In a remote village of Sakoipothar in Dibrugarh district of Assam, a mother wails while her two young daughters sit beside her trying to comfort her. They haven’t eaten in days and the house they live in is inundated with floodwater. This is the family of Podumi Saikia. They dread the worst as the rains haven’t stopped and the water level has crossed the danger mark. “We experience floods every year, but this year the situation is much worse,” reveals Podumi. The situation was grim and bleak as one of the worst floods hit Dibrugarh district this year between August-September.
Unlike previous years, Podumi and other villagers in Sakoipothar are thankful this year to the government bodies and others who have been crucial in handling the flood crisis. She and her daughters had to take shelter in one of the relief camps near Sakoipothar. There were many women in these relief camps who were on their menstrual cycle. Menstruation, an issue highly tabooed, is still a nightmare for women in rural India. And then if there is a crisis like a flood the situation turns worse.
A frail, 34-year-old Sikha, recalls, “Floods are a nightmare. We would be in relief camps for days, leaving behind everything. There would be so many adolescent girls and women, some who are pregnant, others lactating, and many of them who would be having their periods. We would be helpless. Food, water and a mere makeshift roof were the only priority and how could one expect a clean toilet or sanitary pad during such times. We would have to manage by tearing off ends from our sadors and dupattas. This time, things were different. The government officials made sanitary pads available for women in camps.”
Bhaskar Sarmah, Assistant Executive Engineer, Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED), is not hesitant to talk about the issue of menstruation. He elaborates how the stigma around menstruation further victimizes women. Sarmah mentions that low-cost sanitary pads were distributed across the district with help from the Civil Administration, Health and Social Welfare Department and Mahila Samitis. 162 school health clubs have been set up to orient the girl child about personal hygiene and sanitation, as there is a high drop-out rate of girls post attainment of puberty and this is also a group that is most vulnerable during an emergency. The department has also been working through ASHAs, Mothers Group members, and Anganwadi workers on menstrual health and hygiene.
Romola Nath is one of the ASHA workers who facilitates school going girls on menstrual health and personal hygiene. School activities and in-house motivation and demonstrations have been introduced that address issues of menstrual health and hygiene. These activities are done mostly during Assembly time and pre-lunch so that students do not miss study hours. Romola expresses that there have been many occasions when young girls come and ask her questions on the largely forbidden issue of menstruation. “Initially they hesitate, but if it is an all-girls school the level of shyness is less. Many still cannot afford a packet of sanitary napkin every month. Most of them still miss school during the monthly cycle as all schools do not have a clean and a separate toilet for girls. This is a more serious issue when it comes to co-educational schools.”
Nonetheless, things are changing for the better, and there is hope. Rinika and her friends no longer miss school during their period, for their school now has a new toilet. There is a raised hand-pump and students are also oriented on proper ways of hand-washing and maintaining hygiene. The teachers take regular sessions and organize competitions to make students aware around issues of hygiene and sanitation. Rinika recounts, “Ours is a co-educational school, and I recall an incident when I was in class seven. I had just attained my puberty and would often miss school during my period. Since our school did not have proper and separate toilet for girls during those days, it was very difficult for female students. Things are different now as we have clean toilets in school. We are also oriented on ways of hand-washing during our menstrual cycle and proper ways to maintain hygiene. Sanitary napkins are most preferred now among girls of our generation, but many still cannot afford it every month.”
A few kilometers away from Sakoipothar, the flood situation in main Dibrugarh town was no different.The electricity supply, in the town, was cut off for a continuous 5-6 days during the floods. Close to nearly one lakh people comprising both tribals and non-tribals were affected across 20 wards in Dibrugarh town. Locals say they do not recall a flood situation, of this magnitude, in the town area in the recent past. However, people are happy with the way the district administration has managed the situation this year, despite being one of the worst-hit districts in the annual floods of Assam.
M.S. Manivannan, Deputy Commissioner, Dibrugarh, feels that the district has in its very unique way set an example. Dibrugarh district worked in the most efficient manner with an immediate post-emergency protocol. The Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) is the nodal government body that works intensely in times of such emergencies. The department distributed a total of 3,28,720 drinking water pouches along with 1,52,000 halogen tablets for source disinfection throughout relief camps in the entire district of Dibrugarh during and post floods. Safe drinking water was made available with the setting up of 7 new hand pumps, and distribution of RO-treated water pouches in mobile water treatment vans.Within 21 days, a total of 11,690 hand-pumps were disinfected across the district. Dibrugarh town is also one that is not covered under any government water supply scheme, and under such circumstances, the entire town is dependent on individual water sources.
The mechanism and strategy as a response to emergencies under PHED work at two levels – one a Disaster Management Plan that focuses on human resource, financial aid and other resources, and the other which is the Post Disaster Management Protocol. There is an area-wise allocation of workers led by sectional assistants, grassroots workers, self-help groups, NGO workers, village-based motivators and volunteers engaged by Water Users Committee. The pre-emergency stage includes training and orientation, in which UNICEF had also been a partner till around 2014. Pre-positioning relief material that included NaDCC tablets and IEC material was provided through ABITA and PHED in 2013-14.
However, emergency situations during that of the flood are far too challenging. Kishore Medhi, a field worker involved with Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes opines, “In some emergency contexts, it is a tricky affair to address and provide accessibility, given the varied needs of communities.”
Dibyajyoti Dutta, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University, who has formerly been engaged with grassroot communities during flood emergencies expresses a similar view, “WASH interventions that provide high-raise toilets, platforms and hand-pumps also pose a challenge as far as pregnant women, young children, the elderly and the disabled are concerned. Makeshift relief camps are often over-crowded without private spaces for women to take bath, to breastfeed etc.”
Moreover, there is very little that is being done to raise awareness about the use and disposal of sanitary napkins. The lack of know-how often worsens issues and leads to gynecological complications for women. This issue also cuts across generations. While for this younger lot use of sanitary napkins may be the most convenient, the same may not hold true for older women.
Organisations like the State Inter-Agency Group (IAG) which is a coalition of humanitarian agencies have been immensely crucial in responding to emergency crisis throughout the state of Assam. Most of these organizations work in partnership with donor agencies like Action Aid, Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and others. David Kujur, associated with IAG opines, “From a historical perspective one can say that people from the ‘vulnerable strata’ of the society, those living on the margins, are the ones who are forced to occupy/settle in low-lying areas. This is also the section that is often given a raw deal when it comes to land ownership and is generally the worst hit during a natural calamity or a human led conflict. In such times of crisis, hunger and basic shelter often become the priority. Hygiene thus takes a backseat and menstrual hygiene gets further suppressed amidst layers of patriarchal institutions.”
According to Zubin Zaman, Deputy Director- Humanitarian and DRR National Humanitarian Hub, Oxfam India, “the issues to consider while addressing WASH in Emergencies are manifold. In river basin areas, water treatment at a household-level and capacity of the community as immediate responders should be a focal area of concern under WASH. Capacities need to be enhanced for communities towards chlorinating water sources immediately after disaster hits. Cultural practices of communities that may be diverse across contexts need to be considered and programmes need to be customized according to community needs,” states Zaman.
UNICEF’s Rushabh Hemani, former WASH Specialist in Assam, adds, “WASH interventions play an important role in preparedness as well as addressing the aftermath of disasters such as annual floods, contributing to survival and betterment of children and women from the most vulnerable background.”
Over time and with experience of perennial floods in the state, communities have cultivated ways to deal with natural calamities, especially floods. “The Mishing community constructs ‘Chang Ghars’ (elevated houses mostly made of bamboo and hatch), which allow them to cope without losing any immovable resources. Irrespective of culture, indigenous communities of the region have been using makeshift boats i.e. ‘Bhur’ (mostly made of a banana tree) which enable them to shift to safer places in a cost effective manner. The custom of making bamboo spurs in order to reduce landslides and divert river currents is another striking practice,” elaborates Dibyajyoti Dutta.
Oxfam’s Zaman views that communities in river basin areas have been found to be much more resilient to disaster stress from a survival standpoint than communities who face shocks and stress intermittently. He explains, “Sand filters, more common across districts in Upper Assam, are found to be one of the major indigenous knowledge systems on treatment of water that is used by most communities. However, resilience in indigenous knowledge systems though is relevant to some communities affected by violence or natural disasters, is equally fast eroding given the uncertainties of disaster events.”
2015 is also the year that marks the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of the United Nations. However, the area of sanitation and hygiene, covered under goal 7C of the MDG, which is to ‘halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation’, still remains way behind target. Following on from the Millennium Development Goals, Goal 6 of the ‘Global Goals’ more commonly known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also hint at the same. Within a more comprehensive and long-term vision it attempts to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’.
In an attempt to strive for ensuring rights and making basic resources accessible to vulnerable communities, an inclusive approach needs to be developed that will take it beyond a project-driven endeavor and initiative. Proper planning and subjective need assessments aiming at long term strategies that are scientific and community friendly need serious contemplation at this hour. The aim of the district disaster management units of the state has been largely focused on prevention and mitigation measures in a pre-disaster situation, preparedness measures, need-based approaches towards response and control measures during and post emergency. It is important that the focus remains on a bottom-up approach where communities themselves are involved in the process of planning for long-term sustainable plan and policy, as floods in Assam are perennial.
To know more, please see the Sanitation Scribes Project.