A pair of embankments along the Bagmati river is under construction from Runni Saidpur in Sitamarhi to Hayaghat in Darbhanga district in Bihar. The Bagmati, flowing into the Indo-Gangetic plains from Nepal, has a length of about 270 kilometres in Bihar. Bihar has a history of flooding from embankments, and in this case too, many villages are likely to be trapped between these mud walls. Floodwaters will pass over these villages for all times to come.

Villagers from Benipur, Bharthua and Jivajor, under the banner of Punarwas Sangharsh Samiti, Benipur are staging a dharna since 25 December 2007 demanding rehabilitation. They have been sitting here off and on since 11 April 2007 after the construction of the Rs.792 crores project started in the middle reaches of the Bagmati.

Says Rajat Singh, convenor of the Samiti, "Construction had been stopped for a while till the villagers were allotted land for new houses outside the embankments along with compensation for building the houses.” This rehabilitation had been promised within a time span of three months last year by the project officials and the collector of Muzaffarpur. In the meanwhile, the officials requested that work be resumed. The villagers yielded, hoping that the officials would keep their promise, but nothing followed. In the meanwhile, the Bagmati mauled these villages thoroughly during the 2007 floods as the villages were located between the two (under construction) embankments.

The villagers wrote back to the collector of Muzaffarpur on 3 December last year with copies to the chief minister and others asking for relocation at the earliest or, at least, some action by 15 December 2007. When there was no response, they staged a dharna once again on 25 December and that continues till date, into the third month. Their peaceful agitation is being thwarted by hired local goons and attempts are being made to tire out the agitators or split the movement.

Benipur, once a prosperous village of about 500 families and the ancestral village of legendary Ram Briksha Benipuri, a noted Hindi litterateur, has faced sedimentation due to the flood waters, with mud entering the dwellings upto a height of two to three feet. Thatched houses had to be constructed above some of the pucca buildings to accommodate the flood victims, who had to stay in these makeshift huts for over two months. The house of Ram Briksha Benipuri had to be cleared of about two feet of mud to celebrate his birthday on 23 December last year. The entire Kharif crop was washed away and the chances of any Rabi crop have dwindled because the whole of the 750 acres land of the village is now sand cast.

Looking back: The history of Bagmati

The new embankments are preceded by an astounding history of flood control work around this river.

Peter Salberg, a British engineer based in Assam, had a sent a note to the Patna Flood Conference in 1937, which was discussing nationwide floods and possible measures to combat them. In November 1937, at the Patna Flood Conference, he lamented “…how man’s interference started and developed and how the situation grew progressively worse owing to the power of government and skill of engineers and how substantial bundhs had sprung up every where with the complication of embankment roads and the railways.” The Government of Bihar (GoB) calls such statements as borne out of a colonial mindset and is going ahead with the construction of embankments.

" We only want to be relocated to a safe place."

- A villager

Representatives of the villagers met the chief minister of Bihar who advised them to meet the secretary of the Water Resources Department on the plea that the embankments were a technical matter and the secretary was the competent person to talk to.

When the protesters met the secretary, he said that the matter related to the policies of the state and he had little say in that. As officials pass the buck, the embankment stands tall.

 •  Playing politics with floods
 •  Once upon a Sankranti

The British treated the Bagmati as an unstable and virgin river and were opposed to its embanking. They wanted to wait till the river course got stable. This view had been endorsed by Dr K L Rao, the then director of Central Water and Power Commission (CWPC), when he had visited the basin in 1954. But there was a spurt in embanking rivers once construction of embankments started on Bihar’s most vibrant river, the Kosi, in 1955. This paved way for the construction of embankments along the lower reaches of the Bagmati in Bihar -- Hayaghat in Darbhanga to Badlaghat in Khagaria -- without much planning or debate. (Rao later became the Minister of Irrigation at the centre in 1963.)

It was stated then that the river course in this reach was stable and the embankments put along the stable path would be effective in flood control. Many reports of the Water Resources Department (WRD) of Bihar decried this assumption because in a hurry to tame the river, serious mistakes were committed in fixing the heights and spacing between the two embankments. However, the mistakes went unnoticed in the euphoria of independence and development.

Success stories of taming the Kosi were doing the rounds in the 1960s and the Gandak Project in western Bihar was taking shape, because of the interest shown by then President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, who hailed from that basin. A multi-purpose scheme to irrigate areas on either side of the river with the help of canals by constructing a barrage south of Dheng along with embankments on either side of the Bagmati (from Dheng to Runni Saidpur) and the Lalbakeya (from Bairgania to Adauri) in Sitamarhi district was planned following the floods of 1966 and 1969. However, the portion of the river between Runni Saidpur and Hayaghat was not embanked. The government claimed the the river was too unstable.

Then followed the clamping of emergency in the country. People could not voice their protest and the construction of the embankments saw completion. Very little work was done for irrigation itself. Only an irrigation colony was set up in Suppi village and a store for machinery in Gamharia village. The irrigation colony lies abandoned at the moment and the machinery store continues to be a junk yard. A foundation stone for a barrage project was laid in 1983 near Ramnagar by the then chief minister Chandra Shekhar Singh. It remains there, silently telling the story of subsequent inaction.

A rehabilitation that never happened

The construction of the embankments was completed by 1978 and the people trapped within the embankments needed to be relocated. The 96 trapped villages within the two embankments of the Bagmati had a population of nearly 192,000 (1971 Census). It is now 2008, and their rehabilitation is yet to be completed.

Rehabilitation here has been a cruel joke inflicted on the displaced people. The land was acquired for rehabilitating them but the plot boundaries, in most cases, were not marked and in the absence of such marking, it was free for all and the land was occupied on a ‘fist come first grab’ basis. Many oustees are still waiting for the land papers and those who could manage to get the papers, complain of mismatch between paper and reality.

Nobody got anything towards the cost of construction of the house and all that they got was the shifting allowance for moving the house from within the embankments to the rehabilitation site. This was fixed at Rs.300 for a thatched house, Rs.700 for a tiled house and Rs.1500 for a pucca house. Most of this money was consumed in bribes and cost of travel to the office.

The only source of livelihood, the agricultural land, remained within the two embankments and no compensation whatsoever was paid to anybody for this lost land. The farmers were expected to travel from the rehabilitation site to till their land.

Further, the entry point of the Manusmara River (an old course of the Bagmati) into the Bagmati was blocked and Manusmara water was spread into 12,000 hectares of land belonging to nearly 12 villages that remain under water for whole of the year. As if that were not sufficient, untreated effluents from Riga Sugar Mill are discharged into the Manusmara and the stagnated water has turned black killing all the fishes and any possibility of agriculture too.

New embankment, newer problems

The utility of the new embankment from Runni Saidpur to Hayaghat, should be seen in this backdrop. First, no river course gets stabilised in 30 years time; it takes centuries for that. How could a river that was designated unstable in 1970s become stable in such a short time? Second, embankments prevent a river from overflowing its banks during floods but they also prevent the entry of floodwater. This leads to a major problem as the embanked river is no longer able to fulfill its primary function -– draining out excess water. With the tributaries prevented from discharging into the river and accumulated rainwater finding no way out, the surrounding areas quickly become flooded.

The situation is aggravated by seepage from under the embankments. The areas outside the levees remain waterlogged for months after the rainy season because this water has no way of flowing out. Theoretically, sluice gates located at these junctions should solve the problem but, in practice, such gates quickly become useless as the bed level of the main river rises above the surrounding land; operating the gates would let water out instead of allowing outside water in. When the sluice gates have failed, the only option left is to also embank the tributary. This results, then, in water being locked up between the embankments.

Moreover, every embankment breaches at some point. When a breach occurs, there is a deluge. All this has happened in the upper reaches of the Bagmati and still there have been no lessons learnt.

Says Ram Chandra Singh (75) of Benipur village and a former engineer working with the Bagmati Project, “The embankments were constructed about 30 years ago and, on average, breach at five places annually. They must have breached over 150 times by now. That is the flood protection that we are going to get after we move from here.”

Construction of the embankments between Runni Saidpur and Hayaghat started in early 2007 and the resistance to it followed immediately thereafter. Their dharna was withdrawn after April 2007 when the government promised that all the procedures regarding rehabilitation would be completed within three months. Then an advertisement appeared in the name of the Secretary, Department of Water Resources of Bihar in July 2007 in various newspapers of Bihar saying “…the land prices for the acquired land will be fixed by adding 50 per cent to its value. A solatium of 30 per cent would be added to this price under normal procedures. But those land holders who will come forward to part with their land voluntarily, will be given 60 per cent solatium – 30 per cent more than the normal solatium. The land holders are, therefore, requested under Section – 4 of the Land Acquisition Act to hand over the details of their lands along with an affidavit giving their consent to the Special Land Acquisition Officer so that they can be given 60 per cent solatium.”

The government hopes that by offering such ‘generous’ compensation, the people will vacate houses, lands and the source of livelihood to pave way for the construction of the embankments, the benefits of which have always been doubtful. Thus by offering fifty per cent more for the price of the land and adding a maximum solatium of sixty percent to it, the government is prepared to pay 240 per cent of the market price of the land to the land owners. How much land an oustee can actually buy when he goes to tap the open market is anybody’s guess. But the story of rehabilitation does not end here. Where will the people resettle?

A troubled future

Benipur, Bharthua and Jivajor are located east of NH-77 connecting Muzaffarpur to Sitamarhi and a railway line connecting Muzaffarpur to Sitamarhi that runs parallel to this road is also under construction. The distance between NH-77 and the railway embankment will not be more than a kilometre at any point. Both these structures are intercepted by the river embankment under construction on the northern side. If the oustees choose to settle closer to their agricultural land, the only convenient plot would be between NH-77, the railway embankment and the Bagmati's right embankment. All the drainage possibilities of this trough are blocked and the oustees would need boats much earlier than the rehabilitation sites that they are asking for.

If the Bagmati’s embankment breaches in this zone, there will be disaster. If the river embankment remains intact, there will be tremendous sedimentation within the embankments and all the existing villages would get submerged into sand soon. A stage would come, may be within 10-15 years when the oustees would find it better to revert back to their villages within the embankments and start life afresh. The other option would be to settle on the embankments, which is what most people trapped between the embankments or rehabilitated on the lands that got waterlogged, subsequently, resort to.

Such settlers live there under a constant threat of eviction any moment by the Water Resources Department in the name of maintenance of the structures.

Protests continue

Along with the dharna that has been continuing since 25 December last year, a padyatra was taken out by the people likely to be affected in a similar fashion further down from Laheriasarai to Benibad (Darbhanga District) under the banner of Barh Mukti Morcha on 5-6 January 2008. They demanded unconditional abandonment of the project. Representatives met the chief minister of Bihar who advised them to meet the secretary of the WRD on the plea that it was a technical matter and the secretary was the competent person to talk to. When the protesters met the secretary, he said that the matter related to the policies of the state and he had little say in that. As officials pass the buck, the embankment stands tall.

Tej Narayan Singh, 82, a village elder from Benipur, says, "We don’t have the means to prevent the government from constructing this embankment. But the government should look into our case sympathetically. We only want to be relocated to a safe place."

Shiv Kumar Singh, 62, retired teacher, who put all his savings in building a house in the village, repents his decision. "If only I had known that I will have to leave my house and go elsewhere, I may not have constructed this house. Further, the government does not say a word about our livelihood. We are completely dependent on agriculture and we are going to lose this. There is no provision for providing us agricultural land. Does the government expect us to till on heaps of sand?"

I visited Benipur on 8 March. The construction of the embankment near near Benipur has come to a halt and the protesters have gone back to their respective villages. They are ready to bounce back any time they find the earth moving machineries making inroads to the construction site.