By Naren Karunakaran
10 September, 2004
[In Bihar, Indias
most flood prone state, a silent movement to empower citizen groups
to re-establish their cultural ownership of rivers is taking shape.
A new understanding, basically harking back to traditions
of yore- the concept of living with floods is finding greater
acceptance amongst the populace, a populace ravaged by modern technological
interventions of subjugating rivers and controlling floods. ]
recurring abundance of water in the river basins of north Bihar and
the North East is what people living in the region fear most.
While countrymen elsewhere yearn for the bounties of life-giving water,
the gushing waters and the fury of the many rivers in spate, engulf
the lives of people here interminably. The monsoon months turn them
into a miserable, helpless populace, dependent on state and voluntary
support for their very survival.
It is indeed ironic
that their forebears, who gravitated towards and lived in these river
basins, looked forward to and welcomed floods. The silt left behind
by the rising, flowing waters enriched their fields. Bumper crops and
prosperity ensued. It was this fertility that attracted early settlers
to the North Bihar plains just as those along the Nile, the Tigris,
Euphrates and the Indus valley.
In the Mithila region
of Bihar, there is a saying, Ael Balan ta banhaloun dalaan; gel
balan ta tutale dalaan [Let the Balan (river) spill this year,
we will build a new extension to our house; if it doesnt, then
we lose whatever we have in the house.] The monsoon months- the period
of floods was a festive time and women, on starlit nights, would often
come out in boats, singing and celebrating the floods. A certain kinship
with rivers existed.
waters did overwhelm, but the people, generally aware of every aspect
of the floods- depth, duration et al, took reasonable precautions. However,
over time, the people of North Bihar, who constitute over 56 per cent
of the flood affected in India, have undergone a nomenclature
change- from worshippers of floods to victims of floods.
What brought about this transformation?
Over the years,
sustained attempts have been made to control and hem in rivers along
a course by building embankments. The unplanned construction of roads,
canals and railways across the Bihar plains that block the natural drainage
of the rivers have also turned them unwieldy, unpredictable and destructive.
The floods of yore
used to come, wash the lands, and go. Thoughtless development, unleashed
by politicians and engineers, over the years, has pushed the populace
of Bihar into a permanent flood trap.
sneaked in like cats earlier, now come roaring like lions, says
Dinesh Kumar Mishra of Barh Mukti Abhiyan (BMA). Misra, an Indian Institute
of Technology (IIT) engineer turned activist, has been trying to re-establish
peoples cultural and political ownership of rivers, since 1991, when
the Abhiyan or movement took shape.
and traditional alternatives to government flood control policies is
BMAs raison d etre, which comprise over 700 rural groups
of flood activists.
Eight major river
basins- the Ghagra, Gandak, Buri Gandhak, Bagmati, the Adhwara group
of rivers, the Kamla, Kosi and the Mahananda spread across North Bihar.
Most of the rivers originate in Tibet or Nepal, erode the soil easily
as they traverse downwards, and deposit them in the Bihar plains, before
draining into the river Ganga. Deltas created by the avalanche of sediments
often provoke the rivers to meander and flood the plains. Shifting courses
also create and leave behind chaurs (huge land depressions.)
The Kosi, the most
notorious of North Bihars rivers, also known as the sorrow
of Bihar [a British term] has thus shifted westwards by 160 kms
over the past 250 years. The annual sediment load in the Kosi
is such that if a bund, one metre high and one metre wide are built,
it would circle the equator three times, says Misra.
The British had
tried to tame the Damodar, the sorrow of Bengal
by building embankments and yet the river overwhelmed them. Consequently,
they refrained from touching the Kosi (the British eventually demolished
the Damodar embankments in the 1850s.) However, since independence,
successive governments have tried to confine Kosi and several other
rivers of the region in a maze of embankments that often breach, divide
communities and cause permanent water logging.
When heavy silt
laden rivers are restrained between embankments, the silt that would
have spilled over a large area is confined between the embankments.
This raises the level of the river- bed. The ever- rising bed level
provokes building of higher embankments. In certain areas, rivers consequently
flow above the surrounding ground level. Kosi embankments have been
raised over 2 metres since they were first constructed in the mid fifties.
to protect people living along the rivers, have breached often. The
Kosi breach of 1984 wiped out 11 villages, inundated 196 and rendered
4.5 million homeless. The floods of 1987 left 105 breaches on Bihars
These mud barriers
have also caused considerable social friction, especially amongst those
living within and outside the embankments. As a river rises, people
living within the embankments break them at many places to enable the
flood waters to flow out, lest they drown in it.
Those outside obviously
are adversely affected and oppose it. This confrontation occasionally
leads to gunfights. Over 800,000 people in 338 villages continue to
live within the Kosi embankments even today. They converge and live
on the embankments for months when the river is in spate.
Fields within the
embankments are also sand cast, rendering them useless for cultivation.
Kant Lal Mandal of Sikatia (Azamnagar Block) used to grow paddy and
jute before the Mahananda embankments were built in the 1970s. The land
in this part of Bihar was so fertile that farm labourers from the rest
of the state converged to the place during harvest. Today, Mandal migrates
to Punjab during the harvest season to make ends meet.
thus turned Bihar into a land of farm labourers, who travel to other
states for a living. Landlords with tens of acres of land have
today become paan and beedi vendors, says Pancham Bhai of Lok
Bharati Seva Ashram in Supaul, where the Kosi enters India from Nepal.
In 1954, when the
flood control policy was first introduced, Bihar had 160 kms of embankments
and the flood prone area of the state was 25 lakh hectares. Today, after
spending Rs.1327 crores (1 crore = 10 million) the embankments on Bihars
rivers total 3430 kms. The flood prone areas, instead of decreasing,
have increased to 68.8 lakh hectares!
the other major problem. Rain water, which gets collected in the so-
called protected area, outside the embankments, cannot flow into the
river. This causes serious, permanent waterlogging. Tributaries are
also thus blocked, leading to backflows into the protected area. Sluice
gates were built at confluences of rivers to control flows, in and out,
of the rivers. Very few of these sluice gates are functional today.
The Kusheshwar Asthan
block in Darbhanga, where the Kamla, Kosi and the Kareh converge, has
thus turned into a huge expanse of water that refuses to drain out.
Boats ply in this area round the year and water hyacinth has replaced
paddy. Landlords here have turned into waterlords. In keeping with the
fast changing character of the land here, the government has been quick
to declare the area as a bird sanctuary! About 124,000 hectares in the
Kosi- Kamala Doab is waterlogged.
No where in Bihar,
is the problem of water logging more severe than in the Gandak command
area, expanding over seven (Gopalganj, Saran, Siwan,Vaishali, Muzaffarpur
and East and West Champaran) districts which boasts a canal network
of over 6000 kms. Water seepage from embankments and the maze of canals
and roads, including haphazard village roads built under the Jawahar
Rojgar Yojana, have contributed to the situation. The Gandak canals
irrigate over 3.5 lakh hectares. Waterlogging however has gobbled over
7.5 lakh hectares. The persisting problem has demolished the
livelihood of over 6 million people, says Misra.
The chaurs of Bihar
stand testimony to this. The Hardia chaur spreads over 32,000 hectares
in Saran district. The Gandak canals have impeding the drainage
of this chaur and water logging has worsened over the years, says
Jitendra Kumar of Nav Jagriti who has been trying to retrieve submerged
land by devising simple, community- driven drainage systems, including
the pumping away of water.
in fact, have begun to take issues in their hands by breaching embankments
at vantage points to benefit people within and outside embankments.
The flood, when it comes, rise slowly, unlike sledgehammers when breaches
The Mahananda Tatbandh
Virodhi Sangharsha Committee (Peoples commitee against embankments
on the Mahananda) has not only broken the Mahananda embankments at several
places, but has also prevented the government from plugging them. In
1996, the Samiti, following an agitation, secured written assurances
from government engineers and local contractors that they would leave
the breaches untouched.
the secretary of the Samiti today gloats over the bumper crops of wheat
on both sides of the embankments. The kind we have never seen
before, he says. The villagers have been coping successfully with
the normal floods. It was man- made floods that wreaked havoc on them
all these years.
The accent now is
on going back to the old traditions that enabled their forbears to live
with the floods. Seven breaches on the Bagmati embankments of 1993 remain
to this day as the villagers have prevented their plugging. Such examples
of the closing of ranks by communities are gaining steam, though slowly.
on the banks of the Balan in Madhubani district often come under the
spotlight when village elders talk of traditions. Partapur had one big
and three small tanks. The bigger one, located on a higher elevation,
was linked to the Balan with a drain, the entry point of which was blocked
with mud. As the Balan rose during the rains, villagers would open the
drain, allowing the river water into the main tank. When full, the water
was led to the other tanks through link drains.
This store of water
lasted through the year, enabling them to irrigate over 100 hectares.
Moreover, the villagers grew a variety of deep-water paddy that tolerated
submergence. Hundreds of seed varieties, typical to the region, existed
then. Many have been lost forever.
Partapur is only a name today. It was abandoned in the 1960s when trapped
between the embankments of the Kamla - Balan. Many tales of tanks, integral
to life in the Mithila region, however abound.
These village tanks
were not only harnessed for irrigation but also used as fisheries and
for growing makhana (a water fruit peculiar to the region) Villagers,
as a ritual, came together to clean the tanks once a year, on sankranti
day (middle of April.) A couplet captures the grandeur of the Mithila
region: Pag pag pokhar, paan, makhan; tab dekhiau mithila kai saan [tanks,
betel and makhana all over; that was the grandeur of Mithila] The Mithila
grandeur is a things of the past. Today, most of the Mithila tanks are
dilapidated or have slipped into the hands of the government.
The people of yesteryears
also had a solution to the problem of land erosion and sand casting
caused by meandering rivers. Neighbouring villages often extended land
to those affected, for cultivation and for building houses, albeit on
a temporary basis. Such gestures, traditional social security networks,
are beyond the ken of the present day populace.
living in flood prone areas had devised a number of locally inspired
mechanisms for coping with floods- right from the use of building material
(bamboo, stilts etc as in the north-east) to floating platforms for
in the name of flood control have disturbed the equilibrium between
rivers and communities. Its about time to seek lessons from our
past, says Misra. But it is easier said than done. Relief operations
during recurrent floods have turned into a virtual industry for politicians,
contractors and also non- governmental organizations, seeking to perpetuate
There is a vested
interest in maintaining the status quo. It is also this lobby that resurrects
the call for the building of the Barahkshetra dam, or the high dam,
on the Kosi in Nepal, as a permanent solution to flooding in Bihar.
This, when it is known, dams cannot banish floods and flooding. Every
monsoon, since the 1950s, the propaganda machine for the Kosi high dam
is cranked. This monsoon too, the newly elected Manmohan Singh government
made the right noises.