When all hell breaks loose, make merry.

This is exactly what some flood victims in Koppal district resorted to once they were distributed compensation for ‘partially’ damaged houses - not because it was plenty, but too paltry to be put to good use. In the worst-hit Hachcholli of Bellary district, many poor people hit arrack shops or gambled away the relief fund. Paradoxically, amid its ruins stands a wine shop - all intact.

Cooking must go on even in this messed-up, roofless kitchen in Hiresindhogi of Koppal district. Pic: Savita Hiremath.

Says Shailaja H M, president of Sanjogita Women and Rural Development Organisation, Koppal taluk: “Our NGO chipped in for the relief work in Hachcholli and I talked to many men who had frittered away the relief money on drinking or gambling as Deepavali was round the corner. They said how can we repair the house with 3000 rupees?”

When I visited some flood-hit villages perching perilously on the rain-swollen Tungabhadra and Hagari riverbanks, I came close to understanding why these men took refuge in such acts with impunity. Their mud houses couldn’t have withstood even a fairly heavy rain; forget the pounding that went on from September 30 to October 2. The mud melted, the wooden posts collapsed, and the houses caved in. All this happened when the people were hobbling along with their children and old parents to the other edge of their small world. Karnataka Government sources say that 22 villages (5,611 families) in Koppal district and 20 villages (6,800 families) in Bellary district have been marked out for relocation.

The root cause

For all the destruction in many villages of Koppal, Tahsildar P N Lokesh blames it on the nearby Hirehalla checkdam with six crest gates which has no monitoring cell. He says thousands of cusecs of water are released without any prior notice or precaution causing a lot of damage in this area. “Earlier the dam was 20 feet deep, but now it is almost at ground-level because of silt and garbage. No desilting project has been taken up for long. Lokesh says he has talked to the zilla panchayath to employ people under NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) to desilt the checkdam. “This will ensure employment to the flood-hit and prevention of crop damage in future.”

Biased survey

In all the six villages I visited (Hachcholli, Halegondabalu, Kakkaragol, Hiresindhogi, Kudadaral, and Shridharagadde) across Koppal and Bellary districts in second week of November, one thread stood out persistently from among a string of grievances raised by the victims. They complained that the survey conducted days after the tragedy was biased and slipshod. Both local- and taluk-level officials did not even bother to enter and take a look into the so-called partially damaged houses. Sometimes whimsical, often deliberate, they scribbled a number on the cheque cavalierly and handed it over to the victims. The rich got a better deal; whereas the poor feel that the bureaucrats’ chilling disregard is rooted in the inherent prejudice that those who live in huts and on the fringes do not deserve anything better.

Lokesh admits that the local officials sat down in temples or gram panchayat offices or in some prominent persons’ houses and fixed the relief amount. “In all, 1,167 houses were given cheques in Hiresindhogi. We halted that survey and conducted a new one to rectify the mistakes….”

The state government entrusted village accountants and secretaries with the task of damage assessment. Questioning the futility of such methodology, Basavaraj Kowtal, convenor of Human Rights Front for Dalit Liberation-Karnataka, says: “What’s the purpose of these repeated surveys when there is no engineer or expert to assess the damage? How can a village accountant or a secretary be entrusted with this job?”

Neelamma, 80, keeps a watch on monkeys and strays in front of her damaged house in Kakkaragol of Koppal district. Pic: Savita Hiremath.

Fearing that this entire rehabilitation exercise might drag on for many years, Kowtal regrets that the government went ahead with the relief operations without preparedness or commitment. “Only favouritism and nepotism work - I have myself come across many examples.”

Professor T R Chandrashekhar of Hampi Kannada University, who led a seven-member team of scholars and research assistants to study the nature and consequences of floods, says he noticed a great deal of uncertainty with regard to resettlement and "nobody knows how it will end". He regrets that all the operations are being carried out without consulting the people.

When his team approached the district administration with this concern, they said people would demand too much "if we let them speak and so we are doing it on our own". While agreeing that such a scenario is possible, Chandrashekhar says the government cannot throw the baby with the bathwater. "I can't argue that the rich should get more relief and the poor less. But the government cannot escape its responsibilities. It has to evolve some mechanism like bank loan schemes to solve the problems."

Measly compensation

At Halegondabalu of Koppal, where, out of the 580 houses, 143 were completely submerged and another 300 severely damaged, Somavva, 70, says she cooks in someone else’s house because the mud roof of her house has caved in. Since only the outer walls are still standing upright, the officials termed it “partially damaged” and gave her Rs. 7,000. Ashok, 25, a B.Sc. graduate of the same village, says his house wasn’t surveyed even after 45 days after the floods. “Our house has fallen and there is water inside. We sleep in someone else’s house.”

Even more shocking is the Rs.500-1,500 given to some people, especially dalits, in Bijapur. Ramesh, member of Bijapura Shoshithara Abhivriddhi Vedike (a newly constituted forum to fight discrimination against flood-hit dalits), rues, “Some people here got just 500 rupees. The officials behave as if they are doing it out of pity and we are made to look like beggars.”

Kowtal questions the very basis on which the government fixed Rs.35,000-37,000 relief for pucca houses and Rs. 4,000-7,000 for kachcha houses. "It clearly shows how discriminatory the officials have been. Better houses for rich people and some shacks for the poor - this attitude violates the basic human rights." He argues that if the government says six lakh houses have collapsed, it should give equal compensation to all - be it upper caste or Dalits. "It's just that they don't have the heart to give. That's all."

On the contrary, Siruguppa tahsildar Geetha N R claims that people pulled down their own houses to get full compensation. Kowtal dismisses this statement and calls its nonsense. “Aren’t people going about their lives without all this compensation or decent shelters? People will move on somehow; it has always been so, it is so even now. They aren’t foolish enough to bring down their own houses and wait for the government to rebuild them.”

Ironically, claiming “swift relief action and massive reconstruction” in its Report to People-1 - “Unprecedented Floods” - dated December 6, the Karnataka government says that 6.55 lakh houses have been wiped out but makes no mention of the partially damaged houses.

Is the damage ‘partial’ or the bureaucracy?

Expertise to assess the damage is important, but in fact, it needs a casual glance to comprehend the sordid state of affairs. In some kachcha houses, either the roof has come crashing down or the façade or the walls. In front of these unliveable houses, old women keeping a watch on strays and monkeys was a common sight in Kakkaragol of Koppal, a village which was preparing for the chief minister’s visit.

In the meantime, most of the RCC buildings - generally very few and owned by well-to-do families - have withstood the floods and are at least in liveable conditions.

Shivamma and Neelamma, both in their 80s, have lived in Kakkaragol all their life but are now finding it difficult to live in their (kachcha) houses. “God knows our plight…. We are so scared to sit and eat food inside the house. The back wall and the side walls are gone. We don’t know when it will fully collapse.” Her neighbour Neelamma echoes the concern: “it is so frightening whenever it rains these days. We don’t know what will happen next.”

As I walked through one slitty lane after another, men and women led me to their houses saying: “When it rains, the entire house leaks. We don’t have enough blankets or mats. How are we to live on here with old parents and children till they shift us?”

While breast-feeding her 10-month-old baby, Gangamma, 33, Hiresindhogi, says: “they said they would give 35,000 rupees for fallen houses. But we have received only 4,000-5,000 rupees. All of them (politicians) make speeches. They tell us that they cannot survive without us growing crops. Now we are being pushed out of our village in the name of rehabilitation. When we complain, they advise that we should ask for compensation. Are we beggars? Don’t we have self-respect?”

Kowtal isn’t at all ready to buy into this theory of partial damage. These mud houses are extremely fragile because most of them do not have a sound foundation. The walls may be standing upright now but one rain is enough to bring them down. The entire structure needs to be razed and rebuilt all over again. “Even for temporary repairs, 35,000 rupees is not enough.”

After consulting some victims in Bijapur district and engineers, HRFDL submitted a memorandum to the Legal Services Authority in the Karnataka High Court in the last week of November. They estimate the cost of building a decent mud house at Rs 1.5 lakh. "If not, we have demanded that the government should give a minimum of Rs.80,000 for repair works," adds Kowtal

In one such house in Hiresindhogi, I saw a huge heap of mud and broken wooden posts lay right next to the fireplace. While various kinds of creepers meandered all over the damaged roof, a swarm of butterflies were fluttering merrily over the bright yellow flowers. Ironically, none of these flowers or butterflies stood in tribute to the past. Everything that was so familiar had turned so hostile! Unless one is forced to live under these circumstances, it is difficult to fathom what it means to be homeless. Partially homeless, that is.

Maybe, ‘heart-wrenching’ is the word that captures the pain of seeing Sarojamma, 54, of Hiresindhogi, a widow with two young daughters who has fallen sick after the floods. Humbled and famished, her family now sleeps in her relatives’ house. She says she has nothing to live on and that the officials gave her only 4000 rupees. She breaks down: “I am not someone who has the courage to question anyone. I won’t ask anybody for anything. If it comes, good. Otherwise I will convince myself that I have sinned against someone and hence being punished.”

Behind her frail appearance lie an irreducible faith in the divinity and a stubbornness that no floods can wash away; nor can the officials, smug as they may be in their reprehensible deeds, dent her grace.