River sutra | Part six

When the river runs wild: UP counts the cost of turbulent Ghaghra

Ghaghra river from the under-construction Chahlari Ghat bridge, Bahraich. (Arun Sharma / Hindustan Times)

“She is mad, very mad. We have done several pujas to make her happy but she refuses to calm down.”

This is how Nirmala Devi, a 45-year-old housewife, describes the mercurial Ghaghra river that swallowed several homes, acres of precious agricultural land and schools this monsoon. Only the village temple remains, perched precariously on a sliver of land.

Her village – Goleganj at Pakharpur block of Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh – is now a hodgepodge of thatched houses along an unmetalled road.

“Monsoon flooding is not the only problem with Ghaghra. It changes its course, eroding the banks and destroying everything in its route,” the mother of four told HT.

Nirmala Devi has been a victim of Ghaghra’s mood swings four times in her life. She lost her home twice when she was in school, once after she got married and again this year.

With land and house gone, the men have migrated to Punjab for work; women, children and old people have been left behind.

Along the roadside, disillusionment hangs in the air: The Ghaghra’s victims claim that like the river, the district administration too has left them high and dry; a charge the officials deny.

This state-run primary school at Kayampura village in Bahraich district was destroyed by the Ghaghra river this monsoon. (Arun Sharma / Hindustan Times)

The Ghaghra is a perennial trans-boundary river originating in the Tibetan Plateau near lake Mansarovar. It cuts through the Himalayas in Nepal and joins the Sharda river at Brahmaghat. Together they form the Ghaghra.

During the reign of Awadh nawabs, Ghaghra was used as a waterway for ferrying indigo, sugar, poppy seed and mustard to different markets, and till about late-1970s there was a ferry service from Bahraich to neighbouring Barabanki district. It is now part of the Centre’s ambitious Jal Marg Vikas Project that proposes to use waterways to transport goods.

As the country’s most populous state gets into campaign-mode for the 2017 assembly elections, the people of Bahraich are hoping that politicians will take up the issue and figure out a way to control the river’s wayward ways. They want boulder lining along the river’s banks to cut flood losses and also a better compensation and rehabilitation package.

“The issue of floods, erosion and compensation have been a long-standing demand but in UP development issues lose out to caste and religion during elections,” says Dr Jai Narain Budhwar, a former professor at Bahraich’s Kisan PG College.

Samajwadi Party (SP) MLA from the district’s Balah constituency Banshidhar Baudh, however, told HT that he will raise this issue and blamed the Centre for regular flooding and erosion.

“This Himalayan river carries silt and boulders. Boulders need to be removed to ensure the river does not deviate from its path. But since it moves through a reserve forest, the central norms don’t allow clearing boulders,” he said, adding that the SP government has written several letters to the Centre but to no avail.



The silt and boulders from the Himalayas have been deviating Ghaghra's path over the years.

Many blamed Nepal for releasing extra water into the river and flooding downstream areas in UP.

“This is rubbish. All structures are manned by the water resources department of UP or Bihar and Nepal has little to do with its handling at the control room. If anybody releases water, it is WRD of the respective states but it comes handy to blame Nepal for the floods downstream,” says Dinesh Mishra, an IIT graduate and convenor, Barh Mukti Abhiyan, and author of several books on rivers.

In 1996, India and Nepal signed a pact for building a dam on Nepal’s Mahakali river, which becomes Sharda in Uttarakhand and then joins Ghaghra, to generate hydropower and mitigate floods in UP, but there has been little progress.

Environmentalists say that a dam is not a long-term solution because it also has a shelf life as the sediments carried in the river will fill the reservoir too. Moreover, the proposed dam at Pancheswar will be built in a fragile and seismic zone and could have major ecological and social impacts like the one seen in Uttarkhand in 2012.

“The flood moderation versus hydropower and irrigation objectives are operationally in contradiction with each other. The Pancheswar dam is unlikely to mitigate threat of floods in this area,” says Himashu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

The Ghaghra not only has a habit of destroying lives but also upsetting carefully laid development plans.

The Chahlari Ghat bridge on the Sitapur-Bahraich road, which will cut down travel time between the district and Lucknow, has been under construction for 10 years. This is because the river has been changing its course every year, making it impossible for engineers to keep to their original plan. (Arun Sharma / Hindustan Times)

About 10 km from Goleganj is the unfinished Chahlari Ghat bridge on the Sitapur-Bahraich road. It has been under construction for nearly a decade.

“The initial plan was to build two bridges connected by a dam in the middle. This was done taking into account the river’s current at that time. After the first half of the bridge was completed, the river’s course and current changed, forcing the government to stop work,” explains Shariq Rais Siddiqui, a resident of Bahraich. “Hopefully, our dream will come true before the elections”.

The signals from Lucknow have been encouraging: Work has restarted with chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who is looking for a second term, directing officials to finish the bridge over the Ghaghra in this financial year.

Source for satellite imagery: U.S. Geological Survey/NASA Landsat. Graphics by Gurman Bhatia and Anand Katakam. Web production by Gurman Bhatia.