Bihariganj/Murliganj: “Barah saal se adhik beet gaya, na ghar bana na hi jeevika ka parbhand hua. Humlog ko sarkar ne thaga hai. (It’s been more than twelve years, neither were we given a house nor a means to earn a living. We have been cheated by the government)” said Phekni Devi, a victim of the devastating Koshi flood in 2008, one of the worst disasters seen in Bihar for half a century.
Phekni fruitlessly waited for over a decade for the construction of her house under the government-run Bihar Aapda Punarwas Evam Punarnirman Society (BAPEPS).She is one of thousands of flood victims who have lost hope on this front. As per the government’s own figures, 2,36,632 houses either totally or fully collapsed in the Koshi floods but only 56,758 were reconstructed till date, only 24% of the total houses destroyed.
Phekni, a Dalit woman whose house was badly damaged by the flood, was forced to take shelter for days on the high rise canal under the open sky. She and her husband, Nand Kishor Paswan, both work as farm labourers and hail fromBabhangawan village under Bihariganj block, which falls under the Bihariganj assembly constituency in Madhepura district. They somehow managed to construct a thatch and bamboo house with a tin roof after taking some credit. There was no help from the government.
Phekni Devi stand outside her thatch -bamboo house
Nearly 40 out of 78 assembly constituencies in the Koshi and Seemanchal belt comprising Madhepura, Saharsa, Supaul, Katihar, Kishanganj, Purnea and Araria will go to polls in the third and final phase of the assembly elections on November 7.
This is the ground reality of the much-hyped state government's Koshi rehabilitation and reconstruction project aided by a World Bank loan in its first phase. Two years after the Koshi disaster, the World Bank provided a loan of $220 million to Bihar under the Kosi Flood Recovery Project. The target for the completion of the project was September 2014 but it was finally completed in June 2018. In 2015, the World Bank provided a $250 million loan for the Bihar Kosi Basin Development project. Its main focus was the reconstruction of damaged houses and road infrastructure, strengthening the flood management capacity and creating livelihood opportunities for the affected people.
Two days ago, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar claimed that he had fulfilled the promise of rebuilding a new and beautiful Koshi after the disaster in 2008 at election rallies in four assembly constituencies in Madhepura and the neighbouring Supaul district. “After the Koshi tragedy we promised people that we will build an even more beautiful Koshi. We took a loan from the World Bank and fulfilled this promise,” the CM said.
Over the past ten years, Nitish Kumar has repeatedly assured the people that he would turn the flood-ravaged Koshi region into a prosperous zone. However, Phekni has not seen it happen. “Where is the new and beautiful Koshi he has reconstructed or rebuilt? We have not seen it. Nitish is lying. Take my case and that of others – mainly the poor in this village – who somehow constructed a house from their own pocket without any help from the government,” she fumed.
She is still distraught by memories of the dark night when her house was destroyed and her life threatened.
Md. Anwar Ali, a resident of Kalyanpatti village under Gwalpara block in Madhepura, has a similar story. “My house was washed away but I am yet to get anything to reconstruct it. What pained me is that there was no rehabilitation and reconstruction work in my village,” he said.
Calling the CM’s claims “false”, he said that it was “only on paper; the truth is that he failed to reconstruct our houses.” Subhas, a resident of the neighbouring village of Parokiya said, pointing to a small thatched hut he managed to build with his meager resources.
Dr. Sashi, a resident of Raghunathpur village under Murliganj block – which was the worst-hit region – said: “Far from a better or more beautiful Koshi, the fact is that no such development took place. We are still waiting for the reconstruction of a bridge to the main road which connects our village and was badly damaged in 2008.”
Sashi, who works with a government health agency, said several bridges in the area which had collapsed still await reconstruction. It is despite the fact that the state government had taken a loan from the World Bank twice. “We are not only victims of that devastating flood, but also of apathy and neglect,” he added.
According to a report from 2018, 259.30 kms out of 2,390 kms of damaged roads were reconstructed in the Koshi region. Similarly, only 69 bridges of the 90 which collapsed were reconstructed,
Sanjay Sah, a resident of Kolhai Patti Dumaria under Murliganj block in Madhepura, said it took him more than five years to get his life back in order. “I hardly got any government help despite the fact that land was my only source of livelihood. With water more than 15 feet deep, it had turned into a river-like water body. It was a bad phase in my life. I worked hard to recover from that disaster and slowly rebuilt my house that was washed away. I started a small business to survive,” he said.
Thousands of flood victims from the Koshi region, comprising Madhepura, Saharsa and Supaul districts, are struggling without basic amenities for years, despite Nitish Kumar’s repeated efforts to develop the Koshi region after the 2008 floods. The three areas were the worst-hit when the Koshi suddenly changed course owing to a breach in the embankment at Kushaha on the Nepal border.
Vijay Yadav, a former ward member of Murliganj Hagar Panchayat, said Murliganj town was one of the worst affected. Hundreds of houses collapsed and were washed away. Goods inside shops were damaged but no compensation was forthcoming. “What pained us was that Murliganj nagar panchayat was kept outside the rehabilitation and reconstruction zone,” he said.
Vijay said that people from all walks of life struggled to get their lives back together. “Nitish‘s claim of rebuilding a new and better Koshi is a big joke for the people here,” he said.
Mahendra Yadav, founder of Koshi Navnirman Manch, a local organisation working for the flood victims, said the CM’s claims were lies. “The government has failed to reconstruct 76% of the houses under the rehabilitation and reconstruction project for which it has taken a $470 million loan,” he said.
“Even after so many years flood victims are facing hardships as hundreds of acres of cultivable land that was flooded is still covered with sand and is not fit for agriculture. Nitish Kumar had also promised farmers that sand would be removed from fertile fields and adequate compensation would be given. The government did nothing. Thousands of farmers themselves removed sand from their own land and started cultivation,” he said,
Koshi and its adjoining Seemanchal region is a maize hub but farmers are not getting the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for maize, forcing them to resort to distress sales. “A high rate of poverty still prevails here which results in people migrating outside in search of a livelihood. This is the new Koshi as per Nitish Kumar,” he remarked.
There are 380 villages within the Koshi embankment on the Indian side and 34 villages in Nepal. They were rehabilitated on the embankments but the 'land for land' policy was not adopted for them. They were supposed to live in rehabilitation sites and cultivate their land located within the embankments. The KNNM recently concluded a long march in the Koshi region to mobilise farmers, who have been forced to live within the embankment for years and have become victims of floods year after year.
“The land between the two embankments is full of silt, making farming impossible. Farmers have been demanding freedom from tax and cess collected by the government,” he said. According to him, land is cultivable for only six months of the year when there is no flood.
All Photos by Mohd. Imran Khan