"The Sharda river cuts the ground, just as you cut trees with an axe. It swells when it rains and swallows everything"
For hundreds of thousands of people living close to rivers like the Sharda, Ganga, Kosi, Yamuna, Rapti and Kaveri, life is a vicious cycle. Every monsoon, their lives come to a standstill due to floods and embankment erosion. Thousands die, millions get displaced and entire villages get obliterated
Arvind Shukla & Daya Sagar
His life is cursed, the farmer said as he stood by the river.
"At times, we feel we don't live in this country. The fact that we were born close to the Sharda river is the biggest curse of our lives," said Suresh Dwivedi, one of the few educated men in his Ratoli village in Uttar Pradesh state. His village is located 30 kilometres South of Lucknow, the state capital, in Sitapur district.
Living with floods is an annual reality for millions of people in India. More than 40 million hectares – or 12% of the country's land mass – faces floods and river erosion, according to the National Disaster Management Authority.
According to a World Bank report, of the total number of deaths world-over due to floods, 20% of deaths occur in India. In the year 2017, some 2,015 people died in India die to floods. The same year, 121 people died in Uttar Pradesh alone.
Year after year during the monsoons, homes and fields get washed away, cattle die, and entire swathes of rural geographies get completely cut off from the rest of world. Rushing from homes when flood warnings come in, witnessing the collapse of homes and the destruction of crops, and waiting in relief camps for floodwaters to go down is an annual exercise for hundreds of thousands of people living close to rivers like the Ganga, Kosi, Yamuna, Rapti, Gandak, Brahmaputra, Ghaghra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Kaveri and Damodar.
The only boat got occupied as soon as it arrived
In many areas like Sitapur, they are forced to live on rooftops or machans (wooden platforms wedged on trees).
There are dozens of villages on this stretch. Every year, the river wreaks havoc due to flooding and constant embankment erosion every monsoon.
According to 2018 report of Ministry of Water Resources and River Development, millions get displaced due to floods and embankment erosion every year. Property worth Rs 5,000 crore and crops worth Rs 1.680 crore were damaged in 2018.
For those living along the banks of rivers like Sharda or Kosi, embankment erosion, more than floods, is a major cause of concern. According to a study conducted by Prof. Rajiv Sinha of IIT Kanpur, the Kosi River floods year after because 1,082 million tonnes of silt has got deposited along its banks in the past 54 years. The Ganga carries one of the highest levels of sediment of any river in the world, and the build-up of silt has grown even greater in recent years.
While many villages along the banks of this river are still waiting for basic facilities like schools, bridges, roads, hospitals and electricity, one of their top priorities is the construction of check dams – to prevent flood water from entering their villages.
"Floods have split Ratoli village into two"
"The Sharda river cuts the ground, just as you cut trees with an axe. When the river swells during the monsoon, it swallows everything … our cattle, fields, homes ... and us," said Dwivedi. "We all get affected; children and senior citizens suffer the most. For three-four months during monsoon, we are forced to live on machans. Our situation reminds us of the great deluge mentioned in Jaishankar Prasad's epic poem Kamayani."
Consistent floods over the years have split the river into two.
The village is so cut off that basic necessities like electricity have not managed to reach residents who live across the river. Post sunset, solar lamps lit the village.
Since there are no bridges or roads connecting this village, the villagers here have to depend on one rickety boat for commuting from one end to the other. Those who live close to Sitapur are still better off as there are concrete houses, ration shops and health services.
But the other end of Ratoli is a different world altogether. There are no schools, hospitals or electricity. Even to buy basic things like rations, these villagers have to row that rickety boat, at times against the current, for 20 kms and cross the river. It takes them 45-60 minutes to travel from one end to the other.
The Gaon Connection team had to wait for half an hour to get on one such boat. The boat got occupied as soon as it arrived. There were 10 people, 3 motor cycles and 4 bicycles on board.
Yusuf Rais, 26, could not find a place. He was going to buy rations for his family and would now have to wait for four more hours. "I left home in the morning. I am famished. If I miss this boat, I will have to wait till evening," he said. When we returned in the evening, he was still waiting. "I had to go hungry because of you guys," he smiled at us and said.
Bhola Prasad, 70, who managed the boat, said: "Every day 200-250 people go from this end to the other. On days there is a bazaar in the village, the number of people goes up. We have been telling the government to build a bridge here, but no one listens to us."
An elderly lady, Sita, was on this boat too. "I came here to buy rations, but the shop was shut, so I am going back. Now I will come back after a few days. This happens many times. We live so far that even basic information like the shop not being open does not reach us."
"We want check dams, bridges; the government should take up de-silting"
Not just Ratoli, most of the village on this stretch are suffering due to floods and embankment erosion. When the Gaon Connection team visited Baraiti, the main road leading to this village was broken due to erosion. Mishri Lal, 71, was making machaans and tying those to trees. These villagers were already dreading the monsoon and the impending floods.
Asked why don't they leave this village, he said: "Where would we go? We can shift to another village, but what about our fields? We are dependent on farming. We couldn't send our kids to school, so they don't have jobs."
Sema Devi, 48, who lives in this village, said: "Post floods, the government authorities distribute biscuits, salt, flour and sugar and then they disappear. We have to rebuild our lives from scratch. Some people are forced to live in makeshift homes on roads."
Though the government provides relief material and helps with rehabilitation after every monsoon, but what these villagers want is a permanent solution to their multiple problems.
Those living in Ratoli village are demanding check dams, bridges and roads. They want the government authorities to take up de-silting. They want the authorities to make the river deeper, which according to them is an immediate temporary solution.
Ashutosh Shukla, a young Right to Information (RTI) activist living in this village, has been meeting with authorities and politicians regarding this. "The authorities should not just look at rehabilitation, but they should also try to fix the problems pertaining to flood and erosion permanently," he said.
He has filed many RTIs. "In 2010, the authorities had promised to build a dam at the cost of Rs 90 crore. Jitin Prasad was the minister then. Pawan Bansal, who was the Union Minister for Water Resources, had also visited our village. They started building the dam, but didn't finish it. I filed an RTI and even went to Sitapur, Lucknow and Delhi. I staged protests at tehsil and district headquarters, but it was pointless."
"I won't put my life at stake just for a vote'
There are 800 voters in this village. Ahead of the General Elections, while some of them were talking about boycotting the polls, for those who wanted to, it was a logistical nightmare to go cast their vote. "Our polling booth is on the other side. At a time only 20-25 people can go from one end to the other. There is just one boat and its takes one hour per trip., which means only 100-150 would be able to cast their vote," said Dwivedi.
"We can't put our lives at stake for voting," said Nangu Dwiwedi.
"We don't want peanuts, biscuits, salt and sugar. We want check dams, bridges, roads and electricity," said a woman angrily. "I will vote for the one who will build a bridge here. The government gives us biscuits and food packets when we are cut off during monsoon. That's not what we want."
"We don't have any option but to live on roads"
Those villagers who got displaced last year are forced to live on a road close by. Around 50 families live in slums here. Those who had a concrete house got Rs 95,000 as remuneration, and those who had tiled houses got Rs 4,600. They, however, didn't get the land on which they were to build the houses.
Fatima, 65, had to stay in a makeshift home for 6 months. "I lost everything last monsoon. We were sleeping. Next day when we got up, there was water all around. For some days we lived on machans, but that was also very risky so we left our home. We lost our fields. Now we work as daily wage earners for others."
Kamal Ahmad, who lives in one of these slum-houses said: "I ran from pillar to post. I went to the tehsil and district headquarters requesting them to rebuild our homes and colonies, but we are still stuck here. It's a narrow road. People lives on both sides. Our kids play here. We have to be on guard all the time."
"When there's water all around, where do we defecate?"
There are few public toilets in the village, but they are not worth using. So almost all villagers defecate in the open.
"There are no toilets here. You can't even imagine what happens during floods when we have to wade through waist-deep water. We defecate in the open and we have to use the same water for drinking. What could be more unfortunate than that? At times, we take the boat and go to elevated levels, but mostly we have to stand and defecate."
'Even government schemes couldn't cross the Sharda'
Apart from the government's Ujjwala Yojna scheme, none of the schemes have managed to cross the Sharda river. In its first phase, only 3-4 people have got houses under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna. Many villagers blamed the village head for this. "Those who are close to him get benefitted," said a villager. A road was constructed during former Union minister Jitin Prasad's tenure. But that's submerged in sand and silt now. There are no pucca roads in the village.
'There are no schools here. Our kids have no future'
Around 95% people living here are illiterate. As there are no schools here, only a handful of children go to school. Rohit Raj, who lives in Lakhimpur and was visiting Ratoli said: "I have been though a lot just to pursue my education. Others can't afford to do so as there are no roads or bridges here. The village is cut off for most part of the year, so even those who want to study, can't."
Shiv Sahay Giri, 55, who lives in this village, made many efforts so that children living here could study. He is a farmer and has studied till the fifth class. A few years back, he used his savings to open a school here. The school functioned for 2-3 years, but it shut down after that. He wrote many letters to the DM and the PM, but no one replied. "I tried my best, but I failed," he said, dejected.
Farmers don't have much choice
The land here is fertile, but farmers don't have much choice to sow a variety of crops because of sand which is in abundance here. Most of the farmers grow sugarcane, but unfortunately, all the farmers can grow only one crop. Because of consistent floods, they are not able to sow paddy. Some of them manage to sow wheat and mustard. But because of floods, most of them have to manage with one crop per year. Needless to say, they all face financial problems.
'My last wish is to see a bridge, a check dam and a school in this village'
Villagers living in Ratoli feel their situation will never change until and unless the government accepts that the region is flood-prone and takes steps to resolve the issues plaguing the villagers permanently.
The senior citizens who live here and have been braving floods since decades, have given up hope.
Champa Devi, 70, said wiping her tears: "I have suffered for years. The situation hasn't changed. Many politicians come during elections. But they don't visit after the elections get over. It's my last wish to see a check dam, a bridge, a school and a road in this village. But I know this last wish of mine would never be granted."
(Mohit Shukla contributed to this story)
Edited by: Swati Subhedar