The flood waters have started receding in Assam. But it’s not good news for the affected children, not yet.
Not when they are staring at their wrecked homes, waiting to be rebuilt; or at their schools, which were turned into relief camps for the flood-affected; it’s not good news yet when, as the water starts receding, it leaves them at risk of a host of water-borne diseases; and definitely not when, seeing them so vulnerable, traffickers wait to pounce and prey.
The floods in Assam, for lack of a better description, are an annual tragedy. Every year, around the month of April during the pre-monsoon rains, the first wave of floods strike. Just when people limp back to normalcy, the second wave, the more severe one, strikes around the months of July-August.
This year the second wave of floods has been especially devastating – many are calling it the worst in the last two decades.
According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), the floods affected more than 1.6 million people, killing 21 people across 21 districts in the state.
As it is with any natural or man-made disaster, it’s the most vulnerable – the children – that are the worst affected.
In Majuli, a river island in Jorhat district, erosion chips away chunks of the landmass. This year has been no different.
Ten-year-old Arunoday Das still cannot come to terms with the fact that his home does not exist. Nor does his village.
It was during the day and my father went out when he heard some people saying that there was a breach in the embankment. All of a sudden, there was a loud sound and the water gushed in, sweeping away everything that came in its way. My mother, sister and I barely managed to run out... we couldn’t save anything.Arunoday Das
Ever since, Arunoday and his family, along with others from his village, have been staying in a relief camp.
I miss my home. My father says we will make a new one. He tries to sound positive, but I know he is just as worried and sad. He is a farmer, but now he talks about doing other work, like making boats or working in the town.Arunoday
Imtiaz Ali, a 12-year-old who similarly lost his home to the floods in a village near Kaziranga, is staying in a relief camp which is actually his school. He says that the walls of the school building gives him a sense of “normalcy”.
My house is filled with water, and we row a boat to check on it every day. My mother laments every time we are there. We could save our precious belongings, but most of the other things are spoilt because of the water. At least I am living in my school... the surrounding is familiar. Some of my other friends are even camping on the highway.Imtiaz Ali
When asked about his books, he suddenly goes quiet.
They’re gone, all under water. May be once the water dries completely and we move back home, I will be able to dry them as well.Imtiaz Ali
Chiranjeeb Kakoty, director of North East Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (NESPYM), fears that with their homes washed away and their books destroyed, a large number of children may drop out of school.
As is seen in other cases of disaster, such a situation pushes up child labour and also increases the risk of child trafficking.Chiranjeeb Kakoty, Director, NESPYM
Kakoty finds resonance in Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who adds that repeated floods and its aftermath have made Assam a hub for traffickers. Most of the children who are trafficked come from flood-hit districts in the state.
Assam has emerged as a major source for trafficking rackets based in Delhi-NCR, and children are mostly placed as domestic help, either in Delhi itself or in towns around Haryana.Chiranjeeb Kakoty, Director, NESPYM
Many children are also forced into begging and prostitution.
The sun shines with all its might on this particular day. On the national highway that traverses Kaziranga – one of the worst-hit by the floods – remnants of make-shift homes made with tin sheets and tarpaulin still remain. Some people spread out their rice grains on tarpaulin sheets to dry in the sun – agriculture is the main source of livelihood here.
As the water starts drying up, the risk of water-borne diseases looms large. Teams of doctors and paramedics from various quarters, the government, non-government, and the corporate sector have been setting up free health camps to tackle the risk of an outbreak of dysentery and diarrhoea.
Floods bring with them the risk of water-borne diseases because of unsafe drinking water, unhygienic surroundings like improper toilets, and contaminated food. So in addition to spreading awareness, we have been distributing disinfectant tablets to make water potable and fit for consumption, as well as medicines for diseases like diarrhoea and skin infections to which children are the most vulnerable.Ziaur Rahman, Doctor in Health Camp
In addition, vector-borne diseases like malaria are also a threat when water starts stagnating. Japanese Encephalitis (JE), a mosquito-borne viral infection, is an additional threat and has claimed more than 65 lives so far.
Faced with an unprecedented amount of loss and thrown into the corner with a host of beastly challenges, for Assam’s flood-hit children it’s an uncertain future that lies ahead.
(Published in arrangement with IANS)