"Living with floods" – A film by Sanjay Barnela and Samreen Farooqui, about Nav Jagriti's work with farmers in flood-affected Saran district in North Bihar
This award-winning documentary takes a look at the serious situation created by the North Bihar region's rivers bursting their banks almost every year

Sanjay Barnela and Samreen Farooqui put together this award-winning documentary which takes a look at the serious situation created by the North Bihar region's rivers bursting their banks almost every year. Homes are wrecked, people lose their lives and livelihoods and the damage is estimated to be lofty. Communities had developed coping mechanisms that were integral to their culture. The film looks at the development models chosen and implemented by the state to “protect people from floods”. In particular the embankments have led to man-made floods and water logging over vast agriculture land leading to widespread pauperization of people. The film sheds light on many aspects of water logging in the area and highlights the work of Nav Jagriti in coping with floods.

Agriculture in Bihar has played a crucial role in shaping its economy. It generates nearly forty two per cent of the State Domestic Product (SDP) and engages about eighty one per cent of the state’s workforce. This figure is much higher than the national average of sixty six per cent. Although endowed with good fertile soil, adequate rainfall and good groundwater availability, Bihar has failed to utilize its agricultural potential to its optimum.

Agriculture has seldom benefitted the masses involved and has merely boosted the profits in the economy. Heavy stress on labour oriented intensive agriculture has been the main drawback of the system. All these have resulted in a society reeling under huge agrarian crisis. With its agricultural productivity being one of the lowest in the country, Bihar is headed towards dire rural poverty, low nutrition levels and large scale migration of labour. A major factor affecting the overall agricultural output of Bihar has been the extreme environmental conditions, often culminating in natural disasters.

While southern Bihar is prone to droughts, northern Bihar has had to bear the brunt of floods for decades now. Almost seventeen per cent of India’s total flood affected land lies in North Bihar affecting about seventy six per cent of the area annually. While in most parts of India, monsoons are considered to be the sign of prosperity ushering in a good harvest of crop, the same in Bihar spells a recurring doom year after year. Torrential rains during monsoons cause flooding of the plains of Bihar. The process is facilitated by the embankments that have been the landmark in the state since Independence. The ruthless floods destroy everything in their wake. Ruined homes, damaged crops, land overflowing with water have become common sites in Bihar.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a noted expert on the subject of flood notes that “Bihar has plain land and the soil is formed by the deposition of sediments, which come down from the Himalayas. The sediments along with the water play a role in causing floods. They also cause the shifting of the course of the rivers. Now we have built embankments along the edges of the rivers to control them. These have resulted in the rise of the river bed. Problems of drainage have emerged. Sluices made in embankments do not work. Tributaries spill over and water seeps in. All these factors lead to waterlogging. Floods that used to last for two and a half days now last for more than two months. This is the result of our modern flood control interventions.”

The government’s solution has been to build more embankments, canals and dams to control the rivers. Since 1954 over three thousand kilometers of embankments have been built in Bihar but these structures have only caused more havoc. Obstructing and diverting the flow of the rivers and increasing the flooding propensity by two and a half time during the same period.

“The very nature of the river is to gather water from surrounding area in to itself. We have obstructed the passage of the river by constructing huge embankments. Water that used to naturally flow in to the river, now remains stagnant outside. Also the water level in the river is raised by the embankments, thus causing seepage. So the stagnant water outside, coupled with water seepage causes water logging. We have also built canals which run for over 10,000 kms in North Bihar. Roads and railways have been built and now flood plains are being encroached upon. All these have obstructed the flow of water into the rivers. We cannot stop rain or prevent the flow of water into these areas. It is bound to come. But we never gave a thought as to where it would recede, either due to a rise in the river level or due to waterways in embankments, which may not have appropriate culvert dimensions. Also, because it is a plain land with a slope of just four inches to a mile. So if the water level rises by one foot, water will invariably move back by three miles. That’s the reason for waterlogging.” (Dinesh Kumar Mishra)

Out of the 54 lakh hectares of land in northern Bihar, around sixteen per cent remains permanently waterlogged. Surplus money is continuously generated in construction of more embankments and maintenance of the existing ones. But the government takes no measure to reclaim areas of land submerged in water.

Nav Jagriti, a Saran based NGO, has been active in solving the issue of floods and waterlogging . They have done significant work in draining out water in flood affected areas and helped reclaim land that was previously engulfed in water. At the start, in 1991 it promoted Jal Jamaav Virodhee Sangharsh Samiti and carried out protests and rallies. This proved to be ineffective and consequently it began its field interventions in the waterlogged areas. People could resume farming in these areas and could take crops like wheat and pulses. Their economic condition improved significantly and the trend of migration was reversed. Around ten villages surrounding a chaur (bottomlands) were benefitted. A door to door survey found that there was seventy per cent decrease in migration.

Various efforts are underway to adapt the villagers to the problems of waterlogging. Instead of migrating to cities for wage labour they are actively taking part in various training programmes to reclaim their land and make them suitable for farming. Nav Jagriti is encouraging farmers to revive agriculture in the reclaimed parts by distributing high yielding variety seeds and bio-organic fertilizers.

The success of these interventions led to the decision of allocating forty per cent fund through NREGA for drainage purposes. Nav Jagriti’s pioneering efforts is a small step towards tackling the problem of flood in Bihar. All that is required is a replication of their idea and efforts throughout the flood affected areas. Such initiation along with policy reforms by the Government will surely help mitigate floods and provide means of survival for thousands whose livelihoods are frequently washed away by the ravaging floods.

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