UP: Floods hit Bijnor Early This Year, Compounding Annual Misery
Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh: Every year, Dhan Prakash (50) of Naya Gaon in Uttar Pradesh's Bijnor district plants sugarcane on his half-acre farm. And every year, he steels himself to sacrifice a portion of his crops to the flooding of the Khoh river. But this year, erratic rains have pushed up the timetable of the floods and his losses. Left with no alternative, the father of five borrowed money from his relatives and friends to purchase an e-rickshaw. He takes passengers around nearby towns and earns about Rs 150-200 per day.
Khoh, a tributary of the Ramganga river, originates in the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand and enters Uttar Pradesh through Bijnor. Every year, towards the end of August, the engorged river rages through several villages here, leaving behind ravaged crops. By now, the crops are already standing and a few weeks shy of harvest. Marginal farmers like Prakash usually lose up to a third of their produce and, in the absence of any insurance, have to rely on the meagre compensation offered by the government.
This year, however, Prakash has lost his entire crop. After spending around Rs 15,000 to prepare the field, he watched helplessly as the heavy downpour in July and ensuing high-intensity floods washed away the saplings.
Farmers get local weather updates from newspapers and radio, and youth who have access to smartphones rely on farmers' groups for information. But none of these are helpful in the case of sudden cloudbursts in neighbouring states that quickly come gushing down to the plains.
"The situation is very unpredictable. When we have a good harvest, we save over Rs 20,000 per acre yearly, but this time the situation is dire," he adds.
"We will have to wait and see how much compensation the government decides to give," says Prakash.
Washing Away Development
This is the story of many families in the district continually being pushed to the brink by these annual floods. The villages under the Dhampur sub-division, including Nagla Natha Ba, Nathadoi, Mandora, Naya Gaon and Dhurada, have seen their progress stunted by the flooding. The lament is the loudest when it comes to education. They are unable to meet their children's needs and support their higher education, they say. Even when young people get admitted to good colleges outside the village, they often have to give up their studies as the unsteady family income doesn't allow them to survive in a big city.
The flood-affected villages lose connectivity from the neighbouring cities, with waterlogged roads that stay under two to three feet of water for days, making it impossible to navigate. Schools shut down, and roads get washed away, impacting education and disrupting the supply chain.
"Children are unable to go to school, and many problems arise in case of medical emergencies when people are unable to get to hospitals. Some villagers work in the cities, and if the floods strike while they are away, sometimes they get stuck there for days on end, with the duration of water logging varies depending upon the intensity of the rains," says former sarpanch of Nagla Natha Ba, Salim Ahmed.
Amit Kumar (38), a farmer from Naya Gaon, says this region is known for its sugarcane field, and the cash crop fetches them a good sum when sold to the sugar mills. The various Kisan Samitis here (farmer unions) have streamlined the process, ensuring fair and timely payment and preventing the exploitation of farmers.
"In a good year, we can grow around 50 quintals of sugarcane in one bigha of land. The crop can fetch my family upward of Rs 1 lakh/harvest. But most of the time, we have to face losses as my farm lies on the bank, and the crop retains water after flooding, compromising its quality. In such a situation, we barely make half the standard price, hardly enough to make ends meet," he says.
He adds that floods are the reason behind abject poverty in the region as they stall all development activities and projects in the area.
"Farming is the only source of income here, and if we keep bearing these losses every year, how can we prosper? When there is barely any money for food, how can we meet other necessities like education and a standard of living?" he asks.
Pawan Kumar, the Sarpanch of Nagaon village in Dhampur district's Sherkot, says, "I have been witnessing the same situation since childhood. There are around 10,000 people in these flood-affected villages of Sherkot who are dependent on the land for agriculture and sustenance. Their farms lie on the river bank, and they get submerged as the river overflows. This affects all the crops, from sugarcane to wheat, legumes and pulses. Even paddy, which needs a lot of water, gets affected as the saplings drown or get washed off."
"Officials from the Irrigation department and district administration come to take stock of the situation every year and promise to build embankments, but apart from a few small efforts, permanent solutions do not materialise," he adds.
Flood Planning in Limbo
To make matters worse, farms in Bijnor lose fertility after the floods, affecting crops sown later in the year.
Rajpal Singh, former agriculture sub-divisional officer of Dhampur, explains, "Rivers coming from the mountains have a lot of sand. After the water current washes off the topsoil, this sand from the river settles in the fields. It is devoid of nutrients and affects the quality of the crops."
The lack of concrete steps, like the building of embankments, allows floods to recur, sometimes with increasing severity. The Sub-divisional Magistrate acts as the Flood Control Officer and supervises 'baadh chaukiyan' or flood posts from where officials from the irrigation department, local administration and village heads monitor water levels and sound alerts. These measures are, however, sufficient to prevent the loss of lives but not that of crops and land.
Manoj Kumar, Sub Divisional Magistrate, Bijnor, who was stationed in Dhampur until July this year, told 101Reporters that the department makes all possible efforts to minimise losses and works in tandem with the Irrigation Department. Still, they need to undertake a big project to make a permanent embankment of stone studs to avert the crisis permanently.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an informal network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to water, says that since the Khoh River changes its course every year or so, there is a need for a detailed study to identify the reasons for this before undertaking flood-prevention measures.
Meanwhile, Pawan Kumar says that hundreds of acres of land have been submerged by the changing river, and many farmers have become landless.
"When the course changes again, and the land emerges back, they have to reclaim it by demarcating the boundaries with the help of the local revenue officers. But this is futile as the fields may get submerged again. Those who still have land live a hellish life as they have to bear heavy losses from the damage to standing crops. The administration should construct a stone embankment for about four to five km along the river bank."
Executive engineer of Afzalgarh Irrigation Division, Rakesh Kumar, says the department tries to prevent soil erosion before the monsoons by making temporary wooden studs on the banks, but the heavy currents are still strong enough to damage the crops. These measures are just put in place to minimise the damage.
He adds that while plans worth lakhs of rupees are approved by the government to prevent floods in these areas, many projects essentially fail even though they manage to save villagers from major losses of life and property. This year the irrigation department received around Rs 60 lakhs, but the amount varies every year. This is not sufficient to undertake permanent measures.
"We need to make permanent embankments with stones fastened together with a wire mesh as a permanent solution, but it is a costly affair, and it takes long for such projects to be authorised. We have conveyed this to the higher-ups in the department, and hopefully, it will materialise soon," says Rakesh Kumar.
(Shahbaz Anwar is an Uttar Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
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