Story of a ghost river and engineering witchcraft

Dinesh Kumar Mishra
Barh-Mukti Abhiyan, Patna, 2004

1. The River Bhutahi Balan

Bhutahi Balan is a small river of Madhubani district in Bihar (India), located between the basins of the Kamla and the Kosi; which are the two major rivers of North Bihar (Fig.1). The river flows closer to the Kosi than the Kamla. It is a small tributary of the Kosi but the devastation that it causes is really disproportionate to its size. It is such an insignificant river that one may not remember its name while listing north Bihar Rivers. This peculiar river did not have any definite flow path nor did it have any definite bed until recently, Local people say that the river rises abruptly in the rainy season, its waters enter the houses, communication goes out of gear and before one could react to the situation, the river disappears leaving a trail of thick sand behind. If a stranger gets trapped in the river, while in spate, the swift current of the river would push him down and the sand contained in the flow would bury him alive. It is impossible to come out of the river alive. To give an idea of the flow in the river, it is said that even if an elephant were caught in the current of the river, it would be delivered at the rail bridge on the Nirmali-Darbhanga rail line near Kisuni Patti (Fig.-2). Half an hour later, the river becomes quiet and can be easily forded. Boats do not ply in this river for obvious reasons. The river rightly derives its name from ghosts (Bhoot) who, possibly, may be there but are not visible.

The local people suggest that after entering India near Laukaha, the river wanders freely between Chikna, Tamuria and Nirmali. Its waters used to come like a wave, the land used to get sand-cast, at some places; and the agricultural production used to come down. But it rarely happened that there was no harvest, at all. The places where the river used to deposit sand changed frequently and just as the river was free to wander, there was a moderation of sorts of its floods and the river never gained devastating proportions. The local people were aware of the hide and seek game of the river and the life had its own flow within that framework.

Common masses used to adore the river and called her 'the mother' and worship her like a goddess. People used to wait eagerly for the river in the rainy season and vow to offer sweets to her for her timely arrival that was treated as a good omen for prosperity. They treat the river as their venerable deity and believe that the town of Phulparas is her parent's place. A puja both individual and collective, is offered to the river at Brahmasthan in Phulparas even today. Elderly people say that the river had once shifted to 3-4 kilometers west of Phulparas over hundred years ago. The villagers of Suggapatti performed puja and urged the river to come back to their village. A big ceremony was held and the worshippers returned to Phulparas sprinkling sand all the way showing the river its path in the next season. The river answered the calls and returned back the next monsoon. Similarly, a devotee of the river was there in Narahia who prayed the river to get closer to Narahia and the river obliged. So much trust the people had on their river. The river was a part of the family for them and it never bothered them. Those days, safety matches were not popular and the fire used to be exchanged between the houses. Despite many families, virtually; occupying the riverbed, it never happened that food was not cooked in any family for the want of fire. Elderly people tell that there was an old lady, named Labania, who lived in Phulparas during 1952-63, almost right in the middle of the stream but she, too, never complained of the river behaviour to her neighbors or the fellow villagers. So much was the trust of the villagers on their river.

Many people, however, do not treat the Bhutahi Balan as a river. They call it a spring that flows according to its own whims and wishes. The engineers, of course, give all the respect to the Bhutahi Balan that is due to a river and, in return, the river also behaves the way that the services of the engineers are needed to deal with it.

2. Changing Courses of the Bhutahi Balan

An important tributary of the Kosi, the Bhutahi Balan originates in the Chure range of Nepal at an elevation of about 910 meters. The river enters Bihar near Laukaha in Madhubani District (Fig. 2). It has a length of 42 kilometers in Nepal and after traveling for about 45 kilometers and flowing under the bridge no. 133 on the Darbhanga-Nirmali railway line, it joins the Kosi River. At Laukaha. its total catchment area is 466 sq km, at Tengrar 515 sq km, and at the bridge no. 133, it is 556 sq km. The river has a bed slope ranging from 0.88 meters per kilometer, in the upper reaches, to 0.52 meters per kilometer, in the lower reaches. Just near the foothills, in Nepal, many small streams join it and give it the shape of a river.

In the indian portion, 23 kilometers down the border; another rivulet called the Bihul joins it near the village Narahia. In the floods of 1954, the two rivers got separated. Two different streams branched off from the Bhutahi Balan this year, one near Balan Patti and the other near Mahathaur. Both these channels rejoined the mainstream near Murli and the combined stream proceeded towards the Kosi. In 1960, the river encroached its banks near Dhausahi and devastated the villages of Barahi, Dhausahi and Phulparas. In 1968, there was less water in the stream that had branched off near Dhausahi but an offshoot of the river started flowing parallel to the Phulparas-Ghoghardiha road. The river washed away whatever came in its way. In 1970, the Bhutahi Man and the Bihul rejoined each other near Mahathaur.

This time, a new stream branched off near Bishunpur and the emanating water engulfed the area between south of Bishunpur, west of Rajpur and east of Ekhatta. All this water went and joined another stream that had branched off near Rajpur. The resulting stream flowed past west of Maharajpur and crossed Phulparas-Khutauna road near Kalapatti bridge. The length of this stream was only five and a half kilometers but that was enough to inundate the villages of Maharajpur, Rajpur, Ekhatta, Siswar and Kalapatti. The third stream that branched off near Dhausahi, was also only five kilometers long but it crossed Phulparas-Jhanjharpur road and inundated Brahmapur, Lohia Patti, Paita and Phulparas. Besides, two more streams had also branched off near Phulparas and Ghoghardiha.

Change in the course and branching of various streams from the river are the two main problems attached to the river. Most of the streams that have branched off from the river have done so on its right bank. The flow of the river contains excessive sediment load, like any other river of north Bihar, that leads to its change in course, serpentine flow path, shallow beds, overtopping of the banks and instability of the channel. This causes great inconvenience to the people living on either side of the river.

3. Compelling Situations To Embank The Bhutahi Balan

The problems of the Bhutahi Balan are tagged along to that of the Kosi River, which, was embanked during 1955-57 as a result of a major initiative to control floods in the post-independence period in India (Fig.-2). The western embankment of the Kosi intercepted flow of most of its tributaries like the Kharak. the Parbatta, the Tilyuga and the Bhutahi Balan etc that joined it from the west. It takes time to construct sluice gates or bridges and hence gaps were left in the western embankment of the Kosi where the rivers were likely to cross it. Before the construction of the embankment, the water of the tributaries used to spread onto the adjoining land prior to emptying into the Kosi's mainstream thereby affecting some sort of moderation of floods. After the construction of the embankment, the tributaries were forced to converge to the gaps left in the embankment, for constructing sluice gates, which led to the building up of the flood levels upstream and bringing more and more area under a sheet of water. apart from endangering the western embankment of the Kosi. One such rivulet named the Kharak joins the Kosi, north of Nirmali. The western Kosi embankment constructed its flow (1955) leading to reduced entry of floodwaters into the main river, which resulted in the flooding of the villages of Bangama, Amchiri, Hirpatti and Bagaha. This had never happened before. The villagers widened the gap on the western embankment of the Kosi by cutting it to facilitate smooth drainage of the floodwaters.

The condition between the Kosi and its western embankment was no better either. Before the embankments were constructed, Bhutahi's water flowed freely into the Kosi. As a part of the plan to control the Kosi, in 1955-56, the level of the Nirmali-Ghoghardiha railway track was raised. The raised track impeded flow of many tributaries of the Kosi. The work on the Ghoghardiha-Madhepur section of the western Kosi embankment started in 1956, but this embankment had to be protected against the onslaughts of the Bhutahi Balan. In order to achieve this, a marginal embankment was built between Kisuni-Patti and Belha. west of the railway track, which was also meant to provide safety to the villages like Pirojgarh, Chikna, Bhirhar, Biraul located west of Ghoghardiha. This marginal embankment was also expected to protect villages on either side of the railway line till Tamuria. While the benefit was likely to accrue to these villages, the combined impact of the western Kosi embankment, the railway embankment and the marginal bundh was pointing toward a possible deluge by the Bhutahi Balan because. Its natural flow had been interrupted. The villages likely to be affected were Tengrar, Mahathaur, Phulkahi, Bishunpur, Murli, Kankahia, Barhi, Hanumananagar, Dhausahi; Narahia, Phulparas, Gorgama, Bhabtiahi, Ramnagar, Brahmapur, Belha, bathnaha and Dhankhore.

The ovation of victory over the Kosi by taming it through embankments and the forewarning of deluge that the Bhutahi Balan was going to cause in many villages, led to a demand of taming the Bhutahi Balan too in the 1950s. The Government of Bihar had also started thinking on those lines in 1955 itself. The local residents of the basin, however, differed over the proposal of achieving this objective through embankments and confusion prevailed.

Without going into the details of the role of embankments in controlling floods of the rivers and the debate that ensued in past over the choice of embankments as a device to control floods, suffice here to say that the floodwater of a free flowing river carries a lot of sediment load (silt, sand and pebbles), which is spread over a large area along with the floodwaters. This is how the rivers build their delta. The embankments not only prevent the floodwaters from spilling; they also trap the suspended sediment load within them.

Thus the process of natural land building of the river is thwarted, the sediments get deposited within the embankments thereby successively raising the bed of the river and, in turn, the flood level within the embankments. The embankments have to be raised keeping in pace with the rising bed level of the river. There is a practical limit to which the embankments can be raised 'and maintained. With every rise of the embankment, the countryside is, apparently, suppressed downwards, in the same proportion.

Rising bed and flood levels within the embankments threaten the embankments of failure due to overtopping seepage or failure of tile slopes of the embankments, to the detriment of the people residing in the protected countryside. The embankments may also breach because of the flow under pressure through the holes of rats, muskrats and foxes, which these creatures dig through the body of the embankments.

The discharge from a tributary cannot enter the main river because of the construction of the embankments. This water, from the tributary, will either back-flow into the countryside or start flowing parallel to the embankments on the main river, flooding new areas, hitherto unknown to experience flooding. The obvious solution to this problem is to construct a sluice gate at the confluence of the two rivers. However, it is difficult to operate such sluice gates during the monsoon months for the fear that if the water level in the main river is high, there is a possibility of the water from the main river flowing back into the tributary. Sluice gates often get jammed after a few years of their installation due to deposition of sand in their front, on the riverside. Thus sluice gates or no sluice gates, the tributary water will spread into the countryside. These sluice gates can be operated only after the rains are over and the water level within the embankments has considerably gone down. By the time the damage is already done. as the tributary cannot discharge its water in the main channel.

When the sluice gates fail to perform, it is often proposed to construct the embankments over the tributary, to prevent its spill. Now the rainwater than falls within the two embankments, of the main river and that of the tributary, has so escape left. If becomes a case of water locking. This water can only evaporate into the atmosphere or seep through the ground, in such a case. The other option is to pump it back into any of the two rivers. If pumping out the floodwater were the solution, this could have been resorted to even without constructing the the embankments, the sluice gates or the secondary embankments. Should a breach occur in any of the embankments mentioned above: the people residing within the two embankments will not find time to react to surges of water emanating out of the gaps and will meet their watery graves.

Sometimes, those who are adversely affected by waterlogging outside the embankments, in the countryside, cut the embankments to drain the accumulated water into the river. Besides, no embankment has been built so far, nor there is a possibility of one being built anytime in future, anywhere in the world: that would not breach. Such incidents of breaches in embankments are integral part of this technology and that causes immense hardship and loss of life and property to the people living in the countryside of the embankments.

The embankments prevent the rainwater that would have entered freely into the river and this water accumulates outside the embankments causing severe water logging conditions in the countryside. Waterlogging is further compounded by seepage through the main body of the embankments. Besides, the river water contains a lot of fertilizing silt in its flow, which used to spread over the land along with the floodwater and rejuvenated agricultural lands prior to the construction of the embankments. This silt gets trapped between the embankments and the countryside slowly loses its fertility which has got to be replenished artificially by adding fertilizers and has got to be paid for.

Sometimes, for topographical or political reasons, embankments are built only on one side of the river. Everything remains the same in this case too, except that the floodwater is now free to flow on the opposite side of the embankment. Seeking flood protection through embankments is walking into a trap where every action leads to a new initiative and the problem goes on deteriorating with time.

A section of engineers, however, believe that when a river is embanked, the waterway available to the river reduces which results in the increased velocity of the river water. With the rise in the velocity of floodwater, the eroding capacity of the river increases. When the flood-water erodes the banks and dredges the bottom of the river, its width and depth would increase and so will be its discharge carrying capacity. Thus, the river is re-sectioned and it would carry more discharge, causing the floods to decline.

The debate whether the embankments add to, or reduce the flood problem is still inconclusive in the technical circles. We have such a strong case against the embankments, if we do not want to build them. At the same time, the argument in favour of the embankments is equally sound and scientific. Thus, the arguments, for and against the embankments, both, are highly technical and so strong that nobody can find any fault with them. The decision, whether to build embankments or not, however, is mostly taken by politicians, for obvious reasons, and engineers are made to defend their decision. The engineers, irrespective of their stature, are so weak that the politicians use them at their will and get the things done the way they like.

Throughout the British occupation of India this embankment debate remained at the center of flood control measures but since the Government was opposed to embanking of the rivers, it's engineers also followed the suit. That, probably, was the reason that when embankments were pushed as a means to control floods, in the post independence period in India, the people were not convinced and the Bhutahi Balan basin was no exception to this general rule.

4. Early Efforts On The Bhutahi Balan Embankments

In the backdrop of this embankment debate that was going round in the Bhutahi Balan basin, Rasik Lal Yadav MLA raised a question in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha (1957) and in reply to this starred question (No 133) related to the proposal, Kedar Pandey, on behalf of the Bihar Government, told the Bihar Vidhan Sabha that, ‘...Local people have opposed the scheme, which is now being revised. The question of embankment was dropped for the time being, but Bhutahi Balan continued to threaten the western Kosi embankment as its drainage remained problematic.

That the Bhutahi Balan embankments were built by just requesting the Government or by taking notice of the deteriorating drainage problem in the area was never the case. The issue was raised once again in the Vidhan Sabha (1962) but Dip Narayan Singh, Minister of Irrigation. on behalf of the government, nipped the Bhutahi Balan problem in the bud by saying, "It is true that the Bhutahi Balan is devastating the Laukahi thana for the past 7 years but the government has no proposal to embank the river. The Bhutahi Balan keeps changing its course and until it starts flowing in a fixed channel, there will be no benefit in embanking it. However, we are studying the problem and we will come out with an appropriate scheme at the right moment. It is obvious from the statement of Dip Narayan Singh (1962) that the Bhutahi Balan was not a problematic river till 1955, before the construction of the western Kosi-embankment. He, however, consoled people by saying that the investigations were on and that some appropriate action would be taken at the right moment.

Between 22nd August and 1st September 1966, there was an unprecedented flood in the river. Because of the prolonged floods, the food stocks of the people dwindled and the possibilities of the next crop receded. Houses collapsed in large numbers and there was two meter deep water on the roads and in the villages. People had to take shelter on the trees, rooftops or by arranging chowkis one above the other. The boats in the area were few and the whole area was cut off from the rest of the world. Around ten panchayats of Phulparas including Dhausahi, Barhi, Phulparas, Brahmapur, Pirojgarh, Chikna, and Ghoghardiha suffered heavily. It so happened that there was a 200 meter long embankment between the villages of Dhausahi and Murli. This embankment was under attack from the Bhutahi Balan for the past some years. In case of any breach in the embankment, the river water was likely to spread over a vast area and engulf many villages. The residents of the villages that were likely to be affected by this breach approached the local Block Development Officer BDO with a request that the embankment be repaired. The repairs would cost around Rs 5,000 but that would save a population of about 56,000 from the likely floods of the Bhutahi Balan, they felt. The plans were finalized but the Sub-Divisional Officer SDO of the Minor Irrigation Department rejected the scheme on the plea that if the floods were prevented. then there would not be any irrigation either. He advised against any repairs to be carried out. This led to a fresh initiative in that direction once again. Another scheme was prepared in consultation with the Civil SDO of Madhubani and the collector of Darbhanga accorded the sanction to it. Even this scheme could not be implemented because of the dilly-dallying of the officials at the block level. The result was that the Bhutahi Balan, that used to pass through Ramnagar and Parsa to join the Kosi, breached the Dhausahi-Murli embankment and devastated the villages mentioned above, first with floodwaters and later by sand. Not only the crops were lost, the seeds were also not available anymore. Crops in all but one panchayat of Phulparas suffered the damages and Siswar, Kalapatti, Dhamdiha. Jagatpur, Suggapatti, Sujaulia, Garhi Tolla, Bel Mohan; Navani and Sangram suffered most. A demand was made by the people to look into the failure of the embankment and a demand to repair the same was made once again. The incident led to a fresh demand for building of embankments along the river.

Tej Narayan Jha (1968), MLA, reminded the Government of the hardships faced by the people in 6-7 circles of Phulparas. He said, '...Flood ruins 6-7 circles; it breaches roads and demolishes railway lines. But there is no attempt to control the river. A vast area is devastated. Last year, the coalition government acted swiftly on the scheme. The chief engineer visited the sites and a project was prepared to save the area from the Bhutahi Balan. It is the duty of the government to place the proposal before the Central Government, take the approval of the Planning Commission, and arrange for the resources so that the people of the area are protected.

The Government of Bihar yielded to the demand to an extent, in 1969, but faced a resource crunch. Bilat Paswan MLA raised the question of the safety and security of the 50 villages in the thanas of Laukaha and Phulparas against the attacks of the Bhutahi Balan in the Vidhan Sabha and in reply to that question, the Irrigation Minister of Bihar issued a statement, `...the plans have not been sanctioned and whether there will be any savings in the allocations made for flood control in the Fourth Five-Year Plan is also not known. Even if there is some saving, it is difficult to say at this stage whether the scheme can be taken up.

The floods of 1968 were almost repeated in 1970 but in 1971, the Bhutahi Balan started writing new episodes of devastation. The flood that hit the villages on the 12th June broke all past records. A major portion of the Jhanjharpur-Khutauna road was submerged under floodwaters and the traffic suspended for many days. The residents of Brahmapur village cut the road to drain out the accumulated water and faced trial later for this 'criminal act'. Dhanik Lal Mandal, then an MLA in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha, who later became a Central Minister and Governor of Haryana demanded speedy implementation of the scheme, which had been approved by Dr. K.L.Rao, Central Minister for Irrigation, a year earlier. The state government still had not made up its mind to approve the scheme.

It is the irony of Governance that until and unless people force the Government to take a particular scheme in any area, no work is done. The proposals of building embankments on the Bhutahi Balan were stretched up to 1970s. The Irrigation Department of the Government of Bihar, in 1970, proposed to construct an embankment on the west bank of the Bhutahi Balan to protect parts of Laukaha, Phulparas, Ghoghardiha, Jhanjharpur, and Madhepur blocks of Darbhanga District.

Elsewhere, at Ghonghepur, the western Kosi embankment is terminated. This point is 54 kilometers south of Kisunipatti. The floodwaters of the Kosi used to take a U-turn here and inundate many villages west of the western Kosi embankment. The embankments of Kamla were built from Jainagar to Darjia, in early 1960s, and if a flood occurred in the Kosi, the Kamla waters would not find passage and spread in the same area that was inundated by the backwaters of the Kosi. Thus, the area between the Kosi and the Kamla embankments, although technically free from floods of both, faced severe drainage congestion. The floodwaters of the Bhutahi Balan added insult to injury in this region. This led to an added momentum of the demand for flood protection and the embankments on the Bhutahi Balan.

Further, the area lying to the west of the Bhutahi Balan was designed to receive irrigation from the Western Kosi Canal (WKC), and to meet the needs of irrigation, the area had to be made flood free for which embankments would be needed. Under these compelling parameters, the Bhutahi Balan Embankment scheme was prepared in 1970 and an embankment 33.6 kilometers in length, only on the western bank of the river was proposed. The embankment would start from Laukaha, near Indo-Nepal border, and end up near Parsa on the Ghoghardiha-Nirmali Railway line that acted as western Kosi embankment in that region.

Having worked so hard to prepare the Project Report of the Bhutahi Balan embankment Scheme, it took two more years for the Government to announce that the work on this scheme would now start. On the 18th May 1972, Radha Nandan Jha made a statement in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha that a 33.6 kilometers long embankment would be built on the western bank of the Bhutahi Balan River, from Laukaha to Gorgama, and that the work on the scheme would start in the same financial year.

Despite the announcement of the Government, it took two more years to begin the work and the construction could start only in 1974. There was a lot of confusion regarding status of the embankment proposed to be built only on the western bank of the river. The villages located on the eastern side of the river were worried because all the waters of the Bhutahi Balan, after being prevented from spilling on to the west, would hit them. Their voices were throttled because soon after works on the embankment started; Indira Gandhi clamped a state of emergency on the nation, which made any resistance to the project impossible.

The project report of the Bhutahi Balan explicitly suggests that there are many streams on the east of the Bhutahi Balan that start rising in the rainy season. The embankment on the eastern side was not proposed because, according to the Irrigation Department, the embankment on the west bank was not likely to have any significant adverse impact there. This assumption of the engineers was proved wrong as the problems increased on the eastern side subsequent to the construction of the western embankment. In the proposal, it was also written clearly that the bridge nos: 133 to 140, on the Nirmali-Ghoghardiha rail-section, whose waterway width is 800 feet (244 meters) had a cross-section sufficient to allow four times the maximum observed discharge of the Bhutahi Balan to pass through. The report said that after construction of the western embankment, the river would stabilize and its floodwater would pass easily through these bridges. It added that it would be possible to assess the area likely to be flooded on the eastern bank then and, if needed, the embankment would be built on that side, too.

The proposed western embankment on the Bhutahi Balan, which would free 0.52 lakh hectares (1.28 lakh acres) from floods, was estimated to cost Rs.9.19 million. The expected return was estimated to be Rs. 3.28 per one rupee invested.

5. Post Construction Scenarios

The western embankment of the Bhutahi Balan was completed during 1974-78 in a stretch of about 30 kilometers, from Laukaha to Parsa. When the western embankment was completed, two distinct phenomena were observed: the river continued to mount pressure on to the west with frequent breaches in the embankment and, if this embankment was intact, the river water spread on the other side in the east, flooding the villages there. Soon, about 54 villages on the eastern side came under permanent threat of the Bhutahi Balan. Incidentally almost half of these villages were located south of Nirmali-Ghoghardiha rail line within the Kosi embankments. North of this railway line the remaining villages although, they had been protected from the floods of the Kosi, were now facing the wrath of the Bhutahi Balan. It was then suggested that the river should also be embanked on the other side, on the east, and the Government lost no time in accepting the proposal. It is altogether a different matter at the Government had invited trouble for itself by ascending to the demands of the embankment on the eastern side of the river. Raising the issue of the eastern Bhutahi Balan embankment, Devendra Prasad Yadav MLA said, on the 4th July 1977 in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha '...The western embankment is ready but the eastern embankment is not. The result is that every year so many villages are inundated. Thousands of houses are washed away or demolished. The villages like Mahathaur Phulkahi, Nan Patti, Hanuman Nagar, Bairiahi, Ramnagar, Suriyahi. Giddha, Jahiipatti, Parsa and Basuari suffer deluge every year and the Government should do something to protect these villages.

The Water Resources Department WRD of the State had sanctioned first phase of the embankment, having a length of 16 kilometers on the eastern side of the river, on the 6th December 1978 wide its letter no: 10058. The embankment would extend from Lakshmipur to Tengrar. The estimated cost of this component was Rs. 8.152 million and its construction was completed by 1980. Participating in the debate of the Vidhan Sabha, Surendra Yadav (1980) expressed dissatisfaction over the progress and complained..., the Bhutahi only talks about the flood control. There are 54 villages in that area, which suffer the floods every year. The work on the Bhutahi Balan embankments started from Lakshmipur to Tengrar. The work on the second phase of the embankment should have started immediately after the first phase was over and the government ought to have completed this work by June 1980 but that has not happened.

In fact, the government had sanctioned second phase of the construction of the eastern embankment, from Tengrar to Parsa on the 14th December 1979 vide its letter no, A/321. This work was estimated to cost Rs. 9.52 million and was expected that its construction would be completed by June 1980. This, however, did not happen because there was a severe difference of opinion between the people who lived west of western embankment and those who would now be located east of the eastern embankment The reason was simple. The natural thrust of the river was on the western embankment and if the river were embanked on the east, the floodwater would be prevented from spilling on that side, endangering the western embankment. In that case, the people living in the so-called flood protected countryside of the western embankment would be threatened by breaches in the embankment. They opposed any construction or even extension of the embankment on the east. On the other hand, if the embankment was not built, the people living the 54 villages were likely to suffer perpetually. The residents of these villages wanted the eastern embankment to be built up to Parsa and then joined with the Nirmali-Ghoghardiha railway line. Whether the eastern embankment was extended up to Parsa or not, seeds of discontent were sown and one section of the people would always remain unhappy. Besides, following the construction of the eastern embankment, the plight of the people located within the Kosi embankments and hit by the flow of the Bhutahi, Balan would not change. There was also a possibility that some villages would be trapped within the two embankments of the Bhutahi Balan and these people, too, never liked that to happen. The most interesting part of this embankment episode was that when Bilat Paswan wanted the embankments to be built (1969), he had mentioned that some 50 villages would be saved from floods of the Bhutahi Balan. It was now the turn of 54 new villages that joined the inundation list after the construction of the western embankment. The flood problem was, thus, not solved; it was only shifted to other villages.

With some modifications, the Government, on the 29th September 1981, submitted a fresh proposal to the Ganga Flood Control Commission GFCC for sanction of a 30 kilometers long embankment on the eastern bank of the Bhutahi Balan, from the Indo-Nepal border near Laukaha to Parsa Halt railway station on the Nirmali-Jhanjharpur railway line. This scheme had a budget tag of Rs. 25.639 million.

The Railway authorities had reservations about this proposal and did not want the embankment to be joined to the railway-line at Parsa, because, they felt it would endanger the rail-line. Jagannath Mishra, then Chief Minister, assured Surendra Yadav MLA once again (1982) '...We are not giving any time limit, but we will complete the construction of the eastern Bhutahi Balan embankment, from Tengrar to Parsa Halt! Nothing happened for quite sometime and a new assurance came from the then Chief Minister, Bindeshwari Dubey, on 25th May 1986, when he announced in a public meeting at Ghoghardiha that the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan would be built soon.

But when no action was taken by GFCC and the Ministry of Planning to build the embankment till 1991, Kripa Nath Pathak MLC brought a call-attention notice in the Bihar Legislative Council. Replying to the motion, Jagadanand Singh, Minister for Water Resources said that in view of the objections raised by the Railway authorities it was decided that the embankment be first for constructed first for a length of 16 kilometer. Laukaha to Tengrar. In the second phase, the embankments should be extended from Tengrar to 5 kilometers north of the railway line. Railways would object to such a construction. In anticipation that the other concerned departments would accord the sanction, the WRD, wide its letter no: 3985 dated 17th February 1982, gave orders to begin the construction. The eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan was completed from Tengrar (at 16 kilometers) to Narahia (at 21.5 kilometers); thus, in the second phase. A sum of Rs. 18.7 million was spent on this construction. Between 21.5 kilometers and the rail-line, however, the gap remained.

The people who lived on the countryside of the western embankment and those likely to be trapped within the embankments object to any further extension of the eastern embankment beyond 21.5 kilometers. In the meantime in 1989, the district administration constructed a ringbandh to protect Pubaria Tol, the eastern hamlet of Phulparas, with funds available from Jawahar Rozgar Yojna. This village, located between the western embankment of the Bhutahi Balan and the river, was protected, thus, from the onslaughts of the Bhutahi Balan. Obviously, no permission was taken from the WRD of the state for this work and the waterway available for the river flow was greatly reduced. It also resulted in the river being further pushed to the eastern side, toward Narahia. This ringbandh, too, has breached at many places now but still it gives some sense of security to those living within the ringbandh.

Due to the breaches in the incomplete eastern embankment and mostly due to the gap beyond 21.5 kilometers till the railway line, the flood situation in the villages located on the eastern bank has significantly deteriorated as the floodwaters take a U-turn near Narahia and submerge the villages there, The people might have braved the impact of inundation but the accompanying sand deposition has made their lives miserable. Because of sand casting, agriculture has faced irreparable damage in the villages of Narahia, Suriahi; Musaharnia, Bairiahi, Auraha, Bhutaha, Ratansera, Dhabahi, Kuriban, Jhitki Basuari, Nan Patti, Sakhua; Ramnagar, Chhajana-Majhora, Parsa Dhankhore, Mujiasi and Mathia.

Many houses are now sinking in the sand and the floodwater stays for a much longer period. In Narahia, almost every house is cast with a thick bed of sand and that has become an annual feature. Road communication to the villages has suffered immensely. The village had two rice mills, which do not function any more and the rice trade in this village has come to a standstill. The temple in the village is half-sunk in sand and the school building has become unfit for human occupation. The people, in these villages, want the embankment to be extended down south, to the extent possible, so that they would get some relief from the floodwater that turns back from where the eastern embankment ends. It will also provide them relief from the accompanying sand. The state Government is not in a position to extend it beyond one kilometer because the railway authorities will not allow that to happen. Later, the State Government permitted extension of 1.75 kilometers, up to 23.28 kilometers but it cannot take unilateral decision beyond 25th kilometer. The State Government allocated a sum of Rs. 1.05 lakhs, in 1999, for studying the extension of the embankment up to the rail-line and demonstrated amply that it was interested in extending the embankment.

There are apprehensions about the impact of the proposed 1.75-kilometer length of the embankment, too. The villages that are likely to be located within the embankments and in the countryside of the western embankment feel that if the eastern embankment were extended even marginally, the spreading of the floodwaters on to the east would be hampered and the river will attack the western embankment more vigorously. The river behaviour will put them to inconvenience and they are not prepared to sacrifice their interests. The call-attention motion of Kripa Nath Pathak (1991) had an open threat in it to the Government that the villages that had been suffering, had constituted a front called Bhutahi Balan Purbi Tatbandh Nirman Sangharsh Samiti (Bhutahi Balan Eastern Embankment Construction Committee) and were ready to take to streets. If the Government did not concede to their demands, the people would be forced to agitate and would block the road and the rail traffic. Jagadanand Singh, minister of WRD Government of Bihar (1991) had assured him, ‘… We will build and if that is not done, the villages that you have mentioned would be filled with sand. We accept the details given by you and, to save the situation, we will build the embankments up to 22.5 kilometers this year and, up to 25 kilometers, the next year. The gap that will still be left, we shall build it with the consent of the Government of India and the Railway Department. The Water Resources Minister hinted lilt there were some obstacles at the work site and they have been removed and the construction work would start soon after the rains are over. A sum of Rs. 18.7 million was spent on the construction work till 1991.The minister also suggested that despite completion of the tender formalities and allocation of the contract, it had not been possible to extend the work beyond Narahia for the past two years.

In 1994-95; the tenders were floated and the works allotted for extension of the embankment beyond Narahia. By this time, the elections were announced and the model code of conduct was enforced. Consequently, the work was shelved even before it could start. An attempt was made once again in 1996, because an assurance was given in the Vidhan Sabha that the work on the embankment beyond Narahia would be completed soon. The WRD took the initiative to start the work in January but those who opposed the embankment obstructed work and even manhandled engineers. The engineers were not prepared to face such a situation and refused to work unless they were provided with full security. They informed the Secretary of their department, at Patna, accordingly, who raised this issue at the administrative level. He also directed the district administration that adequate security should be provided to the technical personnel and the district administration informed the secretary that arrangement had been made at the work site. But the issue had become so sensitive that despite best arrangements of security. law and order situation was precarious and unpredictable.

The Collector informed the Commissioner of Darbhanga that problems would have to be faced in acquiring land while the Water Resources Minister had assured the local MLA, Dev Nath Yadav, that the work on the 1.75-kilometer long embankment costing Rs. 1 .5 million would start soon. If any problem came up in construction, it would be resolved with the help of the district administration.

6. Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre...

Such help was needed on the 1st February 1996 when the engineers, overseers and the other staff of the WRD arrived at the site to extend the embankment beyond Narahia. An irate mob at the work site greeted them and asked them to go back and warned them of dire consequences if they did not comply with their instructions. The mob also threatened to set their jeep on fire. The work was stopped and everybody went back. The engineers blamed the district administration that it did not provide the security and the district administration, in turn, called the allegations as false.

Bhutahi Balan Purbi Tatbandh Nirman Sangharsh Samiti was engaged in its own way to press for its demands. lt, however, suffered from the disadvantage that Phulparas, a politically very powerful village, was on the other side of the fence and commanded clout to influence decisions. Phulparas has produced many MPs, MLAs and ministers and no Sangharsh Samiti could match the political might of this small town, the members feel. See Box below (We Cannot Do Anything Even If We Want To).

It is interesting to note that Devendra Yadav, MP.

We cannot do anything even if we want to


Dev Narayan Kamat, (56), Mukhia—Ramnagar-Suriahi Panchayat, Block—Phulparas, Dist.—Madhubani


...The eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan is incomplete while the western embankment has been completed and it has been extended up to the railway line at Parsa. The eastern embankment has been terminated at Narahia and that has led to the virtual destruction of that village. Bhutahi Balan is, possibly, the only river in the world that has been embanked only on one side. If the Government was so keen to build the embankment, it should have built them on both sides of the river or, else, it should not have built them at all. But politics can swing the things the way it likes.


The Bhutahi Balan used to flow through the places where the Sub-divisional office, the Block office, the Registry and the Thana is now located. Now, this river has shifted to the east. Phulparas and its neighbouring villages have given many leaders like Dhanik Lal Mandal (Belha), who became a Central Minister and Governor; Devendra Prasad Yadav (Phulparas) another minister at the Center and Rasik Lal Yadav (Barhi), M.L.A. The Bhutahi Balan embankment was built to save these areas from its recurring floods. But whenever there was some move to construct the eastern embankment, there was opposition to it from people of Phulparas. The incomplete eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan offers little protection to the land located on the eastern side and some 54 villages located between the Bhutahi Balan and the Bihul bear the brunt of the floods contributed by Bhutahi Balan. Life between the western embankment of the Kosi and the Bhutahi Balan becomes 'unnatural' during the rainy season.

In 1978, Dhanik Lal Mandal, when he was the minister of state in the ministry of Home Affairs at Delhi, called a public meeting to discuss local development issues at Belha. In that meeting, a demand for the building of the eastern Bhutahi Balan embankment was raised. But one really does not know what made him say that the eastern embankment would be built, but only over his dead body. We were hurt hearing him say so. This embankment was built partly but the construction was stopped at Narahia. If this embankment were extended a bit further, more villages would have been benefited but devastation is in our fate.


There was a proposal to extend this. eastern embankment in 1995-96. This time, we had voted for Dev Nath Yadav to the Vidhan Sabha hoping that he would do something in the direction of extending the embankment further. He is also from Phulparas but he had promised that he would complete the embankment if he were elected to the Vidhan Sabha. This time the Government had given an assurance in the Vidhan Sabha, the WRD had sanctioned the extension of the eastern embankment, tendering and contracting formalities were complete then, and when the work was about to start, we also thought of offering shramdaan and people from affected villages reached the site with their spades and the baskets under the leadership of Dev Nath Babu. There were volunteers from Suriahi, Narahia, Bhabtiahi, Chhajna, Majhaura, Bairiahi, Musaharnia, Jahali Patti and Ratan Sera and their numbers must have been higher than one thousand. We had not anticipated any problem as all the formalities had been completed. When we reached the site, we found that there were people from Barhi and Phulparas to stall the work and they had come with full preparation. There was a fight between the pro and anti embankment groups while the administration remained a silent a spectator. Three persons from Ratan Sera were badly injured and one of them died later. We had gone there to offer shramdaan with our spades and baskets and had no intention of fighting anybody but the other side had come prepared. The result was that we got the beating though we were in greater in number and the work could not start.


The Collector of Madhubani was present there, engineers were there on the job, everything was in our favour and had the administration helped us, the embankment was sure to be built but we returned empty handed. What more can we tell about our misery? The river dumps sand up to a depth of 5 feet in one go. Houses get ruined and it becomes difficult to handle the cattle. We cannot do anything even if we want to.


I should silently face the fire and the floods, I should remain thirsty and sleep without meals, I should let my children remain deprived of education and my parents die for the want of medicines. If I do not raise any voice then i am a responsible citizen of this country. If I complain it to anybody then that becomes an unpardonable offence. If the son of a poor man complains that he was roughed up by a rich man's son, then his father also gets a bashing. That is in our tradition. I do not know, what freedom means to us other than the freedom of getting bashed up from time to time.


who was first to propose the embankment on the eastern side of the river in Vidhan Sabha, in 1977, suddenly turned against its construction. Dev Nath Yadav, MLA (1996), charged him of working against the interest of the people. In order to save a population of 10 thousands, he wanted to consign 60,000 people to the Bhutahi Balan. These two leaders were face to face with each other over the issue of the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan.

With so much of bitterness in the hearts of the people, for whom the embankment remained a dream, those who aimed to stall its construction were not too happy, either. See box : They trade in bogus erosion and false security.

They Trade in Bogus Erosion and False Security Here.

Hari Narayan Yadav (52), Mukhia Phulparas, Dist Madhubani.


"...In 1962-63, a small embankment was built on the Bhutahi Balan, which diverted the flow of the river, and this diverted stream directly hit the village of Radha Nandan Jha, former Speaker of the Bihar Vidhan Sabha. He still is a towering Congress leader and was, naturally, concerned about the developments. Lalit Narayan Mishra was an upcoming star in Indian politics then and it was decided with his help to prevent the Bhutahi Balan from shifting to west. That is how the embankments were built on the western bank of the river. I do not know, why they did not propose the embankment on the left side of the river, that time. The proposal was ready in 1970-71 but it took 1974 to start the work. The student's movement of Bihar was at its peak those days and they were opposed to the embanking of the Bhutahi Balan. They gave the slogan, 'Stop Building the Embankment- Do Not Harass the People'. There was a big public meeting of students and common people in Dhabaha Parti, which was attended by Parmeshwar Yadav and Dr. D.P.Yadav of Nirmali. The villages located on the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan had also opposed the embankment.


It was around this time that the 'emergency' was clamped and barring Congressmen, voices of all others were throttled. Political workers were arrested and put in jails and slowly the resistance melted. This embankment could be built only because of the 'emergency'. It could not have been built under normal circumstances. The impact of this embankment was felt in 1975 itself. In 1977-78, the Bhutahi Balan joined the Bihul and the very existence of Bairiahi was threatened. Bairiahi is a village with good connections and, in Narahia, there was money. The combination clicked and the demand for the embankment on the eastern side was made.


Karpoori Thakur came to power in 1977 and a committee was constituted under the chairmanship of N. Nagmani, Irrigation Commissioner, to look into the problems of the Bhutahi Balan. The main recommendation of this committee was that the Bhutahi Balan should be led to the Kosi, near Nirmali, along with the Dhanjaiya and the Bihul. Karpoori Government did not last long and with the fall of his Government, the Nagmani report, too, went in cold bag or it was suppressed.

Then came the new Government and the work on the eastern embankment started from Lakshmipur to Tengrar. The opposition to this embankment started building up as it moved forward. Residents of Phulparas were in the lead role in opposing and we had on our side the villages of Dhausahi, Goargama, half of Nan Patti Mallah Toli of Suriahi, Baluahi, Beldari, Chetharu Tol, Mujiasi, Dhankhore, Kalipur (Kamat) and Kisuni Patti. All these villages are located down the river. Besides, the land of the villages Ghoghardiha, Deorh, Brahmapur, Bathnaha and Belha also falls within the proposed embankments. The residents of these villages were also opposed to the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan. We all met Karpoori Thakur who was the leader of the opposition in the Vidhan Sabha then. He exercised his influence and the work on Lc embankment was stopped.


The situation here is such that every year both the parties remain busy throughout the earth cutting season in demonstrations, Dharna, processions, Rasta Roko and Rail Roko in support of their demands, some for starting the work and the remaining for stopping it. Karpoori Thakur had told Bindeshwari Dubey to bury this project for all times to come otherwise a population of 50,000 would be ruined and the agriculture would go to the dogs. He told him to get this issue thoroughly probed. Then came some Mr. Sharma, an engineer, to probe the things here. We asked him whether he had come to make some serious study or was it just a drama? The problem here was that the engineers never showed any visitor the Narahiai Bihul as the main channel. They always showed a dead channel of the river as the main channel. We showed both the channels to Sharma Ji and he was shocked to know how the things are manipulated here. We do not know what was his report but heard later that he had retired and with that ended one more chapter of the embankments.

As a matter of fact, they trade in bogus erosion and false security here where the engineers, the politicians and the contractors are equal partners. This all goes well in embankment construction. I do not remember the year, but there was a move to build the embankment between Tengrar and Mahathaur. When we got this news, there was a virtual panic here. I contacted the Mukhia of Mahathaur and invited him to the work site. In response to my call, contractors and criminals came to the site. We were hurt very deeply and the next day, we chased away the contractors. The criminals fled away, on their own. Then came the people from Bairiahi. Narahia. Bhabtiahi, Purab Nan Patti, Parsa. Basuari, Belha and Ratansera together to put pressure on us. I am a Gandhian and do not believe in violence. Dev Nath Babu (then MLA) had got the Assurance Committee constituted in Vidhan Sabha and he had a program that the members of the Assurance Committee would be present there and would ensure that the eastern embankment was built. If this embankment was built, our death was certain. We collected people by beating drums in a very short time and contacted Devendra Babu, MP, and told him that if the earth filling was not stopped, we would be ruined. In the meanwhile, police and the magistrate also arrived at the site. The magistrate was gheraoed by our women folk. The supporters of Dev Nath Babu blocked the movement of trains and we stopped the road traffic, in retaliation. We were threatened that next time the other side would return with arms and ammunitions We accepted the challenge and returned with traditional arms. The administration was present with ambulance as it had anticipated trouble. I, as a person, was under surveillance because the embankment builders believed that unless the Mukhia of Phulparas was arrested, the embankment could not be built.

We confronted the opponents with all our might and chased them away. Some drubbing also took place and the builders fled away leaving their arms behind. The people of Ratansera suffered a bit more of injuries. This entire tussle was useless and imposed on us. If we had not stopped the construction, the railways would have done that because their consent was also needed. We are fighting among ourselves for nothing because the embankment was not going to be built, anyway.'


The embankments are disputed all along their length, from Laukaha to Parsa. The western embankment has a history of breaches even north of the Western Kosi Canal WKC in Barmotar, Kharhuria and Madhwapur. People, too, cut this embankment quite often, sometimes to take water from the river and, sometimes, to drain the water into the river. Acute waterlogging takes place between western embankment and the WKC because the drainage line is very badly obstructed by these structures. The local villagers tell that if only they had the slightest inkling of the events to come, they would never allow the embankment or the canal to be built. 'We would have cut it right then, but if we do it now, the river will kill us' they suggest. These villages were cast with 4 feet deep sand following the breach of the western embankment in 1987.

7. Embankment-Ignorance or Conspiracy?

The mess of the Bhutahi Balan was created by a mistake, whether willful or otherwise, of building the embankment only on one side of the river. It has pitted people against each other although they may be having blood relations. It has created a conflicting situation in various hamlets of the same village also because of their locations in relation to the river and the embankment. II has created a rift between the WRD and the general administration. It further led to a competition between politicians and the political parties, the sole beneficiaries of this lapse as they are always on the lookout for issues and the unsettled Bhutahi Balan issue gave them that opportunity. It is the people who have suffered the risk of their livelihood.

Because the people did not know the consequences of the western Bhutahi Balan embankment, the resistance to it was not that vocal and the emergency helped the Government in building the same. The protesters ran the risk of being thrown behind the bars. If the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan were constructed simultaneously with the western embankment, there would not have been any problem. The way embankments breach all over the state during the flood season; the Bhutahi Balan embankments also would have breached wholesale, and nobody would blame the other side for this unfortunate occurring. Even now, the embankment is no way safe and breaches on both sides. Bhajnaha and Balan Patti are, probably, the two villages where the Bhutahi Balan embankment has not breached so far (till 2003). It is essential to tell, at this stage, that Basania and Balan Patti villages were located on the riverside of the western embankment, according to the original alignment.

These villages were having their allegiance to then ruling party with good contacts at right places. They lobbied with the powers that be and got the alignment of the embankment changed. They did not have to resort to any movement. These villages are now located on the countryside of the embankment. But, at all other places the breaches have taken place, from time to time. Still, the people believe that the embankment on the other side is sturdier than theirs and that the devastation that is caused on their side is much more pronounced than what it is on the other side.

It is possible that the railway authorities were not consulted at all when the western embankment was planned: the WRD made its own decision that the waterway between the bridge no 133 to bridge no 140 was sufficient for the floodwaters to pass through. There is no mention of any correspondence with the railway authorities in the Project Report (1970) of the Bhutahi Balan. Taking people on the either side of the river into confidence was ruled out because there had never been any precedence to inform or take the consent of the people in Water Resources Projects. The engineers did not take the cognizance of the possible impact of sand deposition on embankments. railway line and the bridges. In fact, they ignored sediment load and its impact in future when they asserted that the waterway was sufficient. The people, however, understand very well the consequence of the extension of the eastern embankment and they want to be heard. The WRD is having the last laugh having engaged the people on the either side of the river, one with a so called protection against the floods and the other aspiring to get one. in a never ending feud. See Box below (Everybody Needs Their Votes).

The entire area of the Bhutahi Balan is full of sand. Nobody knows when and where this river will carve a path for itself between two hamlets or two houses of a hamlet. Its behavior is pretty uncertain. Where the ditches would be formed or which field would get sand-cast is also not known. Roads and fields loose meaning in such cases. The meter gauge rail section between Kisuni Patti and Nirmali is in a precarious shape. The bed level of the river has reached the level of this rail line in major portion of the bridge. The rail bridges, which the Project Report said had enough waterways to pass four times the maximum discharge of the river, are defunct. Even the staunchest atheist would surely remember God while crossing these bridges. There are many bridges on the road that connects Ghoghardiha with Nirmali but every year river water passes over the road and the bridges; the train service between Ghoghardiha and Nirmali has to be suspended in many rounds. As the train services are discontinued, the entire stretch, from Ghoghardiha to Kunauli (Indo-Nepal Border), is cut off from rest of the world.

Everybody Needs Their Votes

Kripa Nath Pathak (55), former member of the Bihar Legislative Council


Says Kripa Nath Pathak (55), former member of the Bihar Legislative Council and a resident of Mansapur village, located on the eastern side of the river, in the Bhutahi Balan basin, '...When the embankment was built in 1970s, that was the need of the hour. People wanted it to be built and the influence of Lalit Babu worked in its favour. It was built as an emergency measure and I am not sure whether proper investigation or designs were carried out then. I am also not sure why the eastern embankment was not built at that time. We wrote to various departments raising the matter, raised questions in the Vidhan Sabha and Vidhan Parishad and even began a movement for constructing the eastern embankment. The embankment was built only after these efforts as the floodwaters of the river and its accompanying sand was bothering 54 villages on the eastern side of the river. We succeeded in building it from Lakshmipur to Narahia, but it got stopped there.

After the construction of the western embankment, the farmers on the eastern side of the river, who used to produce thousand maunds of paddy earlier, could hardly produce any. Now, they have to purchase grains for their survival. We, on the eastern side, also wanted flood protection and an embankment there. This is only partly completed. The embankment has to extend from Narahia to Parsa but that has not been done. This area was once the constituency of Karpoori Thakur who could not correct the situation although he was the Chief Minister. There are two reasons for this. The Railway Authorities object to the construction of the eastern embankment on the ground that the rail-bridge near Parsa is incapable of passing the discharge of the Bhutahi Balan and unless the bridge is extended further, it will not allow the WRD to build the embankment. Secondly, if the eastern embankment is built, some villages will get trapped between the western embankment of the Bhutahi Balan and the proposed extension of the eastern embankment. These villages do not want to be displaced. It is certain that Pubaria Tol of Phulparas, Gorgama, Parsa and Jahali Patti will be trapped, in any case, and will have to be rehabilitated. There may be other villages but that we will know it only when the alignment of the eastern embankment is finalized.


If the Government had been serious about the issue, it would have contacted the Railways and resolved the problem. I do not know the state of correspondence between the Bihar Government and the Railways but since nothing is happening then it is obvious that the sanction has not been received. Railways were demanding the cost of extension of the rail bridge from the Bihar Government, which it is not giving. The politics over this proposed extension of the eastern embankment is at its peak. Those 54 villages, which, get flooded due to the western embankment of the Bhutahi Balan, vote en masse, irrespective of caste or creed, small or big, in the hope to get their demands fulfilled. Everybody needs their votes but in almost 20 years: nothing has been done for them.'


The changing course of the river and its sediment load has taught some difficult lessons to engineers. The most recent example of this is the R.C.C. bridge built on the road that connects Parsa to Mujiasi. In 1999-2000 the foundation laying ceremony of this bridge was done with much fanfare but never came the occasion to inaugurate the bridge. After the construction of the bridge was over, the river changed its course, bye-pass the bridge and stuffed it with sand. A sum of Rs. 1.6 million that was spent in its construction was lost as the piers got fully buried in sand.

The river has damaged surface communication system of the region that is fit only for bullock carts, tractors and pedestrians. Some enthusiasts drive motorcycles but it may get stuck anywhere on the way. The problem with Bhutahi Balan is that because of short-lived heavy currents, boats cannot ply in the river.

When the river was not embanked, it used to wander at will and the flood levels were tolerable. There were inconveniences but the river was never lethal. Crops were never fully lost, which is the case today. The river water has started attacking areas, which were not even touched when inundation occurred in the pre-embanking days. When the rains begin, villagers who live close to the river, send their women, children and cattle to their relatives because during the rains, food and fodder, both, become scarce. There is no access to medical facilities during the flood season and medicines become a symbol of aristocracy. Fuel is scarce and the risk of breaching of the embankments (where they exist) and inundation (where they do not) haunt the people throughout the months of the rainy season. After Durga Puja festival (October) is over people breathe a sigh of relief. Under the circumstances. if the external assistance is not available, immediate survival becomes difficult and without job opportunities in Delhi: Haryana and Punjab, the survival through the year becomes impossible. The ratio of those covered under any relief programme of the Government or the Ngo’s, to that of the population hit by any disaster is well known. The life only crawls under such circumstances.

8. Court Also Supports Extension

In the meanwhile Bhutahi Balan Purbi Tatbandh Nirman Sangharsh Sant' had filed a writ in the Patna High Court (Case No: CWJC-17717 of 1999) and requested the Honourable Court to intervene in the matter and to direct the Government of Bihar to take necessary action to construct the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan. A bench comprising of Mr. Justice Nagendra Rai and Mr. Justice R.S.Garg of the Hon. High Court of Patna, had ruled on the 3rd July 2003, as follows. '... From perusal of the counter affidavit, it appears that the Government has taken steps to complete the embankment. However, due to objections raised by the local public the embankment has not been completed. ...In our view, the State and its officers are not powerless to manage such a situation. Accordingly, we dispose of this writ application with a direction to the Commissioner, Water Resources Department to take all steps to complete the embankment and in case any resistance is made by the local people, the District Magistrate concerned will take steps to help the authority in completing the embankment. With aforesaid direction, this application stands disposed of.'

This judgment gave another tool in the hands of the embankment builders to strengthen their position but it is not clear whether the Railway Authorities have given their consent. The State Government has deposited a sum of Rs. 4.336 million on 31, March 1999, with the Land Acquisition Officer, Madhubani for acquiring land for the purpose of constructing the embankment.

Two separate writs were filed in the Patna High Court requesting Hon. Court to review its decision but the Hon. Court reaffirmed its judgment on the 6th April 2004 recommending extension of the eastern embankment. This judgment was passed on the petitions of (i) Bhutahi Balan Badh Samasya Samadhan Samiti vs. Government of Bihar and others and (ii) Bansi Lal Yadav vs. Government of Bihar and others. The petitioners had appealed to the Court to review its judgment of the 3rd July 2003 and further requested the court to take cognizance of the report of the technical committee constituted under the chairmanship of N. Nagmani IAS, and give final directions to the Government of Bihar in the wake of the desirability and need for the eastern embankment. The petitioners were of the view that the Nagmani Committee (1978-79) had ruled against the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan ana wanted the Hon. Court to issue directions based on the findings of this report. In their judgment Mr. Justice Nagendra Rai and Mr. Justice S.N.Hussain wrote, '...The stand of the State, on the other hand, is that no such Technical Expert Committee was constituted as urged on behalf of the petitioners, rather, the scheme for construction of embankment of Bhutahi Balan River was discussed in the 27th meeting of the Technical Advisory Committee on 23rd June 1979. That Committee was headed by then Commissioner of Irrigation Mr. N.Nagmani, IAS. The Committee did not oppose the construction of embankment, on the other hand, from the report of the Technical Advisory Committee it appears that it recommended for construction of Eastern embankment of Bhutahi Balan River in four phases.'

The judgment further says , '...Once the Government takes a policy decision either in the field of development or any other field then unless that policy suffers from breach of any statutory provision, the court will not interfere with such policy decision only on the ground that it will affect some persons, especially when by the said policy decision larger public interest is being served. In this case, from the statements made in the counter affidavit filed on behalf of the State, it appears that the scheme was approved as back as in the year 1979-80, major embankment has been constructed and only part of it has to be constructed which is not being constructed due to political interference and objections raised by villagers....this court does not find any illegality in proceeding with the same scheme. On the other hand, the scheme is necessary in larger public interest and to protect the people from flood.'

That marks the end of all legal formalities in the direction of construction of the embankment. Those opposed to the extension of the eastern embankment can still prey before the Supreme Court. It is not known, however, whether the Hon. High Court looked into the breach history of the western Bhutahi Balan embankment and sought explanation from the WRD of the state about the losses incurred, thus. It is obvious that when both the embankments are completed, the incidences of breaching will be on the rise. Only time will tell what steps are taken by the Government of Bihar and its officers in future. Indian Railways has a very important role in this entire dispute but it has not found any mention anywhere. It is opposed to the embankment as much as the local people are. but for a different reason. It has got a constitutional position also. The Government of Bihar will have to satisfy the Railways before it embarks up on the construction. It has been reported, just before going to the press, that an attempt was made in the middle of May 2004 to restart the construction work of the eastern embankment below Narahia. This effort met wet with the resistance of the local people once again and the work had to be stopped.

9. The Last Judgment Will Come From The River

The Bhutahi Balan jeers at the engineers, politicians and the contractors. They could not tame it by embanking it and it became fiercer when tampered with. There is no possibility of building a high dam. The ill famed escape route of the engineers and politicians, on the Bhutahi Balan because there is no such site anywhere. The river will treat any obstruction in its path in the way it has treated Western Kosi Canal by depositing deep sand and making it virtually defunct.

There is no solution in sight to the problems posed by the river. It is still apprehended that the people and the Railways would oppose the construction or extension of the eastern embankment. The entire sand would be trapped and deposited within the embankments when completed. This would raise the riverbed level at an alarming rate and force the Government to raise the height of the embankments on the Bhutahi Balan. This would further endanger the embankment and the railway line. The villages that are located along the Bhutahi Balan within the Kosi, embankments will suffer more because the water will, hit them like a bullet in the event of the Bhutahi Balan embankment remaining intact.

And, who will guarantee that the extended eastern Bhutahi Balan embankment would not breach? And if the eastern embankment is not extended between Narahia and Parsa, then the Government will have to dangle the carrots of the eastern embankment to the people of the 54 villages for a long time to come. The same is being done for the last 20 years, anyway. The third possibility is that the western embankment be done away with. This will, obviously, lead to violent protests from the villages hitherto 'protected' by the embankment just as it happened in 1995 and 1996 when the work on the eastern embankment was started near Narahia. This idea will have to be dropped.

The fourth choice is that the status quo is maintained and let the Bhutahi Balan keep damaging the western embankment regularly and in such a way that a situation arises that it forces the Government to find some alternative that is acceptable to all. That solution, however, is not easy to find because the safety and security of the western Kosi embankment and the Ghoghardiha-Nirmali rail line depends solely on the behaviour of the Bhutahi Balan. The government is constrained by circumstances and is duty-bound to keep the western embankment of the Bhutahi Balan in order, which means that there will be no respite for the people of the said 54 villages.

10. Will Traditional Methods Of Coping With Floods Help?

Tradition has it that the floodwater should be spread on to as vast an area as possible to affect moderation of floods and reduce the flood depths, allow the nutrients contained in the floodwaters to spread over a large area, allow the rivers to perform their functions of land building, and prevent coarse contents in the sediment to remain in the river bed as normal spilling rivers would permit only the lighter top layer of river water, rich in nutrient contents, to exit. This would result in a good monsoon crop for which there were traditional varieties of paddy seeds to tolerate varying depths of inundation. The left over moisture content of the soil would ensure a good Rabi crop of pulses and oil seeds. There used to be some problems during the monsoon season but the river never became lethal. That is how our forefathers have lived in harmony with rivers and their floods. That was the reason why people used to prey to the river to come to their areas and that is how the old lady Labania used to succeed in bringing fire to her home even in the flood season, which is not possible now.

Unfortunately, modern science does not take into consideration these facts and is endowed with the arrogance of conquering nature. It only sees water in the river but does not take much cognizance of the silt and sand in it. That is the reason for the rising bed level of the rivers within the embankments and the reduced capacities and life of the large reservoirs. Neither the shortcoming of the flood control technologies is ever discussed in public nor the people are ever cautioned about the fall out of using such technologies and the price that the society will have to pay at a later date or at a different place. Only thing that the people are told is that all their problems would be solved after the cornpletion of the scheme. All this is made possible with the help of marking the documents as 'classified Even in the case of Bhutahi Balan, half the population of the affected area knew, for the past 25 years. that the Nagmani Report had recommended against the eastern embankment of the Bhutahi Balan. Karpoori Thakur, who had represented Phulparas in Bihar Vidhan Sabha and was thrice chief minister of the State, also knew the same thing. The truth, however, nobody knows because nobody has seen the report. it is amazing to note how so many people, for such a long time, could be kept in dark. And it is no less intriguing as to how did Jagannath Mishra know, in 1982, that it was not wise to give any date for completing the Bhutahi Balan embankments?

It is one of the wonders of modern science that when it solves one problem, it gives rise to many others. It then searches the solution of the problems created by its own doing and the march continues. It constructed embankments on the Kosi to solve the Kosi Problem. That led to the need of constructing sluice gates on the embankments for the tributaries to pass through. Then the rail line had to be raised and western embankment was clamped on the Bhutahi Balan. Then came the turn of eastern embankment and the extension of the rail bridge at Parsa. One does not know where the march will stop. It also suits the politicians to promise new projects always.

11. Rehabilitation Package For Those Likely To Be Trapped Within Embankments

This is a very tricky issue and there is every possibility that those likely to be trapped within the embankments will be denied fair deal as the track record of Bihar Government has never been favourable to the oustees of the projects. The Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikaran (Kosi Sufferers Development Authority), established after 30 years of the construction of the embankments, in 1987, is a defunct body. Most of the victims of the Kosi embankments do not know where the office of the Pradhikar is located. This holds true for many of the official institutions, too. It is a fact that rehabilitation sites for many villages trapped within the Kosi embankments, constructed around fifty years ago, are not yet acquired. Parsa Madho, a village located within the Kosi embankments in the Kishanpur block of Supaul district, is an example of this callousness. It can send a member to the Bihar Vidhan Sabha but cannot get a rehabilitation site for itself.

Rehabilitation in the Bagmati, the Kamla and the Mahananda basins is in shambles and the people there were given just a shifting allowance, ranging from As. 200 to Rs. 500 to the rehabilitation sites and most of the displaced persons have not received the land papers yet. No grants were given to the oustees to build their houses. Their only source of livelihood, agriculture, remains within the embankments and is always exposed to the wrath of the river with nobody to look after it. One only wishes that the same thing is not repeated in the case of Bhutahi Balan. If the people fall into the trap of shifting first and rehabilitation later, they will never get the justice.

12. Need For Caution

It is need of the hour for the people living in the Bhutahi Balan basin to ensure,

(a) The Water Resource Department of the State and its engineers should be made accountable for any breaches that would occur in the eastern or western embankment of the Bhutahi Balan, at least, now onwards. All the 54 villages that are hit by the Bhutahi Balan would get the protection assured by the Hon. High Court of Patna, after the construction of the eastern embankment from Narahia to Parsa with the hard earned resources of the public. In case of a breach in the embankment, all the losses incurred by the local people will have to be compensated by the Government of Bihar and its WRD.

(b) The embankment victims should know, in advance, which officer of the State should be contacted in case there is a flood in the area and what will be the procedure for claiming the compensation in case there is a breach, of the embankment on either side of the river or a continued waterlogging.

(c) The Water Resource Department should display, at important places, the costs, the area protected by such embankments and the benefits likely to be accrued by such construction. It is the responsibility of the local struggling groups that they resolve their differences and work for a common goal that it is their right to get the benefits assured by the Government and they should ensure it's compliance.

(d) Rehabilitation of the villages likely to be trapped within the two embankments of the Bhutahi Balan should precede the construction of the embankment.

13. Conclusion

The Government of Bihar, having constructed the embankment on the western side of the Bhutahi Balan, has tied a snake around the necks of the people in the basin along with that of its own. It would have been better that the Government had evaluated the performance of the existing embankments and taken a decision on the findings of such a study. This study would have revealed the effectiveness of the existing embankments in the backdrop of claims made in the Project Report. The claim that there would be a return of Rs. 3.28 against an investment of every rupee should have been verified. A similar assessment is needed of the claim that four times the maximum discharge of the Bhutahi Balan would pass through the bridge nos: 133-140 without any difficulty. The railways should also come out with their position very clearly in the matter. This evaluation would have revealed the reasons for straying from the target and fixed the responsibility for the lapses, if any. What were the steps needed to improve the situation? Without knowing all these facts and without planning for rehabilitation for those who are likely to be trapped within the two embankments of the Bhutahi Balan, if the eastern embankment is extended any further, the status quo will be maintained.

When the problem related to the river is so vast and wide. to conclude that disaster management and relief distribution is the only solution, would be a highly controversial inference and it is a matter of serious discussion.

What all has been done so far to tame the river and what is being proposed at the moment, amounts to a witchcraft to tame a river that behaves like a ghost. It is about the time that the river engineers are reminded that the problem lies not in routing the water but routing the sand. Unless that is done, engineering would be reduced to witchery. Until then, there is no other option than to tolerate the continued hissing of the snake silently. The final verdict, however, will come from the river and one will have to wait for that to happen.

(Compiled from the forthcoming book 'Between the Devil and the Deep Sea' Dinesh Kumar Mishra)


भुतही नदी और तकनीकी झाड़-फूंक

(इस पुस्तक के अन्य अध्यायों को पढ़ने के लिये कृपया आलेख के लिंक पर क्लिक करें।)


भुतही नदी और तकनीकी झाड़-फूंक


Story of a ghost river and engineering witchcraft


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