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Humanitarian aid intended to help nearly 20m victims of India’s worst floods for years is in danger of being siphoned away by corruption, according to human rights activists.
Altogether, more than 30m people across India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been affected by the floods. More than 200 have been killed and millions displaced, and thousands of villages are marooned. Hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge on elevated highways, railway tracks and rooftops.
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As rain abates and floodwaters recede, aid officials warn of a looming public health crisis brought by diseases carried in water or by insects. In Bihar, stagnant water posed a serious threat to about 11m people, including 1.5m young children, said Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“Entire villages are days away from a health crisis if people are not reached in the coming days,” says Dr Marzio Babille, Unicef’s health chief in India.
Aid is flowing in. Oxfam, the international aid agency, this week launched a £1m ($2m, €1.48m) appeal to help flood victims in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Canada has pledged US$900,000 in emergency aid relief for flood victims.
The UN’s World Food Programme has committed $500,000 to Nepal and estimates it will need to raise another $1.5m for food relief.
But watchdogs say it has been common practice in the past for aid to be siphoned off by corrupt officials. Shoddy, cheap supplies such as counterfeit medicines are being distributed instead of genuine ones, says Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in Delhi.
“The practice has been known for a long time,” says Mr Chakma, adding that a network of government officials sought to benefit from aid flows ahead of the annual monsoon floods.
Even flood prevention mechanisms, such as river embankments and sluice gates, are deliberately left unmaintained, commentators say.
“Every time they are washed away, it means more money for the contractors, technocrats and politicians,” the Indian daily The Hindustan Times wrote this week.
Two years ago the district magistrate of Patna, the capital ofBihar, and 10 others including bank officials, were charged with conspiring to siphon away more than $2m released by the state government for flood relief.
Government officials deny the claims. “As far as flood relief is concerned, there won’t be much [corruption] here,” says Omesh Sinha, relief commissioner for Uttar Pradesh. “Here everyone is watching. The media, NGOs [non-governmental agencies], senior officers are visiting all the spots.”
He concedes, however, “The problem of corruption sometimes comes in the restoration of infrastructure, roads, embankments. That kind of problem may come up.”
Leslie Browne, executive director of Oxfam India, says curbing corruption in humanitarian aid is “something that Oxfam has learned over time”.
The agency distributes supplies to local partners, rather than money, he says. “There are good people and work does get done,” Mr Browne stresses.
But could aid be siphoned away from the needy? “The possibilities are there,” he says.
By Amy Yee in New Delhi.