Shifting Ganga creats islands disputed

In the post-monsoon months of September and October, the Ganga often rises to flood vast tracts of border land in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As the flood waters recede, they leave behind new islands, which frequently become a subject of violent dispute.

Published: Friday 30 April 1993

Harvesting hate: The vagaries< GORGED by monsoon rains, the Ganga flows unpredictably in the winter creating pockets of land on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border, which frequently trigger violent conflict between cultivators on either side of the river. This year, tension was marked in March, especially in the adjoining districts of Ballia in UP and Buxar in Bihar.

Millions of people live cultivating the Ganga's bed, which gets exposed when the floods recede in the post-monsoon season. The demarcation of the lands, known as diara, is difficult because the floods at times wipe out old tracts and sand islands and new ones are created in the post-flood season. As the land itself keeps moving, keeping track of land ownership in this unique human habitat is hard.
Armed raids Last year, on March 18, inhabitants of Jihui in UP complained to the Ballia district administration that their fields had been raided by an armed mob of about 500 people from Bihar, who harvested the entire standing crop and carried it off in 18 tractor trollies. During the day-long raid, Jihui villagers said, their attempts to resist resulted in the death of four of them and 10 being injured.

The same day, villagers of Umarpur Diwar in Buxar registered a curiously similar complaint at the Bihar police outpost. They accused villagers of Haldi in Ballia of pillaging the green khesari crop from a 3.23-ha area and injuring persons who were guarding the crop. Asked if the charge against them was true, the Haldi villagers proudly admitted it. "Get this clear," asserted Ramashankar Tripathi, a Haldi village elder, "the land across the river is ours. We planted the crop. Simply because the river now flows round it, can they deny us the harvest?"

Tripathi's argument is echoed in most villages along the river boundary. Residents of about 20 villages in Ballia and Buxar visited by Down To Earth made almost similar cross-complaints of forcible appropriation of the season's rabi crop. The inhabitants of Bauranga, Bhual Chapra, Haldi, Laggauch, Pandepur, Ransnagar and Udai Chapra in Ballia and Nauranga Chak, Bariarpur, Bahaduri Patti and Shiupur in Buxar had no hesitation in admitting they took part in crop looting.

The problem, as Janak Chaubey of Jihui explains it, is that "there is nothing fixed in the diara; no fields, villages or paths are permanent." This year, the river changed course at five places in the vicinity of Jihui and as a result several fields cultivated by UP villagers are now on the Bihar side. This phenomenon repeating itself has led to hundreds of land dispute cases being lodged in the district and state high courts of UP and Bihar.

With both crops and fields up for grabs, the poor cultivators become prey to unscrupulous officials. Dhanesh Sahu of Nauranga Chak in Buxar says the local UP constabulary auctions fields and "the rate varies from Rs 100 per about a quarter ha for masoor to Rs 500 per about a quarter ha for wheat."

Recently, the district authorities of Buxar, Bhojpur and Ballia held a series of meetings to decide on a strategy that would ensure right of harvest to those who did the sowing. But, the district magistrate of Buxar concedes "this would be extremely difficult to enforce in practice."However Balia district magistrate R D Pathak discounts Sahu's allegation saying, "You cannot give any importance to what people merely say. Ballia is a strange place."

Given the impermanence of riverbed space and the lack of any human-formulated alternatives, the cultivators of the Bihar-UP diara seem doomed to unending tension as the flooding extends an average of 5-8 km on both sides of the river. Pleading the seeming hopelessness of the problem, Ballia district magistrate R D Pathak asks, "What can we do if Gangaji herself plays truant?"

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