Refugees of the Kosi

The British had in 1855 embanked the river Damodar in Bengal as an experiment in flood control. They were to regret the consequences. In the following years, the flood levels rose and the water breathed the embankments at many points. Compounding matters, the embankments impeded the natural drainage channels of rainwater, leading to extensive waterlogging that both reduced the arable and abetted epidemics. This experience was sufficient to dissuade the British from embanking other flood-prone rivers. But what restrained the colonial government was not enough to curb those who followed. Embankments returned with a vengeance in the political and engineering arenas after the colonialists departed in the mid- 20th century . The Kosi river was one of the first to be straitjacketed within embankments, and those living in its vicinity were eventually to suffer the consequences. The process that gave rise to the embankments is as instructive as its outcome is poignant in a South Asia where politicians and government engineers continue to put up embankments as the quick and easy fix .

Silted Kosi

The Kosi is a lively and turbulent river of north Bihar that originates in the Tibetan highlands. It penetrates the Himalayan barrier between Kanchendzanga and Mt. Everest and descends from the mid-hills near  Chatra in Nepal and joins the Ganga near Kursela in Katihar district of Bihar. The Kosi has a catchment area of about 59,000 sq-km above Triveni in Nepal, where three of its major streams converge to give it the name Kosi. In the plains, the river has changed its course many times and in the past 200 years alone, it shifted from Purnea to Saharsa, a distance of about 160 kilometres. Its length in the plains is 307 km, of which 254 km is in Bihar. The river carries a large sediment load in its flow, whose accumulation on the bed causes it to meander.

The shifting course of the river and its perennial  tendency to flood posed a serious challenge to engineers attempting to control its flow. But the experience of past follies in the Damodar and elsewhere, did not restrain the independent Indian state from embarking on a grandiose plan to tame the Kosi in the 1950s by confining its flow within embankments.

The idea of embankments as a solution to the Kosi floods had been proposed even before Independence. In 1941, the Congress leader from Bihar, Anugrah Narain Singh, advocated a relocation of the population of the Kosi belt to the hilly areas of Ramgarh, in Hazaribagh district. This provoked a fierce debate,  and the vehement opposition of those likely to be affected led to the proposal being shelved.

As an alternative, in the year 1945, the Bihar Government proposed to the Delhi government that the Kosi be embanked from Chatra in Nepal, where the river descends to the plains, to Kursela in Bihar, where it joins the Ganga. The cost of such an exercise was estimated at 100 million Indian rupees.

The proposal was rejected by Delhi on the ground that controlling floods through embankments was an outdated technique. It argued, reasonably, that this would cause the sediments carried by the river to be trapped within the embankments, thereby raising the bed level of the river. The embankments would then have to be raised to accommodate this rise, and then again some. In addition to the known problem of water stagnation outside the embankment because of the blockage, the central government also drew attention to the inefficacy of embankment sluice gates during the monsoon, because if these were kept open, there would always be a possibility of the main river's water spilling into the tributaries. This would necessitate the construction of embankments along the tributaries as well and so compound the problem of waterlogging. Besides, if any of the embankments burst, it would spell another round of disaster, as was happening then on both the Hwang Ho and the Mississippi.

Instead, in April 1947, the central government proposed a multi-purpose 289-metre concrete dam on the Kosi at Barahchetra in Nepal at an estimated cost of one billion rupees. By the time the detailed plans of this dam were ready, in 1952, the cost of the construction had shot up to INR 1.8 billion. The government lacked the resources and was looking for some cheaper  scheme. Taking the line of least effort, it appointed a committee to 'examine' the Barahchetra proposal, with a view to having it rejected.

Consistent with the purpose of its existence, the committee calculated that INR 600 million of the total investment would in effect be blocked, since the dam would be producing 3300 MW of hydro-electricity, when aggregate power production in the country, in 1952, was only 1750 MW. Besides, the benefits of flood control would be available only after the fifth phase of the project. It proposed a new 25-metre-high earthen dam at Belka, downstream of Chatra, whose irrigation and flood benefits would be similar to that promised by the Barahchetra dam, but which would produce only 68 MW of power, deemed to be more in tune with the requirements of the time. The scheme was estimated to cost INR 555 million. The government, however, was not in a position to spare even this sum.

Political embankment

The floods of 1953 resolved the issue. With the British now departed, politically it was felt that something immediate should be done to mitigate the effects of the Kosi floods.  Embankments were seen to be the obvious solution and in December 1953, the Kosi embankment was sanctioned. Since this decision was political, it now needed to be invested with technical legitimacy, especially because the engineering orthodoxy in the post-Damodar period had been unequivocally opposed to the embanking of rivers.

In May 1954, two veteran engineers, Kanwar Sain, chairman of Central Water and Power Commission (CWPC) and K.L. Rao, director in the CWPC, were sent to study the performance of the Hwang Ho embankments in China so that they could  make appropriate recommendations for the Kosi Project. They knew that they not only had to legitimise the embanking of the Kosi, by reference to the Hwang Ho embankments, but also infuse confidence among the people that this was the appropriate course to pursue.  This they did   successfully by arguing that: (a) "…if the Yellow river is able to discharge the tremendous silt charge smoothly to the sea, there is no reason why Kosi cannot be harnessed in such a way that it will also take away with its waters all the harmful silt that cause the lateral shifting of the course, if measures are undertaken to eliminate the coarse content of the silt." And (b) "…as the dykes have proved entirely adequate to deal with the Yellow River for centuries, though attended with breaches from time to time due to lack of proper maintenance and watch of banks, dykes construction in the Kosi must be proceeded with immediately even before barrage is

What the engineers omitted to mention was that there had been at least 1500 instances of breaching and inundation on the lower reaches of the Hwang Ho river in the 900 years between 1047 and 1954. Additionally, there were 26 important changes of course, nine of them major. The terrible floods of 1933 caused more than 50 breaches of the dykes and the disaster zone covered as much as 11,000 sq-kms. Over 18,000 were killed and more than 3,640,000 people were affected.

In 1938, the Chiang Kai Shek government had ordered the opening of the dyke on the south bank of the river which led to a major change in the course of the river that left  890,000 people dead and affected 12.5 million over an area of 54,000 sq kms. They also omitted to mention that the Chinese government and people were sick of the Hwang Ho embankments and that a team of Russian engineers was in China since January 1954 to look into the possibility of building large dams on the Hwang Ho to contain its floods. And because the government of India had constituted a voluntary organisation called Bharat Sevak Samaj (BSS) in 1952, to promote people's participation and co-operation in national developmental activities, and which was to handle earth work in all the river valley projects, the report of the experts eulogised community work in China.

To then reinforce the status of this retrospective legitimisation, engineers from the United States and China were brought in to vouch for the Kosi embankments. The renowned hydrological expert, Sir Claude Inglis, who had studied the Kosi when he was at the Pune Research Station, was also invited from the UK to certify the need for the Kosi embankment. His refusal to endorse the project was not allowed to come in the way of the decision to go ahead with the plan. By then, everyone appears to have been convinced of the merits of embankments. Even Indian president, Rajendra Prasad, himself a Bihari known for anti-embankment views, had by then been converted and he spent about a week in north Bihar to appeal to the people to participate in the national cause of taming the Kosi.

The circumstances had been contrived to provide a perfect convergence of interest among politicians who wanted something done immediately, engineers who would take an about-turn to facilitate the process, and professional contractors eager to profit from such a large public expenditure. The Bharat Sevak Samaj, which could actually be described as a congregation of unemployed politicians was nothing but a specie of contractor, though with a seemingly benevolent face.

The Kosi embankments thus came into being ostensibly to provide flood protection to an area of 2.1 lakh hectares between where the Kosi entered Bihar from Nepal and where it joined the Ganga. The construction of these embankments started in January 1955 and  ended in 1959. By then, 304 villages, with a population of 192,000 found themselves trapped in the region within the embankment that would contain the flow of the Kosi. The subsequent extension of the embankments raised the number of villages within them to 338. The numbers were to rise further as the original design of the embankments was altered time and again. No authoritative information is available  about the number of people trapped within the embankments today, but the unofficial estimate is that there are about 800,000 thus affected.

Alignment, displacement and rehabilitation
The people likely to be affected by the project were quite naturally anxious about displacement and possible 'rehabilitation'. In response, both the technocrat and the politician held out misleading assurances about  the impact of the project and the fairness in compensation.

Making a general statement about river valley projects likely to be executed in India, A.N. Khosla, president, Central Board of Irrigation, declared:

It is desirable that the sacrifices and benefits be uniformly distributed. In cases where no new areas are available for resettlement, this can be achieved by the owners of the areas benefitted by irrigation, being asked to part with a percentage of their land corresponding to the ratio which the submerged area bears to the total area benefitted, subject to the condition that no holding shall be reduced below a minimum economic holding…. The problem of compensation and resettlement has to be faced with vision and sympathy. Compensation should as far as possible be land for land. Model villages with modern amenities should be set up in the new lands in place of old dwellings which will be submerged.

Despite such visionary talk, in the case of the Kosi embankments, the experts had a different perspective. Kanwar Sain and K.L. Rao diluted the rehabilitation issue in their report. They argued that of the 240,000 people in the basin between the embankments, about 80,000 would have to be rehabilitated outside the basin. The remaining 160,000 would continue to remain within the basin and cultivate the land there. As the basin was likely to submerge only once in 10-15 years, they  argued that the affected people would suffer inconvenience and loss only at long intervals. Whenever any loss of crops actually took place, land tax could be remitted and suitable compensation paid.

This technocratic solution set the tone for what was to follow. On the basis of model tests, it was claimed that only a 10-centimetre deep sheet of water would enter the villages within the two embankments if the flow of river water were 25,510 cumecs (cubic metres per second).  The Central Board of Irrigation and Power, Pune,  claimed "There is practically no rise in the water levels at these villages due to construction of the embankments." Influential Bihar politicians like Lalit Narayan Mishra cited these technocratic sources to claim that the problem of rehabilitation was not a serious one. The rehabilitation issue  was suppressed, and not allowed to be raised till the foundation of the embankment project was laid.

But it was not just rehabilitation that exercised the people of the Kosi belt. There was a great deal of anguish over the alignment of the embankments, and towards the end of 1955, a protest movement of sorts had sprung up on the western embankment near Madhepur (now Madhubani district). The original alignment of the western embankment was to pass through Mataras, Madhepur and Jhamta but the local people wanted it to pass through Mataras, Karahara and Jhamta, on the ground that this alignment was shorter, less expensive, and reduced the number of villages on the riverside of the embankment.

There were sit-in strikes, processions, protest marches, and satyagrahas all along the western Kosi embankments for changing the alignment below the village of Mataras. The situation became very tense and explosive during January and February 1956. A delegation of the protesters at a meeting with the administrator and the chief engineer of the Kosi Project were told in January 1956 that all the waters of the Kosi would pass between the two embankments of the Kosi.

Many of the protesters had till then believed that the river water would be distributed through many channels and spread over a large area. The delegates pointed out that forcing the river water to flow only within the embankments would lead to the submergence of the villages close to the western embankment, since the space between the embankments sloped down  towards the west.

The alignment of the embankment had by now become a serious problem for the engineers. Every village wanted to be outside the embankment. The embankment was initially to pass through Madhepur. Then a plea was made to shift the embankment eastward. This was followed by four villages seeking to escape the embankment demanding an alignment along a straight line between Rajuahi and Jhamta. There were others who suggested that the embankment should run between Majulia and Jhamta.

The people of Mataras demanded that if the embankment could be made to pass east of Tardiha, it could be pushed further east so that they too could be brought outside the embankment. Everyone had a suggestion to make and pressed for its implementation. Judicial and political intervention necessitated changes in alignment to accommodate some of the popular petitions and demands. The western embankment was finally aligned to run between Belaha and Bheja, east of Pouni, Sikaria and Tardiha. From there, it was to be extended up to Jamalpur in Darbhanga district. The thanas of Biroul and Singhia were now out of the Kosi embankment, but populous Mataras still could not be saved.

Over on the east
With the western embankment on the Kosi being pushed towards the east, there was concern growing on the eastern side of the embankment. If the waterway was being reduced on the western side of the Kosi's flow, all the water from there would get diverted to the eastern embankment. Also, since the villages located on the inside of the original western alignment had successfully managed to alter the embankment alignment, they felt the same thing could be done on the eastern side. The residents of Dharahara Thana in Saharsa demanded that the eastern embankment be pushed two kilometres westward, downstream of Barahi, with arrangements made to protect the villages of Barahara, Partaha and Govindpur. It did not take much time for the idea to spread to Mahishi and Bangaon in Saharsa district, where a successful agitation was launched to remain outside the eastern embankment.

With the squeezing of the embankments on either side, those still left within the Kosi embankments were seething with discontent as their interests collided directly with those outside. The narrower the space within, the greater would be force of the flood which would trap them. Towards the end of 1956, the within-embankment population started organising themselves to ensure rehabilitation, compensation and widening of the space between the embankments to the extent possible to reduce the impact of the floods. There were even plans to cut the western Kosi embankment at Aloula but they eventually dropped the idea so as to give the government another chance to decide things afresh.

A meeting of representatives of 87 villages held in the village Kusamaul on 12 February 1957 resolved that the government should be pressed to follow the original embankment alignment that was supposed to have passed through Madhepur. They felt that in order to save 14 villages, the interests of 79 villages trapped within the Kosi embankments had been most unfairly sacrificed. As resentment mounted, work was suspended at most places. Bihar chief minister, Shri Krishna Sinha affirmed that once adequate security forces were available to the state, the embankment work would resume.

Following the chief minister's statement, the engineers began taking a tough line. The Additional Chief Engineer of the Kosi Project declared that no more changes in the alignment would be entertained. Thirty-six villages were issued notice and BSS units returned to resume work. However, they were prevented from doing so as protesting villagers from Karahara to Bheja and from Bheja to Jamalpur and Bhanthi, kept vigil all along the area of work. They uprooted pegs and flags of the engineers, snatched their equipment, and chased them away. Similar incidents took place in the Dharahara Thana on the eastern embankment. A project spokesperson said in March that the government retained the option of stopping work, and warned the people to face the floods on their own as the government would not come to their rescue.

Soon thereafter, armed police was dispatched to the construction sites and work resumed. The resistance to the project, however, became even fiercer between Chunni and Tekunatol, Bheja and Tarahi, and Tarahi and Jamalpur. Stiff resistance was put up at Karahara, Dwalakh, Tengaraha, Bariyarawa, Darah, Kharik, Bhakharain, Rahua, Sangram, Musaharia and Bag-hawa. The workers of the Bharat Sevak Samaj were chased away by the agitators. Their offices and the huts of labourers were set on fire. The situation at Agargarha Dhar was tense and an uneasy calm prevailed between Jhagarua and Nima. Hundreds of agitators were put behind bars. No amount of persuasion by officials was going to dissuade the people within the embankments from obstructing work. The contractors were forced to vacate the construction sites and the engineers could not get them to resume work.

Planning by opinion poll

The setting was, thus, complete. There were those who wanted the western embankment shifted eastward. There were those who wanted the eastern embankment pushed westward. Meeting both these demands would leave very little space between the two embankments for the floodwaters to pass through. Those living in this zone did not want the embankments constructed in the first place. But if this could not be averted, they wanted the spacing increased to the extent possible, which could only be achieved if the first two demands of those who wanted to remain outside the western and eastern levees were rejected. And then there were those people further afield who were simply not interested which way the embankments were aligned. They only wanted these embankments to be built so that the flood would be contained. And then there were those who looked forward to getting some employment, and their numbers were not insignificant.

Each group thus had its own  interest in the project, and was at odds with the rest. This served the  government's purpose for it could thus do whatever it wanted in the name of a technical propriety which had actually been thrown to the winds much earlier. The matter was allowed to reach such a pass because instead of allowing engineers to decide the height, width and spacing of the embankments, the issue was decided through a process that resembled an opinion poll.

For the executors of the project, rehabilitation was a non-issue in the Kosi Project, to start with. There was no arrangement for resettling the people trapped between the two embankments of the Kosi. There was confusion about who should be compensated and who should not, because total chaos prevailed over the alignment of the embankments. However, as work progressed, it became clear to the engineers and politicians that issues of compensation and rehabilitation would have to be addressed.

Reportedly, the Central Water and Power Commission was opposed to any compensation being paid to the embankment victims. The chairman of the Commission was of the view that compensation paid in one project would set a wrong precedence for all the future projects. But the commission was prevailed upon by the Bihar Irrigation Minister and the administrator of the Kosi Project to endorse compensation.

By 1956, there were others taking up the cause of rehabilitation. In June, a meeting of the BSS, which was of course prominently involved in the construction of the embankments, adopted a resolution which "…invites the attention of the Government of India and the Government of Bihar towards the sad plight of the people trapped between the river and the two embankments. The villages of Charier, Loukahi, Dhanchhoa, Bagewa, Aloula, Hatni, Nidhma, Shatrupatti,  Saharawa, Naua Bakhar (Phul Paras Thana) and Bishunpur, Tardiha, Sikaria, Mahisam and Mataras along the western Kosi embankment have been distressed greatly. The villages located within two to three kilometres of the embankment would essentially face the wrath of the river-waters. These villages will be the first to get submerged and their crops will be lost. Their future is bleak and there is no hope that they will ever get a respite from the floods of the Kosi."

The BSS also demanded that wherever possible, villages should be protected by ring bunds, resettlement of the flood victims be taken up, proper arrangements for employment of the victims be made, and certificates be issued to such persons for waiver of land revenue and loan recovery. Ironically, the resolution was proposed by Lalit Narayan Mishra, who in 1954 had referred to the Pune Laboratory tests to claim that the rehabilitation problem was not a very serious one. As popular pressure for rehabilitation mounted, officials kept harping on further results being awaited from the Pune Laboratory. It did not seem to occur to them that the findings of the Pune Laboratory had by now lost all credibility. Surely, those who knew the lay of the land between the embankments knew that the Kosi would not contrive to distribute its waters over undulating terrain at a uniform depth of 10 cm as the earlier model study had predicted.

However, despite evidence to the contrary, officials continued to extol the project. T.P. Singh, Administrator of the Kosi Project, claimed that a vast tract of Saharsa district was now protected by embankments and an area that used to resemble an ocean was now covered with lush green fields. But he also conceded that it was not possible to protect people living within the embankments from floods, and that arrangements were being made to shift them to safer places. In the face of such responses, popular dissatisfaction was mounting as the impact of the embankments made itself felt in more and more obvious ways. A movement for rehabilitation was launched in the middle of 1956.

By July 1957, a bitter harvest was being reaped. There was water everywhere, both inside and outside the embankments. It was inside the embankments because that was the route of the water. It stagnated outside the embankments because the tributaries could not discharge their waters into the main river. Pressure mounted on the government to ensure relocation of the entire affected population, but no land was available for such a total rehabilitation. The government had come to the realisation that if the total value of all assets had to be compensated, the cost would be in the region of INR 100 million to 115 million, leading to a disproportionate increase in project cost. Hence a rehabilitation package of INR 21.2 million, which was deemed proportionate to the cost of the project, was sanctioned.

In December 1958, the Bihar government extended the assurance that it  would provide for an equivalent area of homestead land at a reasonable distance from the embankments on the landside to ensure that the villagers could live as close as possible to their cultivable land within the embankment basin. It also promised additional land for community services, water supply in the rehabilitation sites, housing grants, and boats for commuting to their agricultural land within the embankments.

Evaluating the rehabilitation
By 1970, some 6650 families were relocated outside the embankments, which mean that around 35,000 families were still living inside the embankments. While the government faced problems in land acquisition, the relocated people were experiencing another set of difficulties. The rehabilitation sites were far away from their fields. Commuting to the field was difficult because various channels of the Kosi had to be crossed and the boats which had been promised, were not made available. Another major problem was that people were too attached to the lands of their ancestors, and were not willing to stay away. To make matters worse, the land provided by way of rehabilitation was slowly getting waterlogged as a result of embankment building and became unfit for habitation.

Recalls Ram Sagar of Belwara in Simri Bakhtiyarpur block of Saharsa district, "…We were provided housing sites in Belwara Punarwas. Ninety percent of the people are now back in the original village because of waterlogging at the rehabilitation site. The government settles this land annually to those who can do some farming. It does not belong to us. The original village is now exposed to the onslaughts of floods and erosion. Our village has been eroded 14 times in the past 42 years and each time we build a new house. There is no option left for us because our agricultural land is located inside the embankments. We shift on to eastern embankment during the rains and go back after the floods subside."

Even the Public Accounts Committee of the Bihar Legislature was constrained to admit in its report that the "rehabilitation scheme that is in progress is totally inadequate. The farmers and labourers are given only homestead land. They are not given any land for their livelihood nor is any industry being started in the area. All that they get is… some grant to build thatched houses for themselves. Most of this money is spent on collecting the grant." According to the report, till 1972-73, a sum of INR 1.75 crores had been spent on rehabilitation against an allocation of INR 2.12 crore. Till then, 32,540 families had been given grants of which only 10,580 were given the second installment and nobody qualified for the third and final grant since none of the houses was complete. A major constraint to building houses was that the rehabilitation was looked after by the Rehabilitation Department while the measurements were carried out by the Kosi Project. People had to repeatedly run after the officials at two places.

Most people who were given rehabilitation land outside the embankments are now back in their old villages within the embankments. They are closer to their fields but farther from any civic amenity, trapped as they are within the two embankments. The block, sub-division and district collector's offices, are all located outside the embankments. So are education and health services, legal aid, banking and postal facilities and employment opportunities. Bindeshwari Paswan of Pachbhinda of Mahishi block in Saharsa district points out, "It costs 17 rupees to get to the block head quarters at Mahishi by boat and an equal amount to get back. It is not possible to return the same day and so one must be prepared to spend further. "

The Vikas Pradhikar

In December 1954, T.P. Singh, administrator of the Kosi Project, emphasised that the government was well aware of its obligations towards those affected by the embankments, and it would neither dilute the demands for compensation nor shirk its responsibilities towards the people. In November 1986, chief minister Bindeshwari Dubey reiterated the pledge. The state government established the Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikar (Kosi Victims Development Authority) in April 1987. This is all the progress that had been achieved three decades  after work commenced on the Kosi embankments. A pledge that needed to be reiterated 32 years after it was first made could hardly be taken seriously. At least certainly not by the couple of generations of displaced people.

Says Kedar Mishra of Mahishi, "We were promised land for land, house for house, and a link road to the embankment and free boats. Where is all that now? Nobody knows where the people from Devan Ban or  Bhakua have gone. There is nothing that has not been provided under the Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikar. But where is the Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikar? Will somebody tell us the address? The villagers of  Lilja got their settlement in Jalle, which can be reached only after crossing five streams and paying Rs. 25 per boat trip. The people are naturally back in their villages. The literacy rate within the embankments may not be more than 10 percent and we have no medical facilities. That is the rehabilitation we have got."

The Pradhikar is by now a defunct body from which some politicians and bureaucrats draw salaries, allowances and other perks, but the people are not helped in anyway. It has become a political issue now, and politicians, in every election, promise that if they are voted to power they will revive the Pradhikar. But for an organisation which has never been active the question of revival does not arise.

Says Ram Prasad Roshan of village Telwa in the Mahishi Block of Saharsa district, "We were given rehabilitation sites in Jalle, 4 kilometres west of the western embankment. My village was 1.5 kilometres inside the embankment. The Kosi embankment terminated at Ghonghe Pur and the backwaters of the Kosi used to hit Jalle. We demanded protection from the waters of the Kosi and they constructed a T-spur to prevent the back-flow of the Kosi. This spur did the job but it prevented the Balan waters from going into the Kosi. Thus we were saved from the Kosi but were drowned in the Balan waters. We then shifted from Jalle on to the western Kosi embankment. This embankment breached in 1968 and we were forced to shift to our original village. Now nobody lives in Jalle. There was 10 hectares of rehabilitation land in Jalle and 35 hectares in Saharawa where people from Chora, Jhakhara, Jhara, Karahara, Sugaroul, Lachhminia and Majarahi were resettled. They are all back in their original villages. We are living in primitive conditions which are hard to believe. Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikar was started for us and I do not know what it does. All tall promises…"

These people are also denied relief, at times, by the whimsical district administration of Saharsa on the plea that they are living in places they are not supposed to occupy. The administration claims that it can provide relief only if they stay in their rehabilitation sites. That so many people live within the Kosi embankments and they bear the brunt of the floodwaters does not concern anybody now. The authorities also seem oblivious to the water-logging at the rehabilitation sites. No political party or ngo ever raises this question.

Let the Kosi go to Purnea

When the decision to embank was taken, an engineering escape route was  kept open. The embankments were projected as a temporary solution. The dam on the Kosi at Barahchetra in Nepal was to be the final solution. This enabled the engineers to take refuge behind the non-existent dam plan every time the Kosi flooded. They also maintained that the embankments would work best in combination with the dam at Barahchetra. This thus became yet another artifice to mislead the people living in the floodplain.

It is not clear when this dam will be built, if at all, for negotiations have been going on for the past 54 years with Nepal. Its cost, its location in a seismic zone, strategic defence, high sedimentation and sharing of benefits and cost between India and Nepal, etc, are matters still pending. Will this dam be able to prevent flooding in the Kosi area?

The Second Irrigation Commission (1994) of Bihar, suggested that the Kosi has a catchment area of 59,550 sq-kms above site number 13, where the Kosi High Dam (KHD) is proposed to be built. Below site number 13, the Kosi has an additional catchment area of 2266 sq-kms up to Bhimnagar barrage and 11,410 sq-kms between Bhimnagar and Kursela where the river joins the Ganga. Therefore, the aggregate catchment area below the dam is 13,676 sq-kms. This is only slightly less than the catchment area of the Bagmati and nearly double that of the Kamla.

Hence the area below the dam will always produce a quantum of water equivalent to the Bagmati, which will try to enter the Kosi. Those who have seen the Bagmati and the Kamla in spate can well imagine the quantity of water that will attempt to drain into the Kosi. But the existing embankments will prevent this water from draining into the river, as is happening at the moment. Hence waterlogging outside the embankments will continue at the current level. And, since all the water cannot be held behind the dam in the monsoons, the release from the dam will always keep the population within the embankments in the distress they are accustomed to. The existing embankments are shaky even when the discharge in the river is as low as 8000 cumecs.

The reality thus clearly is just the opposite of the claim made for the Kosi High Dam as the panacea. If the Barahchetra proposal is taken up seriously, these questions must be asked and a satisfactory answer given. Whether the dam is built or not, so long as the embankments on the Kosi remain, there will be no let-up in the floods within the embankments and waterlogging outside the embankments. The dam, at best, will reduce the peak flow in the river, but will allow only a reduced flow over a longer period. This will mean prolonged seepage through the embankments into the countryside.

The Kosi Project has perpetrated injustice on the affected people, who have lost the will to assert themselves and fight for justice four decades on. They have chosen to migrate to other states in search of the most menial of jobs. The government has virtually closed the rehabilitation files. The injustice done is not on anyone's agenda today. Those who struggled once against the embankments have long given up.

Says 78-year-old Parameshwar Kunwar of the village Tarahi: "I was arrested for participating in a  black flag demonstration against Rajendra Prasad in 1955 when he had come to lay the foundation stone for the eastern embankment. These embankments were going to ruin our lives and, in fact, they have done so. We submitted a 20-page memorandum against the Kosi Project in 1957 to the chief minister of Bihar. The rejoinder came from T.P. Singh in English. We demonstrated with 15 to 20 thousand people…went to jail several times. But you cannot fight a determined state, which has all the power to crush a movement. I am now an old man and don't have that energy in me…but still feel that the embankment should be demolished in the dry season. And let the Kosi go to Purnea, if it so wishes."

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian