Chakdahwa, West Champaran: Two hundred metres from the Gandak river, 75-year-old Mangru Bind is busy clearing his crop field from silt that has accumulated due to three months of flooding in the region. He has been toiling since the morning, even though his ageing body is exhausted from such physical labour. The flood had wrecked both his field and his house, but now he wants to prepare his field once again for sowing. He is trying to locate his share of land amid the vast expanse of nothing but silt.
“The water levels rose during the night and I fled to the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) camp,” he recounts the night of the flood in his local dialect. “The house got washed away. I had stored 50 kg of rice, 10 kg pea, 10 kg bakla, and lentil seeds in the house. All of it got washed away. Three bighas of paddy crop in the field was all covered in silt. I have somehow arranged for some bamboo and wood, with which I am rebuilding the house. I am knee-deep in silt. I am trying to remove it so that the field can be cultivated again.”
More than 500 residents of five tolas or villages of Lakshmipur Rampurwa Panchayat Area in Bihar’s West Champaran district – Kanhi Tola, Bin Tola, Jhandhawa Tola, Chakdahwa Tola and Rohua Tola – are still striving to get their lives back on track after the widespread devastation caused by flooding and soil erosion in the Gandak river. There is no hullabaloo over the upcoming assembly elections in the village. So far, none of the declared or undeclared candidates has arrived in the village to campaign, though the nomination process has already started. The village is set to vote on November 7, the third phase of voting in the state. No one came to visit the residents of these villages, chiefly Kanhi, Bin and Jhandhawa Tolas, even when they spent a month as refugees at a local school after they lost everything to floods and erosion.
The villages fall under the Valmiki Nagar assembly constituency of West Champaran district. Along with the assembly polls, elections will also be held to the Lok Sabha seat which fell vacant after the death of MP Baidyanath Prasad Mahto.
The five villages adjoining the Valmiki Nagar Tiger Reserve Forest are located on the eastern bank of the Gandak river. Villages of the Maharajganj district are situated on the other side of the river. Towards the north of the river is the village of Susta, in Nepal.
The political tempo is on the rise at the district headquarters in Betia, about 120 km from the Kanhi Tola. But living along the Nepal border, the people in these remote villages at the far end of the district and state jurisdictions are apprehensive about their future.
“Will they talk about us only after everything has been destroyed?” asks Jhandhawa Tola resident, Mahant Ram, with a worried expression. “The river is approaching the village and has engulfed fields and houses alike. Whatever is left is covered in silt. If it continues this way, the place where we are staying now will also be washed away. Where will we live, what will we eat? When will they pay heed to us? No crop is left, neither paddy nor sugarcane.”
Mahant Ram lost his one-acre plot of agricultural land to erosion in the Gandak river. Now, he is left with only one bigha.
The five tolas or villages under Lakshmipur Rampurwa Gram Panchayat Area Ward Number 14 have around 1,200 voters.
All these villages were badly affected by three consecutive floods in the Gandak river between July and September. The Gandak river is continuously turning eastwards, which is why the villages are faced with erosion and flooding in the past five years.
The troubles began when Nepal erected embankments on their side of the river’s eastern bank. The embankment has been constructed near Nepal’s Susta village on the Indo-Nepal border. According to Chakdahwa villagers, Nepal not only constructed the embankment but also several thokars, or stumbles, to fortify it. On the Indian side, the river’s eastern bank has no embankments. Ever since Nepal built the stumbles, the flow of the river began steadily turning towards Chakdahwa, Kanhi Tola, Bin Tola and Jhandhawa Tola. In 2017, 12 houses and hundreds of acres of land in Bin Tola were engulfed by the river. The Gandak river stream now flows through the area which used to be agricultural land. Its flow is quite close to the village. Even after the floodwaters have receded, soil erosion continues.
This year, these five villages were the worst-affected by flood and truncation. Between July and September, water levels surged thrice, in which a dozen houses of Kanhi Tola got washed away. Dozens of farmers lost hundreds of acres of their land to the river. The farmers had sown sugarcane and paddy, of which the paddy crop has been completely ravaged while the sugarcane crop of a few farmers has remained. Mud has accumulated up to two-three feet deep over the paddy and sugarcane fields.
The three-acre paddy crop of Jhandhawa’s, Ganesh Shah is completely damaged. “We have not harvested a single grain of rice this year,” says Shah.
The paddy crop of Kanhi Tol resident Suganti Devi, sown across two acres of land, was washed away in the flood. Chandrika Mushar’s one-acre field also fell in the path of the river.
Another resident, Nasrullah Ansari, says that his paddy crop on 1.5 acres of land was washed away by the river. He is left with 10 kattas of land in which he had sown turmeric, ginger and other vegetables, but the plot is so laden with silt that not even a leaf is visible now. The house is on the verge of collapse, and standing merely on bamboo support. He says he had never seen such devastation in his life before, as the entire village is on the verge of starvation.
Ramvraksh, Hiralal, Sanjeeta, Chanda Devi, Asha Devi, Santo Devo, Ilavati, Kumari, Kanhai Bind, all have a similar tale of agony. One-and-a-half-acre land of Awdhesh Ram was devoured by the surging waters. A young local resident, Gopal Nishad possessed two to three kattas of land, which has now been destroyed, while his house was cut and has submerged in the river. He has now erected a hut in someone else’s field.
Kusumavati had constructed a makeshift loft in front of her hut before the flood hit the village. She stayed in the loft with her children for 20 days but was finally forced to move to a refugee camp for flood victims since the water did not recede. She spent 15 days at the camp. She says that she had sown paddy in five kattas of land but it is all laden with silt now.
The grains stored in Sevak Ram and Kalawati’s house got washed away. Five goats were also killed, though they managed to save two buffaloes.
Draupadi Devi’s paddy and sugarcane crop was completely spoiled. Her husband Kedar Kushwaha has migrated to Chennai to find work. She is worried about his safety. “We managed to survive by farming. But now, who will support us? He left six days ago but there is no news from him.”
Pointing towards a collapsed thatched hut and a field drenched in silt, 26-year-old Anwar Ansari says that the flooding and erosion this year have left him feeling devastated. After his parents passed away a decade ago, he began farming to support his wife and three children. But now, it is all ruined. His grandfather, 65-year-old Dhumman Mian, got drowned in floodwaters while his younger brother Alam Ansari has migrated to Delhi.
Anwar’s farmland, spread over one acre, has been cut by the stream. The remaining portion of 15 kattas, where he had sown paddy, groundnut, sugar beet and chilly, is laden with silt. He had took a loan of Rs 10,000 for sowing the crops. Anwar now works as a labourer. He cries as he narrates the deplorable condition of the entire region. “There is no work in the village. We have become desperate for even a day’s meal,” he says.
Another local resident, Sukhal, was displaced after his house, along with three acres of farmland, were washed away by the river.
Surprisingly, the villagers affected by flooding and erosion have not yet received the compensation amount of Rs 6,000 promised by the government. “After the floods three years ago, the government gave us some paltry compensation amount,” claimed Mahant Ram and Shankar. “This year, we have been to the bank several times but the promised Rs 6,000 has not yet been credited.”
Gulab Ansari, a member of the Block Development Committee (BDC), says that 15-16 people of Rohua Tola have received the compensation amount. The authorities have made a list of 446 flood-affected people from all five villages but none of them has received the money except the people of Rohua Tola.
The worst-affected from flooding and erosion is Kanhi Tola, with its 40 households, followed by Bin Tola with 23 houses. The four villages are inhabited by members of Nishad, Dalit, Mushar and backward Muslim communities. None of the houses in the villages are pucca. They all live in thatched huts. In the name of development, all they got was a concrete road and solar power eight months ago. There is no access to toilets or drinking water. Solar plants have been installed in all the four villages, which provide enough electricity for a bulb and a fan to each household at a fixed cost of Rs 30.
Earlier, the villages had no school. The people of the village themselves built a hut to be used as a school. Due to the efforts of the villagers and Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group, a voluntary organisation working in this village, the government primary school building is now being constructed.
Bin Tola resident, Kanti Devi, is upset with the leader of her area. She says that no leader, except the village head, BDC and SSB jawans, came to enquire about them.
“Now, the elections are here. All of them will come running to us now and beg us for votes. Let them come, we will vote them out this time,” she says angrily.
Kanti Devi’s 17 kattas of paddy crop stands ruined. Eight goats died and for a month she had to stay at an elevated place far away from the village.
“We speak of our troubles because we do not even have food to eat,” she speaks in an agonising tone. “All of us are devastated. It is our pain that makes us speak up.”
Another resident of the village, Budhia says that when the flood hit the village for the first time, they managed to save some of their belongings. “But the next time when the floodwaters reached the village in the morning, everything got washed away. Nine of our goats died too,” she says.
“When party candidates visit the village for poll campaign, they promise to solve our problems if we vote for them. But when we do, they never return, even to look at us. The candidates do not have the nerve to seek our votes because they did nothing for us during our times of trouble,” Nasrullah Ansari says.
Anjali and Chanda Devi interrupt Ansari, and say, “You know how these leaders are. They come here with much pomp only to make promises.”
“We are thinking of putting up a banner outside the village saying ‘No embankment, no vote’,” they claim. “Whoever comes asking for votes, we will make them explain why the embankments were not constructed.”
“Last time, the candidates had promised to build embankments to save the village from flooding and erosion, but they did not fulfil the promise. So, we are going to boycott the elections this time,” they say. Agreeing with Anjali, Chanda and Pooja, Gopal Nishad says, “It would cost Rs 300-400 to get the banner ready. We will collect the money through donation.”
The people of the village wrote to the officials and public representatives several times to provide protection against floods and erosion. When their voice was not heard, the villagers voluntarily worked together to safeguard their village. To carry out the task, 450 villagers volunteered. The floods, however, have laid waste the preventive steps taken by the villagers.
At a distance of 6 km, Bhedihari is the market closest to the five villages. A rough muddy road connects the villages to the marketplace accessible on foot or on a bike, which may prove to be quite bumpy. The road is not being constructed due to the border dispute with Nepal. The villagers want both the countries to amicably solve the dispute and build the road. People from Susta also use the road for commuting.
BDC Gulab Ansari says that their main demands are protection against flood and erosion and construction of the road connecting the villages to Bhedihari. “Whoever comes to ask for votes, will have to address this demand first,” he says. “If the government and public representatives don’t do anything this year also, all the five villages will be lost to the river by the next year and we will be displaced.”
“Flood and erosion have devastated us in the past five years. Nothing has grown, no harvest has been made in these five years,” says a dejected Shankar.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.