The unprecedented deluge in North Karnataka has come alive through television and newspaper images. There has also been a seemingly huge outpouring of help, quaintly described as 'relief,' for people who have lost their everything in these districts. In a courageous announcement, the government has made plans to shift nearly 226 villages to 'safer' areas. Whether this relocation will turn out to be a foolhardy step or a 'damn wise' move will become clear in the months to come. But the way we generally approach relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation is cause for a peculiar sadness. A sadness that statistical and scientific enumerations can't quite capture or convey. Let me try to explain.
WIth floods, what is very stark and obvious is the washing away of houses, of people, of their belongings, their livestock and standing crops. These are the tangibles that we often count for replacement, to whatever degree possible. But what we don't seem to take into account are the intangibles that the floods cruelly and instantly erase. This has to do with the culture of the people subjected to the tragedy. From the very next hour after the tragedy has struck, they have to compromise on the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the gods they pray to. And if the government decides to relocate them to a place several miles away from where they have lived for generations, then, in due course, they are bound to lose everything that is familiar to them -- the quality of the soil, the undulations of the mountains, the roads that led to the grazing fields and the tricky bends of the thin stream. In short, all that gave them their identity and existential confidence. There is also an added stress on their language, which gropes for a new lexicon to narrate the devastation. I don't wish to question the sincerity and empathy with which relief has been offered, but the plain truth is that the intangibles weigh heavily.
Take a look at the culture shock that people in the submerged areas have experienced during relief operations. In most districts of North Karnataka, with the possible exception of Southern Raichur and parts of Bellary, jowar roti or 'bhaakri' with leafy vegetables, brinjal and onion constitute their staple diet. Here again, different parts of North Karnataka make their 'bhaakri' differently. Some are hard, some soft and some with an in-between consistency. But the relief despatched to these places mostly contained wheat and rice. V S Acharya, the home minister who announced a flood-relief food kit said: “To ensure that nobody remains without food, the flood affected families would be given a kit comprising 20 kg rice, 5 kg wheat, a kilo of pulses and sugar and five litres of kerosene and edible oil.” By October 16, as part of relief measures, the state government had released 65 tonnes of rice, 10,446 tonnes of wheat, 8,821 tonnes sugar and 23,444 kilolitres of kerosene through the public distribution system. Nowhere do we find a mention of jowar.
Even the temporary kitchens that have been set up in relief camps do not serve jowar rotis because they consume a lot of time to tap and make. So, the quickie that is served is a kind of 'khichdi' and of course rice and bread is as an alternative. We tend to take food for granted, but that's something that instantly drives home the tragedy. A fairly common truth that the idea of food is distinctly different for different people simply does not register. It may be argued that to banish the stalking hunger 'something is better than nothing'. Agreed. But then, this is just a simple pointer to the fundamental cultural alterations that people cope with during natural calamities. We hardly acknowledge the quiet suffering of indignity.
A reporter-friend was witness to another incident, this one pertaining to clothing, in Surpur of Gulbarga district. The women who had not changed for days surrounded a relief-van that came with cartons of used clothes from Bangalore, down South. When they began to distribute the material, women were surprised to find what was being handed over to them. All of the relief cartons, without an exception, were 'chudidars' or 'salwar kameezs' - - a two-piece dress of north Indian origin, which has become popular with women across urban and semi-urban India. What is traditional wear in rural Karnataka, especially in North Karnataka is cotton saris with a particularly bright weave. For men it is thin white dhotis girded in a local style and white 'kurtas', which look like hybrid shirts. When the women found that these 'chudidars' were of no use for them, they tried it out on their children. When they looked submerged in the robes, they took them off and apparently decided to use them to clean the floors. Please remember, these are not destitute people. Till the other day, they had sufficient food in their 'hage' (granaries) and clothes in their trunks. And now, imagine what stretching arms for relief can do to their self-esteem. Can somebody statistically enumerate it?
After food and clothing, there is an interesting cultural issue related to housing as well in these flood-hit areas. It relates to what the government considers as 'pucca' and 'katcha' houses. Needless to say the government's definition of the two is narrow. In the government books a 'pucca' house would mean the one built with burnt bricks, tiled flooring and an RCC roof. A 'katcha' house would be one without these elements. However, people in Dharwad, Haveri, Gadag, Bijapur, Bagalkot and Belgaum of North Karnataka consider square-shaped houses made of black soil as also 'pucca' houses. In fact, the flat roofs of these houses, called 'melmudde mane' in the local dialect, allow people to even sleep on rooftops during summer. Stone houses found in places like Shahabad and Wadi in Gulbarga, which also have stone roofs, are locally considered 'pucca' houses, although there is no use of cement or burnt bricks. This matter of definition is a contentious issue because the government in these areas is handing out a compensation of only Rs 2,500 for a damaged 'kutcha' house and Rs 25,000 for a damaged 'pucca' house. Here again, they suffer an indignity of being told that they lived in a 'kutcha' house and should therefore make do with the meagre compensation.
Even as we talk of houses, rich contractors smelling big profits are queuing up in front of the chief minister's house in Bangalore to showcase model-houses they can build in the areas where the government plans to relocate the 226 villages. These models look like five-star cottages. If these fancy houses really get built, then, people will surely dread to cross the alien threshold and make a living inside.