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Infochange Magazine, 01 Jan 2009
Kosi tragedy poses serious livelihood challenge
Anosh Malekar
Five months after the Kosi deluge of August 2008, fields remain waterlogged, boats are still plying in paddy fields and thousands have lost their livelihoods as their cultivable lands have been permanently ruined. Around 500,000 people are believed to have migrated in search of livelihood

The Bihar government began distributing the second round of relief to the Kosi flood-affected on January 5, 2009. The relief, being distributed at special camps, is expected to include one quintal of foodgrains worth Rs 1,590 and Rs 250 in cash to each family. Another Rs 250 will be given from the CM’s Relief Fund for purchase of blankets, announced Chief Minister Nitish Kumar from his official resident on New Year’s Day. There is also a special package for farmers: an agricultural input subsidy of Rs 4,000 per hectare.

The world might have forgotten the Kosi deluge of August 2008 in the aftermath of the recent Mumbai terror attacks, but the suffering of the people in Bihar continues. In the immediate aftermath of the floods, the Centre declared it a national calamity. Apart from rendering some 3 million homeless, the floods washed away farmland boundaries as the river changed its course due to a breach in the barrage on the Kosi built in the 1950s on the Indo-Nepal border.

According to some reports, the river has shifted over 120 km eastwards, going back to the course it had abandoned more than 200 years ago. Fields in the flood-affected districts of Bihar remain waterlogged at many places nearly five months after the deluge. Boats are still plying in the paddy fields and farmers wonder whether the water will recede for another couple of months.

The fact is their only source of income — the paddy fields — may have been lost forever. Madhepura district magistrate Atish Chandra says a survey to confirm the loss of cultivable lands is still on. The district administration does not have a figure for land lost permanently to the floods. But according to the Bihar government’s crisis management department, the floods have ruined thousands of hectares in 11 blocks under 140 panchayats. Some 119,270 hectares of cultivable land may have disappeared under water in this one district alone.

With so much farmland rendered barren, there is a serious livelihood crisis for the people in the vast area adjoining the river. 

Dinesh Kumar Mishra of Barh Mukti Abhiyan, who has been campaigning on the flood issues for years, in a note with a historical context of flooding in the Kosi basin, says: “…….The worst is yet to come. When the water recedes, the people will get to know how much of their land is sandcast, how much has gone under waterlogging. That is the time they will come to know that the kharif is already lost and the chances of rabi also may not be there as moisture of the land will not allow for ploughing operations and without ploughing no agriculture will be possible.”

A recent report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, says unlike other rivers, which bring fertile silt with them, the Kosi brings coarse sand and gravel from its upper reaches. This, the report warns, is bound to result in a number of problems, including barren tracts of land.

The report titled ‘Disaster in Bihar’ prepared by a four-member research team led by Dr Manish Kumar Jha after a five-day visit to the flood-affected districts of Saharsa, Supaul and Madhepura, says daily survival is likely to emerge as a major issue because Bihar is densely populated and the government does not have enough resources to create alternative livelihoods for the affected people.

The TISS report has suggested that livelihoods will have to be completely reconstructed. The floods have also washed away the demarcations on farmlands through which fields are identified and separated. In the absence of proper land records, it will be difficult to identify and demarcate the fields. This will mean a large number of land disputes and litigations. And the socially affluent and politically powerful individuals and groups can become beneficiaries of such a situation. 

A large number of people from the Kosi region are known to migrate annually to Delhi and Mumbai in search of menial jobs and to rural Punjab as agricultural labour. After the latest calamity, no less than 500,000 people may have already left the region, says a release by the Kosi Nav Nirman Abhiyan. There is in fact a special train dedicated to the migrant workers, the Amrapali Express from Bihar to Punjab. The migrations triggered by the Kosi floods are going to have a devastating impact on many families, especially women and children and their overall socio-economic situation, says the Abhiyan, underlining the need for migration-reducing income-generation activities.

The Abhiyan says it is planning to harness the widely available local resources of bamboo and banana for income-generation and employment activities. This is expected to prevent migration and create self-reliant employment for at least some people. “Even as we try to reach out with our relief, the focus shall remain on getting the government and the district and local administration in various districts and blocks to provide all facilities at the camps and undertake long-term initiatives to rebuild people's lives,” the Abhiyan says. 

The Abhiyan feels one important area will be implementation of the NREGA in the different districts affected by the Kosi calamity and the development of a participatory model of employment in rural areas. Affected people can be involved in the reconstruction of roads, small check dams, and public utilities that have either been partly or fully damaged. People can also work on the improvement of their damaged houses and civil structures. “We have demanded 300 days of work under NREGA in all the Kosi-affected areas,” says the Abhiyan, a network of various NGOs (local, state and national) to streamline and avoid duplication of efforts.

Social activists began to focus on alternative income-generation in the Kosi region in November 2008. Despite evacuation efforts by the army, 60-70% of the flood-affected people stayed back to safeguard their livestock and property. Livestock is the only means of livelihood for people in many of these areas. Village-level discussions are on as to what kind of work the villagers would want to take up, in keeping with local conditions and available resources.

The Abhiyan has also proposed a Kosi Relief and Reconstruction Action Plan (2008-2009) to empower people to exercise their rights over their entitlements under various government schemes and to strengthen people-centric groups through sustainable livelihood-focused programmes and implementation of NREGA. These are among several other measures being planned to revive the local economy of the affected communities. 

Meanwhile, the government’s flood assistance has left much to be desired. On January 3, desperate flood victims broke into a government store in Supaul district and stole foodgrain to protest against the inadequate assistance provided to them. The foodgrain looted from the godown was meant for distribution under various government schemes, including the school mid-day meal.

Many flood victims claim that even months after the floods, they have not been provided adequate relief. In a bid to show the government their disappointment, many took to blocking highways, rail tracks and looting foodgrain from shops as 2008 came to a close. 

Professor M S Swaminathan, agricultural analyst and now a member of the Rajya Sabha, had underlined the need to formulate a “beyond the floods” action plan soon after the tragedy. “In the case of the Bihar floods, the immediate challenge will be agricultural rehabilitation, since agriculture including crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, agro-forestry and agro-processing comprise the backbone of the livelihood security system in over 80% of the areas affected by the Kosi.” 

In November 2008 the Bihar government approved a Rs 14,808.95-crore multi-purpose Kosi Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Policy 2008. The stated objective is to rehabilitate and reconstruct the devastated areas of the six flood-affected districts, besides channelising the funds donated to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund for proper utilisation.

The state government has also demanded the 13th Finance Commission’s assistance in minimising the impact of the Kosi devastation and putting in place a comprehensive framework of flood mitigation measures. It has urged the panel to consolidate and reschedule its debts, besides providing resources which will enable it to bring its per capita development expenditure up to the national average by 2014-15. An amount of Rs 418,000 crore will be required for this.

But for the moment, the flood-affected have been left to battle the winter cold. The January 1 announcement by the chief minister to start the second installment of relief operations from January 5 is unlikely to help their situation. Blankets that were part of the earlier package are still to arrive at many of the camps.  


© 2009 InfoChange India News & Features.