"When the Kosi flooded new areas last year, the whole world rushed in to help. We experience the disaster each year, but no political party cares for our problems. That is why 300 villages are planning to boycott the April 30 polls," says lawyer Dev Kumar, who heads the Kosi Sangharsh Samiti, a 16-year-old network of flood relief groups.
Located between the five-decade-old embankments of the Kosi River, Lokaha in Bihar’s Supaul district is among the 380 villages where floods unleash misery upon the 10 lakh residents annually. Despite the large numbers affected by the annual floods, a systematic rehabilitation plan hasn’t been put in place for this region.
The Kosi barrage, and its 125-km-long embankments were built in the 1950s, as then President Rajendra Prasad exhorted locals to take on a spirit of national sacrifice. The affected villagers were offered new houses, but no land to cultivate since the numbers were big. Which meant, most people did not relocate. Over the years, multiple government committees have done little for the region.
The Dholi village between the embankments is accessible only by a 3-hour boat ride. In monsoon 1,500 families are marooned and live off government supplies as they find the swelling waters of the flooded Kosi too dangerous to test.
Farmer and sole graduate in his village Pawan Singh (27) said, "Where can 10 lakh people go? Who will accept us? So we live on in our villages, like animals. Not voting is the only way left for us now to try and draw attention to our problems."
Author of the 2008 book Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters: The story of Bihar’s Kosi River, Dinesh Kumar Mishra points out the irony today: "The project was meant to control floods over an area of 2 million hectares. But its embankments have ended up flooding 4 million hectares."
Driven to desperation, the flood-hit villagers are migrating in search of a livelihood. With no land left to till in their villages, many, including once well-off farmers, are leaving for north India as labourers to work on others’ farms.
Railway officials at Saharsa and Katihar stations said that on an average 10,000 tickets to North India were sold each day in the past fortnight - which means, effectively, over 3 lakh voters have left.
Authorities have not paid attention to this. But, when polling booths open on April 30 lakhs of voters won’t be present to be able to exercise their right.
Azad Ray (29) left his wife and son behind in his village in Araria district of north Bihar, had a 15-acre farm of his own. Ray never thought he would need to turn labourer on wheat fields 1,500 km away. "I feel ashamed", he said as the train to Amritsar pulls in at the Saharsa station. He had to borrow, despite his pride, Rs 4,000 from a moneylender, to join North Bihar’s faceless migration to Punjab.
“Do we think about voting, or do we think of our families who are going hungry?” asked 19year-old Manindra Mishra. He just turned old enough to vote, but instead was making the trip for the first time, with 24 other men from his village to work as casual labour in Srinagar. “Since there is no farming in the village, none of the seths can give us work.”