Kosi Embankment Dividing the People into Two Contesting Teams
Construction of the Kosi embankment started on the 14th January 1955 when the then Chief Minister of Bihar Dr. Shrikrishna Sinha laid the foundation of the western Kosi embankment near Bhutaha village in Saharsa district amidst a great fanfare. The rituals were performed by a priest from a nearby village Jhitki, Pt. Mahabir Jha. Construction of embankments was a departure from what was said at Nirmali Conference on the 5th and 6th April, 1947 as then an 800 feet high dam was proposed across the Kosi River that would irrigate a vast area in India and Nepal and generate 3300 MW of hydropower.
People were dismayed when they found that the embankment was being constructed along the bank of the river whereas the dam that they had understood was to be built across the river and that will create a huge reservoir was going to be built in Nepal. Some farmers tried to raise that question as to why the earth is put along the river bank but nobody was there to answer their questions. They had logic that when they have to direct water to their fields from an irrigation channel from a small river or a tank, they always put earth across the channel and not along it. They failed to resolve the mystery. Two months later, on the 22nd March 1955, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India laid the foundation of the construction of the eastern embankment on the Kosi in village Bairia near Supaul and same thing was seen there too. Mud was being placed along the river bank and not across it. With the passage of time the construction of the embankments proceeded on either side of the village and the people started realizing that if the construction was going to proceed the way they were watching, their villages will be trapped within two earthen walls and if the river water swells during the monsoon, their position will be much worse than earlier and they will have no escape from floods.
It was around this stage of the construction of the embankments they realized that,
- If the construction continues to proceed the way it was proceeding, then it would be better to stop the construction as that will make their future bleak for all times to come. Hence, they wanted that the construction should stop and if that was not possible, the spacing between the embankments should be increased to the extent possible so that the impact of the floods on them is reduced.
- This meant that the alignment of the embankment will have to be changed, the spacing between them should be increased and all the investment on the construction so far will go to waste. Should that happen, more and more villages will come within the embankments.
- The villages that were located on the riverside of the embankment but close to it also wanted the alignment of the embankment to be changed in such a way that their village comes on to the countryside of the embankment. This demand was contradictory to the above demand but it as the spacing between embankments will have to be shrunk now.
- There was another group of people that was interested only in construction of the embankment as they were interested only in the employment the work had generated for them. Increasing the spacing between the embankments or shrinking it had little concern for them. There number was more than both the above put together and such people came very handy to the project authorities who could publicize that there is a huge demand for the embankments on the Kosi and that the construction of the embankments should be completed as early as possible.
There was turmoil all along the length of both the embankments with some people demanding increase in spacing and the others demanding reduction of the same. Change of alignment was the only solution to meet the demand and wherever the people had influence and muscle power, succeeded in changing the alignment the way they wanted to. Villages like Mahishi, Bangaon and Hati etc. on the eastern embankment that were located within the embankments forced the change and got located outside, on the countryside of the embankment.
There was a movement of sorts on the western embankment staring from Pauni (below Kisunipatti) till Bhanthi (the then end point of the western embankment) where the entire construction line was shifted towards the river and many villages got located on the countryside of the embankment but not without violent clashes between those who wanted the alignment to be changed and those who were in favor of maintaining the status quo.
The ‘warriors’ from Karahara (within the embankment) and Rahua Sangram (outside the embankment) in Madhepur block of Madhubani district came face to face with lathis in 1956. The Karahara team had its hand soaked in red color to identify its team members easily so that they will hit only the members of the Rohua Sangram team. Police intervened and the dispute was resolved only when the Project Authorities agreed that they will construct a ring bundh around the village Karahara. This ring bundh was constructed but got washed during the floods of 1966. The Karahara village is living with the river ever since.
Slightly south of Karahara starting from Bheja till Bhanthi, the villagers had stopped the work and did not allow the project engineers from coming near to their villages. Work was stopped for a long time there and no amount of persuasion from the project authorities helped. A question was raised in Bihar Vidhan Sabha about the stoppage of work on the Kosi Project site. Kedar Pandey, the then Minister for Irrigation replied that after the general elections in February, 1957, enough police force will be available and deployed at work sites to ensure that the Kosi embankments are constructed and completed.
This was the time when the Bihar Government came out with its first proposal of rehabilitating those who were going to get trapped within the Kosi embankments at a cost of Rs. 11.2 crores which included land for land for the oustees, house for house and many other facilities. The project cost, however, was estimated to be only Rs. 37.3 crores. The Government realized soon that the cost of rehabilitation was disproportionate to the cost of the project and so it was looking for a proportionate package and re-estimated the rehabilitation cost at Rs. 2.12 crore and this was without land for land clause. It was expected that those living within the embankment will be shifted to residential plots on the countryside of the embankment but will cultivate their land within the embankments.
Constitution of many committees on rehabilitation followed and the last one was Chandra Kishore Pathak Committee in 1979. Its report came in 1982 and the Government took another five years to accept its recommendations and that had led to the constitution of the Kosi Sufferers Development Authority which is almost a sleeping body.
This blog has been contributed by Shri. Dinesh Kumar Mishra as part of a project being led by Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group on “Multilayered Stakeholders’ Dialogue to Build Support for Sustainable Water Resources Management in Koshi River Basin”, supported by The Asia Foundation.
The author is a civil engineer and convener of Barh Mukti Abhiyan. He has researched and written on floods in Bihar for more than 25 years.