Every time I return to India, I try to “expect the unexpected.” As cliché as that phrase sounds, “the unexpected” is why I initially fell in love with this country. It tests my patience, breaks me down and builds my resilience. However, I never expected that “the unexpected” would, this time around, come in the form of a natural disaster.
This past year, the news was filled with headlines about the devastating flooding in Uttarakhand. I am not referring to these floods. My placement as a William J. Clinton Fellow for Service in India is in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, with Shaishav, a completely participatory NGO working with children who live in the slums. I expected to write my first blog post about the resilience and empowerment of local children. But instead, I am writing about the incredible staff that work at Shaishav, and recording their tales as emergency responders for those who are the most disadvantaged in Bhavnagar.
About two weeks after moving to Gujarat, it started raining. A lot. I have lived in India during previous monsoon seasons, but this monsoon was irregularly heavy, very late (monsoons should end in late August, and it was already mid-September), and crucially, it did not stop for four days. Southern Gujarat was completely flooded. Newspapers showed rain filling the first floor of homes, motorcycles immersed in water, animals floating down the street. 13 people died during the September floods and between 40,000-50,000 were temporarily displaced.
I sat at my desk on the second floor of Shaishav’s office, noticing water slowly pooling into the room as the monsoons permeated the walls of the building. The field outside of the office had already transformed into a lake. The staff started sopping up the water in the office, but nobody seemed to be thinking about those outside our walls. Out of all of the brilliant employees, it was the Shaishav bus driver, a completely illiterate Gujarati man named Tulsi Bhai, who approached Shaishav’s executive director and said, “the slums will be flooding. We need to start evacuating. I need money to go fill up the buses with gas.” Shaishav works in with communities in over twenty slums. These slums are often built on flood plains, since the government will not authorize “official” homes to be built on them. Within hours of Tulsi Bhai’s prediction, our Executive Director began receiving urgent phone calls asking for help.
Shaishav’s communities team were incredible first responders! They “suited up” in heavy duty rain gear and rushed to the slums, loaded as many people onto the Shaishav bus as possible and relocated them to local schools which were situated on higher ground. They spent hours wading back and forth, evacuating people from the communities. (I tried to go help and they ordered me to stay in the office; I guess it is a liability issue to have a foreign girl wading through sewage water.) The bus driver navigated the bus through several feet of water, an incredibly dangerous job. When the team finally returned, they were eager to tell their stories. Homes, especially those next to rivers, were flooded with three to four feet of water, and the levels were rising. Many had sewage floating in and out of them. Apparently, in these slums, bathrooms are often pits dug in the dirt, which filled up and overflowed quickly with the rains. Children were falling in these pits because they couldn’t identify them when they were covered in water. When we left our office, we waded through water up to the bus, which took us all home because all public transportation had stopped running hours earlier. I could feel trash and debris floating in the water.
Within a couple of days, the water subsided. One of our employees, Alpesh Bhai, had gone to Surat to visit his mother and father in law. He returned and told me his story. The flooding in Surat was much worse than in Bhavnagar; in many homes the entire first floor was flooded (and what would you do if you didn’t have a second floor?). Alpesh Bhai was trapped with his family in their home, sitting on the upper bunk of a bed for forty eight hours. For twenty four of those hours, nobody had any food or water to drink. I tried to ask him how people used the restroom; he changed the subject. However, he proceeded to tell me stories of his previous job as a first responder in Gujarat, and I learned about the wide breadth of natural disasters that occur every year, and the lack of prevention to prepare for the next one. Indians are resilient, they face these situations head on, live through them, and move forward. However, in my opinion, their disaster management systems could use some work.
I am lucky, I live in a nice apartment perched on a hill, so during the floods, all the water ran downward, away from my home. The night of the flood response, the bus dropped off my roommate and myself in front of our house. We didn’t have any food (poor disaster planning: we usually buy the veggies for our dinner the day of), so we waded through a bit of water to the closest establishment, about a block away: the only Western Chain in Bhavnagar, Dominos Pizza. After eating our pizza—jalepenos and paneer—I took a hot shower and fell into a deep sleep.
To me, this day represents contrast. The contrast between the marginalized and the privileged, between resilient people and resilient infrastructure. There is so much I could say about power and privilege to end this blog post, but I will let you think about it, and come to a conclusion yourself; perhaps, depending on who you are and where you live, over a piece of pizza.