There is a certain beauty to floods – to the way they wash away all imperfections, all the grotesque protrusions from the land, leaving nothing but pristine brown uniformity in their wake. No other natural or man-made disaster does this. Earthquakes, hurricanes and even a nuclear explosion leave broken or blasted husks of buildings, trees and also people in their aftermath. But not floods. Floods cover everything, enveloping them like some bizarre kind of natural foundation makeup. But, like so many beautiful things, they are merely hiding the ugliness underneath.
The Still Waters Of Desolation
The best place to see that ugliness is at the waters’ edge, where the destructive effects of the initial surge of water are uncovered as the water begins its slow recession. And so I found myself travelling to Jajpur district to see firsthand the disaster that had befallen the whole region, including many other neighboring districts. We had just finished organizing the distribution of shoes in two schools and were now heading to meet a partner that was requesting more materials for the relief efforts. We had already sent them an initial consignment, but the scale of the problem meant more was needed. Such a commitment required verification, however, and so we were headed to the area. The numbers were certainly concerning – around 20 panchayats containing over 70,000 people had been affected in this district alone. But a flood could mean anything from mild inundation to entire buildings disappearing underwater. Pictures from the partner could have been taken anywhere and at any time. We had to verify the situation ourselves.
What Lies Beneath…
As we approached the waters’ edge, that ugliness which was hidden from view everywhere else was revealed in stark detail – broken roads, fallen trees, assorted flotsam drawn the newly-formed “coast” by the slow ebb and flow of the water. At first, they were just sections of the road that had fallen away on either side. But eventually, we reached the proverbial ‘end of the line’. There would be no more driving from here on, and only a bit more forward progress by foot. A short walk through the muck, strewn about with branches and sacks – as if to prove that nature did not discriminate between man and its own – of mud forming a makeshift path, and we were there.
You Shall Not Pass…
The waters’ edge. No going forward from here, unless one is willing to swim – which was certainly not recommended. One of the people from our partner NGO in the area put a stick in to check the depth at the edge – over 7 feet. And it would definitely be deeper farther out. In the distance we could see the road – or what was left of it – continuing on, as if daring us to cross and see what else lay beyond. We didn’t take the bait.
Far Side Of Road
There is, of course, a human tale to tell as well, although fortunately no deaths as far as we know – at least so far. We’d passed a flooded village just before reaching the break in the road. There was no one there as far as we could see, although there were plenty of folk on the road. After we were done at the edge, we came back to a small building just about a hundred meters from the terminal point to check on the status of the material we had already sent. Although it was not all stored there – for obvious reasons – a quick chat with the locals reassured us that the supplies were being distributed properly. They asked for more, but then that was to be expected. We didn’t oblige. There were many more people to reach with even this level of supplies first. Satisfied, we departed.
Bigger disasters have happened in other times and places, of course. Orissa itself is no stranger to flooding. Indeed, it happens somewhere in the state pretty much every year. But its size relative to others and the regularity of its occurrence shouldn’t lull us into blasé acceptance. These are human lives we’re talking about here, after all. And, unfortunately, it looks like it has. There has been little, if any, mention of this flood in the mainstream news. If Sachin Tendulkar or Amitabh Bacchan were to say something, or if the stock market were to dip even slightly, it would be discussed on the 9 ‘o’ clock segment for an hour or more. But I doubt the flood we visited would elicit even a line on the ticker. The lives of the underprivileged matter only when in sufficiently massive numbers. Nevertheless, we, at least, were convinced. We would provide what assistance we could.
On the way back, I saw a boy relieving himself in the water. It seemed almost like a defiant act, despite the seeming ordinariness of it – as if daring the gods to hit him again. The resigned eyes of the people we had met, however, told me that they knew that next year, they would…