a gross underestimation on our part," said a source in the government, pointing out how estimates of the damage to infrastructure were pegged initially at Rs.500 crores, then went up to Rs.11,000 crores, and were likely to rise further with reports of damage still coming in.

The confusion characterises the nitty-gritty of providing relief. Across the State, 800,000 families were affected by the floods. The criterion for relief is that a person must be destitute, that is, all belongings and means of livelihood must be lost. Such a person receives Rs.1,000. Of the 800,000 affected families, about 600,000 lived in urban areas. The financial implications of giving Rs.1,000 to every member of the 600,000 families were overwhelming. Since cash disbursements were already on in the rural areas, it was not possible to stop them. Instead, the government modified the cash aid for Thane and Mumbai with the result that these two worst affected areas received less than the rural areas. Instead of Rs.1,000 an individual, the flood victims in Mumbai and Thane got Rs.1,000 a person subject to a maximum of Rs.5,000 for each family. This means that an urban family of more than five members would receive only Rs.5,000 whereas such a family in the rural areas would receive more. As Nisreen Ebrahim of the Rangoonwala Foundation (India) Trust said, the decision caused a "lot of heartburning in the Mumbai slums".

Whether it is organising food, school supplies or medical aid, there is no doubt that the role of NGOs is vital. The government relies heavily on their networking, their personnel, their knowledge of local areas and their abilities to make the best of a bad situation. But the social workers running these organisations are sometimes frustrated by the state of things.

Take, for instance, the case of foodgrain distribution. The government suspended the distribution after it was found that the grain was reaching not more than 60 per cent of the people. A coupon system was speedily implemented - coupons would be routed through NGOs and the foodgrains would be available in the ration shops. "If the state machinery of the PDS [public distribution system] could not achieve grain distribution, then I wonder how small NGOs can handle it," said an NGO member working in the northern suburb of Jogeshwari who sees the coupon distribution as an unnecessary burden on NGOs that are already reaching fatigue levels.

Nisreen Ebrahim believes that resource-intensive relief work is necessary in Mumbai. She hopes the administration ensures a free flow of resources. "After the tsunami and the Kutch earthquake, there was unrestricted flow of money. The FCRA [Foreign Contribution Regulation Act] rules were relaxed, enabling smaller NGOs to have access to money from abroad. After the Kutch earthquake, the Gujarat government gave 100 per cent tax relief on donations instead of the normal 50 per cent. This encouraged people to give. The Maharashtra government should do the same," she said.

Members of other NGOs said that the government tends to step away after the initial aid, leaving the burden of resettlement to their organisations. Shaking his head in disbelief over the scattered relief operations, Merchant of the Rahat Welfare Trust said, "After 30 years of social work I've come to the conclusion that we are all being taken for a ride."

Those who fall through the relief net, such as the men who ran small businesses without insurance cover and the people who lived on first floors (actually low-roofed mezzanines) in slums would undoubtedly agree.

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