Rebuilding lives destroyed by the Indian floods

by Amit Kumar, Federation India Delegation

An estimated 20 million people have been affected by the devastating floods that hit the Indian state of Maharashtra on 26 July. More than a thousand people died and tens of thousands have been left homeless. Most of the worst affected were the families living in poverty in the slums of Mumbai, India's sprawling financial capital, and outlying rural villages.

Small businesses have been damaged and destroyed. The All India Association of Industries estimates the loss to business alone at between US$580 million and US$1160 million.

Today, Mumbai is returning to normal as the rains ease and the flood waters recede. The lives of many, however, have changed for ever.

Like millions of others, Mohammed Rizwan battled his way home as the torrential deluge drowned the city. He found his home buried by a huge landslide from a nearby hill made unstable by the incessant rain. Forty people had been killed, including his wife and three children.

"I was shocked when I saw the rubble falling," said Javed Khan, who witnessed the tragedy. "There was total chaos with people running in all directions to save their lives."

Shanta Bai, a 45-year-old woman living in Gautam Nagar, a northern suburb of Mumbai, had tears in her eyes as she explained her own desperate plight. "My house was flooded with water," she said. "I survived without food for two days. I have lost everything. What will I do?"

Coordinated response

From the moment the flood waters began to rise, volunteers from the Indian Red Cross Maharashtra state branch established emergency rescue and relief operations. Homai Modi, joint state branch honorary secretary, recalls how branch headquarters staff immediately began distributing food and water to 1500 passengers stranded at a busy railway station in Mumbai.

In the two weeks since then, the Indian Red Cross has provided food, clothes, bed sheets and medicines to more than 8000 people in Mumbai alone. Sixteen mobile clinics were set up in the city.

The district Red Cross branches of Thane, Ratnagiri, Kolhapur, Sangli, Nanded, Ulhasnagar, and Nashik have also provided relief to over 25,000 people in more than 65 relief camps.

With the support of a dedicated disaster response team from Indian Red Cross national headquarters, detailed assessments have now been conducted of the worst affected areas.

As part of the subsequent recovery programme, three water purification units have been flown in from Chennai and Delhi. Each one is capable of producing 10,000 litres of drinking water a day.

According to assistant relief director, N L Sharma, one of the units has been stationed at Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, while the other two are in Sangli and Perbhani districts.

Ten thousand chlorine tablets to purify water and 5000 family kits have also arrived from Delhi. Each kit consists of a stove, utensils, medicines, two towels and bed sheets, replacing the essential items washed away by the flooding.

The Red Cross relief effort complements that of the state government, which is distributing 20 kilograms of rice and wheat and 10 litres of kerosene to affected families. It is also paying compensation of 50,000 rupees (US$1161) to the families of those who lost their lives.

Longer term

The scale of the disaster is such that the Indian Red Cross relief operations in Maharashtra will continue for some time. The assessments have also shown that many more people are in need of support.

A further 25,000 family kits are therefore currently being mobilised to be sent to the worst affected areas. Bob McKerrow, head of the Federation South Asia regional delegation, has just visited Mumbai and promised more help. "I saw people living in houses as small as shoe boxes and the conditions were abysmal in the slums," he explained. "We are supporting the efforts of the Red Cross branch of Maharashtra with an initial contribution of 2 million Swiss francs."

Bob McKerrow also underlined the real need to address issues such as combating erosion and good urban planning to minimise the effects of future floods. It was a view shared by the authorities.

Within five days of the onset of the disaster, the Ministry of Home Affairs declared that Mumbai's 100-year-old drainage system needed replacing and better housing should be provided for people in vulnerable areas.