Lost in the flood
It happened in New Orleans. And in Darfur. But it didn’t get the attention it needed in India, a price paid only by the economically deprived in the state of Bihar.
Poverty looms in the dark corners of the cities and countries around the world, invisible to most and insignificant to many others. Cities are fighting walls of water and the socioeconomic depression that comes with being poor.
That was the theme brought to a screening of ‘Apaharan’ Friday night at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The screening was held to inform the campus of the turmoil occurring in India and raise money for relief efforts, said Tula Goenka, a television, radio and film professor in Newhouse.
‘I’ve been working very closely with the flood relief efforts,’ she said. ‘The director has come to SU for the civil rights film festivals, and he’s from Bihar.’
Goenka hosted a screening of acclaimed Indian director Prakash Jha’s ‘Apaharan’ to a crowd of about 30 people, raising awareness for the rehabilitation efforts in Bihar. Jha’s organization, Punarwaas, has taken in 5,000 people who are survivors of the floods in Bihar.
Goenka started the night with Jha’s short documentary about the devastation caused by the floods. The video documented the flood and the relief efforts.
The images of Bihar resembled a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans: houses submerged in water to the rooftops, fields of tented huts serving as shelters for refugees, a young boy crying out in pain, ‘I haven’t eaten in five days – I’m hungry.’
On Aug. 18, the dams that protected Bihar, India, from the Kosi River became overwhelmed and ruptured, shifting the river’s course more than 100 kilometers eastward. The flood destroyed millions of homes and displaced more than 2.5 million people. Bihar is in such a state of deformation that the government can’t count the bodies.
Few Indian media have covered this disaster. Few American media have covered this disaster. No one cares about the poor state, and that’s why Goenka said she is doing something about it.
‘This was worse than the tsunami, but because it was in the ‘dark state’ of India, nothing happened,’ said Goenka.
Most families won’t even be able to begin rebuilding their homes for another six to eight months, Jha said in a phone interview. ‘This was an act of God,’ Goenka said. ‘But it was also a socioeconomic problem – the government knew it was going to happen, just like New Orleans, but they didn’t care.’
But Jha didn’t need divine inspiration to help – he’s been making movies about people with social problems during his entire career as a director, he said, and Goenka’s personal connections to the state have bonded her to its people.
It’s an uphill battle that people like Jha and Goenka lead only to help others and for nothing else. It’s a war that has waged since the beginning of time – a war between classes and against social injustice that Goenka and her students feel cannot be won.
Goenka took students in her TRF 470/670, A Bollywood Experience: Internships in Mumbai, class to Mumbai, India, to get first-hand Bollywood experience last May. Merely weeks after they left, the country they lived in for the entire summer, an international film capital, became victim of a natural disaster.
Goenka said she has family members who have worked on the farms in Bihar, something she didn’t discover until recently.She was in India just a few days before the dam was breached, and was overwhelmed when she heard the news.
‘I was devastated when the floods happened,’ Goenka said. ‘I didn’t know what to do; I was paralyzed.’
Goenka decided to bring Jha’s film to SU after speaking with him about the situation in Bihar. Jha visits Syracuse often during the annual Civil Rights Film Festivals, which Goenka has hosted for six years.
The connection between Goenka and Jha, Jha and Bihar, Goenka and Bihar and Goenka and Syracuse all led her to put the movement in front of students so that they, too, could help.
But few people showed up to the screening – fewer than 30 in all. Goenka said she is disappointed in the apathetic attitude presented by the students at Syracuse, and is left to hope that more people like Jha will pick up the slack for the rest of the world.
But India as a whole has not helped much with the relief efforts, Goenka said. The social class system in India is structured in a way so that the upper-class, high-society people generally do not care about areas like Bihar, which are stricken with poverty.
‘If one kid needs a bicycle, the family will kidnap another kid to get the money for the bike,’ she said.
It doesn’t surprise Goenka that Bihar is being neglected by India. But members of the film industry, like Jha, have brought in millions of dollars in partnership with groups such as United Way to help the relief efforts.
His work is a start, but his camp meets the needs of only 5,000 of the estimated 2.5 million affected by the flood, Jha said.
‘All infrastructure facilities have been destroyed,’ a proposal by United Way stated.The relief efforts for the 5,000 people Jha has taken in at his camp are projected to cost 61,094,330 Indian Rupee, or $1,245,425.10 U.S. dollars.
United Way estimates that a million people are currently still ‘fighting for their survival’ in the Supaul district in India. The embankment which collapsed continues to erode as evacuees are pushed farther into other parts of India.
‘The problem is that we can’t take all the families in,’ Jha said. ‘It’s sad, and we’re trying to help people outside of the camp, but it’s very difficult.’
Jha said that people from all different class backgrounds now live as neighbors in his camp, something that Jha and Goenka say is somewhat of an ironic beauty.
Jha continues to try to raise money for his camp, which he plans to expand to allow more people to live in. Goenka raised more than $200 at the screening and is taking donations on Punarwaas’s Facebook site.
Anuya Jakatdar has only been in the United States for a few months. A magazine, newspaper and online journalism graduate student from India,Jakatdar sees how painful poverty can be – in India, in America, and here in Syracuse.
She said it hurts to know that people won’t get over their class issues, that the media image portrayed by her home nation is nothing like the place where she grew up.
‘Everyone looks at India and thinks, oh, it’s the next superpower,’ she said. ‘But the poverty is visible in the community. You see the biggest mall in the city, and the slums are right there on the other side.’
After the screening of the film, Goenka led a discussion about the status of Bihar and the economic issues throughout the world – even in Syracuse.
But Goenka said that mobilizing an audience for a cause can be difficult. She said that students usually don’t care about events like the screening unless it’s assigned for a class – a reason they have to care.
This is new to her, she said. Goenka challenged the attitude of people today: ‘when do you say I am more than a filmmaker, more than a CEO, more than an economist?’ she asked.
Goenka stressed that no one is to blame for the situation in Bihar, but that all have a social responsibility to look out for and take of one another; a responsibility she said is gravely neglected.
‘Here, at Syracuse, we’re on the Hill – this ivory tower,’ she said. ‘People have become very materialistic. They live very comfortable lives.’
Lucien Jung, a television, radio and film graduate student, said that people can only help who they know need it, and in situations like Bihar, if no one knows, they can’t help.
‘I feel like it’s the tree falling in the forest,’ Jung said. ‘If people don’t have access to the media, they can’t see it.’
Sociology graduate student Bernadette White said at the screening that people at the bottom of any social structure are neglected by the government and people around them.
‘We turn a blind eye to it,’ White said. ‘If there’s a problem, it’s ‘oh, it’s Bihar,’ or ‘oh it’s over there,’ we marginalize it.’
But White said she is happy to see Jha and Goenka doing something about it.
‘There are a lot of problems we ignore,’ White said. ‘We still have a long way to go.’
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