Lives in the Shadow of Kosi Embankments
“If our land and house remains sustainably at one place, we can still make efforts to earn livelihood from anywhere. But if every year, we are displaced because of the river bank cutting, the feeling of insecurity increases our worries and the sorrows never end.” – Abdul Hanan, Village Gopalpur, Supaul
These are the unhappy voices coupled with the feeling of helplessness that define the very tough lives of the hapless communities living in the Kosi basin, hoping against hope for a better tomorrow. India, where rivers are worshipped as goddesses, the Kosi river is referred to as both mother and witch by the people in the region. Known for its frequent floods, wild and unpredictable character, the Kosi was tried to be tamed within embankments soon after India’s Independence during 1954-55. The harvest will increase, the land will grow more fertile and the river will be a herald of plenty which will be a means to end the unrelenting woes of the people of Kosi – these tall promises kept the excitement in the innocent villagers at an all-time high during the construction of the embankments.
It was sooner than later, that the problems started seeing the light of the day.
Because the river could not be squeezed very closely, a substantial slice of land – roughly 100,000 hectares, including 380 villages in Bihar – had to be left within the embankments, solely at the mercy of floods! The villagers staged protests, raised voices and lobbied with the government to change the embankment alignment so their villages would be outside and protected from floods. Feeling of animosity loomed large over the inside and outside villages, groups of men fought with each other, women and children objected the move.
But nothing changed. The construction of the embankments gave rise to human miseries that remained unheeded. Today, more than 200,000 people live within the Kosi embankments and cope with the consequences of the river-taming interventions which was expected to provide them security from annual flooding.
Manohar Thakur of village Ghuran in Supaul, recalls the compensations that were promised to them, the “land for land” policy that was assured, reservation in jobs that was guaranteed for the youth and other rehabilitation mechanisms, which were soon realised to be hollow promises by the politicians for popular vote politics. He further explained that the rehabilitation is given on the outside of the embankments but no 'land for land' principle is yet adopted for them.
Another farmer, Abu Nasar, explains the distance at which the rehabilitation sites are located while the cultivable land is within the embankments. The average spacing between the two embankments of the Kosi is about 13 km and that gives some idea of what distance a farmer is supposed to travel every day during the crop season to reach his fields and come back.
Deprived of the civic amenities such was access to safe drinking water, sanitation, health facilities and education for children, the people inside the embankments have just remained voting banks for the politicians. With agriculture doomed in the flood waters every year and no other means of livelihoods, the area has been witnessing high distress migration since the 1960s with Palayan Express train carrying loads of people to other states.
Government of Bihar’s flagship programme – “Saat Nishchay” has failed to make any dent in the lives of the people in these vulnerable areas between the embankments. It is paradoxical that although village panchayats exist and regular elections are held in these areas, the Saat Nishchay programme cannot be implemented as no concrete work can be carried out in the area.
Chandrakant says “when floods cut out the river banks, one ward gets divided into several wards. So how would any pakka construction take place? Even Gram Panchayat office cannot be constructed inside the embankment as that too will get washed off in the next flooding season”.
Activist advocate, Dev Kumar Singh of Kosi Mukti Sangharsh Samiti, has been fighting for the rights of the Kosi victims and sustaining their voices since 15 years at all political levels and even raising the issue with the National Human Rights Commission. With not much success at hand, he disappointingly says, “Embankment ke andar ke log azaad Bharat ke ghualam naagrik hain” (The people inside the Kosi embankments are the slave citizens of Independent India).
The situation is grim with people having no access to basic rights such as water, sanitation and health.
Ultimately, what choices do the people have, except to express their anguish and frustrations against the apathy of the government towards their genuine problems. Strikes, protests, gheraos and demonstrations have yielded into no actions! They are living on the hopes that someday, their voices will be heard, their lives will be better.
This blog has been contributed by Ms Nivedita Mani as part of a project being led by Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group on “Multi-layered Stakeholders’ Dialogue to Build Support for Sustainable Water Resources Management in Koshi River Basin”, supported by The Asia Foundation.