Isolated, Neglected and Faced with a Cycle of Despair — Residents of These Villages in Bihar No Longer Interested in Elections

Neglected by the glimmer of development’s discourse, they continue to dwell in a realm of shattered hopes.
Isolated, Neglected and Faced with a Cycle of Despair — Residents of These Villages in Bihar No Longer Interested in Elections
The Mooknayak

Supaul/Darbhanga (Bihar): The annual floods of the relentless Kosi River, dubbed the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’, devastate remote settlements like Khokhanaha, along with as many as four other settlements. These villages, isolated and neglected, endure a cycle of despair — confronting the harsh realities of their circumstances without hope for change.

Year after year, the floods washed the residents’ fields and dashed their fleeting dreams — leaving behind the bitter harvest of poverty. Neglected by the glimmer of development’s discourse, they continue to dwell in a realm of shattered hopes.  Now, they are compelled to confront the stark realities. The people no longer hope for improvement or redemption.

Notably, housing 1,000-odd families with around 2,500 people, Khokhanaha at Ghonrariya panchayat is not the village — which is located in the middle of the river like an island. There are around 15 such villages spread across at least 10 panchayats.

The total population of the ‘island’ is estimated to be around 30,000. Ghonrariya panchayat alone has a population of 7,000 people who reside in its nine-odd villages.

The governments (both in the state and the Centre), according to the people living in Khokhanaha and the nearby villages of Panchgachiya, Belagot and Begumganj, have not only done little to mitigate the river’s wrath but have also shown no interest in providing adequate compensation for the loss of land and means of subsistence.

Every year, the Kosi belt experiences floods that cause thousands of people to lose their homes, farms, crops and even land when the river changes its streams. To exacerbate the situation, these villages lack basic services, including secondary schools, electricity and primary healthcare.

"Even banjaras (nomads) spend a few years at one location. But we experience homelessness every year,” Dharmendra Kumar, a resident of Khokhanaha who runs a customer service point (CSP) of the Uttar Bharat Gramin Bank — a government-owned scheduled commercial bank, told The Mooknayak.

Five wards of his village, which has been divided into two parts by a new stream of Kosi, had boycotted the 2019 general elections when the government allegedly did nothing to assist them, yet nothing changed even after that.

Since the villages are deprived of even basic essentials like a primary health centre (PHC), medicine shops, small market, etc., people have to visit Supaul for their every need. In absence of means of transport and roads, it takes them the whole day to reach the town and come back home as, in absence of means of roads and means of transport.

“Before reaching the road, which leads to Supaul, we have to cross two streams in succession while traveling in a boat and walk on foot for kilometres in this unbearably hot weather. Since there is only one boat, which takes around 35-40 to change sides, we have to wait for it to return to our sides. One visit to the town takes the full day,” he said.

Women are Worst Sufferer 

“It would be near impossible for a stranger to reach our villages. During floods, the entire region remains submerged in water. It looks like a sea. We have to ride boats from our villages, which have water up to our knees. The water flows two laghas (around 20-25 feet) above the riverbed, which you would have crossed on foot. Since many of us do not have a gas cylinder, cooking food becomes challenging. The chulhas (earthen stoves) are placed on makeshift high platforms. Schools are also closed for three months,” narrated Meena Devi, a daily wager and mother of two who belongs to the Ravidas community.

“Reaching our settlements is so difficult even when there is no flood that even candidates of every political party don’t visit. The only leader who visited us to seek our votes, was the one whose election symbol is lantern (the Rashtriya Janata Dal or RJD nominee). Neta log awaye che, vote mange la, jeetayi ke baad ghoor ke nai puchaiye chaye (Leaders come here to ask for votes, but they don’t return after getting elected),” she muttered.

Supaul is going to polls on May 7 (the third phase of ongoing Lok Sabha elections). Sitting MP Dileshwar Kamait of the incumbent Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) is taking on Chandrahas Chaupal of the RJD.

What do people do when someone falls ill in the ‘island’ as the area is devoid of medical facilities and doctors. “Nothing,” replied 40-year-old Kalkatiya Devi — a mother of five and musahar by caste.

“If it's daytime, they are carried by people on a cot like a dead person to the river where the boat ferries him or her to the other side. The patient is lifted again and taken to the road to be taken in a vehicle to the government hospital in the town,” she said, adding, “If it’s night, nothing can be done. What destiny has in store will happen”.

What about an expecting woman if she develops labour pain and cannot deliver the baby at home because of some complication? “Expecting women these days keep visiting a doctor in the town and as the due date nears, they are either admitted to hospital or stay with their relatives in the town so that any emergency situation is responded to immediately,” she said.

But during floods, if one suddenly develops labor pain at night can never reach the hospital from here. “There are many of us who don’t visit a doctor during pregnancy and expect a normal delivery. Things become difficult for such women in case of complications,” she said.

Why Kosi Causes Such a Devastation

Gopal Jha, 70, from Belaghat village claimed he has been seeing the village in the same for the past 40 years.

“Nothing has changed, there is no development. People have been left at the mercy of God by the successive governments. The irony is that the state government does not even acknowledge the destruction and displacement of settlements caused by floods. When people demand rehabilitation and compensation, it is outrightly denied. When the matter goes to the court, the district magistrate files a false affidavit, saying there was no flood in the region,” he said in a high-pitched voice.

Singheshwar Rai, 67, explained the river water earlier had a vast area (nearly 23-24 kilometers on both sides of the village) to spread. But the “mindless” urbanisation and construction of dams have reduced the area to eight-nine kilometers.

“The canalisation of the river results in high currents when huge amounts of water are released by Nepal. Since the water can no longer spread, it flows from the narrow space with high velocity, causing erosion of villages. In the 1960 map, the entire area was spread over 3,200 bigha of land (around 2,000 acres). But now 80% of the area has now gone to the river,” he said.

Following the devastation of the 2020 floods, he said, around 200 men and women had laid a siege for days outside the residence of the district magistrate in a spine chilling cold, demanding compensation and rehabilitation, but he did not allegedly bore the pain to come out and negotiate with the protesters. 

The agitation was called off when, on the third of the protest, his junior officials promised us that our demands would be looked into and addressed. “But it turned out to be mere lip service as nothing happened so far,” he said.

A young man belonging to the Sahni community, a scheduled caste, intervened in the conversation, saying 1,220 houses in the area were lost in the 2020 floods and the land where the houses once stood is now part of the river, but no compensation was awarded to the affected people.

“We went to the Patna High Court, seeking a direction to the district administration for compensation and rehabilitation. To our surprise, the administration through an affidavit denied that there was any flood in the region that year. When we countered the falsehood with new paper reports, the officials said they had inspected the area but there was no flood. Heavy rains had caused water logging,” he said.  

Everyone, this correspondent spoke to, denied recognising their MP Dileshwar Kamait as he never visited the area after getting elected to the Lok Sabha.

“We do not know who our MP is. If you give us a few photos of different leaders to recognise him in them, we won’t be able to do so,” they added.

Children Drop Out After Grade 5

The village has only one middle school (up to grade 5). “The local government school is up to standard five. It has one teacher, who occasionally shows up,” said Rameshwar Mukhiya, adding that “the school effectively runs for not more than five-six months. The region remains submerged in water for three-four months; and therefore, the school remains closed. So, if you deduct all official vacations throughout the year, the school remains open for only five-six months”.

Gagan Dev Mandal, a resident of Belagot, said after fifth grade, children have to get themselves admitted to high school, which is on the other side of the two streams of the river. 

“After class five, children have to cross the river to go to school. As a result, many of them drop out of school,” he added.

Marriage a Big Problem

The villagers said no one wants to marry their daughters in the villages as it is completely cut off from the rest of the world. During floods, they said, outsiders cannot “dare” to even think of visiting their villages.

“Only those who are economically weak and cannot afford the marriage expenses marry their daughters here. They happily marry our daughters but do not agree to send their daughters here,” said Rai with everyone nodding in agreement.

Pucca House — a Distant Dream

All the houses in the ‘island’ are made of bamboo, reed, straw and tins. Even those who can afford a good living do not construct a brick-concrete house as they have to keep relocating the land on which they are living gets eroded by the river.

“We have to spend at least Rs 50,000 to make one such makeshift house. Today, if one spends a lot of money and gets a pucca house constructed, what will happen to his investment when the house falls into the river and the land housing it goes into the river? Therefore, everyone lives here in these temporary shelters. Even it is not less expensive. After two-three years, we have to shift the venue and keep investing the amount,” said Mukhiya.

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