Ten Rupees and More

Esther Ghosh   |   October 13, 2014 

Ten RupeesOne of the great bits about a job like mine is getting to travel, and I have done this for over a decade now. I have been part of teams providing humanitarian aid, or in projects that assist communities build resilience to disasters they are prone to, or those that help control a disease. In all these sojourns I have met hundreds of people and faced realities that are very different from my own.

Most of these people and incidents fade away, but some refuse to be erased from my memory. One that stands out is from a stint in Bihar after a devastating flood.

In 2008 north Bihar faced its worst ever floods due to a breach in the embankment on river Kosi near the Indo-Nepal border. Overnight over 3 million people were displaced in flooding which lasted from mid-August right up till December. Officially, the death toll went into hundreds, but in reality it was in the thousands. Entire villages upstream near the breach were completely washed away when millions of gallons of water gushed upon them as they slept in the night.

I had then, just joined Emmanuel Hospital Association which was also responding to the humanitarian crisis there, and about a month into the operations I was sent to head the team. When I arrived, the place was still a vast sea of water. The little space that was available was chock-a-block full of people living, eating, sleeping, defecating and even birthing babies all on in the same bit of land.

At that point in time we were providing cooked meals though three kitchens, feeding some four thousand people per day. We also distributed rations in villages where we could not provide cooked food, transporting everything by army motor rafts or local rowboats. Two months in as the water started receding and people went back to places that were once home, we decided to support them with rations and household items for three months. Since the money was limited, we decided to cover the poorest that had no means of supporting themselves in the immediate future. To identify such we had to do a survey. One day I had joined the team on this survey exercise. I was taking details from a family when at a distance I heard a loud wailing. The wailing got louder as this woman started coming towards us. I could hear words "river" and "son" and I braced myself to hear of a tragedy of losing a son in the river as the cry was of a heart rent asunder.

But what came was worse; this woman while crossing the river with her son had lost 10 rupees. TEN rupees – and such a lament! I was shocked, but nobody mocked her tears; they had sympathy in their eyes for her.

I could only understand her grief when I understood their life a bit more. In that part of the country, even today, almost the entire village land is owned by one or two families. The rest work as tenant farmers or labourers for the landlord or the tenant farmer. The labourers and tenants are akin to bonded labourers working for the landlord for generations. As wages, the labourers get some grain or puffed rice and ten rupees! That is why... ten rupees meant so much! More so now, when the floods had taken away all she had – the loss of ten rupees was indeed formidable.

In fact, not just the land but even the cattle are the landlords, given to them on lease. I had always wondered why, even in the biting cold of winter when night temperatures touch 3-4°C, children would roam about stark naked while they kept the buffaloes and goats covered in layers of thick sackcloth. Well, if a child dies there is no debt to pay, but if one of these cattle died, how would they pay back the thousands of rupees when they only earned 10-20 rupees a day! The consequence of that was unthinkable!

Against these harsh painful realities I have also been witness to some of the most heart warming and commendable experiences. One of our kitchens was in a village called Baghania. This village is home to the Santhals tribe who were brought in here from Jharkhand by the British to work on laying railroads. Many of these Santhalis are Christians – some Catholic some Protestant. It turned out that the Santhali pastor in that village had been a student of my father while studying at the Seminary in my hometown. I mention him not because of this connection but because of his character and his contribution as a leader.

This pastor was in charge of managing the volunteers for cooking and distribution. All these volunteers were from his village and some part of his congregation. Their dedication and willingness was the kind seldom seen elsewhere. This is despite the fact that all of them had lost their mud and thatch huts and most of what they owned to the fury of the floods. Many had even lost the very land they lived and worked on as the force of the water had eroded large tracts of agricultural land and they would not be compensated for it because the land belonged to the landlord. Yet, they would start work early, at about 5 a.m. and end at 8 p.m. for they cooked and served two meals a day to whomever came. That kitchen would feed about two-thousand people two meals every day. The food was simple but cooked hygienically. We and our guest would eat the food when visiting and never once had worry about an upset stomach.

And they were mavericks at management – everybody was made to sit on the floor in neat rows to be served. Women and children from other villages and their men were served first, then the women and children from their own village and last of all the men of that village. There was hardly a squabble or a word of complaint. Later when we did monthly ration distributions, this village was made the distribution centre on the request and consent of the village leaders from the surrounding village – they trusted their organisational skills and non-partisan ways.

On days of ration distribution we would have about a thousand families take their rations. The amount per family was more than what one person would carry, so the crowd would be more than double the beneficiary number, besides the onlookers! But the village volunteers planned and executed the distribution logistics efficiently and effectively. The crowd would be overwhelmingly large but never out of control because of these men. While others needed police protection to do relief distribution, we only informed the police of our distribution schedule, but never once needed them.

Their altruism did not end there. These volunteers were later given an honorarium – our way of expressing gratitude for their tireless work. Most of these men returned their honorarium saying – If we took money, it wouldn’t be volunteering! These, I believe, were God's great men! Witnesses of the Father's love in the land of injustice and poverty.

I have been deeply touched by both these instances and encouraged to evaluate my own aspirations in the light of them. I love my job (un-glamorous as it may seem) as it gives me the opportunity to witness moments of joy and sacrifice, even in the midst of such suffering and tragedy.

What are your thoughts and feelings as you read these stories?  Comment below.


Photo Credit: Steve Garfield via Flicker cc


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Esther Ghosh

Esther Ghosh works with Emmanuel Hospital Association in a community health project. Prior to this she has been involved with work in disaster management and risk reduction. She sees poverty and injustice as issues that wrench Gods heart - His pain, and so is driven to do the work she does. She is also a gypsy at heart and loves to travel, see new places and experience varied lifestyles.

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