COVID-19 lockdown and lack of funds hindering Christian relief efforts in Assam state
Saji Thomas, UCA News
The COVID-19 lockdown coupled with fund shortages have crippled Christian groups’ ability to reach out to the flood-hit Assam state in northeast India, where 66 people have lost lives and 3.6 million are marooned.
“We are in a terrible situation not knowing what to do as all over the state is flooded and people are struggling to find food and accommodation,” Bishop Thomas Pullopillil of Bongaigaon diocese said on July 16.
The local meteorological department has predicted heavy rainfall over the next 72 hours, creating fear in the minds of people who are already bearing the brunt of the torrential rain and resultant flood. The agency warned that “the situation will further deteriorate.”
The government has put the flood death toll for the season at 66 and those badly affected by it at 3.6 million, highlighting the enormity of a crisis that the state is facing amid its COVID-19 lockdown.
“The torrential rain and floods are an annual phenomenon, however, this year it has broken all records” affecting millions, said Bishop Pullopillil told UCA News.
“The government agencies are doing what little they can but that is not enough to address the enormity of the situation,” he said.
“Church agencies of different denominational churches, including Catholics, used to pool resources from different agencies and help the people in situations like this.
“Unfortunately, now we are unable to do much for those struggling as our funds were spent feeding the stranded migrant workers and other poor during the COVID-19 lockdown,” the prelate said.
Monsoon flooding in neighboring Bangladesh has stranded more than a million people who are desperately seeking aid in several parts of the country as well.
Meanwhile, Father G. P. Amalraj, the deputy secretary of the northeastern regional bishops’ council, told UCA News that “Most Catholic dioceses in Assam and other northern eastern states are suffering from severe financial crises. So we are not able to reach out to the flood-affected people.”
He said they are asking individual Churches to do “whatever little they can to help the needy.”
Dibrugarh diocese in Assam was particularly affected with many institutions under flood water for a week at the end of June, as well as the houses of hundreds of thousands of people in the diocese.
“The bishop’s house and cathedral flooded after water from the Brahmaputra overflowed and entered villages and towns in the diocese and other localities in the state,” according to Father Palatty Devassy, secretary to the bishop.
“Now, there is some respite from the rain but the situation is likely to get worse” with predictions of more rains.
“We can do hardly anything to help those stranded or marooned in the flood as the COVID-19 lockdown has restricted travel in the state,” the priest said.
Allen Brooks, spokesperson for the Assam Christian Forum, an umbrella organization of all Christian denominational churches in the area said, “Church leaders [of all denominations] took stock of the plight of people of Assam on July 14 and the ways to help them at this hour of crisis.
“Everyone is facing serious financial problems. Many pastors have not taken their salary over the past three months,” he told UCA News on July 15.
“Even if we want to do something we cannot go out of our homes and it is almost impossible for us to help those who are stranded,” said Brooks, who is based in Guwahati, the state’s commercial capital.
“I cannot move out of the district because of COVID-19 restrictions, and this is the case for most others too,” he said.
Church groups have now agreed to gather aid through the local churches and “do whatever we can for those in our close vicinity,” Brooks said.
Brooks also blamed the government for its failure to repair embankments this year which he claimed aggravated the food situation.
Bishop Pullopillil said he regretted that “the state is not getting any focus in the national news despite such a huge calamity.”
With the next month is likely to be one of the worst of the rainy season, the bishop warned: “If the situation continues like this, we do not know what our plight will be.”
Featured image: Villagers travel on a boat in the flood-affected area of Gagalmari village in Morigaon district of Assam state on July 14, 2020. (Photo: AFP via UCAN)