Sixty-year-old Devdutt Ram sits despondently on the ground outside his house. Occasionally, despondence gives way to anger as he narrates the tale of his village.
“As a young child, I remember, our village often changed places as the rising waters of the Gandak washed away our land. We must have moved at least nine times when about 30 years ago, some elders in our village discovered an old, abandoned embankment of the Gandak and decided to shift there lock, stock, and barrel,” reminisced Ram.
The residents of Naika tola (hamlet) have lived on the abandoned embankment near Bhishambharpur village, Pashchim Champaran district of Bihar, ever since. However, they are still not safe.
“Slowly but steadily, the Gandak is coming closer to our village. We fear that in maximum next 10 years, it will erode our village and once again turn us homeless,” said Ram.
Villagers say they can’t find a safe haven. They live inside the embankment by the river, but the price of land outside the embankment has sky rocketed. “Looks like this time the Ganga ji [as local people call the Gandak] will wash us away along with our houses. The future of our children is dark,” said Lal Singh Yadav, another Naika resident.
Floods and embankments
Bihar is India’s most flood-prone states; 28 out of its 38 districts are flood-prone, according to the Water Resource Department of the state government.
The plains of Bihar, adjoining Nepal, are drained by a number of rivers that have their catchments in the Himalayas of Nepal – including the Koshi, Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Kamla Balan, Mahananda and the Adhwara group of rivers. They carry high levels of discharge and sediment load, which are deposited on the plains of Bihar.
The Gandak river originates at the Nhubine Himal Glacier in Nepal and enters India near the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Pashchim Champaran, Bihar. It further flows down and meets the Ganga near Patna. The Gandak flows 260 kilometres across Bihar – where an estimated 80% of its catchment area is flood-prone.
Floods in Bihar are not new. In 1954 a massive flood affected an area of 2.46 million hectares (mha) and 7.61 million people in north Bihar. This was the year that the first flood policy of India came into being. The government dropped the proposal to dam the Koshi river at Barahkshetra in Nepal, in favour of building embankments along the river. Since then, embankments have been built along all the major rivers of Bihar, including over 510 kilometres along the Gandak .
An embankment is an earthen wall built with mud and stones usually 10-12 metres wide at the base and 5 metres wide at the top. Embankments are constructed to save people and their property from floods, but As the length of embankments has increased in Bihar, the state’s flood-prone area has grown – not shrunk.
Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a civil engineer and convener of the grassroots NGO Barh Mukti Abhiyan (Flood Free Effort), argues that embankments have increased the intensity of floods in Bihar. He has been fighting India’s top-down flood policies for decades and has documented the impact of embankment construction in Bihar.
The embankments often breach, causing widespread damage. In 2011, the Water Resource Department released data showing embankments have breached more than 371 times in the past 24 years, though activists say the real number is far higher.
Apart from exacerbating floods, embankments have also created social problems in the surrounding areas. These engineering solutions artificially divide the villages into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Villages that are outside of the embankment feel protected from floods. However, those who live inside the embankments, next to the river, such as Naika tola, face terrible floods.
This situation is only getting worse. The huge amount of sediment carried and deposited by rivers (a process known as aggradation) has resulted in the rise of the riverbeds over time, thereby reducing the carrying capacity of the rivers, whose flow is already restricted by the embankments.
According to a 2008 article by CP Sinha, who headed the second Bihar State Irrigation Commission, “During the past three decades, the rise of the bed level [of the Gandak] had been of the order of 1.8 metres. This type of aggradation necessitates perpetual raising and strengthening of the embankments.”
The creation of embankments also means the land price in ‘safe’ areas has soared, making it near impossible for poor people living inside the embankments – the ‘non-safe’ areas – to buy land and shift outside the embankment.
The state government hasn’t been able to relocate the millions of people in north Bihar living in unsafe areas inside the embankments. For instance, over 380 villages are located within the Koshi embankments with a population of 988,000 (2001 census). The situation is the same in the Gandak river basin.
Naika tola: then and now
Naika tola is a hamlet of over 108 families. It is located on an old, broken and abandoned embankment on the east bank of the Gandak, which was abandoned when a new embankment was constructed on the eastern side of the Gandak in the 1960s.
At that time, the present residents of Naika tola lived in another village called Bhaghan on the west bank of the Gandak.
“Life wasn’t easy in Bhaghan, as the village was close to the forest and there were regular attacks on the crops by wild pigs and nilgai (Asia’s largest antelope),” said resident Sunaina Devi.
The villagers had to live with recurring floods. “Every time the Gandak eroded our land, we used to move within a radius of a kilometre depending on where the land appeared after the floods,” he added.
Relocating was a painful experience for the villagers. “We used to beg people to give us some land to settle down. However, all villages inside embankment suffer the same fate. They empathised with us, but could not help us,” said 85-year-old Ramraj Chaudhury, a resident of Naika tola.
People living inside the river embankments are no stranger to floods. The villagers of Naika tola, erstwhile Baghan, have their own standard operating procedures, based on their past experiences and their undying spirit.
“We are born next to the river, we live next to the river and we die next to the river. We can read the river like nobody else,” said Surendra Yadav, a resident of Naika tola. According to him, every year the villagers can judge how much the Gandak’s waters will rise and if the river will erode their land.
“Once we know the river has come too close to our, we start looking for ‘safe’ land around the village. Other villages settled inside the embankment understand our plight as they suffer the same problems. Someone or the other comes to our rescue and suggests some temporary vacant land to resettle,” narrated Surendra Yadav.
Before relocating, some village elders visit the new place. “Caste is an important factor in Bihar. So a plan is made as to how the new village will settle – which caste will stay where in the new area,” said Ram.
Castes in Naika tola
The majority of the families belong to the Mallah community (a schedule tribe in Bihar) and Musahar (Mahadalit) castes. About 20 households belong to Yadavs, 10 to Bind (Other Backward Class) and seven to Chamars (a schedule caste community). Hajjam, Dhobi, Rajput, Chaurasia castes have a family each in Naika tola.
In the caste system of Bihar, Musahar is considered the most marginalised, followed by the Chamar. People of both the castes live in Naika tola.
Once the blueprint is ready, the village relocates to the new area where there are no basic facilities. Houses need to be reconstructed, at huge cost.
Villagers alleged they cannot use the Indira Awas Yojana, the government social welfare scheme that provides support of Rs 75,000 to build a house, because they do not own the minimum requirement of 10 dhur of land (one dhur is equal to 17 square metres).
Surviving without basic amenities
When Chandmata Devi and other villagers relocated from Baghan to Naika tola thirty years ago, spending money to construct a new house was a small part of a much larger battle. “There was no drinking water. We women used to walk a few kilometres every day to Mangalpur to fetch water in earthen pots on our heads,” said Chandmata Devi.
A year later, a well was built and women of Naika tola didn’t have to walk kilometres to bring water any more. A decade or so ago, the local vidhayak [members of the legislative assembly] got a handpump installed at the village. Local NGOs have tested the water using guava leaves and they claim the water has high iron content. No water testing has been done for the presence of arsenic.
Until recently, there were no toilets and the entire village practiced open defecation. Though in the past year or so, four ecosan (ecological sanitation) toilets have been built in the hamlet and another three are underway.
Because of the regular relocation, the education of the village children has suffered. The children of Naika tola did not go to any school till about 15 years ago when the local anganwadi was turned into a primary school.
The challenge of livelihood
At first the villagers of Naika tola had no source of income. “We are all landless and daily wagers. For one year, we kept running around looking for work. There were times we had no food to feed our children,” narrated Ram. Slowly they started getting farm work, though most of the younger generation migrated to Delhi, Punjab and other states in search of livelihood, he added. Ram’s two sons work in Kathmandu.
Except a few Mallah families no one owns any land. The Mallah also barely own one to two katha land each [13 katha make one acre]. Other families rent land and grow crops such as wheat, paddy and sugar cane. They pay the landlords in money [known as a hunda system] or by sharing 50% of crops produced [batai system]. Both systems are exploitative – with the farmers providing all the inputs and shouldering all the risks in an event of a flood. As a result the landless families can barely feed their families.
The changing course of the Gandak
As the Gandak comes closer every year, the residents of Naika tola are worried their “happy” days are over. “Thirty years ago when we moved here, the river was very far away. But now, the river is barely a kilometre away. As per our observations, the Gandak is changing its course and moving eastwards,” said Ram.
Villagers claimed they have written several letters to the district magistrate and the block development officer, but no help has come through.
“Every year the water levels are rising in the village. As soon as it crosses waist level, we grab our children and run to higher ground,” said Sunaina Devi. According to her, every year several people die of snake bites as the flood waters bring poisonous snakes. “The only way to carry a sick person to the nearest primary health centre is through dengi [boat]. The dengi, not the government, helps us survive each flood,” she added.
Researchers confirm their fears. According to them, the Himalayan rivers keep changing their courses every now and then, thereby throwing up new territories and submerging old land.
This causes major problems on the North Bihar plains. In an October 2003 paper published in the Current Science, KS Valdiya writes: “The Gandak has shifted eastward by 105 km over its mega fan in the period 1935–1975; and the Koshi moved 112 km in the span of 228 years (1736 to 1964)”.
In 2012, a shift in the Gandak’s course had shocked the visitors of the famous Sonepur Mela, a famous cattle fair, as the centuries-old tradition of bathing elephants in the Gandak’s waters could not be performed due to shift in the flow of the river. The Gandak is now changing its course and fast-eroding the forests of Valmiki Tiger Reserve on India-Nepal border.
Nowhere to turn
Clearly, the Gandak is moving eastward and may soon engulf Naika tola. Some eight years ago, the state government had allocated 10 dhur land to each of the 30 Musahar families of Naika tola. But the land was under water so no one could move there.
Villagers are angry with the government for not doing anything. “The government keeps telling us that living inside the embankments is not safe and that we should move out. But, it doesn’t tell us where we should go,” said Sunaina Devi. According to her, if the embankment was not there, the flood waters would have spread far and wide and not threatened the their survival.
“We are daily wagers. For eight hours labour a day, men earn INR 200 (USD 2.92) and women earn INR 100 (USD 1.46) only. Land prices outside of the embankment are in lakhs (hundreds of thousands). How can we ever buy land?” questioned Chandmata Devi.
The recently constructed Gopalganj-Bettiah road bridge has added to the woes of Naika tola. Villagers alleged that the elevated road blocked the flow of the Gandak and led to even worse floods. “This year , during the floods, we had to squat on the new elevated road,” said Lal Singh Yadav. The following year the villagers had to flee to the elevated road again when the area was submerged in waist-deep water for 10 days. The water then receded but the hamlet was surrounded by water for almost two months.
“The government must come to our rescue and rehabilitate us otherwise the only option left for us is to build our houses on the elevated road”, warned Ram. “We are ready to eat less, but we want our children to be safe. Is that too much to ask for?” he asked.
Nidhi Jamwal is an independent environment and development journalist based in Mumbai, India.
This article first appeared on The Thirdpole.