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ON THE WATER FRONT
Sinking into despair

The landscape of the river basins in Bihar has a distinctive character of its own. However, when the floods wreak havoc in places like Khagaria’s Sonmanki area, on the Bagmati river, all that is left is flatness.

Behind the a dull flatness lurks a horror story. It is not rain-swelled rivers rushing over the paddyfields and destroying lives and property that the people in the adjoining villages dread. This they have learnt to live with. What unfolds only after the water has receded is something the people of Khagaria do not know how to cope with.

There are at least five villages within five kilometres of this basin where houses are gradually sinking under the soil. A number of Dalit villages have gone under the huge siltation caused by the annual flood of the Bagmati.

The Madhura village, for instance, has witnessed grotesque scenes of houses either poised precariously on its foundation or half-sunk in the soil. Some houses have sunk so deep that one has to crawl on the ground to enter. There are villages which have gone completely under a thick cover of silt. A mood of despondency hangs over the entire village.

“This is the situation in at least five villages under Sonmanki block. There are small Dalit villages like Shanti and Mahim which have gone completely underground. Now you can only see a high mound. Yet people have to stick around here,” says Jayant Singh, mukhia of Madhura.

Madhura and five other villages are barely 10 kms from Khagaria town in north Bihar. But there are no motorable roads here. After six kms of a link road, the villagers have to walk two kms and cross Bagmati by ferry and walk again. Madhura remains cut off for five months between June and October when flood waters inundate the entire area, forcing the people to shift to an elevated ring road about 10 kms away from the village.

“After living in camps for five months, they go back to their village, only to find their houses in a state of ruin,” says Prem Verma, convenor of Samta, a voluntary organization which has researched and documented the sinking of villages owing to siltation in the area. According to Verma’s report, submitted to the state government, at least three Dalit hamlets have gone completely under siltation. Samta has been counselling to the villagers on how and where to build houses after soil testing .

One look at the concrete single-storey house of Srikant Singh in the Khairidi village, and one has a vision of its grim fate. The ground floor has gone at least five feet underneath the soil, making it look like a basement. The original entrance had to be abandoned and a tunnel made so that the residents could enter.

In Sonmanki, at least 10 villagers lost their houses. In houses where half of the structure has gone under the soil, the owners are busy retrieving the bricks or are constructing a new floor above the sunk one.

Jogesh Narayan Das, the additional district magistrate of Khagaria, claims that the district administration has been making arrangements for alternative housing under the Indira Awas Yojna. But he added that “it would be difficult for any administration to meet the growing demand for alternative housing for the flood affected people.”

A recent report on the water resource department prepared by the Bihar assembly committee points out that the state government spent Rs 250 crore between 1997 and 2001-02 to check flood and erosion of the rivers, yet the flood control measures in six districts, including Khagaria, Seohar, Gopalgunge, Samastipur, Darbhanga and Sitamarhi, which face floods every year, were far from satisfactory. There have been times when flood and drought have happened simultaneously in Bihar, exposing the shortcomings in the system of river-management. Some water management experts have suggested that the proposed river linking scheme could be a solution to Bihar’s annual woe. The idea is to evolve a mechanism to tap excess water during the floods and channelize it to other rivers. This will not only relieve the people of their suffering, but also expand the irrigation areas.

The issue, however, assumed a strange political complexion recently. Laloo Prasad Yadav opposed the Centre’s move to interlink the country’s rivers and called this yet another conspiracy to deprive the state of its own resources. He was probably trying to build more on his image as the Bihar strongman than spare a thought for the true welfare of the state. He cited the example of the state’s mineral resources being used for the big industries of south and west India, while Bihar was left out of the profits. The Farakka and Bansagar projects too, he alleged, have deprived the state.

Laloo Yadav in this case was probably trying to do an S.M. Krishna. The chief minister of Karnataka had said that he would rather face contempt of court than surrender the interest of his state in the Cauvery water dispute with Tamil Nadu.

However, the political rhetoric on the river-networking proposal betrays lack of a national perspective on the part of Laloo Yadav. Issues like this are best left to the experts. It is also callous, given that lives of poor villagers are at stake, to try to gain political mileage out of it. With Laloo Yadav’s opposition to the project, a large number of non-governmental organizations and social activists have begun to feel persecuted enough to decry the project.

The revised national water resources council meeting had endorsed a proposal for a river-linking project as a solution to the rising local conflicts over water use in India as well as for the development of an integrated assessment and modelling technique. Later, the national water development agency under the Union ministry of water resources sent this proposal to the prime minister. It has drawn widespread attention because the broad scope of the proposal will also determine the socio-economic behaviour of the people residing near the river basins.

In Bihar for example, the contractors and engineers involved in managing the embankments of the flood-prone rivers run an industry worth Rs 250 crore, yet they have no permanent solutions to the problems of the people living in the villages between two rivers. They have not been able to devise means to prevent houses from steadily sinking after every flood. For states like Bihar, the talk about a conceptual modelling framework for an integrated development of the catchment areas flies in the faces of politicians and ministers.

There are far too many bottlenecks for this proposal to become a reality in the near future. For one, water being a state subject, the Central government will have to first obtain a consensus and nationalize the river waters. Besides, for every case of water-sharing, justice has to be done to the states involved. This cannot be an easy task. Nothing short of consensus will do. The likes of Laloo Yadav must be brought round from their populist ways to seeing the pragmatic point.

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