Thousands of people in Bihar are trapped between the Kosi and its embankments. They have been suffering for decades. But the state government is still blind to their plight
The boat people
NORTH BIHAR. The people here have resigned themselves to their fate. Theirs' is a waterworld, trapped almost perpetually amidst the swelling waters of Kosi, the "sorrow of Bihar". Though floods are not rare here, this year has been the worst. And the people, with their food and drinking water supplies running out with each passing day, fear that a watery grave awaits them. Embankments, built by the former Congress government, have failed to contain the mighty river once again. The results are disastrous, and reek of ignorance, government apathy and political greed.
Around eight lakh people, in some 304-odd villages located between the embankments and the Kosi, in the districts of Saharsa, Supaul, Madhubani and Darbhanga, are suffering. They live in sub-human and poverty-stricken conditions without any vestiges of development. The genesis of their misery goes back 40 years when, in 1954, Kosi's floods devastated Bihar. Jawaharlal Nehru, the then-prime minister, reviewed the situation and promised help. Still fresh from the freedom movement and eager to implement "Shramdaan", the Gandhian concept of voluntary service, the then-L N Mishra-led Congress state government embarked on what was to be a disastrous experiment: constructing embankments to tame the Kosi, a river notorious for its capricious behaviour and repeated shifts in its course (See box: Roaming river).
Madan Mohan Verma, a veteran socialist, who opposed the government's plan to build the embankments on grounds that they would only aggravate the problem by trapping villages in between them, was first called a traitor, and was then jailed by the state government. "The politics of embankments have made this a disaster," he says. He remembers, how the state government launched an extensive public relations campaign, promising "heaven" to the villagers. L N Mishra cited the example of the Hwang Ho in China, how it was tamed through embankments and even sent two experts, K L Rao and Kanwar Sein, to study the situation there. They returned to suggest that Bihar should follow China's example, but overlooked the fact that between 1048 and 1952, Hwang Ho had shifted its course nine times and during the 1933 and 1955 floods, the embankments along its course suffered numerous breaches.
The work of building embankments began in 1954 using voluntary labour, under the auspices of the newly formed Bharat Sewak Samaj. L N Mishra was its chairperson. And with it, began the Mishra family's lengthy foray into bulling embankments. Sources say that Jagganath Mishra, the younger brother of f N Mishra, even became the contractor for the project. Years later, an investigation exposed the astounding extent of money spent under the pretext of taming the Kosi.
|GOVERNMENT MYTHS||GROUND REALITY|
Dams and embankments can help control floods
|| embankments prolong water-logging by obstructing the retreat of flood waters|
Embankments protect villages and farmlands from floods and
|| Embankments instill a false sense of security. People continue to satay in the area till a breach occurs|
| Floods are a curse upon the farmer wiping out his crops and livestock|| British records say that farmers welcomed floods for they enrich the soil|
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