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Up to million homeless after India twister

Up to one million people in eastern India are living out in the open after a tornado ripped through impoverished villages, the U.N. and aid workers say.
These sisters in Balgachi, India, are among the hundreds of thousands left homeless by a twister earlier this month.Anupam Nath / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Up to one million people in eastern India are living out in the open after a tornado ripped through impoverished villages, flattening tens of thousands of homes, the United Nations and aid workers said on Thursday.

The nor'wester — a weather pattern that develops in the Bay of Bengal during the summer — struck the states of Bihar and West Bengal on April 13, killing 137 people.

The U.N., aid agencies and government officials say more than 200,000 houses have been fully or severely damaged by the storm, which was packing wind speeds of 75 mph.

"Most people are living out in the open amidst the wreckage of the their homes," said Amarendra Ghana, program officer for the Catholic Relief Services in West Bengal's North Dinajpur district.

"We have started distributing shelter kits in both districts which include tarpaulin sheets, plastic mats, rope, matchboxes and candles, but the need is great and much, much more is required."

Aid workers say those impacted are the "poorest of the poor" — small and landless farmers, whose mud and thatch homes were unable to withstand the force of winds and lashing rains.

While state authorities have announced relief packages, aid workers in the field say they have witnessed government distributions in only a few areas.

Seven days after the disaster, health centers are still not functioning and medical assistance remains elusive for many injured villagers, who are suffering from wounds such as cuts and fractures as a result collapsed buildings and uprooted trees.

Water sources such as ponds have been contaminated by the carcasses of livestock — thousands are estimated to have died — leading to children bathing in the water contracting skin infections, say aid workers.

According to a report by the U.N. Disaster Management Team, the storm has also destroyed corn crops worth more than $4 million.

Stored seeds for rice paddy — due to be planted in June — have been washed away and this is likely to further compound food insecurity in this already marginalized area, where most households are classed as living below the poverty line.

Trafficking of women and children is common in the area and aid workers say they are concerned that if support is not given, families will be forced to send their children with traffickers.

"Araria district (in Bihar) has a high prevalence of child trafficking in normal times and this is known to increase during disasters," said an assessment by Save the Children. "Livelihood support ... is vital to mitigate forced migration and potential risks to women and children."