Supaul (Bihar): On September 10, a fortnight before the announcement of the state assembly elections, Bihar water resources minister Sanjay Kumar Jha laid the foundation for a 4.6 km long extension of the Sikarhatta-Majhari low embankment from Parsauni to Mahisha in Madhubani’s Baidyanathpur area.
“The construction of this embankment will provide respite from floods to a large section of the population in the region next year. Despite hot weather, the enthusiasm of the people was at its peak,” Jha wrote on social media after the inauguration.
The same day, the minister also laid the foundation stone for extending the left embankment of Bhutahi Balan river, which is currently 25 km long, from Ramnagar village to Ghoghardiha Nirmali link road by 6.61 km. The minister said the project would safeguard a large population of 56 villages from floods.
The embankments on the Kosi and its tributaries at both these places will now be extended by 10 km.
A few days before the state minister announced the extension of the Sikarhatta-Majhari low embankment, seven families in the area lost their houses to the Kosi river stream. Situated near Shaileshpur Chowk in Basubatti village, the houses were built on the river bank inside the low embankment area. While the extension of the embankment is aimed at safeguarding some villages from recurring floods, the conditions of the villages that fall inside is bound to get worse.
At Shaileshpur Chowk, Puran Sharma, Jungle Sharma, Suresh Sharma and Vijay Paswan narrate how their houses were engulfed by the river. After being displaced, they are now forced to live at other people’s houses. “The water came like a torrent,” they told The Wire. “No one was there to help us. When the work started for embankment extension, we met the minister and the MLA and asked them to come here to see our plight. They gave us assurances. The people affected by erosion have not even been granted the compensation of Rs 6,000 as promised by the government.”
“The leaders visit us only at the time of elections,” says Mahesh Chaupal, another resident of the village. “No one in our village has received the compensation amount of Rs 6,000 for the past three years.”
The people affected by river erosion claim that the expansion of the embankment will not provide them respite – neither from floods nor from erosion.
“The construction of the embankment might benefit some people, but it is going to hurt many more,” says Bhagwat, a resident of Bela village near Basubatti. “The condition of those impacted by river erosion will only worsen.”
“The extended embankment will benefit the villages on the west,” says another resident, Indrajeet. “The newly constructed school building will also be guarded against erosion in the river.”
In Madhubani’s Madhepur block, Gargaon Gram Panchayat area’s Mainahi village was completely washed away due to flooding and erosion from the Kosi river this year. The village had a population of 400. Several families have been rehabilitated at Kharel near the district headquarters in Supaul. Despite being rehabilitated, they had set up huts in order to be able to cultivate their land in the village. The displaced families are now trying to settle down in the forest nearby.
These villages fall under the Phulparas constituency of Madhubani district.
The catchment area of the Kosi river is spread over more than half a dozen assembly constituencies across Supaul, Saharsa, Madhubani and Darbhanga districts, and issues like protection against flooding and river erosion, relief work, embankments and embankment security define the political discourse in the region.
The proposed embankment will further expand the 21 km long extended Sikarhatta-Majhari low embankment which was built in 2009.
Constructed up to Rasuar village in 1976, the Sikarhatta-Majhari low embankment was originally 18 km long. The villages adjacent to it – Mahuai, Sakhua, Kadmaha, Dumaria, Kataia, Sisauni, Barhera, Koni Inamat, Panchagachia, Tulsiyahi, Ghogharia, Markiyahi, Gidrahi, Mangasihole and others – fall under the Marauna block of Supaul district.
Though the construction of embankments granted protection against floods to most of these gram panchayat areas, the villages which remained inside the embankments were afflicted more frequently by floods and erosion.
When the extended Sikarhatta-Majhari embankment was built, it was welcomed by locals in villages outside the embankment. However, those living inside were despondent as they were well aware that it would aggravate the problem of flooding and erosion in their village.
At that time, Karthik Kamat, a resident of ward number one of Bela village, had written to the National Human Rights Commission registering his protest, following which the commission sought a report. In response, the Department of Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation wrote, “While allowing the river a safe passage, keeping valuable land, population, livestock, crops, and villages safe, controlling the trend of the changing river course, changing undefined course of a river to defined, providing ease of movement to the people of the area and controlling potential damage from accidental flooding are the benefits of building any embankment. 13 Gram Panchayats of Marauna block in Supaul will benefit from this embankment.”
While listing the benefits of the embankment, it was also reported that it has significantly reduced the number of deaths caused by snake bites. “It has brought about socio-economic upliftment of the people and employment opportunities have increased. A positive development after the construction of this embankment is that further expansion is being sought by the people settled downstream,” the report further stated.
The then state water resources minister, Bijendra Prasad Yadav, had played an important role in the construction of the extended Sikarhatta-Majhari low embankment. After delimitation, the gram panchayat areas which were protected through the embankment were transferred to his constituency, Supaul. The move greatly benefited Yadav as he gained popularity in the region as a saviour. Since then, Yadav has been winning elections consecutively on account of the construction of the dikes.
After the latest embankment extension was announced, its benefits are being asserted once again. Kamat says that the villages towards the east initially benefited from the structure, but now they are faced with water-logging. “Other villages inside the embankment, including mine, are now facing the brunt of the Kosi. The Kosi stream now flows quite close to the village. Due to excessive erosion, the river has approached the embankment at several places. In order to secure the embankment, the Department of Water Resources is forced to spend a lot of money in protective works. There has also been no decline in snakebite incidents,” claims Kamat.
Embankment construction as a poll issue
The original Kosi project had included the construction of embankments only on the eastern and western banks of the Kosi river. However, embankment extension has continued unabated. In his book titled Dui Patan ke Beech Mein (Between Two Millstones), senior engineer and author Dinesh Kumar Mishra gives a detailed description of how approaches, security embankments and ring dams were erected between the two embankments. In 1962, the Bhatania Approach Dam was constructed 10 km to 19 km east of the Kosi embankment with the objective of providing flood protection to Chhatauni, Laxmipur, Lalman Patti, Tedhi Bazaar, Parsahi, Bhatania, Narpat Patti, Rupauli and other villages in Basantpur block of Supaul district.
To safeguard Nirmali, the trade hub of Supaul district, a ring dam was constructed along the western Kosi embankment as well as on all four sides of Nirmali. Another ring dam was built to protect Mahadev Math from the Kosi floods.
In 2012, the Kosi Mahasetu bridge was constructed on the mainstream of the Kosi river in Nirmali and Saraigarh villages in Supaul district. For bolstering the road as well as the Mahasetu bridge, supporting embankments were erected for 10.657 km till the Dighiya check in the west and 10.408 km till Bhatiahi in the east. Though the guide embankments granted protection to some villages and agricultural areas against flood and erosion, fresh areas were rendered flood and erosion prone.
A Supaul-based social worker, Chandrashekhar, says that about 60 villages north of the Mahasetu (towards the Kosi barrage) have to endure floods and erosion every year ever since the guide embankments came up. The floods have turned more devastating in 25-plus villages south of the Mahasetu. Each year, over 500 families between the road and the eastern guide embankment are faced with a massive problem of water logging.
Public demand for embankment construction
The total length of the embankments and the link road on Kosi and its tributaries is now 706.85 km. In addition, six zamindari dams measuring 51.2 km in length have also been built. They are being managed by the Water Resources Department since 2006.
For a long time, political leaders in the region have used the issue of embankments for electoral gains. The recent announcement for embankment extension is widely viewed as another poll gimmick. Bhagwat believes that the construction of the embankments serves a political agenda more than it serves the people.
With more security embankments being erected, people living inside the embankment area have started demanding embankments to secure their own villages too. Embankment construction has now become a trend in the Kosi region.
In case their demands are ignored by the government and the administration, villagers build security embankments on their own.
In 2019, villagers and public representatives built an 800-metre wide security embankment adjacent to the Mahasetu supporting dike near Nauabakhar in Kishunpur block of Supaul district. The villagers collected donations and constructed the dam themselves. The construction of the dam began in April, 2019 and it was ready by the third week of June. Initially, the administration or the engineers of the Kosi project did not object to it but when it was completed they raised objections saying that the embankment was not technically up to the mark and its breakage may cause large-scale destruction in villages located inside the eastern embankment. It will also exert pressure on the western embankment, they claimed.
According to the villagers, the construction of the dike has granted respite from floods to a population of 40,000 across 14 gram panchayat areas including Bauraha, Naua Bakhar, Kishunpur South, Kishunpur North and others. Its construction will save Rs 2-3 crore that is spent on repairing the East Kosi embankment annually. A proposal had initially been tabled before the administration to build the embankment. The public representatives also agreed to it, but the administration did not allocate money.
This led to a face-off between the administration and the villagers. The administration wanted the villagers to dismantle it themselves but they did not agree. During the flood of September 2019, the embankment itself came apart. The villagers allege that it was cut down by the administration.
Last year, the villagers erected a five-km-long safety dam at Parsamadho, similar to the one at Naua Bakhar. A JCB machine was also installed for the construction of the dam. The people of the village had been demanding an embankment since the Lok Sabha elections and even called for a poll boycott if their demand was not met. The villagers claim that the dam is meant to protect villages like Parsa Madhopur, Baroha, Parsa, Ekadera, Sampatha, Saraiad, Burja, Sonbarsa, Benja, Kanupar, Dumariya and others from floods. Around Rs 4 lakh was spent on dam construction, which has secured nearly 2,000 acres of land which will be rendered cultivable once again.
Yaduvansh Kumar Yadav, MLA from the Pipra assembly constituency in Supaul district, had written a letter to the district officer demanding maintenance and monitoring of the dike built by the villagers. In the letter, he wrote, “The 5-km dam has been built by the people of Parsa Madhopur and Bauraha Panchayat with public support. It is not possible for the villagers to ensure security during the rainy season. Therefore, the administration should inspect the site and provide support to the dam. The dam will benefit Parsa Madhopur completely, Bouraha Panchayat partially, and Sanpatha village of Saraigarh block. If the government fails to buttress the dam, it may break and wash away during the rainy season.”
Sudhanshu Shekhar says, “We had sought Rs 1.5 crore for the construction of the dam to be carried out under MGNREGA, but the proposal was rejected. As a result, we decided to build the dam ourselves.”
However, on the night of July 13, a discharge of 3,71,110 cusecs into the Kosi river fractured the dam.
The construction and expansion of the Sikarhatta-Majhari low embankment has encouraged the public demand for security embankments between the existing eastern and western embankments without considering the far-reaching effects of these structures. Those with an underlying political agenda are vouching for it the most, claiming that the entire Kosi river should be restricted to a radius of 1.25 km along the length of Mahasetu as it would safeguard dozens of villages and thousands of acres of cultivable land against floods. It is claimed that the move will boost agricultural activity and people will no longer need to migrate. Many people are also advocating for the Kosi river to be joined with the Ganga in the form of a canal ahead of the Mahasetu.
What if the river bed rises considerably due to siltation because of the embankments? They have no answer.
Now, many public organisations, panchayat representatives, political and social activists are also justifying this demand. The president of Kosi Peedit Sangharsh Mukti Morcha, Dev Kumar Singh, argues that if the flow of Kosi can be regulated along the length of the barrage in Bhimnagar and Kosi Mahasetu, then an even larger expanse can be made flood-free by constructing a pucca dam (2-2.5 km) between the barrage and Koparia.
In the name of granting relief to the people from the wrath of Kosi, the flow of the river was streamlined between two millstones after independence. But the construction of a series of embankments has sandwiched the Kosi between a number of such millstones, or embankments.
In the Kosi catchment area, there are two categories of villages – inside the embankment or outside it – and, two categories of people – those who have benefited from the embankment and those who are suffering because of it. There are dozens of gram panchayat areas in Supaul, Saharsa, and Madhubani districts. Half of their villages are inside the embankment and the remaining are outside. The villages outside the embankment have access to a range of facilities like roads, sewers, bridges, culverts, electricity, drinking water, education and healthcare. Meanwhile, people in villages situated on the banks of several streams of Kosi inside the embankment area are displaced every year because of annual flooding and erosion. In these villages, the government refuses to carry out any development work citing floods and erosion.
According to the president of the Kosi Navnirman Manch, Mahendra Yadav, “As of today, the situation of the villages inside the embankments has deteriorated both economically and socially. Delimitation has divided these villages into several assembly constituencies. For this reason, they have been rendered politically weak and are no longer in the position to influence the outcome of any legislative assembly elections. As a result, politicians who contest elections no longer care about them.”
The constant jacketing of the Kosi river through embankments, roads, bridges and culverts has forced it to change its course repeatedly. The process of natural merger of the Kosi river with its tributaries has also been hampered. The ecology of the river has been badly affected but except river experts and villagers like Bhagwat very few people are concerned about it.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.
Manoj Singh is the editor of Gorakhpur Newsline.