SUPAUL, BIHAR // Akhilesh Yadav gathered his three small children into his arms and leapt on to an army rescue boat bound for his flood-hit village of Madhubani, in India's north Bihar state. His wife carried a bag of clothing and utensils on her head. When the monsoon-swollen river split its banks and inundated vast swathes of Bihar, Mr Yadav was working as a taxi driver in the eastern city of Calcutta. His family, though, were still living in their village in Supaul district and, like many other flood victims, fled to a nearby relief camp. But now the family is going back to their village, not because the flood waters are receding, but because they fear for the safety of their home.
"We know the water level is still unsafe there, but we have to return to our village because we have some valuables left in our house and we don't want them to go to the thieves," said Mr Yadav. Local disaster management officials yesterday warned families living in relief camps against returning to their villages as fresh floods are feared over the next four weeks. But the inundated villages having turned into hunting grounds for a new breed of opportunist known as "disaster criminals" and many families like Mr Yadav's are rushing back home to try to salvage what they can.
"We are still in the process of evacuating the victims from the villages. Our boats, which are meant to carry flood victims from their villages to relief camps, are almost full in the opposite direction now," said Brig PS Rathi, who is commanding 1,200 army personnel in rescue operations with 70 boats in Supaul. When flood waters gushed into the region on Aug 18 and villagers fled their homes by makeshift rafts made of banana plant and barrels, many left what they could not carry. Those possessions remaining inside their mud-and-bamboo thatched houses became easy targets for the flood pirates.
"They are not worried about their physical safety in the villages They are worried about the safety of their belongings," said Brig Rathi. "If we turn them away, they will try to hire private boats. They are very poor and we don't want them to spend money on boat rides. So we are giving them a free ride back home," he said. In the northern districts of Supaul and Araria, some gangs have been active since the flood hit three weeks ago, according to police and villagers. Landing in evacuated villages they looted houses of clothing, utensils and other household materials and fled on their own boats, they said. In some cases, the thieves also stole money and cattle at gunpoint from almost deserted villages and from flood victims as they tried to escape on boats. Ramesh Jha, a grocer from Malkushar village in Supaul district, said he saw a private boat moored near his village just days after the flood hit and convinced the driver to take him and his family to a road six kilometres away. "After we had boarded the boat and were halfway to the road, four men who we thought were flood victims like us turned their guns on us and stole 40,000 rupees [Dh3,300] and about 60 grams of gold jewellery we were carrying," he said. "They forced us out of the boat at the end of an evacuated village and left us there." As news of the flood pirates spread through the flood-hit districts, many villagers changed their minds about leaving for the relief camps. Many men, armed with wooden bars and iron rods, are patrolling the villages at night. "We are not rich, but our ordinary household materials like clothing, utensils, bicycles, radio sets are also valuable to us. Those pirates are looting the unguarded houses with impunity, loading their boats with everything they get on their way," said Shaikh Mustafa, 40, chief of Chilmilia village in Supaul district. Police have said they are investigating reports of "disaster crimes" and described the situation as "well under control". They said arrests had been made of members of at least five gangs who were masquerading as rescue officials in Birpur and Tribeniganj in Supaul. "As soon as we got the news of the flood pirates, 30 of our police boats began patrolling in the district [of Supaul]. We had never experienced floods at this massive level in this region. So, patrolling by our police on water is also a totally new experience. However, we are catching up with everything and our men will get the upper hand very soon," Shahrukh Majid, police chief of Supaul, said. "Although such attacks by gangs of sea pirates are new in Bihar, the rate of robbery or burglary in this region is not unusually high now, compared to other times However, saving lives and providing relief to the flood victims is our top priority, for us in this extreme situation." Analysts predict that the flooding in Bihar, already known as India's most lawless state, will compound economic misery and encourage poverty-driven crimes. "It was already a poverty-ravaged region. Now this flood in north Bihar is going to bring another two million people below the poverty line," said R D Sharma, the former dean of social science at Bhagalpur University in Bihar. "The flood has ruined crops and their houses are destroyed. An increasing number of people, desperate for food and shelter, will resort to crime over the coming months, even as the flood water recedes," he said. * The National