Thanks to Bagmati Project, They Are on Roads for Forty Years

Guest blog by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra[1] (dkmishra108@gmail.com)

“We went to meet the collector to ask him whether we were the citizens of this country or not? If, because of the Bagmati Project, our citizenship is terminated, he should issue orders to us to leave the country and get settled in Nepal and we will go there” says the Mukhia of Masaha Alam of a village that was in the Bairgania block of Sitamarhi district of Bihar prior to the construction of the embankments on the Bagmati in 1971-72. The village had an area of 150 acres and 420 families according to 1971 census. Only 104 families have been settled till date[2] and the remaining 316 families in the village are still awaiting rehabilitation as they were trapped within the river and its right embankment then forty years ago and are literally on roads since the river was jacketed to prevent flooding of the plains in the river basin.

The Bagmati descends into the plains from the Shivpuri Range in the Himalayas and enters India in Sitamarhi district of North Bihar between Dheng and Bairgania railway stations on the Narkatiaganj-Sitamarhi Railway line. After passing through the districts of Sitamarhi, Sheohar, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Samastipur and Khagaria and traveling a distance of nearly 400 kilometers within India; it joins the Kosi near Badlaghat in Khagaria. Notorious for changing its course and flooding the plains, the river pays havoc with life and property in these districts during the rainy season.

In order to tame the vagaries of the river, it was embanked in its lower reaches of about 145 kilometers, from Sormarhat in Darbhanga till Badlaghat in Khagaria in 1950s.  No details are available about the number of villages or the families trapped within the embankments but the elders of the area tell that those were the days almost immediately after the independence and everybody wanted to do his bit for the country. Rehabilitation was, generally, a non-issue as people did not expect anything in return for the sacrifices made for the society. Some people were, however, given plots outside the embankments but nobody was given grant for building his house.

The upper reaches of the Bagmati, from the Indo-Nepal border till Runni Saidpur in Sitamarhi in a distance of about 55 kilometers were embanked in 1970s. This pair of embankments entrapped 95 villages within them with 14,881 families. By this time the enthusiasm for doing something for the country and the society had subsided as the people were getting disillusioned by development and a feeling had developed that they were systematically cheated in the name of development and the rehabilitation was farce. At least, that was the lesson from the rehabilitation of the embankment victims of the Kosi Project where over 45,000 families spread over 380 villages were trapped within the embankments and their rehabilitation was far from being complete. Embankment victims of this phase of the Bagmati Project were given plots of land to build their houses and a shifting allowance ranging from Rs. 300/- to Rs. 1500/- depending on the quality of the house that they had to abandon for taking their belongings to the rehabilitation sites. No grant was given to them for building their houses in the rehabilitation sites and they were supposed to cultivate their land trapped between the embankments while living in the rehabilitation sites. Even this unbelievable resettlement from today’s standards was not given so far to 1653 families scattered over fifteen villages and Masaha Alam is one among them.

Masaha Alam village settlement along the railway track (Photo by DK Mishra)

Masaha Alam village settlement along the railway track (Photo by DK Mishra)

Masaha Alam was one of the first villages to fall within the embankments as the construction work on the Bagmati Project was started in 1971-72. In the absence of any clear rehabilitation policy, most of the families were staying either in the village braving floods or had moved on to the embankment. The villagers tell that to get the shifting allowance or a rehabilitation plot allotted to them, it was customary those days to pay 10 per cent of the value of the land and shifting allowance as bribe to the officers of the Project but the residents of Masaha Alam did not succumb to such pressures although they had the example of adjacent village, Masaha Narottam, before them where the residents made the ‘offerings’ to the officers after the intervention of the Mukhia to get their ‘compensation’ timely from them. The Circle Officer of the Bairgania Circle had written a letter to the Rehabilitation Officer of the Bagmati Project about the pitiable condition of the residents of Masaha Alam (vide his letter no; 396 dated14-6-84) to do something for the hapless victims of the embankments and reminded him once again about the same on the 28th July 1984 through his letter no: 191 (Relief) but without any results as the ‘offerings’ were not made to him. According to the sources of the Bagmati Project, the rehabilitated families of Masaha Alam have been put in Bel, Dumarbanna, Bhakurhar and Nandwara within the Bairgania Ring Bundh. Construction of a ring bundh around villages trapped within the Lal Bakeya and the Bagmati was a part of this project and this area was going to be technically safe from the floods of any of these rivers.  The remaining 316 families were yet to be rehabilitated when I surveyed the area in May 2011. According to the villagers, 5 acres of land was acquired for their rehabilitation (2.5 acres each in Bhakurhar and Nandwara) and nearly 35 families are living on these plots each. Another 35 families must be living on their old homestead land within the village.  Some of the residents of this village, for whom it was impossible to stay in the original village, purchased land within the Bairgania Ring Bundh here and there after selling their lands or farm produce. These families live within the ring bundh under constant threat of flooding because of a breach in the embankments of the Lal Bakeya or the Bagmati or entry of water through the sluice gates provided in the ring bundh.

There was a proposal to purchase land in Bhakurhar for the remaining 316 families but the land owners of that village moved the High Court and got a stay order against any acquisition of land which was eventually stopped. These families are now living on the right embankment of the Bagmati, on either side of the rail line connecting Dheng to Bairgania or along a 20-feet wide strip of government land close to the right embankment of the Bagmati. All these locations are under illegal occupation liable to be vacated any time by railways or the Bagmati Project in the name of maintenance of the embankment or the police-contractor nexus. They are often chased by the police on the insinuation of engineers and contractors in the name of carrying repairs and raising and strengthening of the embankments. Says Nagendra Rai, a resident of the village, ‘…A child who was only of about ten years of age in 1972 must have attained the age of nearly 50 years by now. His father did not get any rehabilitation. Where would he go now with all his sons, and daughters-in-law? The daughters may have married and gone somewhere else but what would happen to the daughters-in–law? The brothers are separated, where would one get the land to live on? … Wheat was growing on it when the decision to acquire the land of Nandwara for rehabilitation was taken. No sooner the owner of the land came to know that the land would slip out of his hands, he sold it to many others overnight in small size plots. The wheat was harvested in the night and huts were constructed on that land and the cattle pegged before all the houses. People were scared that if they had to move they would not get land close to their fields and they purchased land paying Rs. 500 to Rs. 700 per kattha. The land owner got money from the farmers as well as from the government. That is how the rehabilitation at Nandwara was completed. There was a breach in the embankment near Nandwara in 1993 and the river washed away all that existed over this land and returned the plain land to the villagers. A deep ditch that was caused due to the breach still exists in the village in its pristine glory even after 18 years of the accident.’

Lately, the rehabilitation scene was taken over by brokers who used to console the villagers that if so much money was given to them, they would talk to the Rehabilitation Officer or the collector and so on. They even used to tell the villagers that so much of government land is lying fallow at this place or that place etc. The villagers went on giving money to those unscrupulous elements but they were a bottomless pit, never to be filled. When the villagers realized that they were being taken for a ride by the vested interests, just on the lines of the state government, they blocked the entry of such people to their village and decided to proceed themselves.

Mukhia of the village, Sita Ram Singh, now runs to all the offices with papers available within the village for a solution to the long pending rehabilitation issue. He told me then, ‘…Last year (2009-10), the officials had come to our village for removing us from the embankments where a sizable number of us are living. Winter was at its peak and we requested the officials if some polythene sheets be made available to us, we will vacate the embankment. The Police Inspector insisted that we should be vacating the embankments within 24 hours. We wanted three day’s time for vacating. The contractor and the police, none of them, were willing to give us that much of time. We defied our evacuation in chilling cold without any proper arrangements made for our living and sat for a dharna on the rail line connecting Dheng to Bairgania. There was no communication of Bairgania with rest of the world than this rail line then. A road bridge on the Bagmati is constructed recently and that has connected Sitamarhi to Bairgania. Our dharna snapped this link from all sides and the conflict gained momentum. The contractors and the police came to the village to get it evacuated and we confronted them with all our might. It led to a fist fight and the police had to resort to firing in ‘self-defense’. Cases were lodged from both sides in the court. We took a stand that let the government give us our rehabilitation land, we will go from here. The collector then phoned the SHO of the police station telling him not to harass us and vandalize our village. He told us not to leave the place where we were living on the embankment but also asked that we should not be blocking the movement of vehicles and the people. We told him that there was no room for the movement of four wheelers on the embankment to move but there was no problem with the movement of two wheelers as we also were using that sort of transport. We are here on the embankment after that…Rehabilitation is a very complex issue. The government wants to acquire land for rehabilitation but there is no land available nearby. Around 10-12 years ago, the collector of Sitamarhi called a meeting of the local BDO, Circle Officer, Rehabilitation Officer, Mukhias of Nandawara, Musa Chak and Masaha Alam to tell the villagers that they should accept lands in patches in Musa Chak, Nandwara, Bel and Dumar Banna but the villagers were not prepared to accept this proposal. The suggestion of the government was that it was tired of acquiring land at various stages and was not in a position to do anything anymore. The villagers asked them that despite all the powers vested in them, if the government was not in a position to do anything, it should tell what the villagers should do when they don’t have any authority? Nobody in the village is interested in taking any money from the government because they are all heavily indebted and the moment any money comes to their coffers, it would acquire wings and fly towards the safes of the moneylenders.’

The third phase of the project has started in 2006 to complete the embankments between Runni Saidpur and Sormar Hat and before the stories of commissions and omissions start coming from that reach of the embankment, will it not be proper to rehabilitate the families that were left in the second phase? Will the government that returned to power with thumping majority in November 2010 in Bihar take care of the backlog and people who were made to suffer since 1971 for no fault of theirs? Unfortunately, nothing has happened so far and the term of the Government is approaching its end (in Nov 2015) and the status quo is maintained. The displaced victims of Masaha Alam remain where they were even after the new Government took over in 2006.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra, Convenor – Barh Mukti Abhiyan

Sitaram Mukhia of Masaha Alam Village Photo by DK Mishra

Sitaram Mukhia of Masaha Alam Village Photo by DK Mishra

END NOTES:

[1] This is fourth part of a series of articles Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra has written for SANDRP based on his month long research at the National Library, Kolkata recently.

[2] When I surveyed the area in 2011.

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