Fifty years ago on Makar Sankranti - 14 January 1955 - the first foundation stone for controlling the floods in country was laid in the village of Bhutaha, in Bihar's Madhubani district. The then Chief Minister of Bihar, Dr Shri Krishna Sinha, set off the plan to control the flooding of India's most vibrant river, the Kosi. Many decades after that beginning, it is debatable whether the embankments on either banks served the desired purpose, or if the cost paid by the people to achieve such flood control was justified. But there is something else we can pay attention to now.

With the river embanked by the project, some 386 villages spread over four districts - Saharsa, Supaul, Madhubani and Darbhanga - were trapped within the two embankments, and the waters of the Kosi pass over these villages every year. When the construction of the embankments began, the people were alerted, but it was 1956 before they understood what was going on and could raise the demand for rehabilitation. By then, the construction of the embankments was completed till Nirmali, some 50 kilometers south of the Indo-Nepal border. The Government assured the entrapped people that there would be only a marginal rise of four inches in the flood level within the embankments. The people disputed this, pointing out that the land around the Kosi slopes toward the west, and any rise in the flood level would spell doom for the people trapped within the embankments.

The response to their concern was indifferent, even calculating. In a meeting of the Kosi Control Board at Patna, on the 2nd March 1956, the members of the Central Water Commission opposed any move to resettle the embankment victims on the plea that that would set a bad precedent, and that people would start demanding rehabilitation in all such projects.

The floods of the Kosi in 1956 proved the villagers right; life within the embankments was devastated, and there was no doubt that more of this lay ahead in the years to come as well. Waterlogging outside the embankments was also significant; many villages were victims of stagnant rainwater that could not enter the river because of the embankments. A movement to rehabilitate villages trapped within the Kosi embankments gained momentum in 1957, but by this time the embankments had been further extended - to Mahishi on the eastern side and to Bhanthi on the west, both in Saharsa district. A total of 304 villages were trapped. As the resistance grew the government - at a cost of Rs. 112 millions - prepared a rehabilitation package but later found that this cost was disproportionate to the cost of the project itself (Rs. 370 millions), and the plans were dropped.

Pressure from villagers continued, however. This resulted in the announcement of a proportionate package of rehabilitation worth Rs. 21.2 millions. Deep Narain Singh, then Minister of Irrigaion in the State, made an announcement (3rd December 1958) in the Vidhan Sabha that,

  • The Government would provide land to the victims in the flood protected area, close to the embankment,
  • Government would arrange land for the services like schools, roads etc,
  • Rehabilitation sites will be provided with tanks, wells, tube-wells for water supply by the Government,
  • House Building Grants would be made available to the victims, and
  • Government would ensure easy access to the fields of the farmers by providing adequate number of boats.

Many elderly persons in the area recall that they were also promised jobs for at least one person per family in the Kosi Project. However, I did not find documentary evidence to substantiate this claim.

By 1960, only 70 villages were resettled; even at that slow rate, nonetheless, only 9 years should have been needed to ensure rehabilitation for all the embankment victims. However, by 1972-73, only 32,540 families of the total of about 45,000 families were given the first grant for constructing houses; 10,580 families were given the second installment and none had got the third and final installment. Besides, these embankment victims were expected to go their old villages for farming since they were not alloted any land for cultivation in the so called flood protected countryside. The rehabilitation sites too became waterlogged, and the people returned to their old villages. The government interpreted this retreat of the villagers as their affection for their ancestral properties, and on this excuse the rehabilitation process was abandoned before completion.

It was not possible to physically rehabilitate the victims of the Kosi Project, for the simple reason that it is impossible to arrange for so much of land in this thickly populated area. This was probably why the CM thought of economic rehabilitation instead; he was of the view that not all the land within the Kosi embankments would be ruined, and that agriculture would continue to be practised there. Against this background, the government appointed a committee in 1962 to look into the problems of agriculture, health, industry, revenue collection, extension of securities and cooperation. The Development Commissioner of the State, the Land Reforms Commissioner and the Chief Administrator of the Kosi Project were members of the committee.

This committee achieved nothing. Then, in 1967, another committee was constituted under the chairmanship of the Kosi Area Development Commissioner whose job was to suggest programmes for the embankment victims in the sectors of agriculture, cooperation, industrial development and economic rehabilitation. This committee, too, did not function. In 1981, another committee under the chairmanship of Chandra Kishor Pathak, former chairman of Saharsa District Board, was constituted to look into the problems of economic rehabilitation of the embankment victims. This committee gave its report in 1982 and the Government accepted its recommendations in 1987. Based on the recommendations of the Pathak Committee, the state government constituted Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikar (Kosi Sufferers Development Authority) in the same year.

While recommending the constitution of this Authority, Bindeshwari Dubey, then Chief Minister of Bihar, asserted that there might not be any other place in the country where so many people are exposed to the fury of the floods of a river. These people had lost all hope of their betterment and his 'determined Government' was committed to their overall development so that happiness would dawn on them. But, the Authority of the 'Determined Government' remains a defunct body. It does not have a building or an office of its own. It has no vehicles and 'deputation employees' man its functions. It has no budget either. At best, it can request the other departments to do certain things for the embankment victims. It has some chairs and tables in the Vikas Bhawan at Saharsa where its employees are occassionally seen.

For fifteen years the two committees set up to look into the problems of those within the embankments did nothing, and twenty more years have passed since a third committee made its recommendations.
The Authority decided, way back in 1989, that those living within the embankmemnts would not have to pay the ferrying costs for coming to or going out from their villages as they have to cross many channels of the rivers. This would have ensured free movement to their villages but could not be enforced. The Authority recommended to the Relief and Rehabilitation Department of the state to provide free boats to the embankment victims, at least, during the monsoon season. It could not get that favour. Most of the primary schools within the embankments do not have roofs over their buildings. Who will go to study there and who would teach in such places? The doctors and the employees of the Health Department do not visit the Health Centres and they cannot visit there during the rainy season even if they want to because of heavy currents in the river. Who will get the treatment and who then will treat them?

It is written in the provisions of the Authority that fifteen per cent of Class-3 and 4 jobs in the districts that have benefited from the Kosi Project would be reserved for the embankment victims of the Kosi. Nobody has received jobs with that qualification so far, not even in the Kosi Sufferers Development Authority. There is no electricity, no pucca roads, no college, no hospitals, no cinema house, no bank, no block or any other office of the Government and there is no sign of any modern development within the Kosi embankments. No outsider wants to have marital relations with those in the embankments. Without the employment found by those migrating to places like Delhi, Haryana, Punjab or Gujarat, even simple existence would be hard. Struggling for the rights of these people is also not anymore on the agenda of NGOs and political parties - no one has time for a forgotten issue.

It is rumoured that some offices have been opened in Nepal to investigate the proposed Barahkshetra Dam on the Kosi that is expected to solve all the flood problems of Bihar, and that the Central Government has given a grant of Rs. 290 millions to realize this dream. One wonders whether there is any space for those trapped within the embankments of the Kosi in the project. To them, it matters very little where the office is; they are merely silenced witnesses to a ravaged past. Their silence is simply made more eerie by the fact that the 'development' that destroyed their lives still flows along the same course, elsewhere up the river. The bitter harvest is unending.