By Nita Bhalla and Jatindra Dash
NEW DELHI/BHUBANESWAR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At least 300 people have died in eastern and central India and more than six million others have been affected by floods that have submerged villages, washed away crops, destroyed roads and disrupted power and phone lines, officials said on Tuesday.
Heavy monsoon rains have caused rivers, including the mighty Ganges and its tributaries, to burst their banks forcing people into relief camps in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.
Government officials in Bihar, which has seen some of the worst flooding this year with almost 120 dead and more than five million affected, said the situation was serious.
"The flood waters have engulfed low-lying areas, homes and fields of crops," said Zafar Rakib, a district magistrate of Katihar, one of 24 districts out of Bihar's 38 districts which have been hit by the deluge.
"We have shifted people to higher ground and they are being provided with cooked rice, clean drinking water, polythene sheets," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In neighboring Uttar Pradesh, where 43 people have died and over one million are affected, schools were closed in the cities of Varanasi and Allahabad as both the Ganges and Yamuna rivers crossed danger levels and flood waters continued to rise.
The holy city of Varanasi, where thousands of Hindus flock daily, was also forced to halt cremations along the banks of sacred Ganges river -- forcing families to cremate their relatives on the terrace roofs of nearby houses, officials said.
Television pictures showed villagers wading waist deep in floodwaters with their livestock, mud-and-brick homes collapsing and people climbing into wooden boats to get to relief camps.
"We are all worried about what we should do. For the last four days we have living like this. We don't even have any food to eat," 42-year-old villager Doda Yadav told the NDTV news station from Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh.
In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where at least 70 have died since the onset of the monsoons in June and more than 40,000 homes partially or fully destroyed, almost 20,000 people have been evacuated to relief camps.
Officials said villagers would return home when water levels receded, although the Indian Meteorological Department has forecast more rains for central India over the next two days.
MODI OFFERS FEDERAL SUPPORT
India usually experiences monsoon rains from June to September, which are vital for its agriculture -- making up 18 percent of its gross domestic product and provides employment for almost half of its 1.3 billion population.
But in many states across the country, the rains frequently cause landslides and flooding that devastate crops, destroy homes and expose people to diseases such as diarrhea.
Officials said the fast-flowing waters had breached embankments and eroded dykes in some areas, leaving some roads inaccessible, compounding efforts to rescue marooned villagers.
India's National Disaster Response Forces (NDRF) have been deployed to the five states, rescuing more than 33,000 people stranded in remote villages. The NDRF have also distributed relief and provided medical assistance to over 9,000 survivors.
The devastation prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday to offer additional support from the federal government.
"I pray for the safety and well-being of those in areas affected by floods," said Modi in a statement. "The Centre assures total support in the rescue and relief operations."
Aid agencies responding in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh said it was critical to be better prepared to minimize the deaths, displacement and devastation which is caused every year.
"Nowadays, floods are seen as a chronic problem and are viewed quite differently from other emergencies – so they often no longer attract adequate attention from either the media or donors," said Thomas Chandy, CEO of Save the Children in India.
"In such a scenario, therefore, it is critical that we develop better, more effective, long-term solutions to cater to the plight of people and children in preparedness for floods."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla and Jatindra Dash; Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)