Walking upstream of Farakka: How those living along Ganga were forced to become nomads

Pix: Siddharth Agarwal
Standing at the edge of a river island, the Ganga river upstream of Farakka barrage seems to stretch out forever like the sea: Pix by the author

By Siddharth Agarwal*

The monsoons had begun their annual ritual about the same time I found myself bereft of my old company while walking along the Ganga from Ganga Sagar to Gaumukh. The documentary crew that was traveling along with me had decided against venturing into the states of Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, hence I ended up travelling alone upstream from Farakka.

A lot has been written on the topic of the Farakka barrage, and quite extensively from the ecological, engineering and political perspectives. Some have even filmed the dilemma of the people, showcasing the wrath of nature when mindlessly meddled with. My visit to Farakka and its nearby areas left deep imprints on me, characterized particularly by a sad question, “How many times have you lost your home to the river?”

For the uninitiated, the Farakka barrage has been an internationally disputed topic for many decades now; governments unfailingly celebrating it as a success story while locals continue to savor the fruits of this engineering monster. Built to divert water towards the Bhagirathi distributary of the Ganga and to de-silt the Calcutta port for movement of large ships, the structure completed in 1971 has achieved everything but that.

That the river meanders is common knowledge and accepted as part of their lives by the people of the flood plains, but losing one’s house 14 times in a period of 45 years is unprecedented. This number, varied from 3-14 for the people I met upstream of the Farakka barrage. The people downstream suffer too, for them the river has started taking the shortest route, eating away on their lands as it carries much less silt than it’s silt carrying capacity, much thanks to the Farakka barrage. But we’ll keep this story about the lives upstream of the structure, and leave the downstream for another story.

Making my way through Farakka and over the barrage, I reached Panchanandapur where I would find Mr. Sanjay Basak from the Ganga Bhangan Pratirodh Action Nagarik Committee (GBPANC). He himself has lost his house 7 times, currently residing in the 8th structure that he has had to call home. After a hot serving of luchi puri and aloo dum (fried wheat flour bread and potato curry) for breakfast, we headed out into the field. While riding pillion on his motorbike, all I could see along the roads were makeshift settlements that he pointed out were of refugees from the land erosion due to the barrage. One of these temporary settlements had caught fire recently, charred to the ground and exposed to the wrath of nature yet again.

While speaking to some of these refugees, the dispassionate tone of their voices was unnerving, almost as if they had become impervious to this drama. I asked them to explain why they’re here, to which they said, “Our land and homes were taken away by the river and we had no money to buy more land, it has been 12 years that we’ve been living by the roads. Our political representative’s promises and assurances are as true as his presence, non-existent.”

I prodded them further; asking if they ever realized that the river was drawing closer and they repeated the same story again. Some did so in an animated manner, displaying with their hands a rapidly falling motion of how their houses fell.  This temporary way of life along the road has assumed permanent nature for them, with more than a 100 displaced families surviving in this neighborhood alone.

Farakka barrage

We later reached the riverbank, here Mr. Basak pointed to a spot in the middle of this vast expanse of water as the last spot where his house used to be. The river here, he says, is about 14 kms wide with multiple huge river islands in the midst. Some of these islands are home to over 1 lakh people who have no identity today, lying between the states of Bengal and Jharkhand with no one ready to accept responsibility.  I met a few more people who had lost their homes 3-4 times, recorded their stories and moved ahead on my walk along the river.

Till this point, I was convinced of the conditions created by the river and the abysmal nature of life in which these people survived, but I still needed to do some independent inquiry to ensure this was real. I must have walked another 15-20 kilometers that day, speaking to every soul that would agree but I leave you with one story that shook me to the core.

After about 6-8 kilometers of walking on high embankments, I slid down the sides to a small settlement that had appeared on my right. A scene with overcast drizzling skies, smoke emitting from an earthen kiln and the sound of muzzled conversations are any romantic’s dream, and here it was all playing out for real in front of me with a hint of melancholy. While I waited for tea, seated on a wooden plank, the locals huddled around me, inquisitive about my presence.

The question, “Have you lost your house to the river too?”,  was answered in the affirmative by most. An old voice called out from behind, “45 kilometers West from here, what was once Bihar, is where I was born”. As the crowd parted, the old gentleman peered into my eyes as if searching for sincerity and continued, “Ever since the foundation for the barrage was laid our lives have become nomadic, and not out of choice. It took over 40 years, 3 generations of my family and 14 interim houses to finally reach this place where things seem to have settled for now. Where is the sense in this? We own no land, no permanent jobs, for our lives our temporary and promises false.”

Dumbstruck but still curious, I asked how they managed all these years and he said the same thing that others had oft repeated in their answers over the 500kms I had already walked through Bengal, faith. The people of this country are a people of faith, so much so that they would forgive the river for whatever it had done to them because they believe it is the maya (cosmic play) of the river, of Goddess Ganga.

We can continue to let them believe that it is purely the river’s will to swallow their lands, or make amends and rehabilitate them while ensuring that we learn from the mistakes of the Farakka barrage and do not repeat the same. For faith, once shaken, is difficult to build again, and I say this while recalling the taste of that simple tea that afternoon for which the elderly gentleman didn’t let me pay, saying, “You’re our guest. It would be ridiculous for you to spend money when I’m here.

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar on July 16, 2016 demanded removal of Farakka barrage on river Ganga, saying “the disadvantages of the barrage appear to be higher than its benefits”. The meeting was chaired by PM Narendra Modi and attended by CMs of different states and union ministers. Nitish also demanded formulation of an effective National Silt Management Policy, saying such a policy at the national level is essential for silt management as well as for ensuring uninterrupted flow of water not only in Ganga, but all the other rivers. While Bihar CM has been voicing these issues now for some years, the centre has refused to do anything about it. We learn that Central Water Commission has submitted a report, saying that Farakka is not responsible for upstream floods or erosion, but that report is not in public domain.

We hope Bihar Chief Minister will take this issue of decommissioning of Farakka Dam to a higher level and keep pushing for it. We hope that Bihar CM will also demand justice for the people affected by the Farakka barrage both in the upstream and downstream.

*The narration is based on walk along Ganga from Gangasagar to Gaumukh to meet Farakka refugees. The walk is part of the Moving Upstream project of Veditum India Foundation around Indian rivers. The project intends to understand and present a personal narrative of the rivers and their people, hoping this will lead to more meaningful conversation and inclusive action by the government, NGOs and citizen action groups. Contact: siddharthagarwal.iitkgp@gmail.com. Source: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/.


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