Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI
Patna: Tufo Rishideo, a poor Dailt man, had been forced to take shelter on an embankment under the open sky, two days ago, after his house collapsed and was submerged in the Koshi after the soil wore away fast.
Rishideo, a resident of Govindpur village on the banks of the Koshi in Bhagalpur district, fears the river, a tributary of the Ganges, more than the COVID-19 pandemic. His fear is tangible. Over the last six days, more than 50 houses of the village were submerged in the river due to soil erosion. The river now poses a serious threat to the building of a government-run middle school and a temple.
Rishideo’s family is one of more than 100 families living on the river’s embankment, after their houses were washed away by the Koshi. “We shifted to this embankment to survive. We were lucky we managed to prop up a piece plastic to cover our heads with, given the scorching sun and the monsoon rains. But it was useless in the face of heavy rains on Wednesday,” he said.
Rishideo was angry since there had been no help by the state government to them. “Local officials have visited us and taken a note of our problems and demands. However, there have only been assurances,” he added.
Fearing more erosion in the coming days with the likely rise in the water level – with the IMD’s alert for heavy rains in north-Bihar districts and in catchment areas of Koshi in the neighbouring country of Nepal – those who got lucky after their houses survived have also also left the village and moved to safer spots along with their assets, including livestock. Most are staying on the embankment in temporary arrangements made by themselves, others have moved to their relatives’ villages, those of which are considered safe.
With IMD Patna issuing an alert for heavy rainfall in Bihar on June 26 and June 27, fear has gripped the region.S.K. Patel, an IMD official, said that 10 districts of north Bihar, including Araria and Kishanganj, are on red alert, while 13 districts are on an orange alert. The water level is rising in the Koshi, Mahananda, Ganga and other rivers due to heavy rains in their catchment areas over the last week.
Raghunandan Rushideo, Mahendar and Virendar – all residents of the same village – said that there were no toilets and no drinking water.
According to them, the village is almost empty due to the fear that the river will wash away the entire village. A few of the villagers remain but there unsure of how long they will be safe.
Balram Prasad, the circle officer for Bihpur block, said he had briefed top officials in the district about the situation. “A list of erosion victims was compiled and sent to the concerned authorities for relief. It may take some time,” he added.
And its not just Govindpur; there are dozens of villages on the banks of the Koshi, Ganga, Bagmati, Gandak and other small rivers like Bakra and Ratua, are also challenged by soil erosion.Several villages between Ismailpur and Bind Toli in Naugachia in Bhagalpur are facing a serious threat of erosion due to the rising water level in the Ganga.
Suraj Mandal, a villager from Naugachia said that the area has been threatened by the Koshi and Ganga each year. Even here, houses and agriculture land of villagers was washed away. People were displaced and have been forced to live either on the high-rise embankment, or on the roads. “The government repeatedly claims of having spent crores of rupees on anti-erosion work, but result is a big zero. We are left to fight the curse of erosion on an annual basis,” he added.
Mandal pointed out that Naugachia has been witness to soil erosion during the monsoons for decades. Keeping this in mind, people have either acquired land elsewhere and shifted there, or, those without option have taken shelter either on the embankment or adjacent to the roads.
Erosion reportedly began at Sinhkund village on the bank of Koshi on Tuesday, following a rise in the water level. Alakh Singh, a villager, alleged that the anti-erosion work done by the Water Resources Department, as part of flood-control measures, failed due to poor quality work by contractors.
In over half a dozen districts – Araria, Purnea, Saharsa, Khagaria, Supaul, Madhepura and Katihar – erosion has created fear among hundreds of villages on the banks of different rivers. Erosion caused by the Ratua river threatened villagers of Hawakol in the Tedhagachi block in Kishanganj district. Erosion by the Bakra river has threatened the existence of Belagachi village in Araria district.
Residents of both villages accused the concerned authorities of having failed to start anti-erosion work despite their demands.
Ranjeev, an environmental activist, said that while soil erosion, which can be attributed to many factors, including a change in course of the river, the state government forgot to implement an old rule to rehabilitate erosion victims. “Hardly have any erosion victims been rehabilitated to safer spots. This is a big failure of the government,” he said.
Fear of floods and flash floods with the onset of the monsoon is not new in Bihar. What has worried thousands of people is that flood control measures were not completed till June 25.The government has been citing lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for the delayed work which was completed in hurry to meet extended deadlines.
After the lockdown began on March 25, most of the anti-erosion work, including projects for embankment repair and maintenance, came to a standstill which lasted till mid-May. Work resumed only after the government eased the lockdown.
This reality is reflected on-ground as anti-erosion work is still on, with an urgency to complete it by June 30 at any cost. However, the monsoon had hit the state on June 13. Anti-erosion work was initially supposed to have been completed by May 15. So far, 350 of a total of 388 anti-erosion and flood protection works have been completed, and work is underway on the others, officials said.
According to the official website of the Water Resources Department, Bihar is the most flood-affected state of the country, accounting for close to 17.2% of the total flood-prone area in the country. Out of 94.16 lakh ha of geographical area, 68.80 lakh ha (76% of North Bihar and 73% of South Bihar) is flood prone. Presently, 28 out of 38 districts of Bihar are flood-prone.
The flood management work having been done comprised the construction and maintenance of embankments, revetment in selected portions of river banks, land spurs and other necessary flood-protection work. A large part of river catchments fall in the glacial regions of the great Himalayas. Thus, remedial measures for flood protection in Bihar are critical.
As a long term measure, the construction of storage reservoirs and extensive watershed treatment in the upper catchments of rivers is being seen as essential. For the short-term, the construction of embankments along the rivers was done; by constructing about 3,745.96 kms of embankment, around 36.46 lakh ha of area has been brought under a reasonable degree of protection. The existing embankments are under increasing pressure due to the rise in the river bed levels due to heavy silt brought down by the rivers from Nepal. Due to abnormal changes in river courses, anti-erosion work for the protection of embankments, and essential flood-fighting work, is imperative each year.