35-year old Rajkumaridevi Mandal Kumar Chopal is a resident of Lalpatti village of Ghanshaympur block in Darbhanga district of Bihar, considered one of the most backward areas due to its remoteness from the district headquarters. Lalpatti is in close proximity to the river Kamla which originates from the Himalayan region in Nepal and creates havoc by flooding during heavy monsoons. Says Rajkumari “At 15, I was married to Madan Chopal. I have three sons - the first son is 18-years old and is differently-abled and the other two are young. When I came to Lalapatti as a new bride, my husband worked as an agriculture laborer because we don’t own land. But heavy rain and flooding meant that working as a laborer in our village became very difficult”.
“I am inspired by the Surakshit Hum programme and want to lead the team of women members, build their confidence and work towards reducing risk and suffering due to floods in our village......."
“In 1995, Mandal went to Gujarat in search of work. He got a job in a paper mill in Kalol. After two years, he was diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness and had to return to Lalapatti. I took him to a hospital for treatment, but we had no money and I was forced to borrow Rs 5,000 at an interest rate of five percent per month from the village mahajan (money lender). The interest rate was too high for us; our income had dwindled because my husband was not earning any more” narrated Rajkumari.
Rajkumari started working as an agriculture laborer, but again borrowed Rs 500 from the mahajan to start her business of selling chudis (bangles) to supplement her family income. “This was the first time I actually went from door-to-door selling chudis and I faced a lot of problems from my community.” When her son came down with pneumonia, she again borrowed Rs 25,000 from the mahajan. “I saved my son’s life, but we were now financially broke” she says.
Though the couple faced flooding every year, the flood of 2007 was of very different. “This time, the waters took away whatever we had. It became very difficult to pay back our debts” laments Rajkumari.
Members of the Village Disaster Management Committee
“After every flood, many organizations come for a short time and provide some relief but none ever came forward to teach us how to be prepared for floods. This changed in 2008 August, when UNICEF and Bihar Sewa Samiti functionaries came to our village and regularly interacted with us on how to prepare for future floods. We named this initiative as SURAKSHIT HUM (We Are Safe) programme, and formed a Village Disaster Management Committee (VDMC) and five task forces, which are responsible for leading flood preparedness work in our village. I am a proud member of both VDMC and the water, sanitation and hygiene task force.
“Earlier I thought that floods were integral to our lives and nothing could be done about them. The training we received as part of the SURAKSHIT HUM programme on flood preparedness and safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices has now made me believe we can certainly reduce the suffering, even if we cannot stop the flooding.
“As a VDMC member, I am also supervising work like construction of raised flood shelters, raising existing hand pumps above flood level, construction of flood protected toilets, etc. Earlier too, we have witnessed a lot of construction work carried out by various agencies, but this is the first time we are aware about things like design and allocation of money. I now understand technical designs and estimates and have with me a piece of paper with work details in simple Hindi. It felt good when I argued with a government engineer on the poor quality of work he had carried out (he was using class B brick while it should have been class A)” she adds.
As part of the water, sanitation and hygiene task force, Rajkumari today successfully conducts regular meetings with women and children on cleanliness and hand washing. Rajkumari has also changed with the times - today she earns Rs 2,500 a month from her chudi business, from which she saves money for contingencies.
“I am inspired by the Surakshit Hum programme and want to lead the team of women members, build their confidence and work towards reducing risk and suffering due to floods in our village. I am sure that if floods occur this year, at least our suffering will be less,” says Rajkumari, in a determined voice.