The Kosi’s several channels meet and part with a playful abandon over he vast expanse of plains in Bihar’s Saharsa district. From a distance the river seems at rest but is flowing fast, its face dusky from the silt it is carrying. The river is two-faced in these parts, “mother” and “witch”, a boon and a curse. People cross one of the shallow channels on foot. The wheat fields are a spread of gold in an April afternoon.

Beyond them are vast stretches of fine white sand, a beach from a dream. In reality, these are sand-ruined farmlands.

The two kilometre long Baluaha-Gandaul Mega Bridge—the longest over the Kosi—gives way to a dirt road on the left. The road is actually an 18-feet high embankment—a mud wall—to contain the spread of the river. The water is several feet below the road. But there is water on the other side of the road as well, the countryside the embankment supposedly protects. It’s the waters of the Kamla-Balan rivers fenced by the mud wall from joining the Kosi. The abrupt end of the embankment further down causes a backflow, flooding many villages outside the embankment. Now, 50 villages are trapped in the waters of the two rivers and need boats almost through the year—some of the worst flood affected villages in Bihar. In the Kosi, there is a boat the size of a sedan. The boatman is not rowing but pulling the boat with the help of a thin rope tied to two poles on either bank of the river.

Tiny thatch huts perch on the edges of the embankment. A hand pump stands on higher ground to keep it from submersion during floods. It draws water from the river below, the banks of which are used for defecation, bathing cattle, and washing clothes.

Children are jumping in the Kosi. Several women are sitting on the road outside their houses. There are hardly any men to be seen; they are away working as seasonal labourers in Punjab or Delhi.

Fields of maize, a newly built small bridge, and people staring skywards are what Sharad Yadav would have seen as his helicopter landed at Telwa High School. Telwa village in Mahishi block of Saharsa district is one and a half kilometres inside Kosi’s western embankment. After delimitation in 2008, Saharsa district was torn into two Lok Sabha constituencies—Khagaria and Madhepura. Yadav, a seven-time Lok Sabha MP and three-time Rajya Sabha MP, is contesting as the Mahagathbandhan (opposition Grand Alliance) candidate from Madhepura in this Lok Sabha election. He is here to ask people for votes.

The 40 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bihar are crucial to forming the government in Delhi. In sheer numbers, Bihar comes only after Uttar Pradesh (80), Maharashtra (48), and West Bengal (42). In the 2014 general elections, the BJP and its then alliance won 31 seats, smoothing their ride to Parliament.  

The three Lok Sabha seats in Kosi division—Madhepura, Supaul and Khagaria—that went to the polls in the third phase on April 23 saw frantic campaigning. Besides these three seats, Begusarai and Bhagalpur, some Seemanchal seats—Araria, Purnea, Katihar and Kishanganj—and several Mithilanchal seats—Jhanjharpur, Samastipur and Darbhanga—are also affected by the Kosi. Mithilanchal, Seemanchal and Kosi areas together cover 19 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats.
Several state and national leaders have been campaigning in the Kosi region. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav held several public meetings in Madhepura and Khagaria. Home Minister Rajnath Singh held rallies in Madhepura constituency. Congress president Rahul Gandhi held a public rally in Supaul town. Chief minister Nitish Kumar spent several days, holding public meetings across Madhepura. His long stay in Kosi is seen as an attempt to defeat Sharad Yadav. Nitish camped in Madhepura for a week during the last election on behalf of then JD(U) candidate Sharad Yadav. Pappu Yadav, then RJD candidate, beat Sharad Yadav by 56,000 votes.  

In a state where elections are mostly fought on caste lines, the BJP is looking at Prime Minister Modi’s vote base defying the social and caste equations while its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner JD(U), led by Nitish, is counting on his schemes, mostly focusing on extremely backward castes, to get them votes. The Mahagathbandhan, in which Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress are partners, is invoking anti-Modi sentiment, accusing him of divisive politics and false promises.
Madhepura has a sizeable Yadav population—they say, “Rome me Pope, Madhepura me Gope” (Madhepura is Yadav’s, like Rome is Pope’s). But this time caste equations have gone haywire, with three major candidates from this caste. Sharad Yadav is RJD’s nominee while sitting MP Pappu Yadav, expelled from RJD, is contesting on his own party ticket. JD(U) has fielded Sharad Yadav’s longtime pupil Dinesh Chandra Yadav, Bihar’s disaster managment minister. So the 12 per cent Muslim votes are crucial for each candidate. Telwa village, incidentally, has a substantial Muslim population.

From motor bikes to cattle, at Khokhnaha village (Amin Tola) the only way to get across the Kosi is on boats.  Title image: People crossing a shallow channel of Kosi on foot near Mangurar village in Supaul. Photo Sriram Vittalamurthy

Candidates have been campaigning door-to-door and holding village-level meetings, covering up to 12 villages in a day. But the people within the embankments don’t see much of them, says Bindeswari Paswan, sarpanch of Ghonghepur, Telwa’s neighbouring panchayat.

Today is an unusual occasion. The crowds have arrived to see the leader, and the helicopter. Yadav walks from his helicopter to the erected-in-a-hurry stage, speaks for less than 10 minutes, and leaves without public interaction.

Hamar neta… (Our leader), says Kali Devi, pointing at Yadav’s leaving car. “If he can’t solve our problems, the least he can do is to hear us out. Once elections are over nobody comes here for the next five years.”

Another woman interjects, “Now, they don’t care much for us even during elections”.

“Our houses are flooded for three months every year and every other year the river erodes my house. We live in misery,” says Sabeera Khatoon, a widow who supports three daughters and a son by working as agricultural labourer for ₹50 a day. She supplements this income by rearing goats but makes hardly enough for her family, she says. “The flood last year devastated us but I haven’t received flood relief yet.”

Anwari Khatoon complains that the rehabilitation sites she and others got at Jalle village were waterlogged. “We lived on the embankment for a long time and moved back to our original village within Kosi embankments. They (politicians) make promises but it’s a farce.” Her neighbour Naseema Khatoon says her village got electricity just three months ago. “It’s a very backward area.”

Hurrying into his car, Yadav stopped a bit to speak to Fountain Ink. People ran towards him, making it hard for the police to stop him from being mobbed. Yadav rushed to his car, got in, and rolled the window down to speak. On a candidate not coming within Kosi embankments, he shot back: “Who am I? No, no, tell me, who am I? I’m here, so why this question?”

He then explains: “Now, you see crops growing here. Isn’t it greener than outside? This is why people stay here (within embankments). Kosi is their lifeline.”

He adds as an afterthought: “But, Kosi also turns into abhishaap (curse)”.

Kosi originates at some 7,000 metres in the Himalayas, collecting snowmelt from the highest reaches of the Everest and Kanchenjunga ranges. It takes the joining of seven rivers to form the Sapt Kosi or what is known as the Kosi in north Bihar.

After traversing Tibet and Nepal, Kosi enters India at Bhimnagar in Bihar’s Supaul district. Flowing about 270 km through Supaul, Saharsa and Khagaria districts, it joins the Ganga at Kursela in Katihar district. The river today spreads over half of Bihar, with a catchment of 75,000 sq km in Tibet, Nepal and Bihar. It is joined by several important rivers of north Bihar. The Kosi erodes the Himalayas that are in their nascent stage of formation and brings a huge load of silt down the steep hills.

Construct a wall one metre by one metre with the annual sediment brought by the Kosi and it will go nearly two and half times round the equator, says Dinesh Kumar Mishra. He, a civil engineer, who has researched Kosi since 1984 and authored a book—TRAPPED! Between the Devil and Deep Waters—that details the history and legends of the Kosi, besides the flood control programme on the Indian side and its consequences.

When Kosi hits the vast plains of north Bihar where the gradient is less than 6 cm a kilometre, sediment gets deposited in random heaps, causing the river to meander, shift its course and flood. With recurring floods, Kosi is the centre of every flood debate in India. The British called the Kosi the “Sorrow of Bihar”.

Mishra doesn’t agree: “The colonial rulers were here for plundering and the Kosi interfered with their collection of revenue. That’s why they called it ‘Sorrow of Bihar’.” He says people want floods as they are followed by a bumper crop. He cites a saying in Mithila region: “Ayele Balan, bandhlo dalaan. Gele Balan, ujade dalaan (When the river comes to my village, I’ll extend my house. The year the river doesn’t come, I won’t be able to repair my house)”.

This is true for the Kosi; it is Kosi’s fertile silt that makes it a densely populated region despite regular floods.  

Ramjyoti Devi of Bela Goth village in Supaul says women from her village walk to the Kosi and pray to her for good crops. Her neighbour Mohammad Suleman Saheb picks up some straw, twists and weaves it to make a tiny basket and shows how they float lamps on the river to please her.

In the months of saavan-bhado (in July-August), when the Kosi is furious, they go again to plead. “We carry plates of food, sweets and lamps. We do an aarti and pray to her to spare us and go back,” Ramjyoti Devi says.

He Maiya Kosi! Hamra bakasdiya; kshama kariya (Oh Mother Kosi! Please spare us; please forgive us and go back),” they tell the river.  

When the Kosi doesn’t listen to their prayers, her position as mother and goddess is withdrawn and she is treated like any other little girl. “The women threaten her with vermilion: If you don’t behave, we’ll get you married. Kosi gets scared and goes away. That is the tradition,” says Mishra.

Several folk tales of Mithila revolve around Kosi. The river is often seen as a mother. But many believe her to be a young girl, full of energy and meandering whimsically. Another legend believes her to be the unhappily married wife of a hermit.

The contradictions in the images are, in fact, the contradictions people see in how she treats them — life-giving, vagarious and destructive.

Though floods are a common occurrence, people know how to decipher them and use them almost as a calendar—“when Kosi had 9 lakh cusec water” refers to October 1968, “when Navhatta flood happened” is 1984, “after Kusaha” implies everything that’s happened post the 2008 flood when Kosi breached its embankment at Kusaha in Nepal.  

Then there are more personal markers of time—the year our house got eroded, the year we had to move to that far-off village, the year the neighbour’s daughter died of snake bite in flood.

The Kosi’s annual floods aroused a desire among the rulers to tame the river. Or at least they got people to believe this could be done. In October 1953, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the flood-ravaged Kosi region.

Several proposals to save people from floods—evacuation, a dam at Barahkshetra and a reservoir at Belka in Nepal—had come up.    

But, now, witnessing the plight of flood victims, Nehru decided an immediate solution was required. A committee was formed, aerial surveys were conducted and reports prepared. Within 45 days of his visit, minister for planning, irrigation and power Gulzarilal Nanda presented the Kosi project in Parliament.

The government approved the Kosi Project to jacket the river within a maximum of 16 km (the width is 9-10 km at most places) wide stretch with mud walls on its banks. It also involved building a barrage on the Indo-Nepal border and a canal on the eastern side for irrigation. The cost was ₹37.31crore. But project officials clarified that only a dam at Barahkshetra could provide a permanent solution.  

A 125-km embankment on the eastern bank was constructed from Birpur in Supaul to Koparia in Saharsa. Another 126-km embankment on the western bank was built from Bhardah in Nepal to Ghonghepur in Saharsa. When the work was completed by 1959, the embankments were supposed to protect 2 lakh hectares from recurring floods. A bigger milestone came later—at 11 p.m. on March 31, 1963, the Kosi was finally tamed with a barrage at Bhimnagar on the Indo-Nepal border, in Supaul district.

The barrage would facilitate irrigation of 7 lakh hectares through the Eastern Kosi Main Canal. The Western Kosi Canal, added to the Kosi project in 1957, was to irrigate an additional 3.25 lakh hectares.

The air wore a festive hurry that morning of March 22, 1955 at Bela Goth village near Supaul. Twenty-seven-year-old Ramesh Chandra Jha couldn’t contain his excitement.

Bhagwan ailai, Bhagwan ailai; Chala! Chala! (He is the God! Let’s go!)” he remembers everybody shouting. “We used to walk to Singheshwar (a temple over 60 km away in Madhepura). This was only three or four miles away. There was no way I wasn’t going for darshan,” he recounts.

Kosi came to our village and gave us plenty of food like a mother takes a child in her lap and feeds it.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Indian's first president, arrived at Bairia, 1.5 km from Supaul (and 3 km from Jha’s village) to lay the foundation stone for the eastern embankment. “Rajendar Babu was saakshaat Bhagwan (the God Himself) for us; we knew he was doing great things for us,” says Jha. People in the village had been hearing a lot about the new Kosi project.

The 1934 earthquake, which ravaged most of north Bihar, did not cause too much destruction in Jha’s village since people there lived in thatched huts. The village wasn’t wealthy but they grew enough to feed themselves, Jha says. The Kosi then flowed far from them in the east, through Purnea. In 1938, it suddenly changed course and started flowing near (8 km west of) Bela Goth. The village was flooded. The water spread over the vast tract of open land, from Jhanjharpur to Purnea.

Soon, the water receded and people of Bela Goth discovered that their land had become more fertile than before, with the silt Kosi had brought with it. They started getting two crops of paddy, besides pulses, mustard and flaxseeds.

Shri Kumar Mandal shows the places where the Kosi has eroded  at Bela Goth village, Supaul. Photo: Sriram Vittalamurthy

“Kosi came to our village and gave us plenty of food like a mother takes a child in her lap and feeds it,” says Jha. They waited for the flood every year. Kosi was “Maa” to them.

But the river also had the reputation of turning furious and causing devastation. So when the project to tame the Kosi came up, people were excited about seeing an avatar of Kosi that was all love and no fury.

Several national and state leaders told people about the benefits of a tamed Kosi, electricity in every house, and canal irrigation in every village. Their land would turn into a goldmine. They appealed to people to sacrifice land for embankment and do shramdaan (free labour) to construct it. Jha remembers Dr Rajendra Prasad’s promise of  “ek aankh bandh ke bheetar (one of my eyes will constantly watch out for you)”.

People in Bela Goth were overjoyed. Jha worked for over 15 days. He chanted the slogan given by leaders: “Aadhi roti khayenge, Kosi baandh banayenge (We will build the Kosi embankments even if we have to starve)”. Several people from across Bihar travelled to Kosi and worked for free for months together on the project. “It was going to turn our lives around,” says Jha.

Turning lives around it did. Jha bursts into a song he has written about it:

“Haral bharal chhail baag bageecha

Sona katora khet

Aa dekh dekh more hiya phataia

Sagre baloo ke dher…”

The floodwater that earlier spread over a large area that the 16 channels of Kosi occupied—keeping the water level low—now submerges fields and erodes houses within the embankments. All the silt gets trapped within the embankments.

You could walk through the villages of Dighia, Bela Goth, Nirmali and Khokhnaha without losing the shade of huge mango trees, Jha says. Now, not a tree remains. It’s just an endless stretch of sand-ruined soil where nothing grows.

It is impossible to anticipate when the river will meander and in which direction. They said they would turn Kosi into Suez Canal where big ships would ply, Jha says.

Pania jahaj (ships),” he laughs bitterly. Today, at Bela Goth village, the Kosi is a shallow channel that can be crossed on foot. The depressions in the undulating river bed shine like small mirrors under the sun. The sand here has very high mica content.  

It’s hard to imagine a fierce, full river here in less than two months. Locals refuse to guess how many feet deep it will be here in August, by just saying: “Arrey! Bahut jaade (Oh! Very deep).”

The river is a steep descent off the village. The edges resemble nibbled cheese with Kosi chipping away bit by bit. In most places the edges are cut clean like a slice of cake.

Sri Mandal, who works as a boatman, says his house was eroded last August. His neighbor Dahu Paswan’s house still is hanging on the edge; he fears it might be his turn this year. Jha has lost his house to the river five times and isn’t sure if the sixth one would survive this year.

He says that Kosi had 2.56 lakh cusecs of water when the embankment breached at Kusaha in 2008; the floods and loss it caused was in the news everywhere. However, people within the embankments have to regularly deal with 4-5 lakh cusecs of water. In 1968, there was 9 lakh cusecs. “Imagine how we lived here!” he says.

When the situation goes out of hand, the government tosses relief packets, which the starving crowds grab, he says.

Jha’s grandfather had three brothers. He has no idea where the three and their families moved after floods eroded their houses and covered their land with sand.

People usually don’t leave their land within embankments since that’s their only source of income. Another reason is emotional. Who wants to move away from mother and motherland, asks Jha. He started staying, though intermittently, in the house he built on a rehabilitation site, only after 1990. One of his four sons lives inside the embankment and takes care of the family’s agriculture. Another son’s wife works as a teacher in the village school. His children and grandchildren are now registered as voters in the town where they have been rehabilitated.  

Jha is still a voter in his village. A stroke on March 8 left him paralysed on the right but he crossed a channel of Kosi on April 23, he says. “To vote and also to see my village.”

After over 60 years of embankments, the problem of floods have worsened. The severity and frequency of floods and the flood-prone area have increased. Post-embankment, the Kosi river basin has seen 32 major floods in Supaul, Saharsa, Katihar, Khagaria and Bhagalpur. The embankments also affect the districts of Madhubani, Darbhanga, Madhepura, Araria, and Purnea. They have breached eight times so far, causing devastation in areas that weren’t considered flood-prone. The embankments have contributed to increasing the flood-prone area in Bihar from 25 lakh hectares to 68 lakh hectares now, says Mishra. The height of the original 18 feet embankment had to be increased twice— in 1987 and in 2008. The irrigation targets for both canals have never been achieved—7.79 per cent of the target area is the highest that the western canal has achieved till 2007-08 but farmers got notices to pay for water.

It is the people trapped within the embankments who suffer the most. The shared misery of all of Kosi has now become exclusive to those caged within the two walls.

“In last year’s flood, my children sat on top of our inundated thatch hut and ate raw rice soaked in flood water,” says an  angry Sri Prasad Singh of Khokhnaha village in Supaul. “If the government can’t do anything for us, ask them to make us stand in a line and shoot us.”   

The farmers who earlier welcomed the floods now pay taxes for the land under the river, waterlogged or sand-ruined. Once-perennial wetlands that were full of freshwater fish have dried up.

Naa bhaat mile chhe naa maachh (Fish and rice—the traditional food of this region of Mithilanchal—are scarce now), says Rajia Devi of Dahlali village in Saharsa.

Several villages within the embankments that Fountain Ink visited have got electricity for the first time in the last nine months.

“If you’re making a film set in Lord Buddha’s times, you can just go there and start shooting without much preparation. Nothing much has changed in terms of civic amenities,” says Mishra.

Near Dhamara ghat in Khagaria, a bridge made by locals by joining several boats. Photo: Sriram Vittalamurthy

Around 5 lakh people live within the Kosi embankments across districts, says Ranjeet Ranjan, MP from Supaul and wife of Pappu Yadav.  The number of embankment victims differs depending on who you are talking to and who they consider victims.

Mishra estimates that more than 12 lakh people in about 380 villages in Supaul, Saharsa, Madhubani and Darbhanga districts (and another 1.5-2 lakh in Nepal) are living in the belly of the Kosi and 4.2 lakh hectares of the land is trapped between the embankments and lost to waterlogging.

For the massive losses they have incurred, the compensation is meagre. The government never fulfilled the promises of jobs, education, healthcare and compensation for crop loss. Thirty years after the embankments came up, in 1987, it constituted the Kosi Pirit Vikas Pradhikar, a body to look into the welfare of Kosi victims. This Pradhikar has never functioned.

The only thing that some, not all, embankment victims have got is rehabilitation sites. Many of these too are waterlogged or illegally occupied. Farming families have few employment options around the rehabilitation sites and have gone back. Since total rehabilitation is neither an option nor a choice, people live in the middle of the river and face floods every year.

Mahendra Yadav of Kosi Navnirman Manch, a people’s organisation that works for Kosi embankment victims calls the area within the embankments as “Vikas ka kalapani (black waters of development)”. In the once-fertile lands of Kosi, today migration is the major occupation and relief the biggest crop.

Sarita Devi cannot forget the night of February 5, 2019. She was in great pain. By midnight, she couldn’t bear it anymore. She was in labour, the women around her announced. Her husband’s brother, a health worker, said she had to be taken to a hospital for delivery, the closest 15 km away. She couldn’t imagine travelling in that condition.

Most women in her village—Ghonghepur in Mahishi block of Saharsa district, where the borders of Darbhanga and Madhubani and Saharsa districts meet—deliver babies at home. In Saharsa district, only 60 per cent (52 per cent at a public facility) of total births in five years were institutional deliveries, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015-16—the latest available data. This is below the state average of 64 and much lower than the state capital Patna of 86. In Bihar, 48 of 1,000 children die before the age of one. For rural areas, this figure is 50. Among scheduled castes, to which Sarita belongs, this rate is higher, at 60.

Sarita’s brother-in-law, Ramchandra Sada, told her that delivering a child at a hospital was safer. She’d also get the benefits extended by the government for the newborn and herself. And her baby would get a hassle-free birth certificate. He told her an ambulance would have all the machines to take care of her till she reached the hospital. Thank God! It’s February, Sarita thought to herself.

Ghonghepur is situated at the terminus of the western Kosi embankment. The sudden termination of the embankment causes a backflow of the Kosi waters that floods many villages along the embankment. It is one of the 50 villages permanently waterlogged and needs boats for sixto nine months a year. February-April is the time when the village looks it driest and major village roads are usable.

Sarita agreed and watched her brother-in-law get hold of his diary and find the numbers to call an ambulance. The block and district level numbers went unanswered. Finally, the state helpline connected him with the block-level government hospital in Mahishi that would send him an ambulance.

She got ready to leave. But the hospital said the ambulance had broken down. It was 2:30 am on February 6. Her condition was worsening. She couldn’t waste any more time, she told her family.

They called a private tempo from their village. The driver demanded ₹1,500. They agreed. The tempo set out on a long stretch of uneven mud road. The bumpy ride worsened her pain greatly. The women with her suggested that the bumps might push the baby out.

She had barely travelled 9 km, before reaching the main road to Mahishi, when she delivered a baby. The child was not breathing, the women whispered. Her brother-in-law told them they would still go to the hospital. “I thought the hospital would give him oxygen and he will revive,” Sada explains.

Sarita doesn’t remember much after this. They reached the hospital at 4 a.m. and woke up the nurse on duty. “She examined the child on some machines and all,” Sada says. The baby was dead, she declared.

“It was a boy,” says Sada, hinting at the gravity of his grief. In Bihar there is a strong preference for sons, mentions the NFHS-4 report. Over 37 per cent percent of women and 30 percent of men want more sons than daughters. This has resulted in the fewer women than men. Children die here because they can’t reach a hospital, Sada laments. “Imagine what happens during a flood when you need a boat to get to the highway. I have seen at least five cases of newborns dying while mothers in labour struggled during floods to get to hospital.”

It is the end of March. The elections are a month away. As the sun is setting Bairia Manch is getting full, with people chatting, playing cards, and discussing who is going to win. Across the road from Bairia Manch is a sweet shop. A crowd of about 20 gathers the moment Kosi baandh is mentioned. People start arguing over the merits of all projects for flood control and a political debate ensues. A man brings up Lalit Narayan Mishra, and former PMs Vajpayee and Deve Gowda; he is an RJD party worker. He’s got the details of projects mixed up but he is trying to impress people with the vision of his leaders as he stresses the “need for a permanent solution”.

Walking across swathes of river beds and flood plains is a everyday matter for the people of the Kosi. Photo: Sriram Vittalamurthy

 Three weeks later in April, closer to the polling date of April 23, two makeshift offices are erected on either side of the Bhaptiahi-Supaul road— one for the National Democratic Alliance and the other for the Grand Alliance. The mention of Kosi evokes immediate responses. The statements are similar in both the camps.  

“A bridge was built; it’s such a relief.”

“A dam in Nepal has to be built.”

“Oh! Ships will go on Kosi straight from Nepal to Calcutta.”

“Now, we are connected to the rail line that Kosi broke down 100 years ago.”

The projects are attributed to the MP, CM or PM depending on which party the speaker belongs to. Two things stir the public here like nothing else: Kosi and politics. And the two have been intertwined since before Nehru’s quick fix embankments came up.

While the embankments were being built, their alignments changed multiple times. Lalit Narayan Mishra, former union minister and Congress leader,  saved some powerful villages from falling within the embankments. Then the western canal project came up overnight just before the general elections in 1957 and then union minister Jagjivan Ram laid its foundation.

The informal school called Jeevan Shala (school of life) is the only one for the children of Amin Tola. Photo: Sriram Vittalamurthy

Similarly, flood relief gets manipulated by the powerful and rarely reaches the victims.“If you compare government data on losses incurred and relief disbursed during each flood, you will find that nearly 85 to 90 per cent of the flood victims remain untouched by the relief programmes,” says Mishra. The relief distribution has improved “a bit” since 2005 and the government uses it as an easy way to gain votes, he adds.

Rehabilitation, revival of Pradhikar, and relief are raised during elections. Now, revival of the Kataiya hydroelectric power plant by a French firm is added to this list. Today, however, Kosi politics is mostly flood-control-politics.

Every election brings promises and leaders’ visions of how the people and their lands will be protected from floods. A dam at Barahkshetra is the carrot that politicians dangle in front of voters every election since it was first proposed in 1937. This election season, several leaders reminded the public about the occasions when their party leaders visited the flooded areas and released funds and also about the times when the other party didn’t. 

Earthmovers and tractors are constantly working along the eastern embankment between Birpur and Supaul and at several locations along the embankment. Spurs are being built and reinforced along the embankments. People within the embankments point at several newly built bridges. The Relief and Rehabilitation Department has been renamed as the Disaster Management Department, with no change in the ground reality.

In the name of flood management, the successive governments have launched and proposed projects worth several thousands of crores.Most involve big structural solutions. The 2008 floods, which displaced around 30 lakh people, initiated and expedited several projects. This includes two major ongoing projects—Bihar Kosi Basin Development Project at a cost of $376.5 million and Bihar Kosi Flood Recovery Project at a cost of $250 million. For these projects, state and union governments have borrowed from the World Bank $250 million and $220 million respectively.

Ranjeet Ranjan says: “Governments don’t want a permanent solution because there is huge money involved in flood control and management. It is a huge scam.”

But her own idea of a solution isn’t very different; she proposes to further contain the river. “I’ve managed to get Kosi declared as National Waterway 58. With this, the river spread over a huge area today will be narrowed and a huge population can be saved,” she says.

Nitish Kumar is against the project. He said at the East India Climate Change Conclave in Patna in June 2018 that the waterways project will not succeed unless the problem of silt is addressed. Ranjan says with Kosi becoming a national waterway it would be required to be desilted every year.  

When I point out that the Kosi has seen several desiltation projects at huge expense and little result, she smiles and evades a clear answer: “During my term as Saharsa MP in 2004-09, I caught a contractor misusing funds for desilting the main canal. He offered me a ₹50 lakh bribe. His file is still stuck.”

With the beginning of the election season, the Union cabinet chaired by PM Modi approved the Flood Management and Border Areas Programme for 2017-18 to 2019-20. It is, in fact, a repackaging of two existing programmes. The project with a total outlay of ₹3,342 crore includes survey and investigations, preparation of DPR of water resources projects on the common rivers with neighbouring countries including Sapta Kosi High Dam Multipurpose Project (Barahkshetra dam that was first proposed in 1937) and Sun Koshi Storage-cum-Diversion Scheme in Nepal. Last year, the two governments jointly announced that Kosi would be developed as international Indo-Nepal waterways, to provide Nepal access to the sea via a 165-km navigation canal linking to Kolkata through the Ganga. But it doesn’t provide a solution to the problem of massive silt loads or the river’s changing course, or any impact on the ecology and environment, mentions a report by Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Pune a centre set up to research and monitor water and energy issues from the perspective of sustainable development.

In another ambitious project, the Bihar government is looking to link several of its rivers; it includes a Kosi-Mechi link at a cost of ₹4,900 crore. The report of a civil society fact finding mission, authored by development analyst Sudhirendar Sharma and environmental researcher Gopal Krishna in 2008 calls these projects ecologically disastrous since the dam would be located in an earthquake-prone area and river-linking would greatly change the land use. Moreover, none of these projects are at a stage beyond preliminary studies. But that doesn’t stop politicians from selling these dreams.

It’s an unusually cold day for the end of March. After heavy rain and strong winds, the morning sky is grey. A channel of the Kosi is flowing just 200 metres away. The highest place in the village, a platform about 10 feet wide and 6 feet long, has been polished with mud and cow dung. On it stands a thatch shed held up by nine bamboos, evenly spaced. There is only one wall of thatch at the back. The inability of the wall to touch the roof seems prominent right now, with cold wind passing through the gap.  

Children, some as young as four, walk in. They unfurl the plastic sacks they have carried with them and sit on them, close to each other. One is wearing a jacket while others have layered their shirt or frock with another t-shirt. One has wrapped himself in a thin blanket and the child sitting next to him is trying to pull one end of it to cover his legs.

One boy, with dark hair covering his forehead, tries to hold together his shirt that has all its buttons missing. He rubs his palms together and blows on them. One boy of about seven joins in. He only has a pair of shorts on. He sits down stuffing his fingers under his thighs. This is their school, the only one available to them.

A young man wearing a pair of jeans and a light blue shirt is standing in one corner. He pulls his ochre  shawl tightly around him, throwing a shy smile around. He is Bhim Sada, the teacher of this unofficial school—Jeevan Shala (school of life).

This is a colony of 150 Musahar families. Musahar are Mahadalits, a term coined by chief minister Nitish Kumar for the most marginalised, often extremely poor, among the Scheduled Castes. Over 97 per cent of the Musahar are labourers, mostly landless, according to the 2001 Census. The literacy rate among the Musahar is 4.6 per cent (male: 7.7 and female: 1.3), the lowest among the Mahadalit castes in Bihar, according to a 2012 report of the SC & ST Welfare Department of the state government.

Bihar’s 21 lakh Musahar make up a little more than 2 per cent of the state population but a significant 16 per cent of the politically crucial Dalit population. Jitan Ram Manjhi, former chief minister from the Musahar community, has staked this support base to have the Grand alliance (GA) field candidates from his Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) on three seats in this election.

Nitish has been trying to mobilise the support of Mahadalits and launched a slew of schemes for them, heating up Bihar’s Dalit politics, including a ₹100 a month scholarship for children in class 1-6 exclusively for Musahar children to ensure they go to school and don’t drop out. In this village, however, there is no school for 200 children.

They used to have one, long ago. But Amin Tola wasn’t located here, then. Amin Tola, Khokhnaha of Marauna block in Supaul district is situated within the Kosi embankments. Right now, the Kosi flows in four channels between the embankments here.

This hamlet sits between two channels that might close in on it once the Himalayan glaciers start melting rapidly in May. The settlement wasn’t always located here. In fact, it has moved four times since 30-year-old Bhim remembers.

Here, a piece of land doesn’t have a name, a group of people do. Wherever the majority of these 150 families move next would be the next Amin Tola. They decide where to move next based on which patch of the riverbed is dry. The meandering of the river and hopping of the people has had consequences, far beyond losing land and home.

On paper, Amin Tola has a middle school. After the flood in 2004 while the people moved west across the river, the school moved only a bit north. In 2015, Amin Tola had to move even further, to its present location. Today, Amin Tola’s school is located 3 km away. A channel of the Kosi flows between the children and their school. A boat is required to cross this channel even in this season.

Men who have been wandering about gather around Bhim’s school. “After the flood, colonies of Khokhnaha village moved to different locations. Some powerful people moved the school where it was convenient to them,” alleges Indeshwar Sada while everybody around him nods in agreement.

The Kosi belt offers a unique sight of wheat and paddy together in the fields. People cultivate ‘garma dhaan’, a short cycle summer paddy crop to make the most of the two months of dry fields before they can sow kharif paddy. This crop will be harvested by end of  May before kharif paddy is sown. Photo: Sriram Vittalamurthy

Losing the school also means missing out on midday meals, crucial for nutrition of the children that the government recognises as extremely poor. They don’t get the uniforms, books, bicycles and scholarships the state government provides. There isn’t an anganwadi in the hamlet either.

How will the children cross the river to go to school, says Samtolia Devi, whose four grandchildren attend Bhim’s school. “For us, this (Bhim’s) is the only school.”

Getting to Amin Tola requires time and effort. The closest a road goes is at Ghoghararia village. From there, walk on a spur, locally called thokar meaning stumble or kick since the river keeps kicking against it. You wait at the boat station for a boat to arrive. Boatman Lal Kumar is barely 10, but people assure you that he has done more than he can remember. He goes to a private school sometimes, he says.

He stands on one end of the boat and uses a lagga (long bamboo pole) to direct the boat. The pole goes under water over 15 feet at some places. The fast-flowing river keeps rocking the boat. (On the way back, a woman and her baby fell off into the river midstream. They were quickly helped back as the baby screamed, the woman cried and the boatman, Lal Kumar’s father, kept hurling abuse at somebody.)

A few minutes takes you to the other side. It’s a vast stretch of very fine sand. A couple of men on horseback pass by. After about 30 minutes of walking—guessing the distance is difficult since walking in sand takes more time and effort—some huts wedge out in the midst of miles of flat land with wheat ready to be harvested.

After a basti of Mallahs (fishermen) is the Musahar settlement. The houses are all bamboo and reed. Some roofs are covered with plastic sheets. Most houses have a small solar panel, their only source of electricity.

After the school and its students were first separated, the children in Amin Tola had no school for 11 years. In March 2015, on a visit to the village, Mahendra Yadav, convener of Kosi Navnirman Manch (KNM), asked why somebody from the village doesn’t teach the children informally.

Bhim, who has studied till Class 8, is the most educated in the village. He was returning after working in another person’s fields, when Yadav stopped him to discuss this issue. Bhim liked the idea. But it interfered with his daily wage jobs. KNM offered to support him with ₹3,000 a month.

The village was excited about the idea. They quickly decided on the piece of the land—surrounded by their small huts—where children could gather to study. They also built a thatch shed overnight.

The next morning, Bhim’s school was up and running. KNM decided to call it Jeevan Shala.

“All our troubles are because we are illiterate. We get duped all the time,” says Harilal Sada, who works in Gujarat as a seasonal migrant labourer. “Padhtai tabe ta apan hakk mangtai (Only when she is educated will she fight for her rights).”

Santosh Mukhiya runs another Jeevan Shala supported by KNM, to fill in for another absentee school. His classes run only a few hundred metres from Bhim’s, in the adjacent colony. But the two schools can’t be merged.

“No, no, the children from my school wouldn’t go to Bhim,” says Mukhiya. “They wouldn’t even enter the Musahar colony. Musahar, you know…”

Mukhiya is hinting at the caste hierarchy, which places Musahar right at the bottom. “Since their parents aren’t willing to send them to Bhim, I teach them in my colony,” he says. Mukhiya is mallah, considered a few rungs higher in the caste hierarchy than Musahar.

Once KNM attempted to find a more qualified teacher for Amin Tola, but they couldn’t find a person to teach in a Musahar colony, Yadav says.

Meanwhile, at Bhim’s school, five year old Aarti Kumari is diligently copying A, AA (the first row of the Hindi alphabet) that Bhim has written on the top of her slate.  Sitting next to her, Lakshmi Kumari, is reading words with two letters and the basic maatra AA. An older child, Ajay Kumar, is writing in his notebook with a pen. 

Bhim doesn’t seem like the most demonstrative of teachers. He goes from child to child— writing on the younger ones’ slates, checking on what the older ones have been scribbling, and correcting the pronunciation of words with difficult maatras.

He does this because the children are of varying ages and skill levels and sometimes the two have no correlation, he explains. They aren’t segregated class or age wise. He decides what to teach each one based on what they already know. He doesn’t follow a strict curriculum but tries to cover the basics of major subjects—Hindi, Maths, Science, Social Science and basic English. The school has 128 regular students, Bhim says.

There are only a few children in the school today because of the weather, explains Samtolia Devi. Bhim says that his youngest student is four and the oldest 14. But, today, none above the age of 7-8 are to be seen. This is because of the “season”, people explain—most have gone with their parents to harvest wheat from others’ land for which the family will be paid one-tenth of what they reap.

In 10 days, the season would be over and the class full, but, not for very long. Most children drop out of Bhim’s school after 10. “I can’t teach beyond Class 8 anyway,” Bhim smiles shyly. But his students drop out before Bhim exhausts his skills.

Aarti Kumari will drop out of school to work in the fields before she learns the multiplication table of 10. His best student Ajay Kumar would go to work in Punjab in two-three years, says Bhim.

This is what happened to Dileep Kumar, who went from not recognising alphabets to achieving the proficiency of a Class 6 student in just four years at Bhim’s school. This February, the 12-year-old left for Punjab to work as an agricultural labourer.

“What can the parents do? We’re all so poor...,” Bhim leaves his sentence hanging. The women and men sitting around nod. Some look the other way.

By now, a weak sun has risen up straight above the huts. The dry sandy soil is whirling around.  

A sand storm is approaching Amin Tola.

Sempul Devi was cutting the wheat crop in the field, when she saw women, men and children running towards the village circle. “Kata jaaichha (where are you going),” she shouted at one of the women. “Didi abai chhai netajee,” (Didi, the leader is coming).

She gathered what she had harvested, picked up her sickle and hurried towards Durga Sthan. It is an under construction room at the village square with several half-made idols of Goddess Durga, and a statue of Hanuman standing outside. Today, there is a bright orange tarpaulin spread on top and a red carpet on the ground flanked by plastic chairs.

She gets ₹40-₹80 for her day-long work, depending on what she can bargain for that day. Today, she was to get only ₹40 and chose to forego half of that to see Didi. She wants to tell her she doesn’t own the land she lives on and therefore won’t be able to construct a toilet the government wants her to build. She fears being thrown out of the land that was reclaimed from a government owned pond and can only afford a thatched hut. She also wants to request Didi that her PDS ration shouldn’t be held back for this reason. Six months ago, the PDS dealer in her area refused to give her ration till she shows proof of having built a toilet.

Didi, sitting MP and Congress candidate for Supaul Lok Sabha constituency Ranjeet Ranjan, is campaigning in villages close to Supaul town and DurgaSthan in Ward No 7 of Hardi West panchayat is one of the chosen places today since she is going to hold a small jansabha (public meeting) here. Over 80 of about 130 families in this ward are mahadalit. The voting here is in a week.

Ranjan has gone around villages making several stops. She makes a very short speech at a couple of places, at some she gets off the car and greets people reminding them to vote for her on April 23, at some other places she offers namaskar to people from the car as some young men on motorcycles toss pamphlets in the air creating a riot among children and women to grab them. A vehicle with loud speakers precedes the black Fortuner with Jharkhand registration she is in and seven other SUVs, including one without a registration plate at the back. The announcement of her name is followed by the Oscar winning “Jai Ho!” from Slumdog Millionaire. A male voice in Hindi lists out the development works she has done for the Kosi area, and also reminding people “...hum me vikas ki chhamta hai (we’ve the potential for development)”.

Ranjan claims to have brought several rail projects to benefit her constituency, most of which are still under construction. She also claims to have ensured 18-22 hours of power from the earlier 5-6 hours a day. However, a lot of people credit MLA Bijendra Yadav for this. He is also the energy minister in the state cabinet. She speaks proudly of having got Kosi declared a national waterway, a project that Nitish Kumar calls unproductive. Her visits to villages during floods, on a motorcycle or a boat, however, have got her supporters. Even her detractors admit that she meets the people often. But, no work happens on the ground, they add.

Ranjeet Ranjan, sitting MP and Congress candidate for Supaul, campaigning at Hardi Durga Sthan close to Supaul town. Photo: Monica Jha

Ranjan arrives at Durga Sthan over two hours late.  

A crowd of 150 people has gathered. Ranjan sits on a red plastic chair facing the crowd and wipes the sweat on her face with a small blue towel. Her pale cream cotton saree, a pair of canvas half-shoes and hair tied in a carefree bun seem like a wise decision for the long day she has had. Her gait is a reminder of her athletic days, when she played tennis for Bihar and Punjab. She is taller than most women and some men here.

Ranjan takes the mic after some local netas make their speeches. Everybody is making short speeches since Ranjan needs to cover several more villages marked for today’s itinerary.

Ranjan begins: “Ee Genhu katai ke season chhe, dosra taraf chunav chhe. Anha sab ke ki kare ke chhe? Modiji ke khet kaatna chhe (This is the wheat harvest season and also that of election. What should you do? You should clear out Modiji’s fields.)

Chhe ki nai? Boliye nai rahal chhiye (Do we or not? You are not saying anything), Ranjan prompts a response from the public. Some men laugh; some women shout something. Only one woman’s voice is audible; she’s saying “Ohina sab kahaichhebhotlaa (This is how they speak when they want votes).

She makes a case for why people should vote for her and her party, Congress and its allies, and not for NDA. It’s the same issues she has spoken about at every stop on the way—about PM Modi and CM Nitish colluding to deceive people and the benefits not reaching people.  

Women keep shouting something to which she says “Ruknaa (hold on)” with a smile, in a way that says she knows what the complaint is about.

It’s a short speech in Hindi, generously peppered with Thethi, the local dialect of Maithili spoken here. Ranjan speaks with a natural flow, devoid of stressing too much on clap-inviting quotes. She tries to humour the people with her jibes against the Modi and Nitish governments and laughs quietly.

Ranjan ends with the same punchline she has used at every stop on the way: “Sab jaat-jaat kahai chhe, hum due jaat mani aichhiye, purush aa mahila. Taa hamar jaat hamra ke vote kariai. (Everybody asks for votes based on caste; I consider only two castes: men and women. So, women, people of my caste, do vote for me).” She points at women, who are standing to her left.

Now, women can’t be held back. They start shouting all at once and push towards her. Sempul Devi gets pushed to the back. She calls out “Didi! Didi!” But everybody is shouting and Didi can’t hear her. Ranjan holds the hands of one elderly woman and rubs another’s shoulder. She leaves.

One woman shouts loudly: “She wants women’s votes. Why didn’t she speak to the women then? She spoke only to the kurta people (men) and left. Did she spend a single second listening to us?”  

She sees Ranjan getting into the car and is certain she can’t be heard by her anymore. She directs her anger towards the local netas who were hanging around Ranjan, in kurtas.  

Now, the complaints turn personal. About not getting PDS ration, and handpumps; about not having land to build houses and not getting government support to build houses. The older ones complain about old age and widow pensions.

Tulia Devi, a disabled woman who says she is 40 but looks no less than 70, says that she no longer gets the disability pension she once got and lives in a dilapidated hut that she can’t afford to repair. Sempul Devi walks back home. It’s a thatch hut with its roof broken at many places and covered with a black plastic sheet. She walks in and comes out with food on a steel plate and some stuffed in her mouth. She is very hungry with a long day of working and waiting.  

She had been waiting for election time to get some of her problems fixed when a leader comes asking for her vote. Her hopes are now dashed. She will now wait for her husband, who works as a labourer in Punjab, to send some extra money so that she can buy ration for her five daughters and three sons from the village store.

To make this money, her husband will have to forego his next vacation and the chance to visit home. He last visited home two years ago, she says staring into her plate of thick dry rotis and thinly sliced, barely fried potatoes.