People of north-Bihar frequently face the fury of floods
Stories of conflicts over scarcity of water are heard quite often. In this scenario it is rare to hear of conflicts that occur because of excess water that a community wants to share with the others. Scarcity of water is, generally, the ruling scenario and phrases like ‘water is life’ and ‘next World War will be fought for water’ etc are heard quite often. Many researches are being conducted to devise means of conflict resolution and to share scarce water. The scarcity debate extends to issues such as deforestation, pollution, depletion of the Ozone layer, rise in global temperatures, climate change, and melting of glaciers etc. The scarcity of water is a linking issue in all such discourses. Floods get only a passing reference in that the climate change would bring more of it and the glacial melt will enhance its intensity but it is assumed that drought will overtake the scene once the rains are over. The debate then comes back to scarcity. The general feeling is that the road to conflict or war on water is reached through the streets of water scarcity and famines.
This is only partly true. It becomes increasingly difficult to explain even to the experts that the flood problems are exactly opposite to that of drought. It is like the mirror image where the things look similar but every detail of the image remains exactly opposite to that of the main object.
While the people in scarcity area try to manipulate water that might legitimately belong to others, the people on one side of the river in flood prone areas try to push the water on to the other. The contestants are often friends and relatives. The river and the embankments constructed on it or the ring bundhs thrown around the settlements for flood protection draw the parting line between two groups. Immediate protection against flood water becomes the prime need and ensuring the safety against surplus water leads to conflicts where lathis and fodder axes used to be the weapons in earlier days. The same has been replaced by guns and pistols now days.
While the people in scarcity area try to manipulate water that might legitimately belong to others, the people on one side of the river in flood prone areas try to push the water on to the other.
Embankment as the parting line of warring factions
In 1970, the interfluves of the river Bagmati and its left hand tributary, the river Lakhandei in Runni Saidpur block of Sitamarhi district of Bihar witnessed a bloody conflict when two warring factions came face to face with weapons and many persons had to lose their lives. This incident took place over 40 years ago when excepting deforestation, no other explanation was in circulation about droughts and floods and conflicts were virtually unheard of. Keeping this in mind, let us revisit the incident.
On the 18th August 1970, almost all the newspapers published from Patna carried a story about the conflict in Sitamarhi. Referring to the incident, The Indian Nation -Patna Edition writes, ‘ …It is learnt that a clash started between the villages of Khonpi and Oina over cutting of bundh for giving outlet to floodwater…The armed forces posted there with a magistrate intervened and had to open 11 rounds of fire when the villagers attacked them…Three persons died on the spot and another in the hospital. The dead and the injured were brought to Sitamarhi Sub-divisional Hospital.’
Both the rivers flow in north-to-south direction at the site where the incident took place. The villages of Lohasi, Gisara, Kathaur, Dhurbar, Benipur are located within the doab of the Bagmati and the Lakhandei while Khonpa, Khonpi, Oina, Gaighat and Morsand are located on the eastern bank of the Lakhandei. The Bagmati is a meandering shallow river that often spills and it had started throwing an off shoot on its left bank near Narayanpur village close to Dhanakaul (both these villages belong to Piparahi block of Sheohar district now which was carved out of Sitamarhi in 1994). This channel used to join the Lakhandei and some flow of the Bagmati used to be diverted into that river. This was before the construction of the embankments on the Bagmati in this reach. There was a low height embankment on the eastern bank of the Lakhandei seemingly constructed by the Maharaja of Darbhanga to protect his estate against floods. When the water level of the Bagmati was low, its water that used to come via Narayanpur and Dhanakaul used to find a safe passage through the Lakhandei. In case of excess water coming into the Lakhandei, it would either spill into the doab on to its western side of the river that was not embanked or it would breach the embankment on the left (eastern) side of the Lakhandei and escape. In the latter case, the flood water used to hit the Morsand village first which used to face the flood fury for the longest time among the neighbouring villages.
Jagannath Singh was the mukhia of Morsand and he was quite an influential person. Through his efforts, the eastern embankment of the Lakhandei was raised and strengthened in late 1960s. Now, if the Bagmati water reached Lakhandei, its eastern embankment was strong enough not to allow any overflowing or breaching but the western bank of the Lakhandei was still open and the water used to spill on that side. In 1970, the flood in the Bagmati was severe and the eastern embankment of the Lakhandei was standing firmly on its left bank. The flood water spilled on the right (western) side and the villages of Gisara, Lohasi, Kathaur, Benipur and Dhurbar etc started getting inundated by the spill. Residents of these villages agreed that the newly repaired eastern embankment of the Lakhandei was the root cause of their trouble and if that be cut, all the water would pass through the gap and they would be saved from floods. This of course, was a solution for the villages on the western side of the Lakhandei but the risk was imminent for the people living on the eastern side of the Lakhandei which included the villages of Bhimpur, Belahi Neelkanth, Morsand, Gaighat, Oina and Khonpa. The residents of these villages anticipated trouble and held the fort on their side. They also informed the police and got it camped near Oina. The Government appointed Sitaram Singh, a Horticulture Inspector, with the powers of a magistrate assigned to him, to camp there and keep an eye on the law and order situation.
When the residents of Kathaur, Gisara, Benipur, Lohasi and Dhurbar set on to cut the eastern embankment of the Lakhandei, the people from the other side of the villages were ready to take them on with arms and ammunitions. The problem with the villagers from the western side was that they had to come by boats to cut the embankment and were at a lower elevation as compared to the people on the east. They had to cut the embankment and as well save their lives too. The situation was not favourable to them. The people on the other side were not in direct contact with water and were placed at a higher level and therefore were in an advantageous position. Despite their disadvantageous position, the people from west managed to reach the eastern Lakhandei embankment. The events that followed are as narrated by the villagers on either side.
In 1970, the flood in the Bagmati was severe and the eastern embankment of the Lakhandei was standing firmly on its left bank. The flood water spilled on the right (western) side and many villages started getting inundated by the spill. Residents of these villages agreed that the newly repaired eastern embankment of the Lakhandei was the root cause of their trouble and if that be cut, all the water would pass through the gap and they would be saved from floods.
It happened because children were crying for food
Villagers of Lohasi tell, ‘…Elders used to tell us that they did not know when the eastern embankment of the Lakhandei was built but it used to breach occasionally and the flood water used to come out of the gap like a bullet and go up to the palace of the Maharaja of Darbhanga. If that embankment remained firm, the flood water used to come to our side and spread up to Sheohar. Waist deep water in the village was the order of the day during the rainy season. It was repaired, raised and strengthened around 1966-67. Repair of this embankment was a sort of death knell for our group of villages. Earlier, some water would always found a way through small gaps or depressions in the embankment but that was stopped and the flood water started devastating the villages on our side.
In 1970, the Bagmati water spilled first in our villages and then moved towards the Lakhandei. Had the embankment of the Lakhandei not been there, the water would have found a way out but the flood water stagnated and spread on our side and many villages started facing inundation. This was not anything new for us but continuance of water for such a long time that year was something new. Water had entered the fire places in the kitchens in most of the houses and cooking had to be suspended. People skipped meals for four times in a row and the children were crying for food. Situation became unbearable and then the affected villages decided to do something and it was resolved to cut the Lakhandei embankment so that the water could be drained out. The crop was already lost because of submergence and now the life too was threatened. We all knew that our efforts would meet stiff resistance from the other side.
For two days spears and fodder axes were prepared in the village and on the third day everybody was ready for the assault. The party started moving at around 10 0’clock in the morning and it was midday by the time they reached near the embankment on the other side. Armed police was waiting for them there and the jawans stopped them from proceeding any further. At least 400-500 people must have been there but who cares for such instructions in a mob. Despite cautions by the police, some of them advanced only to be told by the police that that was the last day of their duty there and they would leave the place the next day. The police asked the attackers to return and come back when they had left the place and do whatever they liked. In the melee some people tried to snatch the rifles of the police. The police retreated and told those fellows to go ahead and cut the embankment. As the people advanced, police started firing at them from behind. One did not know how many people died in police firing but there was a stampede and fist fighting started with the people from the other side. Some of the ‘invaders’ jumped back into the Lakhandei which was already in spate to save their lives. The current was swift and many persons must have been hit by bullets too. Some portion of the embankment was cut in the tussle but whether that happened due to the efforts of this side is not certain. Many people got swept away. It is said that four persons of Lohasi hid themselves in a hut on the east of the embankment on the Lakhandei. They were hit by bullets in their hands and legs and were unable to move. Villagers on the other side went for search operations after calm prevailed and spotted two of them who were killed, the remaining two are still missing.
People from the west were killed and police registered cases only against them. The mukhia of Gisara, Ram Lakhan Sah, was named in the FIR and the police started raiding the villages on the west to arrest him and seize his property. These villages were still flooded as the embankment on the other side was intact. All the young men in the village had fled away fearing arrest. Jay Mangal Pandey and Julfi Sahani of Gisara were put in jail and the raids continued to look for others. Later, we all approached the police and a wireless message from Muzaffarpur was flashed to the local police saying that people from the west were already facing a difficult situation and many of them have been killed. They should not be put to more inconvenience. That saved us. Otherwise, many more persons would have died looking for a safe place to evade arrest. Situation improved after about a fortnight but the floodwater was still there. Then, two fishermen from Guleria, who covered their head with a wide mouthed earthen pitcher with holes cut in them so that they could see outside but could not be identified while swimming or diving, swam across the river with spears and spades in the dark and reached the embankment. Couple of policemen were still patrolling the embankment but these people could dodge them and cut the embankment south of Khonpa. It is very easy to cut an embankment in the rainy season, just a little push by any sharp weapon is sufficient to initiate the process and the pressure of water takes care of the rest. Water seeped through the hole and widened into a wide channel. It created a ditch on a land of about 10-15 katthas. That cut has not been repaired till date…Four persons from Lohasi named Baldeo Rai, Sonphi Rai, Ram Asare Koiri and Soman Koiri were killed in this incident. One person from Damami, Shashi Kishore Chaudhary of Kathaur and Awadh Bihari Sah and Kuldeep of Gisara were also killed.
Ram Lakhan Sah, mukhia of Gisara, was a powerful person. He not only managed to save himself but protected others too from the police and courts. The police had confiscated his property and had taken away lot of things from his home. This included three canisters of butter and ghee. The police returned all other confiscated materials to him but not these tins of butter and ghee. We all were kids then and had seen all this from very close quarters. After the emergency, Karpoori Thakur’s government came to power (1977) and lifted all the cases. Ramanand Singh of Tariyani was a minister in his cabinet and it was through his efforts that the cases were withdrawn.”
Thoughtless tampering of rivers has led to many unpleasant incidents and this is just one of them. The administration often remains a silent spectator and the warring factions have to settle the dispute among them, be it by force or mutual consent.
Nobody knows what happened to those dead bodies
Let us now go to the village (Oina), which was the venue of this incident. The residents here say, ‘…We are located on the eastern bank of the Lakhandei which used to spill often and submerge Morsand and Gaighat villages and then proceed towards Darbhanga via Aurai. Morsand was always the target of the river and faced prolonged flooding every year. There was an embankment on the eastern bank of the Lakhandei but of poor shape and irregular alignment. In 1967, the Government started a massive program of repairs and maintenance of such structures and the embankment was repaired through the good offices of the Mukhia of Morsand, Jagannath Singh. This embankment gained a height of about 10-11 haath (about 15-16 feet) and was repaired to a proper width. Once it was repaired, the problems of the villages on its east were solved to a great extent but the suffering of the people on the west increased and the villages on the west like Lohasi, Dilawarpur, Kathaur, Gisara, Damami, etc and other villages of Parsauni and Belsand block started facing enhanced flooding. Then came the flood of 1970 and those people thought of cutting the eastern embankment of the Lakhandei. Ram Lakhan Sah was mukhia of Gisara and nearly 5-7 mounds of rice were collected at his residence and many people assembled there and made all the arrangements to cut the embankment. We, at our end, started getting the news that the embankment would be cut in a day or so and informed the police to avoid any untoward incident. This report was lodged in the local police station and the police took cognizance of it and a horticulture supervisor with powers of a magistrate was sent here at Khonpa with armed police force. It was told to us that nearly 5000 people had had their food in Gisara and set off for cutting the embankment. They put a red colour flag on their boats and started coming to our side.
As the news of their advancement reached here the youth from Morsand, Gaighat, Khonpa, Oina and Khonpi also came out to counter the attack. They all assembled on the embankment but the general feeling was that the people from the west would not dare to come here. We had waited for them a day earlier but when they did not come, the crowd melted. But the next day, they were here in Hanuman Nagar which is a hamlet of Oina. They were armed with spears and fodder axes and most of them had come by boats. Some of them had reached this side by swimming. They included people from far away villages like Parsauni. Those who came by swimming had their heads covered by wide mouthed pitchers to escape identification. All that they had to do is to somehow pierce a hole in the embankment. Rest everything would be taken care by the pressure of water. Mukhia of Gisara and Damami were leading the mob from that side.
On this side was the head constable of the local police station and he apprehended that the force with him was limited and it would not be possible to control the mob and their own life was at risk. He ordered firing. The people who were coming from that side jumped into river water to save their lives. Almost all of them had some weapon or the other. As the panic gripped them many of them must have drowned with their weapons but they succeeded in cutting the embankment. The police was on our side but listening to the cries and noise many more people had assembled from this side on the embankment. Then it was a free for all. Asharfi Sah from our side lost his hand in the scuffle; he died a couple of years ago. Ganesh Sah was hit in his head and hand and is alive at the age of about 90. Ram Chandra Sah also received head injury and he too is alive. The water was now flowing on the riverside and also through the countryside. Many corpses were also seen floating.
Our district HQ was at Muzaffarpur those days. The Superintendent of Police (SP) was informed and he dashed to this place. He publicly scolded the Head Constable and told him that eleven rounds were fired at the mob in the incident and he wanted him to hand over at least eleven dead bodies. Then the search for dead bodies started. The SP then announced a reward of Rs. Ten for every dead body and the bodies were fished out to the extent possible. Then this entire area was sealed and the dead bodies were loaded in a boat and taken to the 23rd mile of the National Highway 77. A police van was already waiting there and the bodies were shifted into the van. Nobody knows what happened to those dead bodies.
There was a lot of tension but we were saved of the trouble with the efforts of Jagannath Babu. People on the other side were booked and many of them must have been convicted. Aggravation of the flood situation was accepted by all. The embankment was standing here with a height of 15-16 feet and the floodwater was pushed on to the west to about 10 Kos (30 kilometers). The people on that side were helpless. They did what anybody would have done in those circumstances. Good thing was that this hatred was not stretched over a long time because those who died are not there anymore. The contesting parties have to go to the same block office, they would meet each other in the market and they all have to go to Sitamarhi for official and other works. There was a tension for some weeks and then everything came back to normal.”
Thoughtless tampering of rivers has led to many unpleasant incidents and this is just one of them. The administration often remains a silent spectator and the warring factions have to settle the dispute among them, be it by force or mutual consent. For engineers this may be a part of fiction or an avoidable stray incident that the administration ought to have taken care of. It must, however, be a good learning for those who think that water related conflicts are the capital of scarcities alone.
Note: This story was reconstituted with the help of Chander Rai, Dev Chandra Rai and Rajdhari Rai of Lohasi, Satya Narayan Sharan of Gisara, Awadh Kishore Choudhary of Kathaur, Ram Briksha Prasad of Khonpa, Phuddan Shahi of Khonpi and many others of these villages.