From the time coronavirus crisis was being talked about and its spread took place in India, we the many sister organisations working under the Catholic Church of Varanasi were in conversation with each other to prepare ourselves to respond to this emerging crisis. It was clear to us all that this seems to be totally a new disaster unimaginable and beyond our understanding. Since the situation was appearing to be grim and depressing, we were wondering as to what to do.

The response of the government of India and state government of Uttar Pradesh also bothered us. Instead of addressing the issue in a much more scientific and serious manner, both the governments were taking resource to more obscure and obscurantist attitude and behaviour. What was even more deplorable is that they got some of their constituencies to ‘beat the plate and to clap’ to ensure ‘go corona go’.

Our own experience of the response of both the governments during the massive floods in the Ganges in general and in the ghats in particular in Varanasi cautioned us that we need to do something to be part of the most marginalised and vulnerable population.

“The water level of river Ganga continues to rise in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s  Lok Sabha constituency, mounting trouble for the locals. Incessant rainfall has caused the river Ganga to overflow at many places. The water level in the river has breached the danger mark of 71.26 metres in Varanasi. According to the Central Water Commission, river Ganga is in the severe flood situation in Varanasi with a continuous rise in water level. The water level is likely to rise further to around 72 metres by Saturday morning. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is scheduled to conduct an aerial survey of flood-hit areas in Varanasi, Allahabad and Gazipur on Friday. He will visit Lanka area and will then head to Assi Ghat and Samne Ghat and will meet flood-affected people in Varanasi”. This is the news reported online by Financial Express on 20th September, 2019 on the deteriorating flood situation of Varanasi town adjacent to river Ganges, Varuna and Assi.

It is reported that many of the affected people have been shifted from inundated parts to safer places in the district with the help of boats. As most of the houses are submerged in water, the people from flood-hit areas are relying on boats to move from one place to another. Several low-lying localities are also flooded. As the water level in river Ganga has reached danger level, Assi river sewage has entered in the low-lying areas of the city. Hence, the sewage water has entered into the huts and houses of the people forced to live on the Assi river bed. From the second week of September flood water entered in several of the low laying localities of the city including Samane ghat, Assi ghat, Nagwan, Mahesh Nagar, Rajendra Nagar, Maruti Nagar etc.

The administration claims that it has arranged for shelters at primary schools and providing packed food to the affected people. At least 15 NDRF boats and other private ferries have been pressed into service for rescue of stranded people. According to several reports, people are virtually locked inside their houses with water occupying almost all of the room space. People can be seen braving the river water in the already flooded rooms of their houses.

One of the badly affected sector of the ghats is the cremation of dead bodies. In normal times, cremation used to take place in most of the ghats of Holy river Ganges due to lack of space for cremation. But Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat are the most preferred, since this tradition is guided by the belief that those who are cremated at these ghats will be liberated from the endless cycle of birth and death. But the cremation ground at Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat were and even after a month are underwater and the last rites of the dead are performed in the narrow by-lanes and in the backyard of houses adjoining the ghats. This is leading to health hazards. Also, only a few dead bodies can be cremated in these by lanes and thus a long que for this last rites. There is no one to listen to the complaints of the people residing here of this noise and air pollution.

It is to be noted that a large number of bodies from the eastern part of the state, as well as Bihar, are brought for the cremation to Varanasi, as according to Hindu belief cremation in this city leads to salvation. The doms, that is, those cremate the dead bodies in these ghats reported that at a given time even 100 bodies would be cremated in these two ghats. This was not possible for the last one month.

To the good luck of the people, the administration constructed a raised platform building where only 10 dead bodies can be consumed by fire. The electric crematorium was recently converted into gas crematorium at Harishchandra Ghat. But due to lack of over use and upkeep, it is not functioning now. When this was introduced in 2012, there were not many takers. During this flood forced by the situation, many reluctantly opted for gas crematorium since there was huge que for traditional cremation.

People have also complained of a sudden and exorbitant increase in prices of wooden logs and other material used for performing the last rites. Wooden logs kept for cremations could be seen floating in the floodwaters. With incessant rain almost for a week, the logs were all wet and thus the price also went up.

Another segment of the population of Banaras which is very badly affected is the boatmen and their families. From end of August to first week of October boat services have been suspended. The rising water and the currents in the river Ganges were proving dangerous for them to venture out into the river. The administration ordered the boatmen not to ply the boats.

It is by plying boats that many families near the river Ganges earn daily wages. The boats are used for religious purposes like going into the middle of the river to offer traditional offerings, to do the jal samadhi, that is, burial in water, etc.; also to view the world famous Maha Aarati, that is, the evening worship that is done in the Raja Harishchandra Ghat; boat is also for joy ride for the tourist who flock to this Holy City. It is also pertinent to note this fact that from end of August both religious devotees and tourists come in big numbers to the town and hire the boat for various purposes. But now for more than a month, boats had to be grounded. More than 120 families who are economically dependent upon the wages by plying boats are severely affected by this unexpected and unprecedented floods. The boatmen stated that usually they save some money so that when water rises in Ganges they can tied over the situation. But this was an unprecedented flood in 40 years as reported. Hence, they are borrowing money for higher interest and making both the ends meet.

The administration was alter enough to give warnings for tourists. It had asked the tourists to think of coming to Varanasi only in October. This helped some of the tourists to postpone their trip to Varanasi. But the cremation of dead bodies cannot be postponed.

It was reported by many print and electronic media that people in Varanasi continued to struggle as incessant rainfall in the last weeks of September wich resulted in flood-like situation. It was also reported that Anil Jaiswal, 68, and his wife are stranded on the first floor of their residence in Maruti Nagar area of Varanasi since last one week. Both power and water supply are completely cut off due to the floods and they are still awaiting help from the district administration.”Half of my house is submerged in water. I have sent other members of my family to their relatives in safer areas but I am stranded at my residence along with my wife,” Jaiswal said.

“The flood situation is worsening here. Water has entered every house. More than half of the population living in this area have moved from here. The administration hasn’t made any arrangements for food and clean drinking water for us,” Jaiswal said. Jaiswal’s wife Shanti Devi said, “My cow has gone missing in the floods and our area has converted into a river. Many NGOs are delivering food and other necessities to us with the help of the NDRF teams but the administration hasn’t made any arrangements to provide us relief material.”

What is all the more painful is that while Varanasi like many other parts of Uttar Pradesh was reeling under the impact of unprecedented flood, country’s Prime Minister was busy with ‘Howdy Modi’ show in the United States of America. As reported Howdy Modi was a community summit hosted by Texas India Forum (TIF) for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President of the United States Donald Trump on Sunday, September 22nd at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. Over 50,000 attended the sold-out event, making it the largest gathering for an invited foreign leader visiting the United States other than the Pope. The “Howdy Modi” summit was organized with the support of more than 1,000 volunteers and 650 Texas-based Welcome Partner organizations.

While the Prime Minister was busy with his ‘image building’ the poor and the vulnerable suffered for a month. What was more disheartening was that when some of the civil society organisations approached the district administration, they were told that there was ‘directives from the top’ to declare that there is no flood in Varanasi. Hence, flood relief to the poor is not needed.

Realising the fact that the ‘weaker sections’ of the society are going to be mostly affected by the lockdown, we began to get our ourselves organised to respond to this situation in whatever way possible. First and foremost was to obtain permission from the district administration to carry out some relief work. Hence, we decided to offer some of the facilities of our institutions at the disposal of the District Administration so that the affected people can benefit. Whatever provisions are available with the District Administration, we will be willing to receive them and undertake the health care services. The following are some of the facilities we offered:

  1. Supply of food and Sanitary materials: With the permission of the district administration, we decided to provide some sanitary and food provisions to the most needy and vulnerable families in parts of the town. We hoped to provide basic food and sanitary materials for a week to over 1,000 to 2000 families in Varanasi district and around 2,000 in 8 other civil districts where we have our institutions.

 

  1. Medical Care: St. Mary’s Hospital, Korauta, Varanasi: This hospital has over 60 beds; Doctors 3, 3 staff nurses, 5 nurses, ward boys, pharmacist. We need protective gears so that we can be of service.

 

  1. Transit Points / Isolation Centre: In Varanasi town we can offer the space in our schools for transit points and or isolation centre to be prepared in advance in case if need arises.

 

As we made the above offers, we made the following requests for permission:

1) Permission to streamline the above mentioned activities with respective departments.

2) Permission to procure the relief materials in bulk and pack and distribute these at different points without collecting people and following the social distancing provided in the guidelines.

3) Permission to ply our vehicles to undertake all these tasks smoothly.

After obtaining your permission, we decided to provide the following sanitary and food provisions to the most needy families in rural and urban Varanasi district. After speaking to some of our contacts, we realized the need to provide the following family package:

Table: 1. Family Package

S.No.Needed/Possible ItemsQuantity
1Soaps5 pieces
2Masks5 pieces
3Rice5 kg
4Wheat flour5 kg
5Pulses2 kg
6Cooking oil1 liter
7Salt½ kg
8Biscuit5 packets
9Buns4 pieces
10Potatoes2 kg

Later we stopped item # 9 and 10 but provided the rest for a family of 5 for a week.

The following needy category of people we kept in mind.

  1. Domestic Workers
  2. Rickshaw pullers
  3. Widows
  4. Sex Workers
  5. Brickkiln Workers
  6. Musahars
  7. Leprosy Patients:
  8. People with Disabilities
  9. Transgenders

10.Vegetable, Fruit and Fish Vendors

  1. Migrant labourers
  2. Others

We strictly followed the guidelines given by the government like social distancing, washing of hands regularly, santising ourselves, wherever we went to distribute the family packages, we made people aware of the need to strictly follow social distancing, etc. We took the help of local administration, police and panchayat raj representatives.

 

As of 19/04/2020 we have covered over 7,000 most needy families with a supply of 25 kg essential items as indicated above. Out of these, we have covered over 2,000 minority Muslim families among them those who are extremely poor. We undertook this work in 2 rounds, first from 25th March to 12th April, 2020 and then from 16th April to 20th April.

Third Round: We are planning few special packages in the third round: As Ramzan is approaching, we are planning a Special Ramzan Package, that is, to provide some special items needed for Muslims to keep and to break the fast. This we are planning for 2,000 targeted poor Muslim families in those locations where we already provided relief or in new places which we need to explore. Dates is one such item which is costly but needed to break the fast.

Similarly, Special Package as Refill for the poorest of the poor or fill for those families we have not been able to cover so far.

If the lockdown is lifted after 20th April or after 3rd May, we are planning to identify some of the poor families who are engaged in self-employment like fish, vegetable, fruit vending, especially women and rickshaw pullers, daily wage earners and think of providing Rs. 1,000/- to begin their lives along with livelihood. About 1,000 families this can lead to livelihood. Our resources are limited but we are trying out best to do this.

Whenever we travelled, we also provided drinking water and biscuits to the police personnel who were on duty since it was becoming very hot and drinking water would help them to carry out their duty well. We in a special way tried to provide these to women police force. Many of them had to do duties in the most difficult circumstances and also did not have washrooms to use.

We once again thank the District Administration for giving us the permission to carry out this response under the guidance of the district administration. We are happy to be of some service to our fellow country men and women at this time of crisis.

Dr.Prakash Louis is part of Social Welfare Society


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One Comment

  1. Avatar Sally Dugman says:

    I will be quite frank. I was raised in a Quaker household. Nobody told me about whatever I should believe. There are atheist and agnostic Quakers, dyed in the wool of the Lamb fundamentalist Quakers, Jewish born Quakers who blend Judaism with Buddhism and all sorts of other permutations.

    I was given a Bible as a child by the clerk of Scarsdale Friends Meeting in NY. My daughter was given one as a child by the clerk of Worcester’s Meeting in MA. Apparently it is a custom at Meetings to provide guidance.

    In my daughter’s copy was written something about the spirit of the law vs the letter of the law. It was painstakingly written in each child’s Bible.

    All considered, I do not adhere to Catholic dogma, nor share all of their views on critical matters. Yet no one had better try to tear me away from loving the Catholics and Catholic Workers who I have known. That rent, the rip, simply will not work.

    If you hate Catholics, that position is your burden to bear and I pity you. Since I was a toddler, the ones who have been in my life have always enlightened and benefited me.