I wonder what is going through Nirmala Bibi's mind as she looks on at the tranquil River Padma. After a few moments, she says, "Bodo ashanti te acchi, ma (There is no peace). I have twice lost my home to this river; the river can be so cruel, it gives life and it takes life just as easily."
Nirmala Bibi is only too aware of the cruelties a mighty life-giving river is capable of inflicting. Around 50, she is now settled at Moushmari village, which has a population of 5,000. The village is located on Nirmalchar, a riverine island located on the outskirts of Murshidabad in West Bengal. The island was formed in 1980 when the River Padma - as the Ganges is known in the region - changed course, which is a frequent occurrence. Due to heavy siltation, the river that forms the natural boundary between India and Bangladesh, often changes course.
When the dry riverbeds that form the islands disappear because of erosion, thousands of people lose their homes. Incidentally, this region is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. According to the 2001 Census, there are around 12,000 people inhabiting Nirmalchar, currently spread over an area of five-six kilometres north to south; and 10-12 kilometres east to west.
Akhrigang is the nearest town on the mainland. It is around five kilometres away, and is separated by a shallow drain formed when a branch of the river suddenly started making inroads. People have to cross this to reach the mainland, which is extremely tough during the monsoon when it gets totally submerged.
Besides living under the constant fear of losing their homes, the inhabitants of Nirmalchar have to fight a host of other problems. The villages here, around 11 in number, have no electricity. Water, too, is the cause for nightmares: in the summer women have to travel a distance and stand in long queues to fetch water; in the monsoon, the water comes into their homes and stagnates, causing many health problems, especially for the women. Sanitation facilities - drains, toilets, taps and groundwater sources - are non-existent. "On the one hand, there is an excess of water, the cause of so much of our sorrow and unhappiness. On the other, we suffer from the lack of it," laments Nirmala Bibi.
Manjura Bibi, 34, who is also from Moushmari, faces similar difficulties. Manjura's husband works as a daily wager in Kolkata and although she misses him, she says she feels safe as she has three sons. Two of her husband's brothers and their families also live nearby. They all share a common toilet, located about 500 metres from their house. It is simply a hole dug in the ground, enclosed by a half-broken thatched wall. Manjura and the other women of her extended family wake up before dawn and attend to nature's call. But as there is no water in their toilet, they have to carry in small pots to wash themselves. Periodically they cover up the toilet hole with sand and soil.
The source of the water they use lies 700 metres away on the other side of her hut. There is a shallow hand pump there and Manjura fetches water from the pump and stores it for drinking, bathing and cleaning. When she has to do the laundry, she takes the clothes and washes them at the tubewell.
It's a similar story for Mariam Khatun, 26, and her family of seven. She too fetches precious water from one of the shallow pumps in the village and stores it for drinking and washing. The toilet her family uses is also just a hole. This, in fact, is how people in most villages on the 'char' (riverine island) live. The 11th Five Year Plan has set 2012 as the year by which universal sanitation coverage in the country would be achieved by building over 70 million household toilets in rural areas. But for the people here, this would appear a cruel dream.
Not surprisingly, in such unsanitary conditions, infections and diseases are rampant. According to community health worker Shampa Mondol, the lack of hygiene is the greatest cause for disease in Moushmari. "People do not take regular baths. Women frequently complain of pain in the abdomen and uterus, urinary tract infections, herpes, and general itching and sores," she reveals. Mondol complains that she has a tough time explaining to the women the importance of keeping themselves clean. But, asks Mariam, how can one take regular baths when water has to be ferried from faraway pumps after standing in long queues? It is impossible to keep the toilets clean. Ablutions before prayers are enough to keep one clean, she argues.
The summer months are particularly bad. While in the cooler months, the water level is at 50 feet below the ground, by April it would have descended to 80 feet. When this happens the queues at pumps only grow longer and the job of pumping the water out becomes more arduous. Manjura says she often has chest pain during summer because she has to put in so much effort to draw the water out and it leaves her gasping for breath.
During the monsoon, the scenario is quite the opposite. "The hand pumps are submerged and water comes right into our homes and stays there for days, as there is no drainage," says Nirmala. And it is this muddy water that is used for household needs. Although Mondol says halogen tablets are distributed during the season, deaths due to diarrhoea are not uncommon, as a proper healthcare system on the 'char' is non-existent. Moushmari has no chemist and the nearest health centre is four kilometres away in Munshurpur village, at the other end of the island. The village has seen several deaths of under-fives due to diarrhoea because the children couldn't get treatment in time. Although there are eight government Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) centres on the 'char', not one of them is operational. Further, the villagers say no health worker comes during the floods.
Women are especially vulnerable during the monsoon. During menstruation, they use cloth that they wash and reuse. When the cloth doesn't dry in the rains, many end up using the damp material, which in turn aggravates problems like urinary tract infections.
Despite these serious problems faced by the people of Nirmachar, no help has come their way, either from the government or the voluntary sector, with the money allocated for development remaining unutilised. There are no health centres and Mondol is the only Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) in the area despite government rules mandating three ANMs. That is why the residents often feel abandoned. Swadesh Majumdar, Block Development Officer, cites the shortage of trained medical staff as the reason for the lack of facilities. But Nirmala Bibi speaks for many when she says, "We are cursed to be born on this land."
—(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)