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Bihar: Kosi Project's Promise of Flood-Free Prosperity Remains a Distant Dream

For the villages around the Kosi, access to basic necessities such as education, health, drinking water, electricity and transport still seems like a distant dream.

Gorakhpur: In the six decades since the Kosi barrage and embankments were constructed, flooding and waterlogging has been so severe that entire villages are washed away and the land is no longer cultivable.

For years now, Mainahi village of Madhubani’s Madhepur block has been flooded and eroded by the Kosi river. This year, the river engulfed the village entirely. Residents were forced to flee and seek shelter wherever they could find it.

For 35-year-old Poonam, this is a disaster. She lives in rehabilitation housing nearby, but cultivates a plot of land in Mainahi. Now the river flows where the plot and her house once stood.

Mainahi is one of more than 300 villages located between the eastern and western embankments of the Kosi. Floods wreak havoc in these villages every year, constantly forcing the residents to relocate.

According to the disaster management department, flooding in the Kosi has affected 51 villages in four blocks of Madhubani, 27 villages in three blocks of Madhepura, 33 villages in four blocks of Saharsa, 41 villages in seven blocks of Khagaria and 30 villages in five blocks of Supaul district. The damage to crops caused by the floods is still being evaluated.

This year, the Kosi breached about 10 meters of the nose of a 10.9 km spur on the eastern embankment. The pressure of the river was also felt on the spur near the Dighia village on the minor Sikarhatta-Majhari embankment. The villagers there were forced to hold a demonstration to get the breach in the embankment repaired.

On August 8, Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, conducted an aerial survey of the eastern embankment and said that both the embankments should be reinforced.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: Facebook/NitishKumarJDU

The Kosi Project and the construction activities that have taken place since it began in 1954 have not only affected the ecology of the river basin, but also agricultural activity in the region and thus the livelihood of farmers. Migration from the region has escalated over the years.

Flooding and waterlogging in the areas around the embankments have rendered hundreds of acres of land unsuitable for farming. For the villages around the Kosi, access to basic necessities such as education, health, drinking water, electricity and transport still seems like a distant dream. The villages lying between the embankments are the worst-affected: the river is silted on a huge scale. But their woes remain unheard.

Before the dikes were constructed, the river had a wider span. But the embankments restricted the flow of the river stream. Silt deposits have caused the land at the base of the embankments to visibly rise. The inner side of the embankment bulges more than the outer side, which has further increased the risk of flooding in the areas between the embankments.

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The 260-km stretch of the Kosi in Bihar

In Nepal, the Kosi is called the Saptakosi, because it is formed by the combined flow of seven tributaries: Indrawati, Sunkoshi or Bhotekoshi, Tamakoshi, Dudhkoshi, Arunkoshi, Likhukoshi and Tamurkoshi.

Flowing through the Triveni mountains, the Kosi enters India near Hanuman Nagar. As soon as it reaches the plains, the mouth of the river widens. After flowing through Bihar for 260 km, the river joins the Ganges near Kursela in Katihar district.

The total catchment area of the ​​Kosi, which is known for constantly changing its course, is 74,073 sq. km, of which 11,410 sq. km lie in Bihar. The river is believed to have shifted its course by about 133 km from the east to the west during the last 200 years.

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The Kosi project

To protect the areas that neighbour the Kosi from flooding, a barrage was built in 1954 at Virpur and embankments were constructed along the river’s eastern and western banks. This was called the Kosi Project. In addition, canals were constructed for irrigation.

The project, it was claimed, would protect five lakh acres of land from floods. However, while hundreds of villages were indeed made safe from floods, scores of other villages situated between the two embankments were trapped. In its initial survey, the government had estimated that 304 villages were situated between the embankments, dotted over 2,60,108 acres (1,05,307 hectares) of land, with a total population of 1.92 lakhs.

But in his book Dui Patan ke Beech Mein (Between Two Millstones), Dinesh Kumar Mishra writes that there are 380 villages between the two Kosi embankments, spread over 13 blocks of four districts, with a population of 9.88 lakhs according to the 2001 census.

As the construction of the embankments commenced, these villages were stuck between them. But the construction continued, owing either to the demands of the local people or because they offered electoral benefits to local leaders. Today, the length of the embankments on the Kosi is nearly 400 km. There are also about five zamindar-constructed embankments, spread over 50 km, built at different times. Pucca roads have also been constructed in these areas, which aggravates the problem of floods and erosion.

Silt deposition at Koshi embankment at Navbhata, near Saharsa, Bihar. Caption and photo: Manoj nav/Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0.

‘We have been prisoners for 70 years’

“When the Kosi project was implemented, we were told that we would be compensated for any damage between the two embankments, that life would be replenished and education and health facilities would be provided. But today we are forced to pay revenue even though our land is submerged in water. The British had once deprived us of our rights and now the government of India is doing the same.

“Our village is spread over 3,500 acres. We own nine acres of land but are forced to live on another person’s land. We are suffering as much as our ancestors suffered. For 70 years, we have been living as though we are sentenced to life imprisonment. No one knows how long this will continue.”

There was grief and outrage in the words of 62-year-old Prasad Singh, a resident of Manna Tola of Khoknaha village in Supaul district. You hear many similar stories at any village or rehabilitation site in the Kosi area.

It has been more than six decades since the Kosi project started. The villagers who once imagined a beautiful future of prosperity and freedom from floods are now crawling in mud.

“When Rajendra babu (Dr Rajendra Prasad, first President of India) laid the foundation stone for the construction of the eastern embankment near Bairia village in Supaul, he said that one eye of the government would be on the Kosi and the other beyond it,” Prasad Singh recalled.“But today, the government has closed its eyes completely.”

Prasad Singh knows all the facts of the matter. “The Kosi Barrage was built with a discharge capacity of 900,000 cusecs,” he said. “In 1984, it was estimated that if the discharge exceeded 600,000 cusecs, both embankments could be breached. After this, a nine km embankment and an additional five km embankment were built at Nirmali-Majhari. This means whenever 200,000 cusecs of water is discharged, there is two to three feet of waterlogging in the villages between the embankments. When this happens, the administration distributes one and a half kgs of chiwda and 50 gms of sugar and thinks it has discharged its responsibility. But our village remains completely submerged between June and November every year.”

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Former sarpanch Vinod Prasad Yadav questions the construction of a new series of security embankments despite the fact that embankments already exist along the Kosi. “When the eastern and western embankments were constructed, it was claimed that no more embankments would be built within a radius of 25 km. But several embankments have been erected since then, which has further worsened our situation,” he said.

Villages within the embankments face severe flooding even when discharges are low. In 2004, the maximum discharge at the Kosi barrage was 389,669 cusecs. In 2019, the maximum discharge was 371,110 cusecs and in 2018, the maximum was 274,790 cusecs. This year’s maximum discharge was 342,970 cusecs on July 21. The highest discharge ever from the time the barrage was constructed was 788,200 cusecs on October 5, 1968.

Ramchandra Yadav, a resident of Khoknaha’s Manna Tola, told The Wire that floods washed away his home six times in one decade.

“During the 2015 floods, the village was submerged. Our house was under five feet of water and we survived by sitting in a makeshift loft for 15 days. After that we left the village,” said Prasad.

Residents of Mainahi village. Photo: Manoj Singh

‘Whatever was left of agriculture has been ruined’

Cultivation between the Kosi embankments has also been gravely hit. Large areas of silt-laden fields are vacant. Paddy cultivation is negligible and farmers just about manage to harvest wheat and maize. This is because they are forced to migrate every year due to the floods and when the floods strike, they change the shapes of the fields. When the farmers return after the floods have waned, they find their fields layered with silt and sand. This must be cleared away so that the land is cultivable again. But to clear the fields, the farmers must put in much hard work and even more capital.

Since this happens every year and they have been neglected by the government for years, the farmers are left with little stamina for cultivation. The exodus of a large number of youth has rendered the situation even tougher. On top of all this, they have to pay land revenue every year, no matter what the circumstances may be.

Pulkit Yadav, a 70-year-old resident of Amin Tola in Khoknaha, said that his village is spread across 3,500 acres, but the total cultivable land is 200 bighas.

“We just randomly pour seeds on the land. If they yield crops, good. If they don’t, the money has been wasted. This year, the moong crop was destroyed. There is no paddy at all. Had the embankment not been built at Manjhaulia, the Kosi would have turned westwards. But the embankment has added to our woes. Whatever was left of agriculture has been ruined,” said Yadav.

The Kosi flows through than half a dozen streams between the embankments. Even today, getting to the villages in the region is difficult. During the floods, the only way through is on a boat. In drier months, you need a boat to cross several streams of the river and then walk for several kilometres to reach the market or the block and district headquarters. It takes an entire day.

The government seems to have forgotten the villages within the embankments. Though solar energy plants were installed in some of these villages over the last year, which provide the people with electricity, facilities like education, health, roads, clean drinking water and ferry transport are still absent.

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There is no education available in these villages, said Ramchandra Yadav. “We are barely able to teach our children to read and write. We go to the village only occasionally now. The government’s claims that boat services have been restored are only on paper,” he said.

The people of the embankment villages accuse the government of not fulfilling their promises of employment and land revenue waivers. Vinod Yadav alleged that migrants from this region are not considered for government schemes and the government claims the people of these villages are merely temporary residents.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that unrest is beginning to grow in this region. In 2019, people from several villages in the embankment region boycotted the polls during the Lok Sabha elections.

“We have been hearing the government’s assurances for generations, but nothing has happened so far,” said Nasimul Haque, a resident of Khoknaha’s Amin Tola. “We do not need charity from the government. We need a permanent solution to the problem. Because of this, the villages around the Kosi boycotted the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.”

‘Revenue has to be paid, land or no land’

The farmers living along the Kosi embankment have been questioning the imposition of taxes and cesses given that ever since the embankments were constructed, most of their agricultural land has been submerged and even after the floods have waned, much time is spent clearing the land of sand and silt.

Aside from their annual taxes, the farmers pay a 50% education cess, a 50% health cess, a 20% agricultural development cess and a 25% road development cess: altogether 145% additional cesses. Depositing the revenue is another struggle: employees of the land revenue department seem keen to exploit the farmers.

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Thousands of farmers have migrated elsewhere since the Kosi embankments were constructed. They work as agricultural labourers in Punjab, Haryana and other parts of the country, but continue to pay land revenue or else lose claim to their land.

In 2019, the Koshi Nav Nirman Manch collected applications for land revenue waivers from 3,800 farmers across 80 villages on the embankments and submitted them to the chief minister’s office. Mahendra Yadav, president of the forum, asked: “When agriculture has become impossible in the villages between the embankments and there are no education, health and road facilities, then what is the rationale for imposing these cesses?”

‘If it’s not floods, it’s waterlogging’

While the embankments have guarded the areas beyond them from flooding and silt deposition, allowing cultivation to be carried out, waterlogging has become a severe problem in the region.

Seepage from the embankment combined with the accumulation of rain water means that people in the areas along the outer periphery of the embankments have to endure a flood-like situation for four to six months every year. This has caused considerable damage to agriculture in the area.

No concrete action has been taken so far to redress the waterlogging issue. The efforts made by village panchayats are not sufficient to improve the situation, because it demands a huge budget and the use of modern technology.

Chauhatta village is badly affected by waterlogging. Anju Mishra, a resident of the village, said that out of the 11 wards in his panchayat, half of ward numbers one, two and three are within the embankment and the rest are on the outside.

“The dikes got rid of the floods, but now we face a flood-like situation. The village is surrounded by water because of seepage from the embankments and the accumulation of rain water. There is no outlet for the water,” he said.

Satyendra Ram, another resident of the village, said: “The water inside the embankment is clear, while on the outside it is murky. The clear water flows back into the river in a fortnight, but the murky water remains standing in the village and surrounding fields from July to December. This is severely damaging agriculture in the region. The fields remain permanently damp. Even shovelling makes water ooze out. In 2018, incessant rains aggravated waterlogging. The paddy crop was damaged and the jute crop was also ruined. When the rainfall is poor, we somehow manage to grow some crops.”

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He added: “We have now given up the cultivation of paddy. When we realised that no other crop had a chance, we started cultivating makhana. While it costs Rs 1,000 to sow paddy, the cost is Rs 2,000 for makhana. But makhana guarantees a good yield.”

To be able to eat rice, the farmers of Chauhatta have cultivated garmadhan for two decades. This is an indigenous variety of paddy that is harvested before the monsoon.

There are 16 gram panchayats in this block, of which 10 face annual waterlogging. This means an area of up to three kilometres is useless for cultivation every year.

The farmers allege that the government does not offer compensation for losses incurred due to waterlogging. Those affected by floods get government rations, drinking water and some amount of cash compensation, but farmers who face waterlogging for half the year get nothing.

The complications of rehabilitation

In the six decades since the Kosi Project has been in existence, the issue of compensating the people who had to be displaced to construct the barrage and embankments still remains unresolved. Hundreds of people are still to be resettled.

The government promised flood-free land beyond the embankments to the people of the villages between the embankments. It also promised funds for the construction of schools, roads, ponds, tube-wells, wells and housing facilities and said it would arrange for boats so the people could carry out agricultural work in the embankment area.

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But the pace of resettlement was slow. The affected families were only given land to settle down on; no provision was made for their livelihoods. The sites chosen for rehabilitation were far from their native villages, uninhabited and minus basic amenities. The process of applying for funds for housing was also quite complicated.

Owing to these circumstances, very few families opted to move to the rehabilitation sites. By 1970, only 6,650 families had been resettled. According to the Lok Lekha Committee of the Bihar Legislative Assembly, between 1958 and 1962, 12,084 families were allotted residential land beyond the embankments and were paid Rs 16.73 lakhs as the first installment for housing.

Today, the government has no data on how many families have been rehabilitated and how many are still living in the flood-affected areas.

In 1959, 65-year-old Satyanarayana Mukhiya’s family settled at the Kharel Malhad rehabilitation site after moving out of Mainahi village in Madhubani’s Madhepur block.

“We were relocated to this site which was 30 km east of our village. At that time, we were offered some money to construct a house here. Some people of our village chose not to shift here at all, while others are residing at both places. There are still others who live neither here nor there. They have migrated,” he said.

Mukhiya alleged that 75% of the rehabilitation sites are illegally occupied. Six cases of illegal possession were brought to the administration’s notice, no action was taken. In one case, an encroachment in Kharel Karna has been removed on the high court’s order.

In Khoknaha, several people from Manna Tola and Amin Tola lost their rehabilitation land to illegal occupancy. Pramod Prabhakar, a 25-year-old resident of Manna Tola, said he was granted land in Kharel Malhad, but the plot was occupied by someone from another village.

“When I went there to erect a hut, the illegal occupant arrived with 50 men and pulled down the hut,” he said.

The school in Amin Tola. Photo: Manoj Singh

The same thing happened to 62-year-old Sriprasad Singh. He pleaded with the authorities to oust the illegal occupant of his rehabilitation land, but no action was taken.

Bechni Devi, a 55-year-old member of the Mahadalit Musahar community and resident of Khichnaha Manna Tola, lost her home in the flood of 2018. She now lives on someone else’s plot in Bela village of Kishanpur block. She too had been allotted a piece of land in Kharel Malhad, but the land has been illegally occupied by someone else.

There are many complaints of illegal occupation at rehabilitation sites. Since there are no proper arrangements to hear these complaints, cases are being transferred to courts.

The Ministry of Water Resources has acknowledged the problem of illegal occupation at resettlement sites and has instructed the district magistrates of Supaul, Saharsa, Madhubani and Darbhanga to resolve the issue.

Government documents hail the benefits of the Kosi Project. But the trauma of those who inhabit the areas around the river exposes the grim reality of the project. In the words of Khoknaha resident Pulkit Yadav: “One needs the quill of Tulsidas to pen the story of our grief.”

(Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.)