“The monsoon’s arrival brings uncertainty and threats,” says Prempal, a long-time resident of Yamuna Khadar.
“This year, however, the signs were absent. Usually, the water level rises gradually in three stages, allowing us time to prepare. But this time, the flood came all at once, catching us off guard.”
Overnight, the residents had to seek safer plains, leaving their animals behind. On the night of July 11, when water level of Yamuna at Old Bridge had started to rise, Prempal was stuck in low-lying areas with his three buffaloes. His daughter and wife had already left for safer plains and he was evacuated by the authorities on July 14.
“But my buffaloes were left behind. The rescuers were not ready to evacuate them. They are voiceless creatures. How could I leave them behind?” says Prempal, who rears buffaloes for personal use.
In a hurried attempt to save the animals, Prempal paid Rs 6,000 to local swimmers from the area to rescue his three buffaloes.
“This is a lot of money at times like these. But I am glad that local swimmers helped and I could save my animals, who are dearest to me,” he says.
Amidst the human commotion at relief camps in Mayur Vihar, the animals held their own little world. A cow is running playfully as its owner, Narendra, is preparing straw for their evening feed. A bunch of puppies, not older than a few days, are running behind a child who carries fresh samosas in his hands.
In all the madness, animals seem to exist in perfect harmony, overseen by their owners who rescued them by risking their lives.
They are an integral part of life at Yamuna floodplains. Almost all families in the region have cattle in their houses. While many of them rear them for personal use, there are those for whom animals are a part of their livelihood.
Sonu Tomar, who has 30 cows and buffaloes and runs a gaushala (cow-shed), tells Patriot that he lost two calves to the floods. Sonu hired local swimmers in the area to save the animals.
“It was a task in itself. I am not the only one who has lost animals, especially little calves who could not swim. My friends also lost their animals. Almost two days were spent in rescuing these animals,” he says.
Apart from cows and buffaloes he saved, Sonu also rescued puppies who were just a few days old.
“Who will think of them? NDRF was busy in saving humans, but what about the animals who heavily depend on us?” he says.
Sonu’s friend and neighbour, Netrapal, also lost his two calves to the flood.
While Sonu is still hopeful that he will find the animals, Netrapal’s animals were found dead due to the overflow of water.
“We are emotionally attached to these animals. They not only support our livelihood, they are like our family members.”
Locals inform that swimmers or gotakhor risked their lives to save the animals. It was also because of them that the animals could be saved. Mala Devi, who rears buffaloes for personal purposes, is glad that her animals were saved. However, due to the electricity and fences and sharp objects in the water, her two buffaloes were injured and she is nursing their wounds at Mayur Vihar relief camps.
“I am so glad for the local rescuers. I asked the NDRF team to save the animals, but they rejected the request. They were my last hope,” she says.
However, the risks that local rescuers took were many.
From being exposed to electricity-induced water, sharp objects, and plastic threads used as fences, the local rescuers said that the amount they were paid was more like rewards than the wages deserved.
“In the two days that I went into the water, my skin was swollen due to exposure. My eyes were hurt and there was toxic water in my ears. I took medication after that. Many of our friends, who accompanied me to save the animals, had injuries due to sharp objects,” says Brijesh Kumar, 24, who originally comes from Faizanpur in Uttar Pradesh.
Brijesh rescued 20 cattle in a span of two days.
“I am glad that I could help. However, it was difficult to save the dogs because they tend to bite in anxiety or fear. These are the animals that we could save. Only God knows how many animals died due to the flood,” he adds.
While the cattle were saved later by the local rescuers or residents, dogs and cats and other pet animals accompanied the victims when they evacuated their houses. Dogs, the residents told Patriot, are like children for almost all the people living in the floodplains. As the families are exposed to petty crimes in the region, dogs also offer protection and a sense of security to their owners.
“We took them because they tend to follow us wherever we go. They never leave us alone and come with us even to the safer plains. For those that were left behind, residents themselves went into the water and saved them,” says Narendra, who lives in Yamuna Khadar.
His dog Tony, who is now looking after his makeshift home in an open field near Mayur Vihar metro station, almost drowned in the water and was saved by Narendra himself.
The struggle to save the animals did not end with the flood. Once the residents evacuated the animals onto the safer plains, there was a constant fear of theft.
Netrapal, who rears goats and buffaloes for personal use, had his goats stolen from under the flyover near Mayur Vihar Extension metro station.
“It usually happens during the night. We can stay awake only for a period of time. The moment our eyes are shut, there is someone looking to steal something from us, especially goats,” he says.
For Rahee, a girl in her early 20s who taught sewing to local children before the flood submerged all her machines, her dog Monty was like a child for her.
“He would sleep with me on my bed. There have been three floods in his lifetime and he never left the house. Even now, he was not ready to leave. I took him with me,” she says. Monty was run over by a car and died.
In a photograph that Rahee put as WhatsApp status, Monty is wearing sunglasses and is smiling into the camera.
“I think it is fate. But my heart hurts,” she says.
“Nobody thinks about the havoc this flood has caused for the animals.”