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Abandoned victims of the Kosi embankments

By Dinesh Kumar Mishra

January 2005 marked 50 years since the foundation stone was laid for the building of embankments on the Kosi river, to help control the flooding. It also marked 50 years of neglect of the 'embankment victims' who are forced to live trapped within the structures that were supposed to transform their lives

January 14, Makar Sankranti, is significant in another context too. Fifty years ago, on January 14, 1955 , the foundation stone for controlling floods in the country was laid in the village of Bhutaha , in Bihar 's Madhubani district by the then chief minister of Bihar , Dr Krishna Sinha. The move was to control flooding from one of India 's most vibrant rivers, the Kosi. Whether the embankments on either bank of the river served the desired purpose, and whether the cost paid by the people to achieve this objective was justified, remains debatable.

As a result of the flood-control measures, 386 villages spread across the four districts of Saharsa, Supaul, Madhubani and Darbhanga, and 13 blocks -- Basantpur, Kishanpur, Supaul, Nirmali (including Bhaptiahi), Nauhatta, Mahishi, Simri Bakhtiyarpur, Salkhua, Laukahi, Marauna, Ghoghardiha, Madhepur and Kiratpur -- were trapped within the two embankments of the river Kosi, whose waters pass over these villages every year.

Before the villagers properly understood what was happening to their land, and were able to raise the alarm and demand rehabilitation, it was already 1956. By this time, construction of the embankments had reached Nirmali, some 50 km south of the Indo-Nepal border.

Meanwhile, the government assured the 'trapped' people that the embankments, when completed, would cause only a marginal rise of four inches in the water level within them; that they had nothing to worry about. The people, however, maintained that the land around the Kosi tilted westwards and that any increase in the water level would spell doom for those trapped within the embankments.

At a meeting of the Kosi Control Board in Patna , on March 2, 1956 , members of the Central Water Commission opposed any move to resettle people displaced by construction of the embankments, on the plea that it would set a bad precedent and that people would begin demanding rehabilitation in all such projects. Good sense however prevailed and the rehabilitation issue remained alive.

In 1956, flooding from the river Kosi devastated the lives of those living within the embankments. And outside the embankments many villagers fell victim to waterlogging from stagnant water that could not make its way to the river because of the embankments.

A movement to rehabilitate villagers trapped within the Kosi embankments gained momentum in 1957. But by this time the eastern embankment had been completed till Mahishi, and the western embankment till Bhanthi, both in Saharsa district. A trap had already been laid for some 304 villages.

As resistance grew, the government, at a cost of Rs 112 million, prepared a rehabilitation package. But later the cost was found to be disproportionate to the cost of the project itself (Rs 370 million) and the plans were shelved.

Meanwhile, the pressure mounted, resulting in the announcement of a proportionate package of rehabilitation worth Rs 21.2 million. Deep Narain Singh, then minister of state for irrigation, announced in the Vidhan Sabha, on December 3, 1958, that the government would provide land to victims in flood-protected areas close to the embankments; that the government would arrange land for schools, roads, etc; that rehabilitation sites would be provided with tanks, wells and tubewells for water supplied by the government; that house-building grants would be made available to the affected people; and that the government would ensure easy access to farmers' fields by providing an adequate number of boats. Many elderly people in the area say they were also promised jobs for at least one person per family in the Kosi project. There is, however, no documentary evidence to substantiate this claim.

By 1960, only 70 villages had been resettled. That meant that another nine years would be needed to ensure rehabilitation for all the embankment victims. By 1972-73, only 32,540 families out of a total of around 45,000 families were given their first grants to construct houses; 10,580 families were given second instalments; none received the third and final instalment. What's more, victims of the embankment scheme were expected to go to their old villages to farm.

This arrangement did not work as, slowly, the rehabilitation sites became waterlogged and people began to return to their old villages. The government interpreted this as a move by people to return to their ancestral property. And so the rehabilitation process ended before it was even completed.

Krishna Sinha believed that not all the land within the Kosi embankments would be ruined as a result of the embankments, and that agriculture would continue to be practised here. It was against this background that the government appointed a committee, in 1962, to look into the problems of agriculture, health, industry, revenue collection, extension of securities and cooperation. The state development commissioner, land reforms commissioner and chief administrator of the Kosi project were all members of this committee. But the committee did not perform.

Then, in 1967, another committee was constituted under the chairmanship of the Kosi area development commissioner whose job it was to suggest programmes for victims of the project, in the agriculture, cooperation, industrial development and economic rehabilitation sectors. This committee too was non-functional. In 1981, another committee under the chairmanship of Chandra Kishor Pathak, former chairman of the Saharsa District Board, was constituted to look into the problem of economic rehabilitation of the embankment victims. This committee gave its report in 1982; in 1987 the government accepted its recommendations.

Based on the recommendations of the Pathak Committee, the state government constituted the Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikar (Kosi Sufferers Development Authority) the same year. While recommending the constitution of the Authority, Bindeshwari Dubey, then chief minister of Bihar, asserted that there was probably no other place in the country where so many people were exposed to the fury of river flooding. The people had lost all hope of a better life, and his "determined government" was committed to their overall development.

However, since its inception in 1987, the Kosi Sufferers Development Authority has remained a defunct body. It has no building or office of its own; it has no vehicles; and it is manned by 'deputation employees'. It does not even have a budget. At best it can request other departments to do certain things for the embankment victims. There are a few chairs and tables in Vikas Bhawan, in Saharsa, where employees occasionally meet to gossip.

Besides the man on the street in Saharsa, most government employees are unaware of the existence of the Kosi Sufferers Development Authority in their town. Back in 1989, the Authority decided to withdraw the ghat system for people living within the Kosi embankments, to ensure free movement to their villages. But this could not be enforced. The Authority recommended to the state relief and rehabilitation department the provision of free boats to people living within the embankments, during the monsoons. This suggestion was turned down.

Most primary schools within the embankments do not even have roofs. Who would go there to study? And who would want to teach in such a place? Doctors and health department personnel do not visit the health centres here, and, during the rainy season, they cannot do so even if they wanted to because of the river's heavy currents. Who will come here for treatment? And who will treat them?

It is written in the provisions of the Authority that 15% of Class 3 and 4 jobs in districts that have benefited from the Kosi project would be reserved for victims of the Kosi embankments. So far, nobody has received a job with that qualification, not even in the Kosi Sufferers Development Authority. There is no electricity here, no pucca roads, no college, no hospitals, no cinema house, no bank, no block or any other government office. And there are no signs of the so-called 'development' within the embankments. The people living here don't want to get married; it is hard to feed a family if employment is not available. Even the voluntary organisations appear to have abandoned the embankment victims; needless to add, the political parties have no time for such trivial, 'dead' issues.

No one seems concerned about the plight of the 386 villages spread over 125,000 hectares of land, and around 800,000 victims of the Kosi embankments. Many are surprised when they learn that the people here have suffered silently for almost 50 years without protest. That they chose the easier option of migrating to distant places to look for employment. Meanwhile, successive governments have appointed committee after defunct committee.

Recently, there has been talk of an office being opened in Nepal to investigate the proposed Barahkshetra dam on the river Kosi that is expected to solve all the flood problems of Bihar . And that the government has given a grant of Rs 290 million to realise this dream. Is there any place for those trapped within the embankments of the Kosi in this project?

(Dinesh Kumar Mishra is convenor of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2005