29 August, 2010

A river between us


29 Aug 2010--The Kathmandu Post
As the rivers rose this monsoon, I thought about a trip I’d taken last year in the spring. I was going from Dharan to a village in Saptari. I had been told the bus trip would take two hours. As the bus started to bump and grind through a white expanse of sand, I realised I was crossing the breach in the Koshi barrage. Here and there, there were desultory detritus of life from the past—a tree half buried in sand, a home sunk into the morass. We’d already been in the crowded bus for four hours. The last hour we crossed a desert that had appeared in the middle of Nepal’s fertile Tarai. The village was nowhere in sight.  

As the bus started to slowly grind across the pure white expanse of sand, I had one of those moments of complete disorientation and loss that I’d felt only a few times before. I’d felt that going deeper and deeper into Bombay’s red-light district with two British journalists once on an investigative journalism trip. The same sense occurred to me now, in the middle of the Koshi barrage. My cell phone stopped working. Although I was only a few hours away from working cell phone connections and modernity, a few inadvertent steps into the wrong direction, and I could be lost forever.

A water pump was installed in the middle of the riverbed—for miles around, nothing was visible except white sand. A little naked girl stood next to it, drinking water. This stark memory reminds me that people in the Koshi river area, which is flood-hit year after year, must feel the same—that although they are only a few hours away from modernity, they are lost forever.

The water pump brought up interesting questions. Shouldn’t the NGO that so helpfully set up a single water pump have concentrated instead on moving the population elsewhere? As people wiser than me have pointed out, it makes no sense to build human habitations on top of a flood plain, and then run around, year after year, trying to rescue people. The logical solution is to encourage people to move out of the river’s range. If people insist on living there, then building houses on stilts, like in different places in India and South East Asia, is a solution.

The government and NGO interventions make me wonder. Wouldn’t you want to give incentives to people to resettle on higher ground after dealing with an expected flood each year? Perhaps the answer to why people seem encouraged, by state policy, to keep rebuilding on dangerous ecological zones lies in something known as the “Flood Mafia”. Financial benefits accrue year after year, especially on the Indian side of Bihar, as government officials take their cut from the central government of India to rebuild, once again, some entirely untenable human habitations in the middle of a dangerous ecological zone.

Of course, there are problems with forced, rather than voluntary, resettlement. I remember a beautifully build ecological village with a circle of pretty houses which an INGO had set up to resettle victims somewhere in the Tarai. A journalist pointed out that people deserted this artificially constructed village, and nobody lived there now. I wonder if the architects of this exquisitely constructed habitation had forgotten one thing—human relations. Were the houses too close together? Did people feel humiliated being put in this space clearly meant for “victims”? Did they have land to farm, or jobs to do? Did they feel stifled in this artificial world? Why, in other words, did they leave?

Mile-high project reports about successful interventions line the glass covered shelves of international organisations. No doubt this “success story” of resettlement made it to some glossy project brochure about how the people of Scandinavia or the people of the European Union or the United States had successfully supported flood victims in Nepal. But why don’t we ever get to read about the resettlement programmes that didn’t work out? Like every single million dollar project in Nepal, we will be forced to hear the “success story”, but why a beautiful, artificial village became deserted may never become clear.

As INGOs are fond of reminding us, monitoring and evaluation costs too much—so therefore its better to try something and have it fail, then send an evaluator over to ask what may be fairly simple questions to fairly obvious answers.  

The rural bridges that the Swiss government built with Nepal was long the best solution for rising rivers in the monsoon. Sadly, I was told by a bridge engineer that the pace of building of rural bridges has abated with the introduction of the SWAP basket-funding model. SWAP is enthusiastically embraced by big donors. A friend who had been instrumental in adopting this model argued with me fiercely that this was the only way to ensure that donors are coordinated and are not replicating their own work. I have no thoughts either for or against SWAP basket funding—I don’t understand its modalities. All I can tell you is that for one practitioner, the pace of his important work has decreased due to this model.

This monsoon, as the rain beat down on my tin roof, entered my living room and destroyed my books, and my gas canister ran out, I thought back again to people who are left homeless, out in the rain, too close to rivers that rise every year. Imagine trying to have a cup of tea while you are homeless, a professor in college had stressed on us. When you have no clean water, no kerosene, no tea and definitely no sugar, a cup of tea becomes an impossible dream.

I read an interesting article about China’s ten day traffic jam the other day. Traffic has stalled for miles around in China’s overcrowded roads. Drivers are eating and sleeping in their cars. They are stranded by a different river, and a different flood—a flood of too many cars which cut them off from their shelters and food. They had thought they were different—urbanites who’d never face the injustices and dangers of nature. They were beyond nature. Their cars would always protect them. And yet, it appears, the two victims are not so different. Both are cut off from food and shelter. One had too much, the other had too little. But in the end, the end results are the same. Two people watch each other from opposite sides of the river, both waiting to be saved.

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