River breaks the dawn | Milaap

River breaks the dawn

The truck rolled to a stop near a half-completed bridge in the locality of Lakshmi Khandi, in Balangir, a town in Western Odisha. There were people everywhere rushing to and from the narrow lanes that pockmarked the pale yellow walls of the houses. Here and there, a baby wailed, a woman cried out to Deities, and men sat with their eyes downcast with an air of desolation. Their lives as they knew it was turned upside down one fateful morning.

Dawn, 12th August 2019: The Gandhral dam which is located 5 km upstream from the town had broken under the stress of a freak rainfall. The gushing torrent quickly gathered debris and momentum before slamming into the walls of the riverside. The people here are poor wage workers, they were asleep when noises from the river rose some curious light sleepers up. Before they could react, a monstrous wave wreaked havoc throughout the locality. Within minutes, the water level rose 6 feet above the walls of the bank. People fled with their children and only the clothes on their back.

Pradeep Bag: 'I was sleeping. There was a commotion outside about the water level rising in the river. I went and checked for myself. As I was watching, the water level violently rose and the flow slammed into the barricade walls. The river looked like it was going to swallow us whole. I ran back to my home, grabbed my children and left with them. The water rose up to my neck as we escaped.'

Pradeep points to his home which has been demolished by the floods.

People in Balangir have never experienced such floods. It was a horrifying, new experience that scarred hundreds of people forever. Homes near the river bank were inundated under neck-high water. All of their electrical equipment destroyed, some of the walls of the houses crumbled and brought the entire roof with them.

In these times of crisis, when the river was dragging away everything and everyone unfortunate enough to be too close to the bank. A group of men and three women fastened ropes to the posts and pulled out people from the water. Amongst these women were Idan Bibi and Meera Mandala.

Meera Mandala: 'I have lived here all of my life. In thirty years, I have never seen such a violent flood. Overnight, hundreds of families lost their homes. We were lucky nobody lost their lives.'

Pandab Bisi, a resident of the locality whose house was located right on the edge of the riverbank: 'I lost everything in the flood.' He woke up at 7 am to assess the water level of the river.

Rabindra Parida, sweets maker. He sat with his head held low with an air of defeat. He lost his ration food, jewelry, money, documents, clothes, and everything else that the water could carry away.

A man shows how high the waters levels rose within moments.

Balangir Action Committee which was created to respond immediately to any national disasters came to their aid. They set up camp on the bridge adjacent to the locality. They cooked meals for over 150 families that were affected by the floods.

There were 120-130 families in one bank and around 50-70 families in the other. People came as I was asking them the details of the incident. They asked me "Will you be able to help? We lost so much, will we ever get back all we that we lost?" I had no answer to their questions.

Senolata Kunwar lives in a household of 10 members. Her husband goes out for work. He was away when the river violently tore through their community. They lost almost everything they had. Overnight, their lives were turned upside down. There was no electricity for three whole days. They have to depend on relief food supplied by various groups to simply survive. But these do not last long and they resort to eating outside in hotels. This has taken a huge toll on their savings.

A broken vehicle repair shop.

An unknown establishment lies in ruins by the river bank.

The waters tore away the foundation of these buildings.

The destruction on this bridge in Hatpada was severe. People on the opposite banks were stranded with no option of crossing the road. Like a freak storm in the summer, the floods came, ravaged through the town and left a sunny day after it.

The repair work was in full swing and diggers ran endlessly throughout the day and night to get this bridge in working condition.

Muna hotel sweet store, Raju Behera, owner of the sweets store lost most of the foundation of his building during the floods. However, he still opened up his shop and is selling sweets to the workers and people who are repairing the broken bridge.

Pankajini Barik holds up the relief bag containing flattened rice, water, biscuits, and raw sugar.

People line up to receive the food and water distributed by the relief team of Mahashakti Foundation.

Many organizations and groups came in and distributed food and water to the people affected by the disaster. Camps were set up near localities which were heavily inundated to cook food for the people. Many neighbours brought in people whose homes were destroyed and had nowhere else to go. People were seen in mass on the rooftops of buildings that had stronger concrete construction.

Amidst the chaos, a notorious scene was at play. There were reports of relief trucks not being able to reach the affected area due to bad roads. In a few localities, many people who were not affected by the floods received the relief rations instead of the people most affected. However, despite a few unpredictable scenarios during the relief campaign, most of the people received their daily food and water from such organizations.

The people have been dealt a severe blow to their normal way of living. With some of them losing everything they earned overnight. The question Pradeep asked me still echoes in my mind, "Will you be able to help?"