Historically, floods and their control have never been a big issue in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin, as it is today. Floods became a major issue after the British occupied India. When they examined the Ganga basin, they believed that if it could be made “flood-free”, they could levy a tax in return for such protection.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Embankments that doom the people

The periodic floods in the Kosi basin and embankment breaches have landed the people of north Bihar in a perpetual mess. In assembly sessions, politicians discuss flood relief but seldom the cause behind the disasters, reports Surekha Sule.

9 April 2010 - The Kosi river in north Bihar, which meandered through 15 different channels over 160 kms for 250 years, was finally ‘tamed’ in 1962-63. To arrest her strong currents, embankments were built on either side of its westernmost 8 to16 km-wide channel. However, this move also ended up entrapping 12 lakh population. Over the past 50 years, two generations of people living on this 160-km-wide stretch have forgotten how their forefathers lived with the floods, came up with a decent farm produce, and slept in peace trusting that Kosi would never bother them.

A bridge that collapsed and got buried under the silt at Birpur. It was one of the first casualties of the 2008 floods following the Kusaha breach. Pic: Surekha Sule.

Although the people have been witnessing adverse consequences of this ‘intervention’ ever since the embankments were built, the worst possible disaster struck them when a breach at Kusaha in Nepal on August 18, 2008, turned them into paupers overnight taking away their peace forever. The fertile soil they had so fondly tended to was transformed into wasteland with heavy sand silt. The victims entrapped within have been wailing over this predicament for five decades, in vain. Now those living outside the embankments have also joined the chorus. Whose benefit and security are these embankments for? Isn’t it a lose-lose situation?

The Kosi yatra

I was part of the 12-member media team that toured the Kosi basin along with the members of Barh Mukti Abhiyan and Kosi Adhyayan Dal recently. The ruined roads, caved-in bridges, collapsed houses, and sand-cast farms grimly reminded us of the horror left behind by the 2008 flash floods. We drove miles and miles through the white soft sand dotted with a few green patches and large water-logged areas covered with deadly hyacinth. Human habitation on either side of the rough-hewn road did not seem to end as people prefer staying closer to the roads for quick escape. Except for the embankments and a few elevations, there were no safe spots.

Even now, the people have nothing to work on. Distress migration to Delhi, Kolkata, Punjab, Haryana, etc., is rampant.

The Kosi yatra commenced at Khagaria – known as Saat Nadiyonka Sasuraal (Seven Rivers’ Marital Home) as all the seven rivers of north Bihar converge upon Khagaria (see map) which comes under the spell of floods each year without fail. With Saharsa as our base camp, the visits included three categories: the 2008 flood victims’ area in Supaul, the villages within the embankments, and the settlements (officially called ‘encroachments’) on the embankments.


Khagaria carries an unenviable epithet -- “Duba” (drowned) district -- as not a single inch of land has been left untouched by the rivers. It is being cordoned off in a 26-km-long, 12-15-foot-high ring-like embankment. The notoriety is such that demanding cars or motorcycles for dowry is passé; people now prefer boats as this is the mode of transport Khagaria relies on from June to October. In fact, they cite the example of an IAS officer who got a fibre boat in dowry. During floods, people shift to the upper stories, live on the roads or railway lines, and even embankments.

Village Manganj (east), block Triveniganj, district Supaul

On the fateful August 20, 2008, Reenadevi’s husband Ramesh Sah, a halwai, had gone to Triveniganj to cook a feast. When the floodwaters kept surging, Reenadevi shifted her children to a cot first and then to a table placed on top of it. Then again, she placed a few boxes on top of the table. Finally, she had to shift them to a nearby house perching on an elevation. They were rescued only after a week when Ramesh came in a rescue boat and took them to Triveniganj. The family came back in November only to find everything destroyed by the floods.

Some villagers said they somehow managed to live through the nightmare in five-seven feet of water for a few days by staying on rooftops. When some of them tried to escape, 16 persons were swept away by the strong currents. “Humne apni lungi utharke bahenko bachaya (I took off my lungi to save my sister),” said a villager. Although the area was water-logged for four months, it took two months for the relief teams to arrive.

The Manganj people had not experienced floods for over 50 years. The excess rainwater used to seep into large swathes of land and dry up on its own. They reaped the benefits through the enriched soil and put up with the inevitable periodic devastation. Now, having lost the fertile strips to white sand deposition left behind by months of water-logging, the families witness at least one member of the family migrating to Delhi or Punjab in search of work. No wonder a new phrase is doing the rounds: “dhotiwale Punjab/Haryana khet mein, pantwale Delhi mein”.

Village Ghiwaha, Block Chhatapur, District Supaul

At Ghiwaha too, as the ominous waters kept rising, the panic-stricken lot ran helter-skelter but had few safe spots to take refuge in. While some reached relief camps, others stayed with relatives or somehow made it to Nepal, Delhi, Kolkata, or Mumbai. For those left behind, it was a nightmare as the administration could reach them only after a week and distribute an emergency relief package containing one quintal rice/wheat and Rs 4,000 compensation. However, many needy families were left out.

The agony did not end here. Relief is yet to reach the families of five victims who died of snakebites. It’s been two years since the floods washed away the power lines and roads; but neither has been restored yet. Education and health services have come to a standstill and the area still remains cut off from the rest of the world.

When asked about the floods experienced 50 years ago, an elderly Ramprakash Mandal said the floods did not cause such widespread destruction then as the waters used to flow over a 40-km-wide stretch and recede soon. People were used to it and even prepared for it. But this time, they were caught unawares. The silt destroyed the land -- their only means of livelihood. “Then population was less. Farmers grew bajra and maize; not rice or wheat as is being done now.”

Ramprakash Mandal said how, with a lot of efforts, they sowed the seeds of an agricultural revolution through organic farming. The 2008 calamity wiped out everything with just one stroke and now they are back to 1962.

That calls into question the very rationale behind building the embankments. However, Shaligram Pandey still thinks embankments should be there but maintained well so that they do not breach again. Such high expectation from the administration despite the destruction caused by repeated breaches!

Mandal said: “Ek yug bita (an era has gone by). And people’s mindset has changed.”

From here, we reached Daheria village, block Chhatapur, district Supaul. The situation was no different here either. The same uprooted lives, destroyed infrastructure, and withered hopes.

Birpur and Bhimnagar barrage in Nepal

We witnessed tremendous devastation at Birpur bordering Nepal -- the first casualty of the 2008 floods on the Indian side following the Kusaha breach. The floods have wreaked havoc on many buildings and a highway bridge. The foundations of many houses have been washed away but some upper structures still stand precariously tilted to the sides. White sand deposits, water bodies and rivers filled with water hyacinth are a common sight. We also visited Bhimnagar barrage in Nepal later in the evening.

Village Sirwar within the embankment, district Supaul

Sirwar too has lost its roads and power lines to the floods and has been living in isolation. Boat rides through Kosi channels are the only means to reach the villages. The predicament of around 4000 population in this village is such that not a single government official or a teacher or a health worker visits them.

Mohammed Hasim, 70, remembers embankments being build around late 50s. He is one of the few lucky ones to have bought a nine-bigha land from a Rajput owner on a slight elevation. He cultivates wheat, maize in rabi season; not rice. He said: “When Kosi is in spate, we save our lives by climbing on the embankments. Then there is water all around. We get coupons but never get any relief material. Relief comes here but never reaches us. We do not know what administration means.”

In the absence of proper toilets, Ushadevi, Rajodevi, Shantidevi, and Reetadevi spoke about how difficult it gets, especially for women, when there is water all around for three-four months. People swim to neighbours’ houses as boats float only for fetching supplies, health emergencies, or to ferry people to the village from outside. During one such ordeal, Mohmed Niyamad’s niece drowned as she got stuck in a swamp and could not be saved. Snakes float in the water and many people have died of snakebites too.

There have been various tragic instances of people dying on the way to the health centre located outside the embankment. The village doesn’t have a trained midwife and deliveries take place at home. When the situation gets complicated, death seems to be imminent. In 2009, Ramdev Sharma’s daughter died on her way to the hospital to deliver her baby. Similarly, Momina Khatun’s 18-year-old daughter Rabbo’s baby and Basudev Sharma (40) who suffered stomach pain died even before reaching the hospital.

Matrimonial ties between the people living outside the embankments and those living inside are rare. Only poor families outside the embankments entertain matrimony as it costs them only one rupee. They call it mangani me shaadi (married at a cost required for engagement).

Three caste groups – Sharma, Yadav and Muslim -- live in Sirwar. Others are Bhagat, Thakur, etc. Most of them are “hasuva faros” -- one having no resource to work with. They have only a sickle to cut grass in other people’s fields. Everybody’s land has gone under water. Influential Rajputs from outside the embankments corner the land and give it out for tilling on the basis of sharecropping or rent or sale.

NREGA activist Suman Kumar Mishra said the works under the scheme have been undertaken using tractors and wages are deposited in the labourers’ bank accounts. When the latter withdraw money from the bank, contractors’ musclemen snatch the cash. Some 60 percent of daily-wagers have job cards but no money throughout the year.

At Khagaria, the Kosi river merges with the Kamla. Pic: Surekha Sule.

Momina Khatun, whose son Mehmood Moosa has migrated to Dehradun as a construction worker, said: “every woman’s husband is out for work and 10-15 men migrate for work each day.” On an average, Mehmood sends Rs 500-700 per month through someone coming home and informs her on someone’s mobile in the village. Momina’s husband died four years ago perhaps due to vocal cord cancer. Her second son lives with his family separately and her daughters are married. Her daughter-in-law works in the farm during harvest and gets one out of the 12 lots (boja) she cuts; i.e. some 50 kg of cereals over two months of rabi. They own two goats and a buffalo.

Saheb Sharma has three sons, three daughters (aged 2-14) and lives with his wife and old parents. He studied up to inter college in 1994, went to Delhi for work but landed up in menial jobs. He met with an accident while on duty and came back after two years. Now he works as a farm labourer and often takes land on rent. He has two cows, but milk does not fetch good returns here. On an average, Saheb Sharma earns Rs 1400-1500 per month, gets some cereals after farming, but pays half of the farm produce as rent to the landowner. His brother is in Dehardun and his wife with six children stays next door. Children go to school which have no teachers and hence, Saheb pays Rs 20 a month to a village youth for tuitions.

Entire population in Sirwar entrapped between the embankments lives below subsistence level and has no contact with the outside world except for a few mobile phones. The official response is as callous as it gets. They say the people have no business to live within the embankments as “they have been resettled”. Some 50 years ago, they were given land only for housing but not for farming. They were expected to till their land within the embankments after the flood waters receded. But the resettlements outside the embankments too have been water-logged and the people were forced to shift back to the villages or on the embankments. Their farmland within the embankments too went under water. There are some villages which got submerged several times in the last 50 years.

Village Belwara on the embankment, block Simri Bakhtiyarpur, district Saharsha

Despite such devastation, the official ‘solution’ to embankment breaches has been to raise the height of the dam from 8 to 15 feet. According to activist Dr Dinesh Mishra, “the raised embankments can be even more dangerous. The higher the embankments, the more the water held within which exerts far higher pressure on the walls. And if the embankment breaches, a lot more water will force out engulfing the nearby region for sure.”

We drove on the embankments in Simri Bakhtiyarpur block where soil was stocked on the embankment for construction. We had to cut short our journey as the jeep wheels got stuck in the soft white topsoil.

From the embankment, the difference in height between the riverbed level and outside the embankment was glaring. Because of the heavy silt accumulated over five decades, the Kosi riverbed here got raised by seven feet and hence the water flows at a higher level. On the way, we saw a collapsed sluice gate buried under the silt which was originally built to discharge water of a tributary into the Kosi. Since this tributary cannot discharge water into the main river, its water flows parallel to the Kosi outside the embankment, thus pulling a huge area under it. The water seeps through the embankments and a large area adjacent to the embankment remains waterlogged.

Now that the work of heightening the embankment is on, the people living on this embankment since 1987 have been served with notices labeling them encroachers. “Where can we go? We can’t stay within the embankment, can’t live on it, or get resettled at a lower level outside because of water-logging,” the villagers lamented.

Jawaharkumar Sharma said: “Our grandfather/great grandfather got 0.2 acre land in compensation and now we are 25 in the family. What do we get out of it?”

Umeshkumar, 24, who has migrated to Delhi earns Rs 2000-4000 and sends 1000-1500 to his family consisting of parents, wife, two children, and two brothers. His family pays Rs 5 to talk to him on someone’s mobile in case of emergency.

Village Tilathi right outside the embankment, block Simri-Bakhtiyarpur, district Saharsa

Shankar Yadav of Tilathi said the villagers had to bear severe losses as the land was acquired for three different purposes: for embankments, excavation, and for resettlement of the villagers inside. However, water-logging forced them back to the villages inside or on the embankment.

The waterlogged area is covered with hyacinth which prohibits the growth of farm crops. Wherever land is available, they grow rice, maize, moong, and vegetables. But only two months of rabi farming doesn’t fetch them enough. This time, 75% of the maize sown did not bear seeds and according to the officials, it was because of extreme cold conditions. Such adversities have been triggering migration. People come back here during February-April for rabi season and leave again for Punjab-Haryana to harvest wheat. Trains commute overloaded and overcrowded all the time.

Shankar said life was better before the embankments were built. “All the families in the village had land; but after the embankment, both sides are suffering losses, no one gains. In fact, kala azar (visceral leishmaniasis), malaria, and other water-borne diseases strike us regularly.”

When asked if they would migrate to a developed area with the family, the villagers said: “where do we go from our birthplace? We need schools, colleges, hospitals, roads, factories, and cottage industries close to our village.”

Village Chandrayan adjacent to the embankment, block Nauhatta, district Saharsa

In 1984, the embankment here breached and this was the first village to come under the fury of the flash floods. It breached early in the morning and within hours, the flash floods washed away countless human beings and cattle.

Ramnarayan Thakur said: “we were in difficulty even before the breach as the water used to seep through the embankments into our village. We have never slept peacefully even after the breach was plugged. Our woes continue to torment us. The roads and the bridges have not been restored. We have no electricity since 1984.”

Baidyanath Jha said the river flows within the embankments seven feet above the ground level. “Another breach, and we will all be swept away by the flash floods.”

However, an interesting suggestion came from Puneshwar Yadav who said a new embankment should be built from Kusaha (the 2008 breach point in Nepal) to Kursela (where the Kosi merges with the Ganga).

Media intervention

During our yatra, conversations with mediapersons laid bare crippling lack of intellectual debate on this issue. According to them, the media has not been able to generate opinion even though life has been uprooted several times. Between the ruling party and the Opposition in Bihar, there’s a clear consensus about building the embankments and raising their height. In the Assembly sessions, they discuss flood relief distribution but seldom the cause behind the disaster.

Thanks to government restrictions, a journalist added, media has limitations and is far from free. A senior journalist narrated how his seniors pressured him to suppress the truth. It talks about how old the embankments are and how badly they are being maintained but never turn it into a campaign. But some concerned mediapersons said they keep the debate rolling outside the press and said they would support any movement by the people or voluntary organizations to drive home the message.

Embankments for whom?

Every village within, outside, and on the embankments in the Kosi basin is replete with such sordid tales. The families are fed by their dear ones who migrate and are left to fend for themselves for four months in the flood waters.

Flood relief is yet another racket! ⊕

Surekha Sule
9 Apr 2010

Surekha Sule is a freelance journalist and environmentalist based in Mumbai, and a Media Fellow of the Ministry of Water Resources of the Government of India.

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Monday, 5 April 2010

पलायन कर रहे हैं लोग

(Dr D K Mishra [along side a women journalist] with officials responsible for Kusaha breach discussing course of the river on map in the Control Room at Kosi Barrage)
पूनम पाण्डे
कोसी (बिहार) से लौटकर
मुंबई में राज ठाकरे कई बार उत्तर भारतीयों पर निशाना साध चुके हैं। दिल्ली की मुख्यमंत्री शीला दीक्षित भी कह चुकी हैं कि हर रोज हजारों बिहारी यहां आकर बोझ बढ़ा रहे हैं। बिहार से कितना माइग्रेशन हो रहा है इसका कोई आधिकारिक आंकड़ा तो नहीं है लेकिन कोसी नदी के कहर को झेल रहे गांवों में से लगभग 80 पर्सेंट परिवारों में से महिलाओं, बच्चों और बुजुर्गों को छोड़कर लगभग हर कोई बड़े शहरों में जाकर मजदूरी करने को विवश है। इनमें से ज्यादातर दिल्ली, पंजाब, हरियाणा और मुंबई का रुख करते हैं।
कोसी का कहर
कोसी को 'कैद' करने के लिए जो तटबंध बनाया गया वह समस्या दूर करने की बजाय दिक्कत बन गया है। तटबंध के बीच बसे गांवों के 8 लाख से अधिक लोग कभी भी जलसमाधि जैसी परिस्थितियों में जीने को विवश हैं ही, तटबंध के बाहर के गांव भी बेहाल हैं। सुपौल जिले के घिवाहा गांव में 2008 में पहली बार बाढ़ आई जब कुसहा में तटबंध टूटा। गांव के बुजुर्ग शालीग्राम कहते हैं कि जब कोसी में तटबंध नहीं था तब बाढ़ का रूप इतना विनाशकारी नहीं था, तब पानी फैल जाता था।

अब तो 40 किमी तक उपजाऊ जमीन बालूमय हो गई है। हम आजादी से पहली वाली स्थिति में पहुंच गए हैं। इसी तरह तटबंध के बीच बसे गांव सिहवार (जिला सहरसा) के लोगों का भी कहना है कि तटबंध के बाद कहर बढ़ा है। राजकुमार बताते हैं कि गांव से 80 पर्सेंट पलायन हुआ है। बाढ़ मुक्ति अभियान के कवींद्र पांडे ने बताया कि हमने मधुबनी के परसौनी और लीलजा, सुपौल के गोपालपुर गांव का सर्वे किया जहां 70-75 पर्सेंट परिवारों में से 1 से अधिक सदस्य रोजी रोटी कमाने बाहर गया है। कमोबेश यही स्थिति दूसरे गांवों की भी है। सबसे ज्यादा पंजाब और दिल्ली में माइग्रेशन हुआ है।
तटबंध कितना जरूरी?
पर्यावरण एक्सपर्ट दिनेश कुमार मिश्रा कहते हैं कि बाढ़ नियंत्रण पर किया गया खर्च फायदे की जगह नुकसान पहुंचा रहा है। मुक्त रूप से बहती हुई नदी की बाढ़ के पानी में काफी मात्रा में गाद (सिल्ट, बालू, पत्थर) मौजूद रहती है। बाढ़ के पानी के साथ यह गाद बड़े इलाके में फैलती है। नदियां इसी तरीके से भूमि का निर्माण करती हैं। तटबंध पानी का फैलाव रोकने के साथ-साथ गाद का फैलाव भी रोक देते हैं। इससे नदी का तल ऊपर उठना शुरू हो जाता है। रिवर बेड लगातार ऊपर उठते रहने की वजह से तटबंधों को ऊंचा करते रहना इंजीनियरों की मजबूरी बन जाती है मगर इसकी भी एक व्यावहारिक सीमा है। तटबंधों को जितना ऊंचा और मजबूत किया जाएगा सुरक्षित क्षेत्र में बाढ़ और जल जमाव का खतरा उतना ही ज्यादा बढ़ता है। और अब यही हो रहा है। तटबंध और ऊंचे किए जा रहे हैं और अब कहीं तटबंध टूटा तो स्थिति 2008 से भी भयावह हो सकती है।
बाढ़ नहीं... जल निकासी है समस्या
कोसी बाढ़ के लिए फैक्ट फाइंडिंग मिशन के मेंबर गोपाल कृष्ण कहते हैं कि कई शोधों से यह साफ है कि कोसी की समस्या बाढ़ की समस्या नहीं, जल निकासी की समस्या है। पहली यूपीए सरकार ने भी अपने मैनिफेस्टो में इसका जिक्र किया था। हालांकि फिर कुछ किया नहीं गया। कोसी में तटबंध बनाने की प्रक्रिया, बिहार के भीतर नदियों को जोड़ने की परियोजना और कोसी में हाई डैम बनाने का प्रोजेक्ट जल निकासी की समस्या का समाधान नहीं है, बल्कि यह उसे और भी गहरा बना देंगे।


(Kosi Barrage)

(Impact of August 2008 flood in Kosi)

क्यों नहीं बदलता बिहार

पूनम पांडे Tuesday March 23, 2010

यह मेरी बिहार की पहली ट्रिप थी। इससे पहले बिहार के बारे में सिर्फ सुना था या फिर खबरों में देखा था। पटना रेलवे स्टेशन से बाहर निकले तो लगा कि यार बिहार भी बड़े शहरों जैसा ही तो है। फिर जब बेगुसराय होते हुए सहरसा पहुंचे तो कुछ-कुछ असली बिहार दिखने लगा।

हमें बाढ़ प्रभावित लोगों से मिलना था। तटबंध (embankment) के अंदर बसे गांव और वे इलाके जहां कोसी नदी ने कहर ढाया है, वहां जब पहुंचे तो लगा कि मेट्रो सिटीज़ में रहकर तो हम इनका दर्द बिल्कुल भी नहीं समझ सकते। हर किसी के पास सुनाने के लिए कुछ न कुछ था। कैसे बाढ़ आई और कैसे कई रोज़ वे पानी में फंसे रहे। सरकार बाढ़ राहत कोष के नाम पर करोड़ों रुपया जुटाती है लेकिन क्या वह वाकई इन लोगों तक पहुंच पाता है? उनकी हालत देखकर तो यह कतई नहीं लगा। हर कोई आशा भरी निगाहों से हमें देख रहा था... कुछ ने तो पूछ भी लिया कि क्या आप कुछ बांटने आए हैं। ओह... कितना मजबूर महसूस किया उस वक्त खुद को!

इन लोगों की तकलीफ हम जैसे लोग शायद और बढ़ा देते हैं। इसका एहसास तब हुआ जब एक बुजुर्ग महिला को यह कहते सुना कि शहर के लोग आए हैं... देखने कि हम लोग कैसे जी रहे हैं। तटबंध के बाहर बसे एक गांव में जहां 1984 में बाढ़ आई थी, वहां अब भी हालात 26 साल पुराने ही हैं। बाढ़ से पहले वहां बिजली भी थी और सड़क भी पर बाढ़ जो बहा ले गई, वह फिर कभी नहीं मिला। अब बिना बिजली, बिना सड़क के रह रहे हैं गांववाले। कई नेता आए... कई गए पर वहां के हालात नहीं बदले।

नाव से नदी पार कर जब तटबंध के अंदर के गांवों में पहुंचे तो बच्चों ने घेर लिया। ये बच्चे भी हर साल मौत को करीब से देख चुके थे। न तटबंध के अंदर के गांव वाले खुश हैं न ही बाहर वाले। तो तटबंध का फायदा आखिर किसे हो रहा है? क्या ठेकेदारों को जो हर साल कहीं न कहीं से तटबंध टूट जाने के बाद फिर से उसे बनाने का ठेका लेते हैं....या फिर सरकारी अफसरों को जो बाढ़ राहत का पैसा गटक जाते हैं और गांववाले उसी हालत में रहने को विवश होते हैं... या फिर नेताओं को जो इन सब पर राजनीति करते हैं? एक गांव वाले ने बताया कि नीतीश कुमार बहुत अच्छे हैं... वजह पूछी तो बोला कि उन्होंने सबको एक क्विंटल अनाज दिलाया। वाह रे राजनीति और वाह रे नेता! बिहार ने कई बड़े नेता दिए हैं पर क्या फायदा? वे सब खजूर के पेड़ जैसे हैं जो न जरूरतमंद को छाया दे रहे हैं और न ही उनके फल तक कोई आसानी से पहुंच सकता है। आखिर इतने सालों बाद भी बिहार के हालात क्यों नहीं बदल रहे? कुछ लोगों का कहना था कि नीतीश सरकार के आने के बाद काफी-कुछ बदला है लेकिन जो बदलाव दिखा, वह सिर्फ पटना या फिर शहरी इलाके तक ही क्यों सीमित है? क्या कोई ऐसा नेता नहीं जो जलसमाधि जैसे हालात में जी रहे गांववालों की भी सुन सके...


Friday, 2 April 2010

Lives on the Koshi’s sands

In August 2008, when the Koshi breached its embankment in Kusaha near the Indo-Nepal border and affected close to 2.3 million people in parts of eastern Nepal and northern Bihar, thousands of people from villages like Manganj East (Supaul) in Bihar thought the worst had come. But a week inside Bihar’s most vulnerable districts and it seems that “the worst” will always threaten the people in this part of the Indian state. Foreboding the breach will almost always be futile; the river will always surprise them, and come with the kind of force one has only seen in disaster films on television. After the floods, years will pass by without much change, leaving behind mostly fear, and acres and acres of fine white silt.

The village of Chandrayan proves possibly why these ‘predictions’ seem fairly accurate. This village may well be caught in a time warp since 1984, desperately trying to leap the years and catch up, but unable to do so. In September 1984, the Koshi breached its embankment 75 km south of the Bhimnagar barrage in Nepal. Chandrayan, along with 1,704 other villages, did not see the disaster coming and suffered its first flood. Residents of Chandrayan say that electricity here is still a far-off dream. Much was promised after the disaster, but hardly anything was delivered: a common complaint in the flood-ravaged districts of North Bihar.

Two years after the 2008 Kusaha breach, in another village called Givha in Saharsa district, it takes a while to believe what one sees: flat lands meeting the horizon in stark white. “Balu sab jagah hai” or ‘the silt is everywhere’ is a common refrain. There is no possibility of resuming agricultural livelihoods here, which in turn has been the reason for the alarming migration rates, pushing people to New Delhi and Punjab and further away. The village is almost a museum of disaster; everything looks antiquated because of the flood. Buildings are upturned and some, half-broken; it seems the Koshi may have just left.

It is well known that the Koshi has changed its course over 160 km from 1737 onwards. Dinesh Kumar Mishra—engineer, prolific writer, and convenor of the Badh Mukti Abhiyan, a community organiser in Bihar’s flood-prone areas says, this is because of the enormous amounts of silt that the Koshi brings from its upper reaches.

With a catchment area of over 74, 930 sq. km, the Koshi is Bihar’s lifeline, its swelling and oscillation a way of irrigation. But a myopic, tragic step was taken in 1953, when embankments were built on either side of the Koshi. A barrage was also built at Bhimnagar, at the Indo-Nepal border, to control the Koshi’s flow, which was entirely maintained by Indian authorities. If the course-changing nature of this river had been known and its massive shift plotted, embankments were obviously not a good idea. The solution would be, as Dr. Mishra has written in several publications and as has been advocated by many water activists, a way to manage the silt, and not just the water; to plan a drainage system that would channel the water to be of more use, instead of letting it log both inside and outside the embankments. Yet, the embankments at that time were built at a cost of IRs. 370 million, says Dr. Mishra. The cost of maintaining the embankments has escalated to close to IRs. 2 million, but little initiative has been taken to review the embankments and evaluate their performance after 50 years.

A village called Sirwar in Saharsa is one of the 380 villages (about 1.2million people) caught between the embankments. A kilometre’s walk from the Koshi riverbed, the village’s central building is a large school which is still being constructed. The people here are angry and disillusioned with the mechanisms of relief and rehabilitation, because they never fully recover from the floods. Every year, people relocate their shelters atop the embankments, some of them rebuilding their houses so that they live above ground level. But the Koshi has elevated itself 15 feet higher because of the mounting sediment levels between the embankments, which means the residents have to keep building their houses higher. Ram Prasad, who has been mobilising people from Sirwar and surrounding villages to start a movement against the embankments, put its very simply: “Kosi ko mukt kar do,” or ‘Free the Koshi’. Apart from the fact that they are condemned to a life on the embankments every year, losing and reclaiming agricultural land every year, villagers here feel like they have been forgotten. They almost never receive what they are entitled to. Further inside are the villages of Dalit and Mahadalit communities, who are among the most neglected communities of North Bihar.

Kavindra Pandey of the Badh Mukti Abhiyan says that in some villages, infant mortality rates are so high that women give birth to over 22 children. Of these, some are sent outside Bihar to bring back money and resources. There is no doubt the number of people who migrate out of Bihar are driven out because of floods, or in some parts of Bihar, the droughts. The floods, in the Koshi’s case however, are largely owed to the engineering flaw that the embankments wholly represent. Inside the embankments, the stories heard are mostly of desperation and utter dejection. But people cannot sustain either desperation or dejection for long, because come monsoon, when the river swells, the people have to wrap up their lives and put them on hold, so they can find another place to live.

So while 1.2 million people live unspeakably dire lives inside the embankments, there is no evidence that the embankments have improved the quality of life outside them. There is no evidence that what is commonly referred to the “1953 plan” in its 57th year has not done more harm than good. Or that engineering sense and bureaucratic reason have in fact lent lifejackets to the perennially submerged.

Deepika Arvind

The Kathmandu Post



The nowhere people

When the foundation stone for the Kosi embankment was laid on January 14, 1955, near Nirmali in Saharsa district in Bihar, euphoric people shouted, Aadhi roti khayenge, Kosi bandh banayenge (we will eat only half a chapati but we will surely build the embankment), writes the prolific engineer and activist Dinesh Mishra in his book, " Trapped! Between the Devil and the Deep Waters." No one really paid any attention to the protests and the fears of the people who would live with these embankments and what would happen to their lives.
(In picture:Dr Dinesh Mishra with journalists from Indian cities explaining)
Fifty-five years later at least the first part of the slogan is true. Boxed between the embankments, the river floods every year, leaving behind fine white silt. A villager remarked to Mr. Mishra once that living in the Kosi region was akin to a camel's life in the desert. The fine white sand is everywhere. Like the wretchedness. It settles all over the land, over people, on their hair, their faces and bodies, giving them a whitish ghostly look. Swathes of it have destroyed
agriculture and made communication impossible. Cattle herds kick up a dust storm in their perambulations as half-clothed children mind them with a stick.

What is not covered with sand is waterlogged, packed tightly with water hyacinth. Much has been written about the Kosi River in Bihar and the tribulations of the people living in India's most unpredictable river basin. The Kosi River has moved 160 km — its shift has been plotted since 1737 from Sauradhar to Lajunia, says Mr. Mishra. It is well known that Jawaharlal Nehru first saw the floods way back in October, 1953 and ordered that something had to be done. Over one million people in 380 villages live in between the two embankments and their lives are caught in a time warp.

Visitors to the villages will be greeted with dusty, clamouring hordes of men, women and children full of rancour and complaint. They can do little else. North Bihar has several rivers criss crossing it but drainage has been a perturbing issue the embankments have not solved. Embankments are meant to control the river's flooding and the same sand has been stacked up to form artificial barriers that snake along the volatile Kosi while she goes this way and that, in a bid to keep her in check.

Fear of "humma"

Steeped in the culture of water the people had words for every stage of the river. From the time the rivers start to swell with the first flush of rains till the big-time floods. The word "boh" describes how the water starts entering the fields once the monsoon has set in. That was a happy event, recalls Kameshwar Kamati, an activist of the Badh Mukti Abhiyan from Madhubani. The water made the soil fertile and did not cause much damage. But now people feared the major flood — called the "humma." "There is no boh now only humma," quips Kamati. In a region where cattle rearing is the main economy, agriculture was secondary. Yet it once boasted of 300 varieties of rice and people grew sugarcane, sweet potato, pulses and oilseeds. Since 1963 the Kosi barrage built across the border in Nepal was supposed to irrigate the land in India.

In 2008 the afflux bund breached for the first time at Kusaha flooding large tracts of land and killing 587 people. Over 3,700 are missing and the floods ravaged 993 villages in five districts. Before that seven breaches in the embankments have killed hundreds and now towns like Nirmali and Khagaria, which has seven rivers nearby, have concrete rings around as flood protection. About 18 districts of North Bihar with a population of 5.23 crore are affected by the floods every year. Despite
floods, the Bihar government has only just started building shelters on stilts, hardly a consolation. You can see a spanking new one on the way to Manganj East in Supaul district, where memories are fresh about the floods in 2008 after the Kusaha breach. Bhim Jadhav watched his sister being swept away in the water, and young Roshan Kumar is still to recover after a relief box fell on him fracturing both his legs. For two months, water stayed in the village and most people fled to Delhi and
other cities. "It was the first time we had floods. We had very good agriculture till then. Most of our cattle died in the water," says Mohammed Kalim.

Kusaha is only 70 km away from this village, it took two days for the water to come here unannounced. Since then 11-year-old Roshan cannot walk and his mother Geeta Devi has arranged for him to be taught at home. In Ghivha, 70-year-old Jalandhar Prasad recalls that when there was no embankment, the floods were manageable. "There is sand everywhere and agriculture is so difficult. Wheat needs more water and the borewells are drying up. Production has also declined," he adds. Akhilesh Mishra points to his water logged land." Now I can fish here instead of growing crops," he grins.

A broken bridge at the entrance of the village says it all and a dilapidated school with a gaping room destroyed in the floods has not been repaired. "We have got no funds so far for repairs," says Bhola Prasad Yadav, coordinator of the school. The school with 880 children has two other small rooms. The flood-affected landscape is not hard to recognise. In Birpur, only eight km from Kusaha, which bore the brunt of the floods, concrete houses have collapsed into the ground, roofs are open and the walls are titled at strange angles.

The plight of the people caught between the two embankments of the Kosi is miserable. The worst among them are the Musahars, an extremely backward community which lives on the edge. Landless and illiterate, most are sharecroppers. In the Hasuliya tola of Musahars, Jamila's son works in Punjab. Their homes were on the other side of the river but since three years they have moved here. This little hamlet has been displaced three to four times. There is no school for children and no
anganwadi. These are the people who are not supposed to be there, remarks Mr. Mishra, whose work on the Kosi river is legendary.

They have job cards under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme but they are all blank. They keep changing their homes due to the vagaries of the river. People living near the embankment are faced with repeated migration as the height of the embankment is being raised as in Belwara. In Sirwar village in Saharsa district, Sarup Choudhary and family spend most of the monsoon on a machan, a raised wooden platform in his house. "We cook, eat and sleep on this small platform every year," he says. He is clear like others in this sprawling village right on the Kosi's erratic banks, that the embankments are the reason for the water flooding the area every year. The kharif crop is no longer possible and most people migrate for work. "Because of the embankments for three months we are stuck in water. Sometimes we go hungry," he adds.

"Often we eat only once a day," says Mukhiya. Everything is built on a height, the homes, the shops and even the only concrete building in the village — the school. The children spill around in the village as rarely do the teachers come. Health is a major issue. People have to cross the river at Rs. 5 a trip and there is only boat
available in the rains. The primary health centre in Mahishi, across, is open till noon and rarely does it have any doctors. Many die here to lack of medical attention, specially in the rains when the swollen river does not permit them easy access to the outside world. The little land they have gets eaten up by the river every year or gets submerged in the monsoon.

Case for evaluation

Despite the loss of life, the flooding, dwindling agriculture and phenomenal migration, there is no evaluation of the embankments till today. Engineers extol the embankments and say that they cannot be connected with the waterlogging and it was natural for low lying areas to be flooded. The breaches are a natural calamity as the river changes course. A sort of collateral damage. Engineers and politicians have
formed a coalition of the willing to support embankments. An engineer at the Kosi barrage guaranteed 100 per cent safety of the embankments —but what can one do against a natural disaster, he remarks. Undeterred by the lessons from Kosi, the Bihar government is pursuing a path of building more embankments in a bid to contain other rivers where the experiences are equally damaging. There is a strong case not only for a complete evaluation of the embankments as a flood control policy but
also for a cost-benefit analysis of the entire investment in embanking rivers in Bihar.

Meena Menon, The Hindu