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You are in: Humber > People > Profiles > Journey of hope

Villagers in Bihar

Journey of hope

A local doctor is heading to India to help flood victims

Doctor Ashok Pathak is a surgeon from East Yorkshire.

You are most likely to have come across him if you have been for an operation at Castle Hill Hospital. He's lived in the region for over 20-years, but this week he's making a trip home to India, and his home state of Bihar.

But the visit is not purely a social one. Three-million people across Bihar have been affected by devastating floods. Hundreds have died and there are now over a 170 camps dotted around the region to take in refugees.

Dr Ashok Pathak

Dr Ashok Pathak

Flooding is not unusual but the scale in August this year has been unprecedented, It was caused when the Kosi river, in neighbouring Nepal, broke its banks. As a consequence, the low lands south of the Himalayas have been left largely under water.

That's the scene that will greet Dr Pathak. He is taking out money and clothing raised by the Hull Bihar Foundation. Thousands of pounds have been raised already in the UK, and with the relative strength of the pound it can make a huge difference in rebuilding villages.

The trip out to the Purnia District is also intended to ensure that the aid goes directly to those that need it, rather than being caught up in red tape.

BBC Look North's Crispin Rolfe will be following the aid efforts, and following Dr Pathak as he returns home to survey the scene.

The aid effort is coming from Hull, and we will be trying to see what difference "the forgotten city" can make to a developing Indian state in flood.

Crispin's Blog

Saturday 11th October

Arrive Delhi.

As you step off the plane, the furnace hits you. Mild temperatures of over 30C, but nothing compared to the warmth of colour awaiting in Delhi central.

For sheer numbers, the capital city and gateway of India is unsurpassed. The country is already tipped to topple China by 2010 as the world's most populated state, so it is an infinity of sights, sounds and above all people. And there in lies part of the problem.

For India is this new economic powerhouse, a country on the move in an industrial hurry to get somewhere. But like Blake's England, here too is the consequence of "those dark satanic mills". Social deprivation surrounds, and is if anything magnified by Delhi.

India Gate

India Gate: Delhi

Driven around - you would be brave to drive yourself - there is India Gate, a relic of the Raj and the focus for rich homes and rich palaces. But travel just a few miles out of New Delhi, and you're greeted by slums. They still have the rich hues of Indian life and a sacred cow or two - but the fundamentals are missing; reading, writing and the chance for an education.

So Delhi is where I meet the charity Prayas. Meaning "hope", it's trying to bring vocational support and training to some 50,000 slum children. A tall order, and yet a small sum against a vast population.

The charity is run by volunteers and operates across the country. Today it is in Delhi and by Tuesday, I and it will be in Bihar in North East India. There three million have been displaced after the Kosi river burst its banks. The river is known locally as "the sorrow of Bihar", and the founder of Prayas assures me that I will see why.

Part of the reason for coming is to compare the 2007 British floods with those here in India this August. And surprisingly there are many comparisons; problems with politics, who's responsible for preventing future flooding, and who is co-ordinating the aid. Simple questions, asked in Hull, like where did the money go? They echo in India too.

And then resound and reverberate.

Typically my plane to Patna is cancelled, and so needs changing. No alarms, no surprises ... so far.

Sunday 12th October

Arrive Patna.

Early. And I mean early ... jet lag from Friday, no sleep, and plenty of filming. But Patna eases those cares away. The city is the state capital of Bihar, not far from Calcutta in Indian terms. It's quieter than Delhi, but the traffic is still a dodgem ride of yellow and green tuk-tuks, cabs, bikes, carts and cows.

Today is my chance to get to grips with our overland trip to Bihar's worst affected areas. So I meet Dr Ashok Pathak, who's normally to be found at Cottingham's Castle Hill Hospital. He's organising the journey to Purnia, and we'll be accompanying food parcels and clothing heading direct to the front.

Today is also a chance to meet people who know the score. We talk trafficking. This time not the roads, but people. Vulnerable women and children who can be exploited is a crisis like this. But yes, we talk roads too. After all many have been washed away.

Woman cooking

Cooking dinner

It's not climate change, I'm told. Just the Himalayan river Kosi changing its course for the 8th time in two centuries. But it could have been prevented they say. There's a dam, but maintenance is poor and there's "politics" between the Indian government and Nepal.

But times are changing, I'm told. Times are changing.

Time for filming too as supplies are stored and loaded for families miles away. It's months since the flooding, but whole villages have been destroyed and there are almost 200 temporary camps in the north eastern part of the state.

Patna is unaffected, but there is genuine concern here. Not just for the people now, but for their future. A new India wants change and education for all; in western terms the "Indian Dream".

Hard though when devastation hits.

People in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire can appreciate the disruption that flooding can cause to home life, schooling and work. But here whole homes have been submerged in lakes 12-feet deep.

Or so I'm told. By Tuesday I hope to see. If "hope" is the right word.

Monday 13 October

If India is an assault on all the senses, then I've been at the receiving end of GBH! 12 hours of driving over roads with little or no tarmac, and potholes that British roads could only dream of in their worst nightmares.

The volume of traffic as we set out from Bihar's capital Patna is incredible. Everywhere is a reminder of Scunthorpe. Most lorries here are made by the Indian company Tata; now the owners of Corus in the UK.

And when I say an "assault on the senses" I don't just mean being bounced around in a car. The noise from beeping horns, the traffic dodging by a thinnest of margins, and the colour of the lorries are relentless. Even farm tractors are often covered with brightly coloured tinsel!


Pedal power

Bihar is not a rich state, perhaps India's second poorest. It's capital is dusty and dirty, but those conditions are a bliss compared to the smaller towns and villages we pass through as we head towards the Ganges river.

The river is the life blood of northern India, and is constantly lined with huts, shops and petrol stations. Petrol like mobile phones is cheap here. We pass a new power station under construction. Coal-powered I'm told - a reminder that India is not an eco-friendly country.

But the Ganges is spectacular. Try doubling the Humber, and then add some ...

And once we've crossed, it's a case of welcome to Lincolnshire ... If you've ever driven through the fens, you'll be used to raised roads high over flat plains. It's remarkably similar.

Having travelled for most of the day, the sun dips and we see the Kosi river and its altered course. Night also brings silence and a change in temperature ... dust rising on the roads like a sandstorm in the Sahara.

Our final destination is a palace just outside Purnia. Hospitality is limited out here, just miles from the Himalayas ... and sadly so too is an internet connection. So the evening is spent in the company of the former prince of the district and his family.

Much discussion about Indian corruption, and even proof that the flooding that we've come to see was predicted over a hundred years ago.

A report as recent as five years ago lays out the potential disaster and some solutions.

But it's been ignored.

Tuesday 14 October

Mosquito free and happy. Normally I'm eaten alive. Dawn brings breakfast and together with Dr Pathak and aid worker Abhay Srivastava it's time to leave our palatial gardens and home.

Though frankly I'd rather stay!

The journey ahead has been complicated by the floods. We're told there's now just only one road left that will take us to the camp we're visiting. So we have to backtrack a good distance before heading north.

Up until now we've not seen much flooding.

And then suddenly. Water. Lakes. Oceans of arable land now covered with water. The roads are the only parts high and dry, and in some places the force of water as stripped the surface bare. Even on this road bridges are still being rebuilt ... but then I'm told that the infrastructure was poor even before the Kosi burst its banks.

It's easy to become desensitized. I've travelled a bit and seen poverty before. But not in this volume. The villages are mud huts, the towns not much better. But the shock is the tents. They're mulit-coloured like all of India. Far removed from the caravans keeping East Yorkshire's flood victims dry.


Emergency accommodation

But these are just tents with a woven fabric stretched over branches. And they run along the roadside for miles. Imagine living a foot away from a road in a tent. Now imagine the traffic. And the only food is being brought to you by convoy.

Because that's part of the problem. The high silt content of the Kosi has ruined the fertility of most of the nearby land, even now that some of the water has subsided. Villagers have been uprooted, but have wanted to stay as near as possible to their original homes. Like the flood affected in Britain who lived upstairs to stop thieves, so these rural communities are nervous for what ever does remain.

Time passes, and as the sun sets on a long lunchless trip, we arrive at Se Paul to see a non-govermental camp. It's better kept that the government ones, with 700 families being sheltered. Dr Pathak acts as translator as we talk to flood victims:

A wife who has lost her husband, a new born just hours old, and one of the first families to be hit by the floods. Medical facilities are good, though food is rationed. The atmosphere is good and as the sun sets outdoor games are played.

But there's no knowing how long these people will be here. Six months it's claimed. But flood victims in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire will know that "over by Christmas" doesn't necessarily mean this year.

Wednesday 15 October

here and back again.

This time trying to avoid the aid vehicles that are a constant game of dodge. But the roads aren't the only means of getting from A to B round here. The trainline is still intact and heads north east towards the old British government's summer seat in Darjeehling, when the Raj was based in Calcutta.

It's cooler in the mountains. A blessing in the summer, but not in the winter. And for the flood victims winter is on its way. Aid is improving, but some are missing out as Abhay and I find out as we stop at one of the many roadside camps. They've had some clothing, but food and medecine keeps passing them by as the trucks reach further north. With over a 170 camps across Bihar the task is massive.


Bringing in supplies

So if road and rail fail, then there is always an alternative: boat.

As we head south again we pass by an impromtu harbour; small craft tied up everywhere. Water taxi has become the main means of transport back to the distant flood-wrecked villages or to reach what's left of the roads.

There are nets everywhere too. What food aid workers can't bring, the people fish for instead. Nets fly from the hands of local boys and straddle manageable water courses where ever possible. One man stands with a sharp wooden spear, poised.

Another sight sticks vividly in the mind: Village women washing sarees of deep sky blue, bright green and orange. They look like sails on some Brazillian bay, and of course the women as befits tradition cover their faces as I approach to film them. Life through a lens is easier than living it yourself.

... We move on, finally returning to Patna after dark after road blocks and jams.

Tired now. And tomorrow's flight back to Delhi has been caught up in the credit crunch. Airlines are merging in India as liquidilty runs dry.

Thursday 16 October

Up early to catch the quiet of Patna before the storm starts.

It's my chance to film some pieces to camera. I.e. standing in front of my own camera trying not to get run down.

The other problem is the local populace wants to stand in the shot too. Who can blame them. Most haven't seen a video camera up close. But curiosity has been a constant feature of the trip. Still it's less hassle than trying to film in Grimsby with a group of teenagers lurking.

Then an interview with the Disaster Management minister in Patna, and an admittance that the reaction to the floods wasn't as fast as it should have been.

But the word of the day is "corruption". The minister alleges fifteen wasted years under Bihar's previous regime. He promises improvements for the flood affected once the Kosi is shored up.

That's a big "once". Forget the Environment Agency, the water company and your local council. "Once" translates into the State government of Bihar, the Union government in India and the government of Nepal.


Local woman

And harking back to my late night palatial discussion on Monday, the critics suggest there are a few obstacles to overcome first. Not to mention inverted commas...

My flight to Delhi brings talk of more corruption. Two US aid workers are onboard. They've been providing an initial assessment of the situation, and have concerns about the aid and medication reaching the camps they've seen.

One good trick locally they tell me, is to promise expensive and then buy cheap; clothing, medecine and even building materials. Even if the government's intentions are good, they claim others undermine those aims in the pursuit of profit.

Of course it's one of the reasons why Dr Pathak has travelled from Hull to Bihar. To make sure that his foundation's help is going direct to the people who need it most. So far he's happy with what he's seen.

Still on a positive note the other word of the day would "regeneration". The US aid workers mention it with hope if some reservations, and the Disaster Management minister has spoken of it too.

It doesn't lessen the suffering, he says, but now it gives us a chance to put right many wrongs.

Though I am shocked to hear that the last major investment here was back in the fifties!

Friday 17th October

Knowing and understanding. Two different things.

I like to think I "know" why a politician avoids answering a direct question, but after ten years of political interviews I'm still not sure I "understand".

Especially when it's costing lives.

So if a report predicts a catastrophe five years in advance, why was nothing done?

The answer is a familiar buck pass which flood victims will recognise in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire: It was someone else's responsibility.

That's the message from Meira Kumar, the Union's Social Justice Minister. She says it was the state of Bihar's responsiblity to dredge, drain and secure river banks. Fair enough. But what checks did the Union government (India's federal body) make to ensure the work was carried out successfully?:


Monument in New Delhi

... Well the Union government has paid the State to do the work. So it should have been done, is the reply.

Of course they're the kind of answers most politicians will come up with, whether here or at home. And as the daughter of India's former Deputy Prime Minister, Mrs Kumar is a very polished politician.

She comes across as very professional in a quiet spoken way, and has genuine empathy for the plight of Bihar. She should - it's where she comes from ... a friend of Dr Pathak.

And yes it's true it's hard for her to solve problems that stretch across national boundaries to Nepal. So these are all questions with the blessing of hindsight. But the future? ... Of course there's no time committment to securing the Kosi dam and getting reconstruction underway.

I'm premature of course. It took the UK the best part of a year to finish its inquiries into the June floods last year, and India is only just beginning the process.

So there's the knowing.

But I will never understand.

last updated: 22/10/2008 at 16:59
created: 10/10/2008

You are in: Humber > People > Profiles > Journey of hope

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