Morigaon (Assam): It was 12:30pm on Thursday when National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) official Dr Tej Bahadur Singh’s afternoon inspection of flood rescue preparedness was interrupted by a sudden distress call.
In flood-hit Laharighat in Morigaon district of Assam, a woman and her two children were trapped inside their homes. The rising flood water, dwarfing the family above the chest by now, had finally shaken their confident decision to stay back. It had dawned upon them at last that it would be wise to leave behind their home and belongings to protect their lives.
It had been two days since the rainfall stopped. Under a harsh sun, the main market area of the village was bustling with rehabilitation activities. But Singh gathered himself and his team to reach the family.
“Rescue always comes first,” he said.
July saw Assam being hit by one of the worst floods since 2004. A total of 4,128 villages in 103 revenue circles of 28 district have been affected by the flood, a release by the Assam State Disaster Management said.
Within these areas and beyond, close to 53 lakh people have been affected. The state disaster management agency has also noted 37 deaths due to floods so far. The damage to wildlife is unimaginable.
The NDRF team stationed in Morigaon operates one of the 689 flood relief camps in the state.
“The villages in the area are submerged, but many villagers do not wish to be rescued. They fear losing their documents, valuables and their home. We had to forcefully get some of them out,” said Singh.
The NDRF team with rescued residents.
Following heavy rainfall, the embankment surrounding Laharighat had collapsed, causing water from the Brahmaputra river to enter the area. Although it hadn’t rained for the past 48 hours, the strong current of the mighty river had caused heavy damage to villagers. Some lost their home, some their cattle; many lost their livelihood.
According to the NDRF official, there are approximately 40-50 villages in this area. “We found out from the Circle Office that within these villages lives a population of more than 1.5 lakh. Our team alone has evacuated more than 3,000 people who were severely affected,” he said.
Singh’s 60-personnel team is divided into two units - one stationed in Laharighat, and another at an area close by. Both units include deep divers, nursing specialists, veterinary specialists, boat drivers, officers and team commanders. Each team is well-equipped with necessary tools such as motor boats, rescue gear and lifesaving supplies.
RP Mishra, one of the rescue boat drivers, is a resident of Madhya Pradesh, but he feels as much at home in Assam. “It is difficult to constantly indulge in rescue operations under the heat, but then people are badly suffering here. Since we arrived here on July 12, our efforts have been constantly aimed at their relief,” he said.
But Mishra added that some of the affected who know how to swim, children and adults, are still not getting out of their homes.
Mishra’s fellow-mate and boat navigator BC Roy, a native of Assam, shares a similar sense of purpose. He said that just like the waters do not discriminate on impact, they too feel a sense of responsibility towards everyone – even the one’s refusing to be rescued now.
BC Roy at work during rescue operations in Assam.
The Muslim-majority population in the area faces the test of a cruel July as they meddle between the anxieties of the Supreme Court-monitored National Register of Citizens (NRC) final list and the impact of an unforgiving monsoon. But, Singh said his team doesn't bother with politics and the exercises of social engineering.
“Here we deal with a population that has experienced a lot of things. What they deal with in terms of politics, social schemes or Supreme Court-monitored exercises is none of our business. We have the resolve, and we are committed to rescue every bit of hope,” he added.
Among the notable rescues, the NDRF teams in Laharighat proudly talk of successfully moving a pregnant woman, who went into labour during the flood, to a hospital. They have rescued infants and the aged, including 100-year-olds.
Singh said the community living in the area is mostly dependent on cattle for livelihood, and they have made efforts to rescue them as well. “The people of this area are very much attached to their cattle. So when we rescue them, we try to rescue all possible small cattle like goats and cows. Our team even conducted an animal health check-up camp.”
“We have to keep people’s sentiments in mind,” he said.
However, rescue operations for the NDRF team do not always go smooth. In addition to facing reluctance by some villagers to leave their homes and belongings, the team often struggles with the river.
“Because we are dealing with the Brahmaputra here, we have to deal with a very strong current. Adding to this, is vegetation rooted in the soil which gets stuck in boats propeller. This slows down rescue operations. The fall of the river embankment is a major catastrophe in many different ways. It also affects us rescuers,” noted Mishra.
Nevertheless, despite the challenges, Singh and his men patrol throughout the day and night to look for those in need of help.
Singh said patrolling troops use whistles to attract flood affected victims for rescue and sometimes even use utensils to make echoing noises that may be heard in far of distances.
“Ours is a 24/7 job. There is no stopping, be it rain or no rain,” he added.
The official, nonetheless, acknowledge that a lot of their work involves active participation with the community. The rescue teams have been constantly in touch with local administration, police and the villagers, who inform them of flood victims in need of rescue and rehabilitation.
“We immerse ourselves in the community and make contacts. These contacts help us reach out to others. But beyond our contacts, there is relentless patrolling involved for find affected people,” he said.
“As vast as the waters extends, that is our territory. There is no end. So, there is no stopping.”