Natural Disasters

Kosi, a wild prisoner

An engineering folly unfolds over a week-long journey along the Kosi river in Bihar

By Archana Yadav
Published: Sunday 15 January 2017
The Kosi carries a large amount of silt and sand. The sediment deposited on the riverbed impedes its flow, so it frequently erodes its banks and carves a new channel Photo credit: Vikas Choudhary

I stand over the Kosi barrage in Nepal that squeezes the river to a kilometre’s width as if between two fingers, just before it enters Bihar. On one side, a few fishermen are catching fish in its slaty water. The fish, no bigger than the size of a palm, twist and flip as they are removed from the fine net and tossed into the boat. Their silvery white fins glint on catching the sunlight. On the other side, boatmen are collecting wood that drifts there from the forested hills of the Himalayas. 

It gives me a kind of thrill to be aware that the water flowing under my feet carries snowmelt from peaks as high as Mount Everest and Khangchendzonga. The Kosi originates in Tibet. In Nepal, it is known as Saptakoshi—sapta in Sanskrit means seven—because it is formed by the merging of seven rivers. Even before the Himalayas rose 70 million years ago, the Kosi’s tributaries flowed into the prehistoric Tethys Sea. The Himalayas gave it a catchment of amazing diversity. Ajaya Dixit, a water expert in Nepal, explains it thus: “As the crow flies, about 150 km from north to south the catchment covers six geological and climatic belts varying in altitude from 8,000 m to just 95 m: the Tibetan plateau, the high Himalaya, the midland hills, the Mahabharat range, the Siwalik range and the Terai... Eight peaks over 8,000 m high, including Sagarmatha [Everest], are in the Kosi catchment as are 36 glaciers and 296 glacier lakes.”

It is a large catchment and the hills are mostly loose soil. When it rains this soil is easily eroded and quickly carried down steep slopes. As the river debouches from the foothills, 50 km upstream of the barrage, it spreads the silt and sand in the shape of a huge fan. This megafan, about 180 km long and 150 km wide, is the floodplain I intend to traverse along the Kosi in north-east Bihar.

On both sides of the river embankments extend like two long arms, 10 km apart. Every kilometre, spurs jut out from the earthen bunds to protect them from the Kosi’s current. These embankments were built soon after Independence, by 1959, to confine the river, notorious for quickly changing its course and flooding.

But the river is far from being tamed. I get a glimpse of it right in the beginning of my journey as I enter Bihar’s Supaul district that borders Nepal. I am accompanied by Upendra Singh Kushwaha, a social activist in Supaul. He has a small paunch, dark face and an enthusiasm that comes from mingling with the masses. He takes me to a place near Birpur, close to the International Border, from where the Kosi had started flowing in 2008 after breaching its embankment at Kusaha in Nepal. It looks like a huge roller has moved through the fertile countryside. All through its 3 km-wide path the river has uprooted the trees and left sand in its wake. That year more than 500 people were killed in floods. The river took everyone by surprise as it started flowing through a new route. The Kosi has breached its embankments eight times, causing big floods.

‘Wrinkles on the forehead of pleasure’

It is late October. Bright green paddy fields, dotted with thick clumps of bamboo, extend for miles outside the embankments in Supaul district. In ponds formed by undrained water, women and children are scooping out clay to give a fresh coat of mud to their houses before diwali. Some are drying pater (reed) or dragging soaked patsan (jute plant) out of the ponds. The main stream of the river flows quietly close to the eastern embankment. On the western side, for a good stretch, one can see vast expanse of kans (wild sugarcane) in full bloom.

Since the Kosi carries high sediment load, it constantly erodes its banks, devouring crops along with it. (Credit: Vikas Choudhary)

The idyllic picture is distorted as soon as one begins talking to the people. In Supaul town close to the river, I ask an old man, Ramesh Jha, about his memories of the river. He sings me a song.

Haral-bharal chhal baag-bageecha
Sona katora khet
Dekh-dekh mori aafat e hai
Sabre baalu ke dher

(Orchards full of greenery
Fields, a bowl of gold
In no time, to my misfortune,
All turn into heaps of sand)

The song goes on recounting the miseries inflicted by the Kosi. It is a testimony to the destructive power of the river. Like a restless child it is constantly shaping the landscape, depositing sand here and eroding land there. The Kosi probably carries the maximum amount of silt and sand after the Brahmaputra in India, Dinesh Kumar Mishra, an engineer-turned-flood control campaigner who has studied the rivers of Bihar for decades, had told me. The sediment deposited on the riverbed impedes its flow, so it frequently erodes its banks and carves a new channel. In just 225 years between 1723 and 1948, it swung 160 km westwards.

Jha is 80 years old but his memory is as vivid as spring. He recalls that the Kosi began flowing through Supaul district in 1938. He sports a red tilak and talks in a poetic language, full of metaphors and idioms. “Before the Kosi appeared, this region was prosperous. Rivers of milk, not water, flowed here. The Kosi brought in its wake epidemics. If a person would die there would be no one to throw away the body.”

Jha used to work in the rehabilitation department and his farm was in the Kosi’s floodplain. After the embankments were built he was resettled away from his fields in the town. Some have still not been resettled. Many found it impractical and did not move out. But the river is now eroding their land and dumping sand over it with added pace.

“After the embankments were built, it turned into a jail. Earlier, the water would come and go. The land remained fertile. Now even those who have 50 bigha land inside the embankments buy food from the market,” he says.

“Where is pleasure? Wrinkles have appeared on the forehead of pleasure. The proud people, who would manage by eating saag (greens) if they fell on hard times but not ask for anything, are today hankering for government relief.”

Dying Gajna, hacked Kosi

Before the embankments, the river used to flow through several streams over a large area. These streams maintained groundwater level and irrigated fields. The embankments jacketed the main stream of the Kosi, leaving the others outside. One is the Gajna river that flows through Supaul town. Chandrashekhar, who, two decades ago, founded a Sarvodaya-inspired organisation called Gramyasheel in Supaul, shows me its path. Had he not pointed it out to me, I would have mistaken the Gajna for a pond. The river that once had to be crossed on a boat is being filled up for building houses.

Old eastern embankment with silted-up sluice gate, where the Gajna used to meet the Kosi near Supaul town. (Photo Credit: Vikas Choudhary)

The Gajna once merged with the Kosi through a sluice gate on the embankment. Over many years the sluice gate filled up with the silt as the Kosi’s bed rose. Chandrashekhar shows me the silted-up sluice gate. A new embankment has been built there but without a sluice gate. A straight-talking man, he says, “Engineers, contractors, politicians and local goons have blocked the river. The Gajna is now dying and on the other side of the embankment the main stream thrashes about every year during monsoon.

“If Supaul town ever faces a flood it would be because of a breach in the embankment at this point,” he warns.

Life between spurs

A few kilometres north of the town, in Kalyanpur hamlet of Saraigarh Bhaptiyahi block, Poonam Devi is trying to rescue some rice from half-ripe paddy in her courtyard. The Kosi is eroding the land she has leased for farming between the embankments, devouring the crop along with it. So she brought the paddy home before it was ready for harvest. “Now it will go to the cattle,” she says, gathering the rice on the ground and keeping the stalks aside. “The Kosi leaves gashes in the land as deep as one-and-a-half bamboo poles. As the water recedes, as much as a katta (126 sq m) of land falls into the water at one go.”

Kaleanpur lies between two spurs on the eastern embankment. “My parents’ village is outside the embankment,” she tells me. “I was 16 when I got married. My in-laws had sought my hand. Now I am used to living close to the river.” She is now 30 and has five children. Her husband is away in Delhi, doing odd jobs as a labourer. After finishing household chores, she leaves for her fields across the river at 9 in the morning. Her children stay with grandparents, who live nearby, till she returns in the afternoon.

As it gets dark, CFL bulbs are switched on in her house. Walls are of unplastered bricks and the roof is of bamboo. The floor is a raised platform of compacted river sand. Despite her busy routine her house is neat and orderly. I ask her if I can see it from inside. Her face lights up with a smile for the first time during our conversation. The entrance hall has a mosquito net on a takht (wooden platform for sleeping or sitting). Two curved bamboo trays for winnowing called soop are tucked into the bamboo ceiling. This room opens to the inner courtyard on the other side. This courtyard is surrounded by a temple hut, a storeroom, a kitchen and a bamboo wall. The temple is clean but bare. It has no idol or photo, only one earthen storage vessel over which she lights an oil lamp. In one corner she has grown brinjal and bitter melon. In the outer courtyard, on one side is a large hall, where her family sleeps along with the cattle. All this goes under water during the rainy months of July, August and September. “Then, we climb on to the embankment. We cook, eat and sleep there.”

A market in a hole

The region is criss-crossed by embankments. From Saraigarh Bhaptiyahi one can see two more embankments within the embankments. Called guide embankments, these were built to direct water through a narrow channel under the Kosi Mahasetu, a 2 km-long bridge that is part of a highway. The Kosi’s tributaries have their own embankments. Hopping from one embankment to the other leaves me disoriented. But Kushwaha is keen on showing me a market surrounded by embankments.

On reaching Nirmali, I understand why he wanted me to see the market. Said to be the biggest market in Supaul, it was protected by throwing a ring of embankment around it in 1956. Today, the market looks like it is holed up in a ditch. The sand brought by the Kosi in the east and its tributary Bhutahi Balan in the west has raised the ground level outside the bunds. Its closely packed shops remind me of Chandani Chowk in Old Delhi. Not satisfied with pointing to the market from the bund, Kushwaha makes us descend into the hole to see a relic of a railway station inside till our vehicle gets stuck in its narrow street. When it rains, the water has to be pumped out of this hole. The grid of embankments has blocked the drainage of several villages.

Islands in a lake

As I enter Saharsa, bamboo becomes sparser. Mango trees are everywhere. Paddy is gradually replaced by weedy grass. Waterlogging becomes worse. Along both the embankments, on the outer side, extend 3-4 km-wide strips of marshy land, choked with grass and water hyacinth. Cattle are kept in jumbo mosquito nets. People have perched their houses all along embankments and spurs.

This is where river engineering has gone horribly wrong. The silt deposited over half a century between the two embankments has raised the riverbed. From the embankments it is evident to the naked eye that the river is flowing at a higher level. As a result, the river water seeps outside through the embankments, while rainwater and streams outside cannot enter the river. Rather than draining the area, the Kosi is sending its water back into it.

Outside the eastern Kosi embankment in Mahishi village is the ashram of Kosi Sewa Sadan, an NGO. Two men, Aditya Jha and Ramji Poddar, from the ashram take me to the fields around. These were once called sonbarsa (not to be confused with the block of the same name), meaning rain of gold, because of the bumper harvest. We stop 2-3 km away from the eastern embankment. “You look at the fields. It is all grass, not paddy. Cattle that eat this grass fall sick. Fish in this water are diseased,” they say. “Once there used to be so much maize here that you could not take care of it. Now maize just refuses to grow here.” They tell us that earlier, anticipating floods, people would also sow different varieties of paddy for different levels of inundation. A variety called Dasharia would grow 30 cm overnight, with the raising level of water. We walk for 15 minutes. There is no end to grass and hyacinth. Paddy fields are very few.

It is worse outside the western embankment. A vast area is trapped between the western embankment of the Kosi and the eastern embankment of its tributary Kamla Balan. Both drainage and seepage are worse here. As Mishra explains it, when the western Kosi embankment was built, a sluice gate was provided for the Kamla Balan to enter the river. The engineers realised that the Kosi water could also enter the Kamla Balan during the rainy season, thus, flooding newer areas. So they had to embank the tributary as well. Now the land between the two embankments cannot be drained. Fields are in waist-high water through which people are moving in boats. It appears like a big lake with islands of villages.

Ghonghepur village of Saharsa
lies outside the western
embankment of the Kosi, yet
for most part of the year it
remains surrounded by water.
A large area between the Kosi
and its tributary Kamla Balan
is waterlogged, though it is

One such village is Ghonghepur. It is a small settlement of unkempt bamboo huts and some pucca houses close to where the embankment ends. Water even flows through the village. Mohammed Yunus, an old man, insists we sit in the boat and see the village. He shows us houses recovering from water that has just receded. Mud-coated bamboo walls have sagged at places. A man is feeding chopped water hyacinth to his cow. He knows it is bad for the cow but says, “What else can I feed it? This is what grows all around.”

A woman in a veil tells me all the houses in the village were in waist-high water for three months during the monsoon. “Even the chairs in the school were in water. We would cook on a chowki (small table). Some would go without food.” From October the water starts receding, but the fields remain under water till January-February. This leaves very little time to sow crops. “So what do you do for livelihood?” I ask. “Don’t you see around? What can one do here? Most just go away to find work elsewhere.” I look around. Most of the men around me are old, past the age when they could be useful as labourers.

Bihar has the highest rate of migration to other states in India. As per one estimate, 4.5 to 5 million Bihari migrant labourers work in other states. A good number of these come from the Kosi region. “Earlier, there was seasonal migration to tea gardens in Assam and Calcutta. It was not like today when the entire village or members of every family leave,” Mishra tells me over the phone. “I have noticed migration since 1964. People realised they can’t do farming here. Those who could afford to move out sold their land within embankments and in waterlogged areas and went to cities. Labourers also realised they won’t find work here now; they also went to Delhi, Punjab, Assam and Bombay.”

Data collected by Mishra shows 306,200 hectares of land is waterlogged along the Kosi. This is nearly the size of Patna! “To my mind people living in this area would be in hundreds of thousands,” says Rajendra Jha, secretary of Kosi Sewa Sadan.

‘Like the tongue between 32 teeth’

An equally big mass of humanity is trapped within the two embankments of the Kosi. Mishra estimates that more than one million people in about 380 villages are living in the belly of the Kosi. I request Rajendra Jha to take me inside. In his heyday, Jha had negotiated the surrender of several dacoits in the region, so he knows the area well. He agrees.

From Baba Karu Dham near the eastern embankment in Mahishi, we board a teak boat the size of two sedans. The boatman cranks the diesel engine and it starts with a loud sputter. With the warm sun on our back, we head towards a huge sand bar across the muddy river. In 10 minutes we are there. Two-three other boats have also arrived, each packed with about 20 people with their bundles of grass and bicycles. One even carries a motorcycle. Past the fields and kans shrubs, we reach a village called Baghaur. Most houses are thatched, made of bamboo and mud.

We meet 83-year-old Jagdeesh Singh. He is tall, well-built, hard of hearing but with good memory. He says he used to live close to Baba Karu Dham, 3 km away. The river began devouring the land in the late 1970s. Each time the river eroded the village, they shifted a little away from the embankment. “Between ’77 and ’87, we shifted five-six times.”

A homemade water purifier removes iron and other impurities with the help of sand and charcoal. People living within the embankments in Saharsa depend on groundwater that has too much iron in it. (Photo Credit: Vikas Choudhary)

A few more people join us. They say the sand bar is a huge island, 5 km wide and 25 km long, surrounded by the steams of the river. More than 100 villages are perched on it. Baghaur has one primary school and an anganwaadi. But it does not have a health centre and electricity supply. Some have installed solar panels with government subsidy. Government offices, the police station, banks, all are outside.

“To go anywhere we have to cross the river. During the rainy season the river swells 2.5 km wide. It is very inconvenient to travel to anywhere,” says one of them, Chanchal Kumar Singh. “Our life is like the tongue between 32 teeth.”

“You can’t approach the police if you need protection. This emboldens the rogue elements.”

“The water pumped from bore wells has so much iron that you cannot drink it.” Singh quickly orders a boy to fetch a glass of water from a hand pump. “You see the yellow water. Even the glass is corroded. If you wash clothes with it, they too turn yellow.”

He then shows us his homemade water purifier. It is a cylindrical metal container filled with sand and charcoal. Singh has fitted a tap near its bottom. It filters 40 litres of water in a day.

As we approach the adjacent Birwar village, a man hails us. He wants to know if we have come for a survey. Usually, surveys are done for disbursing relief. He too has moved thrice because of erosion. “You have to dismantle the house, hire labourers and build it again every time,” he says. He points to the thatch above and shows us the lines from where it can be dismantled and assembled again. “But you cannot reassemble the walls and the rest of the house. It takes about a month to resettle and costs more than a lakh of rupees even for a modest thatched house,” he adds.

We head for the nearest ghat. To reach there one has to cross three small streams, so we take off our shoes, fold our pants and sink our feet into the muddy bed. At the ghat about two dozen people are waiting for the boat. After five minutes of sailing, the boat runs aground in a shallow area. The boatman and three passengers quickly jump out and start steering the boat from four sides. Soon as the boat is eased off, the boatman restarts it and takes us to the embankment.

‘The river has lost its character’

A few kilometres downstream, on the other “safer” side of the embankment, a group of women in bright saris is clamouring to get into an overloaded boat. They want to cross a stream, which cannot find its way to the walled Kosi, to reach Belwara rehabilitation village. As the name of the village suggests, people from within the embankments were resettled there. The sluice gate built to allow the stream to join the Kosi was blown away by the force of water during the 1984 floods.

“People were badly cheated in the name of embankments. Many were resettled in a way it did not help. Others lost their land to waterlogging. These embankments are ticking bombs. They can go off anywhere,” warns Rajendra Jha.

“The biggest loss is that the river has lost its basic character which is to drain its catchment,” Mishra says. He has calculated that the total land trapped between the embankments and lost to water-logging is 426,000 ha. “In other words the Kosi embankments that were meant to protect 214,000 ha of land against recurring floods in the river now threaten just double that area,” he writes in his book on the Kosi, Trapped Between the Devil and Deep Water.

White makhana, black lives

In Mahishi, we visit a village of fisherfolk called Jhilaki Navtola. It is a village of extremely backward people called Mahadalits, engaged in fishing and makhana (fox nut) farming. Closely stacked houses are made of bamboo, but unlike the beautifully crafted huts of Supaul. Soon as we begin asking about fishing two dozen people gather. They say they catch fish—mangur, kabai, sauri, tengra, buari—in the nearby Harsinghi river for a couple of hours and collect makhana from ponds.

Saharsa district is known for growing makhana. Makhana cultivation has now shrunk because the Kosi is not allowed to spread and replenish ponds anymore and because a large part of land is waterlogged along the river.
Credit: Vikas Choudhary

Can’t they make use of the vast waterlogged area for this, I ask. The fish in the waterlogged fields are diseased because of the unclean water and chemicals used in farming, they say. And growing makhana in the waterlogged area is tough. “It involves too much of labour. First you have to clear the area of water hyacinth. Then, keeping the invasive creeper away would require more effort. It is not easy to keep this vast area clean, unlike an isolated pond,” they say. Some of them show grey spots on their hands. They say they acquired these marks from working in the few makhana ponds. Some of them prefer going to Assam to work in makhana ponds there.

The wetlands of northern Bihar have been known for makhana. As the river would recede after the monsoon the depressions would be filled with water, where people would grow makhana. The river is no more allowed to spread and replenish ponds, so makhana farming has shrunk.

“We have to get into seven-eight feet (over 2 metres) water, close our eyes and dive in to collect the makhana seeds from the muddy bed of the pond,” they say. The black seeds are then dried, roasted and cracked open into white makhana. “We turn black into white but our lives remain black.”

A bridge of boats

We reach Beldaur block of Khagaria district. At Dumri Ghat, where the Bagmati meets the Kosi, two bridges stand like ghosts. Parts of them have collapsed in the middle, disrupting the only road link between Saharsa and Khagaria. The first bridge was made in 1991. Before that the Bagmati had been flowing a kilometre away from the Kosi and would join it a little downstream. To cut the cost of building the bridge, its length was kept short and the Bagmati was made to flow into the Kosi at Dumri. But the concrete bridge could not withstand the strong current of the two rivers and several of its pillars were washed away in 2010. The government then built another bridge, reinforced with steel, close to it. It too collapsed in 2012.

This bridge built to connect
Saharsa and Khagaria collapsed
in 2010. Another bridge built
close to it was also washed away.
The Bagmati was made to flow
into the Kosi at this point, but the
bridges could not withstand the
current of the two rivers

When all the engineering failed, boatmen in Beldour struck upon the idea of joining their boats together to create a makeshift bridge. They, then, laid a platform of bamboo poles over big boats the size of a truck. The bridge is ready in January and dismantled by the end of May, so I cannot see it.

But I meet Bajrang Saini and Kare Saini, who led the boatmen, at Dumri Ghat. Bajrang Saini is a suntanned man of about 50 in a lungi and a check kurta. He has plied boats all his life up to Farakka, so he knows many boatmen. He says he collected boatmen from as far as Bhagalpur who plied their boats on the Ganga. Building the bridge takes 20-25 days and as many people. “The first year we made a bridge of 42 boats at a gap of about 4 feet (1.2 m). We realised the gap was a too wide, so next time we doubled the number of boats and these were tied at a gap of one foot (0.3 m),” says Bajrang Saini.

We cross the river along with our Scorpio on a boat run by a diesel engine.

Now we head for our last destination Kursela in Katihar district. Here, after covering nearly 700 km, the Kosi, both mother and dayan (malevolent female spirit) to its people, quietly disappears into the Ganga under the bright sun.

A curious fact: The Kosi is formed by the merging of three major rivers—Sun Kosi, Arun and Tamor—which are older than the Himalayas.

For the palate: The region is known for fish and makhana (fox nut). One can sample a variety of small and medium fish, pothi, kauwa, singhi, maangur, kabai, tengra, or dal makhani (not butter but fox nut). They can also watch how makhana is grown and processed.

Good time to visit: After Dussehra in winters when water begins retreating. Expect greenery and clean air since industry is absent.

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