The Bihar government has been facing opposition from locals to the embankment project on River Bagmati. People of Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga district have been protesting against the project since 2012.

As many as 109 villages of the region are affected by the Bagmati river flooding. Now, before the flood season, villagers are reuniting and holding meetings in Gaighat and Benibad areas to make strategies to continue the protest.

The project, as per the government, is a preventive measure for floods and land erosion. However, the villagers say they are ready to face floods, as they fear the project will cost them their livelihood. Flooding of the Bagmati river, in fact, deposits sediments in the fields, brings vital nutrients for the soil, resulting in increased soil productivity, benefitting the farmers.

“Embankment may save us from the flood, but what about our livelihoods?” said Jagarnath Paswan, a resident of Kalyani village in Muzaffarpur district. “Floodwater is essential for the nutrition of the soil. Farming is the main source of our livelihood, and without flood water, farming will be destroyed in the area.”

“We need to learn from the neighbouring areas where the embankment has already caused soil damage,” he added.

Bagmati river in Muzaffarpur flows across Darbhanga, Sitamarhi, Sheohar, Muzaffarpur and Khagaria districts of Bihar. Photo credit: Metro Media/IWMI/Flickr

Annual occurrence

“The flood has been partially controlled by constructing flood embankment in certain reaches,” said a report prepared by the Ministry of Water Resources in Bihar. “Construction of embankment in the remaining reaches also appears to be the desired solution for providing relief against the residual flood problems.”

The government has already allocated Rs 548.13 crores in funding to embank the river from Muzaffarpur to Gayghar and Darbhanga to Hayaghat. The decision has further riled up people who have already been protesting the decision since 2012.

Committee on paper

After facing intense protest by people, the Bihar government set up a three-member committee in 2018 to reconsider their decision. However, so far no report has been prepared. “The committee did not function, so we prepared no report. Government is making decisions without following the directions of the committee,” Anil Prakash, a member of the committee, told Mongabay-India. Apart from Anil Prakash, the committee comprises river expert Dinesh Kumar Mishra and professor Rajiv Sinha who is associated with Department of Earth Science, IIT, Kanpur.

“The committee has held only one meeting in these two years, but we keep getting information about the extension of the committee,” said Prakash. “The last information I received was about extension till December 2020.”

“River embankment has already been done along both sides of Bagmati River in a large area,” said Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a member of the committee and writer of the book Bagmati ki Sadgati. “The first part of the embankment is from Hayaghat to Khagaria and the second part is from Sitamarhi to Dheng. Bagmati enters Nepal after Dheng.”

“The river bank from Khoripakar in Sitamarhi to Kanaujar Ghat in Darbhanga is not being embanked,” said Mishra. “This is because the river Bagmati is not stable here, and the engineers of Bihar government had advised the government not to embank these areas.”

“If even the government’s engineers are not willing to embank the river in that area, why is the government forcing this project?” Mishra raised the question.

Embankment work is going on the Bagmati river near Belwa. Photo credit: WRD Bihar

Flood and fertility

Bagmati River is known for bringing fertile soil with its sediments during the flood. Farmers observed that the fertility of the region got affected negatively after the embankment.

There is scientific research that also backs the farmers’ beliefs.

“Floods carry micro-nutrients, fine silt and loam, and after the water recedes, these nutrients are deposited on fields, where they improve soil fertility and productivity,” said a 2008 working research paper From risk to resilience, focused on Lower Bagmati Basin.

“The embankment checks the silt deposit, and this results in declined agricultural productivity,” added the paper.

“The embankment affected not only the fertility but also fish farming. We used to fish in ditches during flood season. Now, after the embankment, we have lost that opportunity,” said Upendra Sahni, a fisherman.

To overcome the regular floods, a 3,760-km long embankment has been constructed by the Bihar government along the rivers of the state. However, there was no analysis done to ascertain the benefits or losses of these embankments.

Are embankments helpful?

Specifically, along Bagmati River, the state has already constructed a 478.14-km-long embankment and is planning to add 246-km more to it. The government has spent Rs 1,800 crores in the past 12 years on the construction of these embankments. The ongoing project will cost 548.13 crore.

The government claims that it will save 3.36 lakh hectares of land and 93.12 lakh of Bihar’s population from the flood.

Past experiences of locals said that embankments do not help in preventing the flood, but add more difficulties to their lives. “Our experience with embankments is not good,” added Mishra. “The soil fertility has decreased in those areas, and the fisherman community is also affected by these projects. That is why people are against it.”

According to records, Bihar had only 160 km river embankment at the time of India’s independence, and the flood-affected area was just 25 lakh hectares. Now the government records say that flood-affected area has increased to 68.8 lakh hectares.

Unofficial records are even worse. According to them, the flood-affected area in Bihar is 72.95 lakh hectares.

The locals from the Sitamarhi district feel that flood is not such a big issue for them. They can survive floods considering there are also benefits such as fertility in farmlands.

“Government should look at the facts, that how often embankments break during monsoon causing sudden floods in the region,” said Ranjeev, a Bihar-based social activist. “They should also compare the fertility of farms in both embanked and non-embanked areas.”

Mishra’s book Bagmati ki Sadgati, also attempts to answer – Are embankments helpful in preventing flood, or have they increased the risk of flood even more?

“Mithila region of Bihar used to face many kinds of floods,” wrote Mishra. “Most of them were not severe. The floodwater that used to enter the fields made them fertile. A person faced extreme floods only once or twice in their lifetime.”

However, after the construction of the embankment the region has faced extreme floods every year.

Fields near Bagmati river in Muzaffarpur. Bagmati brings fertile soil with its flood water which is essential for the crops of this region. Photo credit: Metro Media/IWMI/Flickr

Who is getting benefit?

“Farmers of this region are not happy with the embankment, and they often break it to allow the flood water in their farms,” said Mishra.

“The embankment on Bagmati has broken as many as 54 times,” said Anil Prakash. “And the government is still trying to construct embankment in new areas.”

“The motive of the government to spend a lot on embankment can be understood by the name of construction companies who are getting contracts to build it,” alleged a villager Jagarnath Paswan. “Earlier, an Andhra Pradesh-based company used to work on these projects, but now the work has been allocated to a Maharashtra-based company. A local politician has diverted the contract. It is very clear that who the beneficiaries of these projects are.”

The locals of 30 villages-32 villages near Gayaghat have formed a strong protest together and barricade the area to stop the construction of the embankment. So the government plans to start the construction near Hayaghat where the movement is not strong yet. But the farmers are ready to next protest there. Now it remains to be seen whether the government is able to start the construction or chooses to understand the plight of the farmers.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.