Iraq War

Peak Oil

Climate Change

US Imperialism











Gujarat Pogrom

WSF In India


India Elections



Submit Articles

Contact Us

Fill out your
e-mail address
to receive our newsletter!




Living With Floods

By Naren Karunakaran

10 September, 2004

[In Bihar, India’s 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. ]

The 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 doesn’t, 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.

Occasionally, rising 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.

“ Floods that 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.

Promoting local and traditional alternatives to government flood control policies is BMA’s 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 Bihar’s 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.

Embankments, meant 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 Bihar’s river embankments.

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.

Embankments have 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 Bihar’s rivers total 3430 kms. The flood prone areas, instead of decreasing, have increased to 68.8 lakh hectares!

Waterlogging is 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.

Village communities, 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 occur suddenly.

The Mahananda Tatbandh Virodhi Sangharsha Committee (People’s 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.

Vinodanand Sah, 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.

Partapur village, 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.

Similarly, people 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 defecation.

“ Modern interventions in the name of flood control have disturbed the equilibrium between rivers and communities. It’s 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 themselves.

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.






Your Support
Is Absolutely
For Our

Thank You!


Search Our Archive

Our Site