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Flooding in India: Why wasn't the government ready?

Three million people have been displaced. Critics call for more help from the Indian Army.

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More than two weeks after floodwaters inundated the impoverished lowlands of the Indian state of Bihar, untold numbers of residents remain perched upon their rooftops, still waiting for help to come.

An estimated 3 million people have been displaced by the River Kosi, which is now 10 miles wide in places. The state and central governments have struggled to cope.

Local media suggest that residents in some villages have had to coordinate their own relief efforts, including setting up refugee camps in college dorms. A group of prominent Indian scholars has criticized the government as "virtually a mute spectator" and called for relief operations to be handed to the Army.

Monsoon floods are a yearly occurrence for India. Yet even among experienced aid workers, there is a sense that this is something different. "This is the mother of all floods," says Unni Krishnan of Action Aid.

When the Kosi first broke through the embankment intended to contain it on Aug. 18, the breach was only about 1,300-feet long. Now it is more than a mile. Eighty percent of the river is pouring through the gap and into some of India's poorest districts. The strong flow of water from the Himalayas means that engineers might not be able to plug the gap until December.

The task of rescuing and then organizing food and shelter for 3 million displaced people "is such that only the Army can handle it," says Parshuram Rai, director Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) in New Delhi.

His letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demanding that "relief operations be launched on a war footing" was countersigned by 49 Indian scholars and activists.

Mr. Krishnan of Action Aid, who was in Bihar until Tuesday, agrees that only the Army has had any effect. "Wherever the military has been deployed, it is saving lives," he says. "But why is it taking so long? Why have so few military people been deployed?"

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