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India flood victims still suffering

Emnakment on the Kosi river
Only now have efforts begun to make the embankment protecting Birpur more effective (Pics: Prashant Ravi)

By Amarnath Tewary in Birpur, Bihar

Mohammed Shahzada's sprawling house in the town of Birpur on the Indian border with Nepal was the proud landmark of the locality.

Built in 1975 at the cost of 2.5m rupees ($51,589) the building and its high-rise boundary walls were an object of envy for the neighbours.

Today his house is still a distinctive landmark, but for different reasons.

It has become the most glaring example of the destruction and devastation caused by flooding that wreaked havoc in five districts of Bihar in August last year.

'National calamity'

Today, Mohammed Shahzada's house resembles a bombed house in a war zone.

Arvind Kumar Ram
It was like the tsunami. The current in the flood water was so strong that we saw many concrete structures collapse like feeble houses of cards
Arvind Kumar Ram

The boundary walls have vanished, the front portion of the house has collapsed and the thick walls have got deep cracks.

The destruction has left the 54-year-old musical entrepreneur economically and physically shattered. His family of 10 is now confined to the back portion of the house, eking out an existence amid the piles of masonry.

"All of my life savings and my ancestral property has been washed away in the flood. We cannot make up again," he told the BBC.

Birpur was the first town in India to face the full onslaught of the flood and Mr Shahzada's property was among the first to be deluged as waters from the River Kosi unleashed their force after entering the country from Nepal.

Millions of people were displaced, hundreds lost their lives in one of the worst floods in recent memory in Bihar. The Indian prime minister described it as a "national calamity" while the Bihar chief minister said it was a "catastrophe".

The Kosi is known as the "river of sorrow" in India for its destructive nature - in 1965 a 34km (21 mile) long embankment was built to prevent disasters like this from happening on the Indian side.

But ever since its construction, the embankment has been poorly maintained.

'Everything lost'

The waters of this swirling Himalayan river breached its banks near Kusaha village in Nepal before changing its course and inundating Birpur late in the evening of 18 August.

Flooded house in Birpur
Many people's homes still remain inundated by water

"It was like the tsunami. The current in the flood water was so strong that we saw many concrete structures collapse like feeble houses of cards," said Arvind Kumar Ram, whose house also bears testimony to the scale of the destruction.

A small time businessman, Mr Ram is trying hard to cope with life and loss after the flood waters receded. His house also could not withstand the force of the water and collapsed on one side.

Other victims are all too easy to find. The roof of Radha Krishna Chaudhury's concrete house collapsed as if it had been bombed.

Living alone in what is left of its shattered structure, Mr Chaudhury, a tea stall owner, put the names of his missing family members on two white sheets and pasted them on both sides of the door.

"Many times I would repeat the names… but what's the use of repeating them again and again?" he asked. "I know nothing will be done and life has now no meaning for me… everything has been lost."

Mr Chaudhury - in his 60s - only survived the destruction by taking refuge on the roof of the house and living for four days without food and water.

'Worse than hell'

There are few buildings in Birpur and surrounding villages that have emerged unscathed.

Even the nine-metre walls of the town's jail sank in the deluge - allowing 27 prisoners to escape out of the 79 being held inside.

Other government buildings were equally devastated. In total, about 50,000 people in the town have had to cope with six to eight feet (1.8 to 2.4 metres) of flood water for well over three months.

Embankment worker in Bihar
For too long the embankment has been neglected

"It was life worse than hell," said local motel owner, Kameshwar Yadav.

Many of those affected have lost family members, property, pets and other life savings in the ravaged town. Some have lost everything except themselves.

Yet life is gradually returning to normal in spite of the difficulties. People are trying hard to come to terms with the daily grind of their lives.

"Now we want to come out of that nightmare. After all, life goes on. It has to," said Mohammed Shahzada.

Some 14km away at "ground zero"- where the embankment was first breached - there is hectic activity as thousands of workers, contractors and engineers strive to repair the damaged structure. They labour round the clock to meet the deadline of 31 March 2009.

"Out of the 1,700m breach we've already plugged in 1,200m of the embankment and we'll finish the work within our deadline," said Shyam Nandan Prasad, chief engineer of the project, told the BBC.

Meanwhile the state government continues to provide relief to flood victims who are still displaced and is now embarking on a second round of relief distribution.

"We've demanded thousands of dollars from the central government for relief and rehabilitation purposes which we're yet to receive," said Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

"Still, we'll do whatever we can do best for the flood victims," he pledged.

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