Trapped between the Ghaghara and its embankment, UP villagers face annual displacement and yearn for respite
Every year, as many as 100,000 villagers in Barabanki relocate to temporary shelters when the Ghaghara river inundates their villages and destroys their crops. These rural residents are trapped between the embankments of the river built for flood control. Villages like Tepra are washed away and for the past three years now, people are living on an embankment awaiting compensation and rehabilitation. Will the UP election results change their fate? A ground report.
Virendra Singh 22 Feb 2022 7:12 AM GMT
Sirauli Gauspur (Barabanki), Uttar Pradesh
Phoolmati yearns to be somewhere dry, and where her children can be safe. "That is where my village used to be," she said, sadly, pointing in the direction of a village called Tepra in Sirauli Gauspur tehsil in Barabanki district. But, three years ago, her village disappeared into the flood waters of the Ghaghara river.
"The river rushed past my village and our entire house along with our land was lost. That was three years ago. We have been living in this small hut on the bandh (embankment) ever since," Phoolmati told Gaon Connection. "No compensation was provided to me after I lost my house to the river," she added.
Phoolmati is not the only one waiting for a miracle. Hers is just one of the 50 families of Tepra village that are permanently displaced for the past three years and are dreaming of rehabilitation. As many as 120 villagers continue to live precarious lives atop the Algin Bridge Charsari embankment.
These displaced villagers can't leave because they cannot afford to build a house again and their lands have disappeared in the flood waters. Tarpaulin and flimsy plastic sheets are the only roofs they have over their heads. They complain that none of the political parties are interested in addressing their woes. And these flood victims are angry.
"The representatives elected by us don't even look back at us when we are in agony," Vidya Sagar Pandey, a 58-year-old resident of Baburi Sarsanda village in Ramnagar tehsil of Barabanki, angrily told Gaon Connection. Pandey said that he has lost nearly eight hectares of land to the floods in Ghaghara.
Barabanki will vote to elect its legislator in the ongoing assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in the fifth phase which will be held on February 27. Predictably, in the election season, politicians are quick to make promises.
"I am contesting for the seat in the ongoing assembly polls. One of my foremost priorities after winning the election would be to direct the officials in identifying lands for the rehabilitation of the flood victims who are presently living on the embankment," Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sharad Awasthi told Gaon Connection.
Similar promise has been offered by Fareed Mehfooz Kidwai, former MLA from Barabanki and a Samajwadi Party leader. "If voted to power, I will provide rehabilitation to the people who have lost their lands to erosion," he said.
As per data of the Uttar Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority, the condition of an estimated population of about 100,000 villagers in Barabanki district is pitiable as their homes and lands are trapped between the Ghaghra river bank and the 52.4 kilometre-long embankment that has been built on either side of the river to control floods.
Every year, during the monsoon months of July to September, the river inundates their villages and these hundred thousand people are forced to escape to safer areas, often on top of the embankments. And, most continue to live there as they cannot afford to rebuild their homes.
"During the monsoon, we are trapped between the river and the bandh and have no option but to spend almost three months on the bandh itself. Our houses in the village are surrounded by chest-deep water," Deepak Prakash Pandey, from Kodhri village in Ramnagar tehsil, told Gaon Connection.
"I wish the government would rehabilitate us in safer areas. This yearly misery needs to stop," the 58-year-old pleaded. According to him, almost 100 villages in three tehsils (Ramsanehighat, Ramnagar and Sirauli Gauspur) of Barabanki lie along the area trapped between the river and the embankment.
"I have nobody else in my family except my son who lost his leg in an accident some years ago. Then, I lost my house in the floods that hit my village three years ago and have not received any mauwja (compensation)," Badka, a former resident of the Tepra village, told Gaon Connection. Badka said she was dependent on the sarkaari anaaj (dry ration provided by the government) for survival.
Flood control vs trapped villages
The 1,080 kilometres-long Ghaghara originates in Himalayan mountains in Tibet and passes through Nepal before reaching the northern plains in India, where it is both worshipped and feared for the havoc it causes every year.
In Uttar Pradesh, Ghaghara flows through Ambedkar Nagar, Faizabad, Ayodhya, Azamgarh, Barabanki, Basti, Ballia, Bahraich, Deoria, Gonda, Gorakhpur, Sant Kabir Nagar, Lakhimpur Kheri, Mau, and Sitapur. It meets the Ganges at Revelganj in Bihar.
Ghaghara is notorious for bringing massive floods displacing hundreds of thousand people on an annual basis.
The length of Ghaghara river in Barabanki district is about 77 kilometres. In order to control the floods, a 52.4 kilometre long embankment (locally known as bandh) has been built all along the river's course with the hope that it helps contain the spread of the floodwaters.
The bandh was built in order to prevent the river from flooding agricultural lands and villages inland. While the authorities claim that this has saved nearly 100,000 hectares of land from submersion, it has brought no succour to those who live beside the river and are trapped between its embankments.
The three tehsils (a district sub-division), which are most prone to floods due to the Ghaghara river in Barabanki are Ramsanehighat, Ramnagar and Sirauli Gauspur. According to data from the Uttar Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority, in 2020, a total of 62,725 rural citizens were adversely affected by the floods in Barabanki district. Also, crops on 2,633 hectares of land were destroyed.
"Flood control through bandh is fine, but what about those people who live right next to the river bank," Akbal Singh, a 48-year-old from Saraisurjan village, Sirauli Gauspur tehsil, asked Gaon Connection. While the bandh ensures that the river does not overflow and wash away villages outside of the embankments, it has created havoc for those living between the bandh and the river.
Akbal Singh held the bandh responsible for the river water submerging their khet (agricultural fields) and forcing them to relocate every monsoon.
Authorities aren't unaware of the miseries of these families.The sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Sirauli Gausapur tehsil told Gaon Connection that efforts are underway to identify lands on which the displaced villagers will be rehabilitated.
"I am aware that these people are living on the embankment. The administration is working to mark out lands that can be allotted to them. Meanwhile, they have been supplied with food rations as they are also facing a loss of livelihoods," Surendra Pal Vishwakarma, the SDM informed Gaon Connection.
The biggest challenge is identifying land for allotting it to the villagers, said Fareed Mehfooz Kidwai of the Samajwadi Party. "But I assure you that it will be done in a systematic way. Also, the embankment will be made of concrete as presently there is risk of a breach as it is just made of mud," he said.
Homes and livelihoods lost; what about compensation?
The misery of their losses is compounded by the fact that addresses mentioned in their official identity cards, Voter ID cards and Aadhaar cards no longer exist. So, for all practical purposes they are invisible to the authorities.
"Nobody ever takes stock of our lives. Officials visit the nearby villages but nobody pays any attention to families living here on the bandh. It's as if we don't exist," Geeta Devi, a 40-year-old mother of five children who is living on the Algin Bridge Charsari embankment, told Gaon Connection.
"People living here are the poorest people in the village. Those who could afford to build their houses have all returned. People living here have barely any source of livelihood. We mostly work as agricultural labourers," she said.
"I just want my kids to have a better life than this. We have been living here for three years now. The government should think of us and rehabilitate," said the mother of four.
According to many of those who are affected by the floods, there has been no sign of any rehabilitation or compensation coming their way. They claim that whenever the flooding happens, officials turn up, make the appropriate noises and half baked promises, then disappear. Nothing has happened so far on the ground, they complained to Gaon Connection.
However, official data published by the Uttar Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority mentions that a total of Rs 1,396,100 were transferred to the flood victims in compensation for damage to huts in Ramsanehighat tehsil between the years 2017 and 2020.
For the same time period, a total of Rs 1,135,700 were transferred as compensation for the loss of huts in Ramnagar tehsil. Meanwhile, in Sirauli Gauspur tehsil, the worst affected tehsil where 50 families have been living on the embankment for the past three years, a total of Rs 12,213,900 were provided as compensation for damaged huts during 2017-2020.
While those who could return to their villages after the flood waters receded and rebuilt their lives believed rehabilitation and compensation to be a poll issue, the others living on the embankment showed little interest in the ongoing assembly elections in the state.
For Geeta Devi, who lives along with her four children in a flimsy shelter on the embankment, politicians or their promises mean little. "Elections keep happening but our suffering always continues," she said, wearily, and turned away.
Written by Pratyaksh Srivastava