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Kosi Embankments and the People Across the National Boundary

Written by: 
Shri Dinesh Kumar Mishra

Scene - 1: When the work on the Kosi embankment started in 1955, Bharat Sevak Samaj (BSS) – an organization set up by Govt. of India (GoI) had invited people from all walks of life to come to the site and offer voluntary work to participate in taming the Kosi. BSS not only enlisted public cooperation in India, it enthused some groups in Nepal also for the voluntary work and two organizations of ex-service men there had offered shramdaan near Hanuman Nagar in Nepal along with many individuals. Unmindful of the consequences of the outcome of embanking of the river, Nepali people participated in taming the river with the hope that it will do well to them.

Scene- 2: While travelling in a bus from Varanasi to Gorakhpur during the flood season of 1998, the author overheard a remark from a fellow passenger asking, ‘Isn’t this the water from Nepal? They will kill us.’ And a rejoinder to that from a Nepali citizen in the Kosi basin I heard, ‘India has taken all the benefits of the Kosi Project and we stand cheated.’ That is the extent of disbelief towards each other when it comes from the people and that is a bad omen. Engineers often suggest that the best way to plan any water development project is to take the entire basin as a unit. And if that is the attitude of common persons occupying any river basin across a parting line and compulsion of engineers to plan a good project only when the entire basin is made available to them; how difficult will it be to satisfy both the parties? The irony is that even politicians on either side don’t hesitate to pass such comments. Engineers do not have dialogue with the people they are supposed to serve and that is true for either side of the border. How do we tell the lower riparian that is India that Nepal has not held the water anywhere in a way that can come and harm you here and to a villager in Nepal that the Indians are also suffering the outcome of these projects as badly, or even more at many places, as you are facing in your country.

On the Irrigation Front: That was mostly about flood control. The Kosi is a big river but smaller rivers coming to India from Nepal have always been a source of water for irrigation in lower Terai areas both for Nepalese and Indian farmers. By this means the water is held up and diverted into more than 100 miles of irrigating channels. The embankments form reservoirs from which the upper 5 or 6 feet can be drawn when the volumes in the rivers fall below requirements. This used to happen traditionally all along the Indo-Nepal border and practiced even today.

The British in India and Irrigation Works: During the British rule in India differences between the governments of India and Nepal were a stumbling block in the efforts to tame the Kosi or to take irrigation projects on the smaller rivers. Tension used to prevail over the boundary disputes between the jungle areas of Nepal and the plains of India. This tension was more pronounced if the boundary was decided by a river as these rivers used to meander and, thus, dislocating the boundaries. The British were always apprehensive of taking up any irrigation project close to the border because they thought that the upper riparian Nepal can always hold the water in rivers and starve India of the same. Referring to the famine of 1873,  Col. Haig in a note dated April 27, 1876 recorded his opinion about smaller rivers entering the British territory from Nepal that, “Their waters are more or less utilized at all times by the Nepalese, and in 1873 we have the expressed testimony of the then Collector of Champaran, Mr. Samuells that every one of the rivers flowing from Nepaul was cut off by the Nepaulese (Inglis, W.A.; The Canals and Flood Banks of Nepal, The Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta, 1909, p-170)” The British could not depend on doubtful availability of water to tackle famine. That was the reason that they only talked about irrigation projects on the rivers like the Kamla or the Bagmati but never implemented it.

Swinging between Embankments and High Dam on the Kosi: The relations between Nepal and British India improved towards the end of the nineteenth century and that paved the way to tame the Kosi by constructing embankments along its course, in 1891. There was a long correspondence between the Government of India and the Nepal Government over the issue and permission was sought from Nepal for constructing an embankment along the Kosi. The prime minister of Nepal had agreed to this proposal as the bund was to protect the territory of Nepal in a length of 46 kilometers from the ravages of the Kosi. Unfortunately, there were heavy rains in the third week of May1891, which made the construction of the bundh impossible (District Gazetteers of Champaran, 1960, p-78). The effort was then abandoned. W.A. Inglis, then Superintending Engineer of Bengal (1893) toured the Kosi area of Nepal with a view to suggest taming of the Kosi and finally concluded that the river should be left to its own device.

This was followed by a meeting of the senior officers of the secretariat of Government of India was held in on 24th February 1897 in Calcutta to discuss the damages due to floods in the Kosi basin in past two years and suggest means to tackle them. Prior to this meeting it appears that Nepal was contacted in this regard and the then prime minister of Nepal, Bir Shamsher Jung, had communicated to the British Government that she had no objection to the works being taken up near Chatra. The Nepalese, surely, wanted that there should be no submergence of any area in Nepal and that the temple in Saptari district (Barahkshetra) should not suffer. (Bihar District Gazetteers – Saharsa, 1965, p-42). Despite long correspondence between the two countries nothing was done. As a sequel to this meeting, many embankments along the North Bihar Rivers sprang up here and there mostly constructed by zamindars and indigo planters without much of technology involved in their construction. This severely created the problems of rising of the river beds due to sedimentation, water logging and breaches in the embankments.

Captain G.F. Hall, then Chief Engineer of Bihar, while maintaining that the way bundhs (embankments) are constructed along the rivers or even if the status quo is maintained, ‘… we are storing disaster for the future though we may not be here ourselves to witness the climax’ (Proceedings of the Patna Flood Conference, 1938, p-14) had said in the Patna Flood Conference (1937) about the approach of Nepal as, ‘…Mention has been made about securing cooperation with Nepal. Much as that is desirable I can hold out little hope of such co-operation. They were invited but declined to send a representative to the conference. I have had some experience with the Nepalese Government as regards river training and boundary disputes and I am afraid I can form no other conclusion than that they will never put themselves to any inconvenience for the benefit of Bihar. (Ibid, p-35-36)’.

The first proposal to build a dam across the Kosi, in Nepal, came from the secretary for Irrigation Department of Bihar, Jimut Bahan Sen, in the same conference. He narrated the hardships faced by the people in the Kosi basin and told that the people there were ready to contribute their might for the construction of a 368-kilometer-long embankment along the river but that was no solution. The only solution, according to him, was to construct a dam across the river where it debauched into the plains. The impediments in this proposed construction was that, one- the location was in Nepal and her consent would be needed, and two- its cost would be enormous (Ibid, p-29-30).  It appears that the embankments along the rivers were given a go-bye and the Government was now proposing a high dam in Nepal. India had little option on the construction of this dam and it was up to Nepal to give its consent as the site was located there. This dam is yet to see the light of the day.

There was a public meeting in Nirmali (now in Supaul district of Bihar) where in the leaders attending the function promised that a newly developed technique in the west will ensure the solution to the flood problem of Bihar. It was proposed to build a high dam of about 800 feet that will store enough water to meet the irrigation needs of Saharsa and Purnea district and produce 3300 MW of hydropower. Prior to this event, this dam was proposed in the Patna Flood Conference of 1937 too and some investigations were going on ever since. The British legacy continued till 1952 and the floods of 1953 forced the Government of India to switch over to embankments on either side of the Kosi River to provide flood production in the basin. The floods of 1954 and 1955 put two more dams on the rivers the Bagmati and the Kamla in Nepal. All these three dams are still under different state of investigation and nothing has been done so far. The Government of India and Bihar thinks these dams as the final solution of the flood problem of Bihar and yet no perceptible action is taken towards the construction of these dams. Carrots of these dams are dangled before the people of North Bihar for the past eighty years without any result. In 1996 another dam on Mahakali was agreed upon between both the countries to be built within eight years of signing the treaty. The Detailed Project Report of this dam is not yet ready even after 22 years of signing the agreement.

There is something holding the two countries in not proceeding the way they tell the people of the respective basins. Besides, the debate against the construction of such high dams has opened a Pandora box of problems whose solutions are equally difficult to solve than construction the dam itself. Rehabilitation of the dam displaced people. Tribal and indigenous people claims over resources, earthquakes, benefit cost sharing, costing of power etc are other factors where no agreement has been found. And lastly, doubts have been raised whether these proposed dams will really solve the problem or create a new set of teasers is yet to be settled.

This article has been authored 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 convenor of Barh Mukti Abhiyan. He has researched and written on floods in Bihar for more than 25 years.