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On Kosi’s banks, lives upended every monsoon with little support, succour

Updated on Aug 06, 2022 12:56 AM IST

For several decades, the Kosi has earned itself the moniker of the “river of sorrow”, changing course and causing devastation every monsoon.

Birendra Yadav sits in front of the remains of his house. (Subhash Pathak/HT Photo)
By, Supaul/saharsa

He’s wearing a torn red t-shirt, a gamcha on his head, and a lungi wrapped around his waist. As the sun beats down, 40-year-old Birender Yadav sits on his haunches and stares out into the Kosi. Suddenly, he lets out an expletive-filled cry of anguish that shatters the silence. The only response is the steady, threatening gurgle of the swollen river. In front of Yadav, in his line of sight, are four stone pillars that jut out from the ground, lonely and useless; pillars that were once the foundation for his painstakingly built home. A home that no longer exists.

On July 12, as he worked at a bangle factory in Ghaziabad, over 1,200 kilometres away, Yadav received a phone call that he was afraid would come. “My relative told me to rush home because the Kosi is turning again, and coming closer to our village. My wife, two children, and aged parents are at home, and I was worried,” Yadav said.

In the days after he rushed home, there was a hurried evacuation. As the Kosi changed course, the residents of Bela village in Supaul picked up everything they could and moved to safer ground. Some, like Yadav, moved to higher land in the adjacent Dighiya village. Others took shelter at the local primary school and prayed for a miracle that never came; they watched as 150 homes of the village collapsed into the swirling water.

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Among them was Yadav’s home — one that he had poured all his 7 lakh saving into, using cement, boulders, and bamboo thatch. “Now everything has been swallowed by the river. Till last year, only a small stream flowed 2km east of the village. Last month, it turned into a roaring river and swept away the entire village,” Yadav said.

For several decades, the Kosi has earned itself the moniker of the “river of sorrow”, changing course and causing devastation every monsoon. In Bihar, what this means is villagers along a 125km stretch from Birpur to Kopadiya, cutting through the districts of Saharsa, Supaul, Madhubani and Khagariya, are always at the ready to upend their lives and homes, schools and public infrastructure at the risk of being washed away.

Mohammad Jabbar, for instance, now lives in a shanty in an embankment near Supaul. “Nemua used to be our village of around 2,500 families, in the middle of a river island, till 2002. Every single one has had to relocate. Without compensation, without rehabilitation, we are now refugees in our own state,” Jabbar said.

River of sorrow

The awareness that the Kosi would cause damage has existed for several decades, even pre-Independence. A plan to build embankments that would hem the river in, and mitigate disaster, was first discussed in 1937. A decade later, this was one of the new Indian government’s first points of action in Bihar and a budget of 100 crore was announced for it. But with India struggling for finances at the time, work only began in 1955, but with a modified plan, and at an increased cost of 177 crore. Under the original scheme, the embankments were to be built from Chatara, about 10km inside Nepal’s territory. “But when actual work started, it did so with a modified plan that envisaged construction of bunds only in Indian territory, from Birpur to Koparia,” said Dinesh Mishra, author of a seminal work on the Kosi, “Do patan ke beech mein”.

Mishra said that the basic principles of the construction of an embankment were forgotten. “The width of the embankment at Birpur is around 4.5km, which widens to 16km downstream at Ghoghardiha in Madhubani. However, the embankment area further reduces to 8km near Baluaha near Mahishi in Supaul, making the bund vulnerable to breach. The river has been further constrained to flow within 2km after a railway bridge was constructed between Nirmali and Saraigarh in Samastipur in the year 2020,” said Mishra.

What this means is that the embankments do not do their primary job, to safeguard the interests of people that live on the banks. “A vast stretch of land outside the embankments on both sides remains waterlogged for more than six months every year. The embankments were made to save around 2.14 lakh hectares of land. But general assessment is that the embankments have turned around 4.2 lakh hectares of land infertile due to perennial waterlogging in four districts,” said Mishra.

In 2003, the gushing current of the river damaged over 11,600 houses and left at least 30 people dead. In 2008, in one of the worst floods in Bihar’s memory, the Kosi washed away 286,000 homes after it breached the embankment near Kusaha. The river changed its course by 60-70km after the break, leaving more than 500 dead. An officer of the disaster management department said that houses worth 3.52 crore were damaged.

Ramakar Jha, a professor of civil engineering at the National Institute of Tenchnology Patna, who is also associated with the Namami Gange project, said that the Kosi, unlike other rivers, comes down from a heavy slope atop the Himalayas and hence carries a huge amount of silt. “It comes down with a lot of momentum from the hills. But once its falls on the plains of Bihar, it begins to deposit the silt which the currents are unable to carry along with them. The course of the river gets flattened due to this and the river meanders to find a way. The Ganga and the Gandak for instance cover a long distance before they come down to the plains,” said Jha.

Officials of the Bihar Disaster Management Department said that there are measures that they have put in place. “We generally discourage concrete structures within the embankments. Relief and rehabilitation camps are organised during the floods to provide succour to the marooned people. We also rebuild schools, anganwadi centres and primary health care centres at safer places,” said a senior DMD official.

Water resources minister Sanjay Kumar Jha said that the department is looking for a permanent solution, including plantation drives along the banks. “We have pushed for a national silt policy so that the state government can gain the right to carry out silt management. On the spur embankments are also set up to protect the villages. Besides, anti-erosion work is carried along the course of Kosi on a large scale every year,” he said.

Life on the banks

In June, 34-year-old Sanjay Kamath was one of the many people from Narhaiya village of Balua panchayat to have migrated away from home, working in paddy fields on a daily wage in Punjab. One day, like Birendra Yadav, he received a concerning phone call. One of the four streams of the Kosi had begun a menacing march towards his village. He rushed home. Over the next five days, Kamath made 10 trips a day on a dilapidated boat, from his hut to the other side of the bank, jostling with other residents. He first transported stored foodgrain, then his gas stove, a bed, and two cows. Everything was abandoned.

Next to his temporary shanty on the embankments is 45-year-old Bacchiya Devi. This year, she lost her home. Last year, it was her children’s school. “How will we provide education to our children? The middle school of our Narhaiya village was swallowed up by the river last year. Now it runs out an anganwadi centre which has no facilities. The classes barely take place, and the children are mostly at home,” she said.

For most, the choice to move away permanently doesn’t exist. Their villages are where their agricultural land is, and when the waters recede, it is still those lands that they must till. “This is why we can’t move away. If we move to the nearest town, our farmland will be far away. But every year, the ability of the land to produce crop reduces because there is a heavy sheet of silt when the water goes down. Often the land remains waterlogged for several months,” said Mahendra Yadav of Belagot who sows “garma dhaan” (summer paddy), oilseeds and vegetables.

In Bihar, any displacement, even of a few metres from one bank to another, collides with the complication of caste. Villagers of Belagot, a Scheduled Caste village in Supaul district, for instance, told HT that they were chased away from the makeshift huts they set up to escape the Kosi. “We were terrorised and attacked by lathis by local upper caste people, who kept screaming at us to go away. They took away our wooden beds and baskets. There were even officials of the water resources department that told us our huts would be demolished. But what can we do? We settled and live in fear of the consequences,” said Ram Vilas Sada, who owns no land.

Compensation elusive

The state government has laid down the norms for compensation to the damages of houses and crops inside the Kosi embankment. “The maximum compensation of pucca house, if fully damaged, comes around 98,000. Since pucca construction is not allowed inside the embankments, we generally offer 4,100 to each kuccha house washed away. The district authorities dole out the compensation after thorough verification,” said a senior officer of Supaul.

Locals, however, say that despite evident damage to their homes, even total submersion, compensation is rare. Residents ofBela village said that 200 homes were swallowed up by the river this year, while 50 were washed away in Chandel Mircha village. Nobody has received compensation. “Forget compensation, nobody has even come to enquire,” said Mohammad Irshad, from Dighiya village.

A senior officer of the Supaul district administration admitted that an inordinate delay in the release of funds from the nodal agency, which is the disaster management department, has often left them to the ire of local residents. “This year, we have received information about damages of 157 houses in the district. Last year, as many as 1,300 houses were reported to have been washed away. However, we have not been able pay the compensation for the last year’s damage for want of allotment,” said the officer.

BJP MLA from Sarharsa Alok Ranjan, however, said that the government has worked to bring roads, electricity, and water supply to provide some relief. “The government should look for a permanent solution to help people do away with shifting of their addresses every now and then,” added Ranjan.

NIT professor Jha said that in the long term, there needs to be an action plan that is built around regular large scale dredging for silt management. “In the absence of this, people within the embankments and outside would continue to suffer from perennial waterlogging. They will not be able grow regular crops on their land. We could also look at a series of check dams,” said Jha.

Back at Bela, Birender Yadav has fallen quiet again, and has not moved from the four pillars that were once his home. His mind is scrambled, the future uncertain. “Even if it is under the water, this is the only home I have ever known.”

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