Refugees of the Kosi embankments – A booklet by Dinesh Kumar Mishra

This booklet by Dinesh Kumar Mishra deals with the plight of the refugees of the Kosi embankment

Kosi, one of the most vibrant rivers of North Bihar begins its journey at a height of about 7000 m in the Himalayan range. After entering the plains, the bed of the Kosi widens drastically and it spreads over 6 to 10 km.

In 1953 the Government of India gave formal approval to the Kosi project, which led to the construction of 125 km long embankment on the eastern bank of the Kosi, from Birpur to Kopadia and 126 km long embankment from Bhardah in Nepal to Ghonghepur in Saharsa, on the western bank. The work was almost fully completed by 1959.

The embankments were supposed to protect 214,000 ha of land from the recurring floods of the Kosi. A barrage across the river was also constructed near Birpur in 1963 to facilitate irrigation of 712, 000 ha, through Eastern Kosi Main Canal. Another canal, called the Western Kosi Canal, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1957, is also being constructed to irrigate some 325,000 ha of crop land on the western side of the barrage. The work on this canal is still in progress.

With the completion of embankments on the Kosi in 1963, a population of nearly 192,000 were trapped in 304 villages between the two embankments of the Kosi. This number had swollen to 9,88,000 (2001 census) and the number of villages gone to 380 because of the extension of embankments. This population is scattered over 4 districts and 13 blocks.

Rehabilitation of these unfortunate people was not incorporated in the original plan of the project when the approval of the project was given in 1953. The rehabilitation issue of these entrapped people came for discussion only in 1956 after the construction started in 1955. They are living in primitive conditions ever since and their plight cannot be understood without physically seeing their living conditions.

Passage of the river waters of the Kosi over these villages is an annual feature. Whenever involuntary displacement in projects comes for discussion, the flood control projects are often ignored and it really astonishing how these people survive braving the flood waters every year. They were the people who sacrificed their interest in larger context of their society and got only indifference in return. Nobody cares about the hapless victims of the developmental project like the one on the Kosi.

This booklet delves into many such questions and systematic denial of the rights of the people. It also looks into the avenues still open for a possible solution. The author provides an account of why no embankments can be guaranteed against breaching, especially in the case of silt laden rivers in the area. The cost of relief and rehabilitation would offset all the benefits that have accrued over the years in the event of a single major breach. It was for these reasons that the British never repeated the Damodar mistake for the remainder of their rule in India.

The debate whether embankments increase the floods or decrease them, is yet to be resolved among engineers, he says. They also avoid any public debate by saying that every river has its own special characteristics and should be dealt with separately. They recommend or reject embanking scheme depending upon the social or political pressure brought on them. The fact however, is that the benefit of this inconclusive debate goes to the politicians who take the decisions on embanking rivers, or otherwise, and engineers only play a subservient role.

The Kosi project was a technological quick-fix to a government’s political compulsion. Hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting villagers, desiring a way out of the annual trauma of floods, saw their lives become an endless nightmare. The government’s response to their perils can only be described as callous. Even today, no official and reliable information is available about the number of people – or even the number of villages – within the Kosi embankments. It is unofficially stated that about 800,000 people are living within the embankments.

The issue of compensation, rehabilitation, and well being of those living within the embankments remained unaddressed for a long time even after the start of the construction work and nobody knew what was in store for the people who would become hapless victims of the project.

The politicians were under oath to serve the people but they did not mind giving false assurances to them. Then, there were engineers who should have been guided by the ethics of their profession, which is often identified with the legendary Bhagirath and Vishwakarma, Mishra states. The politicians had an excuse they did not understand the basics of engineering and technical matters and only followed the advice of engineers. The latter hid behind the embankments, saying that they were needed for providing immediate relief to the people who could not wait for 15 long years for the Barahkshetra dam to be constructed.

They have another excuse, which is never made public, i.e., that they are not free to take any decision independently and have to defend all the decisions taken by the politicians. This complementary back scratching never ends. It is not necessary that political decisions, however popular they may be, be technically sound, but once taken they get political legitimacy because the engineering community maintains silence over the issue. It is a practical difficulty that an engineer, even though he/she is a celebrity in ones field, hesitates to give the right advice to politicians. There is no solution to such a problem.

The booklet highlights the plight of the people who have lived and continue to live within the Kosi embankments. In the name of development, hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted and injustice was meted out to them. People who live outside of north Bihar may wonder how so many people have continued to suffer for such a long time, without raising voices against the injustice. The fact is that the people have become resigned to their fate. They have lost the will to assert themselves. Instead of putting up a fight, they prefer to migrate to Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat or Maharashtra.

There is a flip side to this question and that is, if the people suffered to such an extent, what was the government doing? Successive governments have never considered rehabilitation seriously. Today they have closed the files. Almost all the nations’ political parties have now ruled the State and the country and no party can point an accusing finger at the others. Non-government organizations distribute relief and advocate that flood disasters be managed. Correcting the wrongs done to the people is not on their agenda either.

The injustice wrought on unsuspecting people by technological hubris has been largely forgotten in the march toward modern development. Similar situation exists not only in the plains of the Kosi river but also along the embankments of the Mahanada, Kamla, Gandak, Bagmati and Burhi Gandak rivers in north Bihar. In the meantime, within embankments and the waterlogged regions, hapless people wait for some messiah to emerge and rescue them. The tragedy is that there is none.

The booklet in English and Hindi can be downloaded below –

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