On shifting sands

Thousands in Bihar prepare to migrate, again, as the Kosi changes course

By Alok Kumar Gupta
Published: Thursday 15 April 2010

On shifting sands

imageBirbar village has three addresses. It is now looking for a fourth one. The village will once again have a new longitude and latitude on the map. Within a year the Kosi river has crept from 500 metres to within 20 metres of the village in Saharsa district of Bihar.


“The river will swallow Birbar this monsoon,” said Lucho Sharma of the village, anxiously watching the gushing water. “Look, it is in spate. It is eroding the bank.” Birbar is one of the 308 villages sandwiched between embankments and the Kosi.

I have land only on paper. In reality I am landless because my land is submerged in the Kosi.

LUCHO SHARMA, resident, Birbar
The thought of migration makes Sharma restless. The 65-year-old is on the lookout for a dry patch of land he can shift to. Eight kilometres from the village a small sandy patch has emerged in the river. “That was my Birbar village some 10 years ago,” said Sharma. But the reemerged patch is too sandy to cultivate.

The earliest location of Birbar is now under 10 feet of water. “My 10 katha (a third of a hectare) of land was submerged along with the village 25 years ago,” he said. People of Birbar say their village changes location every decade. The village tries to retain its identity by retaining the name.

When the village drowns, its people say they move to wherever land is available. But this time finding land is going to be tougher. Most of the villages within the embankments are islands that keep submerging and emerging. Over the past few years the Kosi has yielded smaller patches of land not enough to accommodate a village. Birbar is searching for a piece of land where all its 7,000 residents can relocate. It does not want to split and lose its identity.

Life inside the embankments is tough. There is no doctor, no public distribution shop and no teacher. Nor is there a post office or a police station. Babuji Sah, 80, of Birbar laughed, showing his ration card. “There is no ration shop here. From where can I get food grain?” he asked. Embankments on both sides have cut off villages from the rest of the world. The only way to reach Birbar and adjoining Sirbar village is on a boat. In summers when the water level dips even boats are not easy to ply. Rarely a politician visits the villages.

image Yet Babuji Sah and Sharma dutifully save every penny to pay land tax for their submerged land. No one can say when the Kosi will change its course and give back their land. “My father protected the submerged land. Now I am protecting it for my sons,” Gunjeshwar Sahu of the village said.

Constant threat of submergence has forced men to migrate, leaving behind their families. “The size of our farmland is becoming smaller and that of our families is increasing. Our men have no option but to go to Punjab or Delhi in search of work,” said Shanti Devi, whose husband has moved to Punjab.

The shrinking farmland has forced Sharma to work as labourer when he is not tilling his land. “Part of the m oney I earn as labourer goes in paying revenue for the submerged land,” he said. Sharma pays a revenue of Rs 600 every three years. Once he was proud he did not have to sell even an inch of his land for marrying his four daughters. He had dreamt of a peaceful life with his two sons. Both his sons have migrated to Punjab to work as farm labourers. Sharma is left with daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.

The district administration says the villages ins
ide the embankments are not eligible for rehabilitation package because the government has allowed only cultivation inside the embankments, not human population. “The administration does provide foodgrains in times of flood, though,” said Parmanand Sah, block development officer of Mahishi.


The Kosi is eroding its bank and by monsoon might engulf Birbar village, so people are on the move. But finding a location big enough for the village is difficult  
In the past 25 years about 55 villages sandwiched between the Kosi embankments have changed location at least thrice. In 1956 when the embankment was being constructed the government offered land for houses outside the walls but not land to till. People chose to live inside the embankment because that’s where they were farming even though it meant living without basic amenities. “The embankment was built crushing people’s agitation. The situation is turning worse,” said Dinesh Mishra, a water expert who has studied the Kosi for decades. “We live in a jail with high walls of embankments surrounding us,” Babuji Sah added.

Besides Birbar, Charnia, Bishanpur and Dhanuj villages are also facing erosion this year. Thousands more are packing their belongings, hoping to find new land by the Kosi’s side.

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