The Koshi River in northern India is a transboundary river that flows through Tibet, Nepal and India. It is the lifeline of communities that live along its banks. But the river landscape is changing rapidly due to climate change and other human activities.
In this series, Rahul Yaduka finds out about the challenges unique to the Koshi River in India, the government’s water management strategies and citizens’ responsibilities and adaption measures.
In this story, Rahul Yaduka learns from indigenous communities along the river how they adapt to changing circumstances.
While watching a documentary on the Koshi River floods, I saw an old man with bright eyes and a white moustache singing a folk song, self-composed. He was singing in front of a camera, standing on the river bank.
When I came for my doctoral field studies in the Koshi region, I enquired about this old man with Mahendra Yadav, founder of a people’s movement called Koshi Navnirman Manch. He laughed with excitement and said his name is Singheshwar Rai. People fondly call him dahiyar cha. Once he sold curd (yogurt). Hence, he got the name dahiyar cha – the uncle who sold yogurt.
I decided to visit his home with one of my friends in Koshi. Dahiyar rows a country boat and helps people cross the river. He is 70-odd years old and has many stories about Koshi to share. We sat in his courtyard as he adjusted his harmonium while chewing betel leaves. Then, he meditated for a while and sang these songs, which captured his pain as a person living by the river. Scholars of resistance studies have articulated these as ‘rituals as resistance’. Dahiyar’s memory is intertwined with descriptions of abundance as well as miseries brought by the Koshi River.
Cheen des mein nadi Hwang Ho
Aiyo Cheenak Sok Kahaye
Uttar Bihar mein Raj kare chhai
Kosi he nisthur maay
Bolo bhaiya ram ram
Ram ram sitaram
Kosi san nidardi jag mein ho koy nahi
(The river Hwang Ho is called the sorrow of China. In North Bihar, ruthless mother Kosi reigns. O lord Ram! There is no one so cruel and ruthless than this Kosi in the whole world.)
Sunu Sunu e Hanuman
Bada dukh delak hum sab ke
Kosi ke bandh
Sunu Sunu e Hanuman
(O Hanuman! Listen to our suffering. This Kosi embankment has given us so much of pain.)
Ranjiv Kumar, an activist-researcher based in Bihar’s capital Patna, is a native of the Koshi region. He has been fighting to save rivers from the state’s modernist intervention. He recalled in a personal interaction that his relatives from Darbhanga, a district located outside the embankments, used to send his family mangoes. In return, he was sent different varieties of fish from the aquatic system of the Koshi region. However, this rich biodiversity is now diminishing. Ghonga sitwa, an aquatic organism rich in minerals, has virtually become extinct. Earlier, even the poorest of the poor in the region used to survive on this ghonga sitwa. This diversity of food is a part of people’s memory now.
How floods affect women
A bridge is being built on the Koshi River, connecting the regions of Bakaur and Bheja. The work is in progress. I went to Chandel-Maricha village to mobilise women for a workshop on Women’s Day. The women are from bhitta, a landmass that forms the immediate bank of Koshi.
These women showed me the remnants of their destroyed homes due to last season’s floods. They recounted how men from the area have all migrated to either industrial towns or agricultural fields of other states in India. The women are left on their own to deal with whatever River Koshi brings them. They are the first afflicted by the fury of the rising river in July and August every year. They have to move their settlement, children and belongings. Calling the administrative officials responsible for the flood relief work ‘names’ is their everyday resistance. Lack of relief work, non-availability of boats, and exploitation at the hands of the boatmen are their common complaints.
The women point out that the giant pillars in the river will push the river’s channel towards their already unstable land, leading to further erosion.
I also travelled to Balwa village to mobilise people for the upcoming mahapanchayat, or a mega meet to save Koshi. While waiting on the boat, I met dozens of women from a village named Gheewak. They were returning home after collecting firewood and fodder for their animals. When I conversed with them, they pointed out their problems.
“We don’t have any health care facilities in our villages. Even for essential vaccines and childbirth, we must cross the river and reach the district headquarters. Many women die while giving birth to a child. We haven’t received any relief material for a long time. We also don’t come under punarwas (rehabilitation) plan to settle outside the embankments,” said one of the women.
Health is a primary concern here. I remember Dharmendra’s wife’s ordeal while giving birth to her second child. The first child suffered death before birth. The second time, the child was saved, but she died due to the absence of quality health care even in the district headquarters.
One day, I was walking about in a village inside the river embankments with Pramod. A woman called him and asked him to administer an injection to her daughter, who had suffered a cut while tending to goats. I asked Pramod whether he was qualified to use an injection on someone. He smiled and said, necessity needs no law. Who else would treat this poor little girl as there was no primary health sub-centre?
Sanitation is a major problem in the region, especially for women. Sometimes they have to wake up as early as 3 am for defecation so that men cannot see them. Menstruating women are rarely aware of sanitary pads.
Migration as a coping mechanism
Another day, Mohammed Sadrul came to see me. I enquired him about his youngest son, around 12 years of age. A few months back, he had discussed with me about enrolling his son Lal Babu in school. But when he came to see me, he told me that he had sent Lal Babu to Delhi to learn bag manufacturing. I was sad and shocked.
Mohammad Sadrul could not send his son to school. The headmaster of his previous school didn’t hand over the school leaving certificate on time because of his engagements. Two years back, Sadrul lost his home and land in the floods of Koshi. He had somehow arranged a few acres of land and settled down in the town, and started farming. Lal Babu had to start helping his family. So he was sent at this tender age to work in a city with no family and friends.
There are labour contractors who rope in people from villages and supply them to industrial India. Though people own land, there is no guarantee of its productivity. No one knows which way the river will go.
Shravan, yet another friend I made during the field studies, has been juggling between migration, wage labour and social work. Shravan is a relatively skilled man who can drive all kinds of vehicles. He told me that he has worked as a truck driver in Delhi and also ploughed people’s fields using hired tractors in the Koshi region.
As Shravan is associated with Koshi Navnirman Manch, he has been trying to mobilise migrant labourers and make them aware of their rights. For this work, he gets a monthly allowance. Living in one’s place is always a pleasant feeling, he says. “We can celebrate festivals with our family here,” he says. He also appreciated that he was active as a socio-political being and not reduced to a mere wage earner in the city.
On a short train journey to and from Supaul, where I have been based for the last year, I met many migrant labourers returning from and going to cities. I got mixed reactions. They lamented that if there were economic opportunities in their place, they would not migrate. Still, out-migration had improved their economic condition.
Interestingly, they undertake seasonal, circular migration. They do the sowing in the Koshi region, go to cities, and come back by the harvesting season. This cycle repeats itself. Each year, they go to a new place to work, depending on where they find work.
In the name of political economy in the Koshi region, there is either agriculture or public work undertaken by the government like the construction of roads, bridges and embankments. There is no substantive employment opportunity.
What is required is a model of development that is in tune with the local ecology. For example, food processing may be a good idea, but the government has not considered it seriously.
Experts who dictate to the government how development planning needs to be done often ignore the needs of the local people. The rising field of ‘politics of knowledge’ also tells us that politics may deploy the authority of experts to depoliticise and hence exclude people from development planning.
In the long year I spent in the field, I have had many long conversations with people where they came out with specific and scientific suggestions about how better to deal with the Koshi floods. I am using the word science in place of technology. In their discussion, people don’t talk about meta-issues. Their suggestions are about specific problems in daily life. Although they criticise the overall logic of taming the river, they don’t keep beating around the bush and lament what has already happened.
They now expect the government to at least faithfully deliver on the rehabilitation and relief programmes that have been made for the victims of the Koshi River floods. In 1987, the Bihar government came up with a body named Koshi Victim Development Authority with a broad mandate to take care of the people of Koshi and empower them economically, reserve jobs in the public sector, promote agriculture and allied sectors, etc.
Unfortunately, this body remains untraceable. In multiple Right to Information applications filed by various activists, the government could not locate this body. Neither is it working, nor does it remain dissolved by some law.
Secondly, thousands of people who haven’t been allocated land outside the embankments demand that the government undertakes a fresh survey and settles them in a safe place. Presently, various sites in the rehabilitation colonies meant for the Koshi people have been illegally and forcefully captured by the dominant people of the society. The local administration is hand in glove with them in perpetuating this practice.
Thirdly, people demand that government should factor in the unique nature of the land and its impact on agricultural productivity and hence not tax them at par with those who have drier lands safe from floods. They demand relaxation in taxation.
Fourth, people criticise the way the safeguarding of embankments is done. The scale of corruption in earthwork is huge. People suggest that the repair work be undertaken in relatively dry periods like January and February and not May and June when the water rises. There is no accountability for the volume of earthwork done.
Last, and to our surprise, people are not overwhelmingly in favour of the NO-EMBANKMENT approach. That is a thing of the past, and I suspect, as a researcher, that people’s perspective has not been correctly captured by the former researchers who firmly say that people don’t want any embankment. I discovered that people have mixed opinions about the embankment, and it depends on how a particular stretch of the embankments affects them.
Apart from these criticisms of the government and demands from it, people have local adaptation mechanisms which help them live by the Koshi River. Almost everyone, even a 7-year-old, knows how to row a country boat. This is the primary mode of transportation in this riverine ecology. People construct their homes in tune with the possibility of floods. The plinth level of their homes is a couple of feet above ground as seen in the photograph.
People expect that the amount of silt coming in the river floods should reduce as it is the main cause of erosion. For this, they hope that the government undertakes dredging work. This suggestion has been in the marketplace of ideas but has not been seriously considered.
Finally, there needs to be a model of development that appreciates the fact that this is a wet area where land and water are rarely clearly separable. People should be made a part of the planning process.