State of the nation’s health – Floods

Dr. Sunil Kaul, our Executive Director and Founder Trustee, in this series of writings, critically analyse various illness that plague the health of the nation and how as a state we have failed to address these important social issues. This is a narrative of a social worker in a rural corner of Assam, calling out for collective action.


If one were to paraphrase P. Sainath, one would say, ‘Everyone Loves a Good Flood in Assam.’ Many years ago, when i was in Majuli during the flood and i found that the people were so used to the floods, that they had their systems worked out. The few days of water entering their homes made them scramble to the road embankments with their precious things, which was no doubt inconvenient, but they were also happy that the floods left behind a rich alluvium for their crops. Those 3 to 4 days, there was no firewood dry enough to be lit, so they would soak some traditional variety of koomal saol or ‘soft rice,’ which was good to eat just a few hours after soaking and needed no cooking. I could see women getting time from their household chores, having swimming competitions while men would look for water collections good enough for fishing.

But the moment the floods waters would swirl up, the FCI could write off its weevil infested grains by distributing it as “relief-rice.” The NGOs and students unions would get a chance to serve the needy by reaching out with medicines and occasionally doctors in places where no doctor or compounder had ever bothered to reach before the floods. The pharmaceutical companies would give away samples to them, hoping to introduce new and expensive brands in a rural market without having to pay commissions to the pharmacies. The media would get enough of spectacular footage to fill its news time. And the bureaucrat – political class nexus would get yet another occasion to get yet another bund / embankment to ‘save the people from the misery.’ In fact the maximum misery was actually faced ONLY when one of the corruption-lined embankments would give way and the gush of water would wash away houses, crops and fields in one great gush in its wake!

As a public health practitioner watching floods, it is one thing for me to think about relief and rehabilitation, provide potable water and sanitation and prevent water borne diseases after the floods, but what begs an answer is, “Why haven’t we questioned as to why in a place like Assam – where floods are almost like an annual event – hasn’t a permanent solution been found?” I am not talking about a solution to floods, because if the famed Dr Dinesh Mishra is to be believed, bunds and embankments end up canalising a river, and soon the sediments from the hills make the river bed higher each year until the smallest excess of rain makes the water spill over once again. So embankments are temporary solutions at best and only enrich the construction industry which of course throws a few crumbs to the political parties. I am talking about a solution to relief and rehabilitation efforts. Why can’t people have a decentralised system of reaching out food and other items like Bangladesh has instituted, so that the affected people don’t have to keep waiting for aid agencies and for the food and shelters to come from hundreds of kilometres away? Is it that we are ashamed of learning from a poorer neighbour and hence can’t follow their watershed-based system? Or is it that so many of us have found our own motivations to love the floods that it has become a necessity to keep the economy going?

On another note, we also need to learn a flood of things from Bangladesh about how they have brought down their Maternal Mortality Rate at par with or below India’s; about how they have managed to reach immunisation to a far higher percentage of children than we have; and about how their women give birth to lesser children than average Indian women! While its terrain is more hostile than Assam’s and its growth rate is lower than Assam’s, most of its social indicators are better than not just Assam’s but of India as a whole. How did they do it? Why can’t we do the same too?

To paraphrase the catch phrase of today, The Nation MUST Want to Know!

(photocredits – The Hindu)

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