When the Sharda flows wild

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THE residents of the villages at the border of the Pilibhit and Lakhimpur-Kheri districts in Uttar Pradesh are at their are just about keeping afloat. For the 2nd year in succession, they watched in utter helplessness as the Sharda, a tributary of the Ghagra, washed away hundreds of hectares of their land and swamped their houses. Unsuccessful in diverting the raging waters on their own, they could only pray for deliverance. Government help was too little and came too late.

Tired of waiting for help, the residents of Hazara, Azadnagar, Shastrinagar, Siddhnagar, Bharatpur, Kabirganj and Ayodhyanagar, all of which lie close to the Nepal border, took matters into their own hands in the 1st week of June. Says Jhuri Sharma of Bharatpur, "Panchayats were held to discuss the situation, where it was decided to dredge the original course of the river in the hope that it would change its course. About 600 of us dredged the river for about a month with our ploughs and shovels. Our efforts failed because we did not have sophisticated machinery."

Adds a despondent Manjit Singh of Kabirganj, "We then approached the administration and tried other methods to contain the river under the supervision of government engineers. We told them that the work should be undertaken at the edge of the forest, which is the first point of impact, if it was to have any effect. But as our advice was not heeded and all our efforts went in vain, we stopped volunteering after 3 weeks."

The trial began last year in August, when the river flooded its banks, swamping about 500 ha of agricultural land. Since May this year -- with the riverbed being filled with silt -- the Sharda changed its course by an estimated 4.5 km, ripping away approximately another 500 ha of the standing sugarcane crop. The whole area gave the impression of being one huge lake, with clumps of sugarcane and flotsam from the swamped villages floating disconsolately. Azadnagar was totally under water and only a handful of houses were left standing in the other villages.

The river also swept away the road and the bridge linking Sampoornanagar in Lakhimpur-Kheri district to Puranpur in Pilibhit district. According to V K Aggarwal, a sugarcane dealer at the wholesale market in Lakhimpur, the crop loss is a staggering 37,500 tonnes this year. With a selling price of Rs 580 per tonne, it would have fetched the farmers more than Rs 2 crore, he says.
sugar mill endangered With the Sharda rapidly cutting into the embankment, the Rs 10 crore Kisan Sahakari Chini Mill Ltd, which has a crushing capacity of 2,500 tonne of sugarcane every day, is also threatened. If the river merges with a drain that is less than 100 metres away, the interlying area where the mill is situated will be flooded. About 300 families have been displaced from the 7 villages and are now living in makeshift shelters in Bhanpur village. They huddle together in the small hutments and eat sparingly as they are dependent on the benevolence of the residents of Bhanpur for their meals. "We are thinking of taking up jobs in nearby towns, but we are not sure of finding work because our only experience is in farming," says Gurdayal Singh of Shastrinagar. The risk of epidemics in the absence of any medical care adds to their worries.

For the villagers, life has become a nightmare. "My family has lost 22.68 ha of standing crop as well as 8 houses. The land itself was worth approximately Rs 30,000 per ha. If the value of the crop and other property is added, it adds up to almost Rs 20 lakh," says Dhaniram of Hazara. Many smaller farmers, such as Deepai and Pashupatinath of Ayodhyanagar, have lost approximately 2 ha each of standing crop. The Sikh families who cultivate sugarcane on the Lakhimpur-Kheri side of the bridge have been badly hit. Says Manjit Singh, "In a span of just 8 days in August, the river washed away the land of most of the Sikh families."

The villagers claim that the loss would have been minimised if the government had acted promptly. Led by the local MLA, Virendra Mohan Singh, the villagers had asked the government as early as December last year to undertake preventive measures. When the government failed to take action, Singh filed a petition in the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court on June 6, seeking a directive to the government to save the villagers from the fury of the Sharda. On July 13, the court ordered the government to undertake immediate temporary measures.

Meanwhile, on June 26, senior government officials held a meeting to review the situation. The officials felt that undertaking a study on preventive measures may take too long. They decided that as the villagers had already dredged the original course of the river for about 1.5 km, bulldozers would be provided to help. But the government procrastinated while the villagers suffered.

"We had to abandon the dredging because the bulldozers sent by the government failed," says Rajesh Tiwari of Bhanpur. "In the beginning of July, the government was persuaded to provide material to fortify the embankment. We volunteered our labour. Under the supervision of government engineers, bamboo cages were built at the river's edge and then filled with sandbags to act as a barrier." Too few and far between
While the men concentrated on building the cages, the women divided their labour between feeding their husbands and helping them construct the bamboo structures. But with the cages being too few and far between, the river cut into the embankment in the intervening spaces.

Only then did the government wake up to the gravity of the situation. Senior officials rushed to the spot. Engineers recommended piling boulders along the embankment to divert the current. As boulders were not easily available in the immediate vicinity, they were brought in trucks from as far away as 50 km. The villagers, under the supervision of the government engineers, piled these boulders at intervals of about 4 metres.

But the Sharda refused to be contained. It cut rapidly into the intervening spaces, taking away chunks of the bank even as more boulders were placed. In desperation, the irrigation department principal secretary, V K Mittal, ordered a trailer to be immersed in the river along with the boulders, in the hope that the trailer would act as a spur.

The villagers are critical of the government's methods. "The boulders should have been placed right from the point where the river had started cutting into the bank in such a manner as to create an unbroken wall. Only then could the river have been contained," says Dinesh Chand Sharma of Siddhnagar. As the officials paid little heed to their suggestions and were themselves unable to prevent the erosion of the bank, the villagers stopped volunteering labour.

Mittal, however, does not agree with them. "The work is going on under the supervision of our panel of experts," he says. However, he added, "The work is progressing slowly because of the monsoon. And although we are concerned about what may happen, this is all that we can do at present."

Relief not prevention
Nevertheless, Mittal says that the national flood policy prescribes relief -- not preventive -- measures to be taken in the case of major rivers. "It (preventive measure) is not feasible. At least Rs 500 crore will be needed to take effective preventive measures in just this stretch. Besides, the density of population is not high in this area. In the case of major towns, the situation is different as it is not feasible to evacuate populations of 10 lakh or more," he says.

"Our lives have little value for the government, which is concentrating on erecting a barricade to save the sugar mill," alleges Dhaniram. Lakhimpur sub-divisional magistrate G P Srivastava disagrees. "If the population density had been high we would have taken preventive measures," he says, "but this is mainly agricultural land."

Nevertheless, he adds, people are being taken care of. "Rehabilitation measures have been adopted. Land has already been earmarked for those affected in the Pilibhit district," he says. The villagers, however, realise that it may be a while before the measures see the light of day. Last year's flood victims have yet to be rehabilitated, they say.

Worst affected by the floods are the women, who have to look after the children, besides coping with the difficulties caused by their displacement. They are not, in any case, willing to sit back and accept whatever is doled out. With a baby in her arms and another infant tugging away at her sari, Krishnavati Devi of Shastrinagar says, "We will make the government give us land and houses in compensation." Parvati Devi of the same village is more pragmatic. "We have been waiting for the rehabilitation measures to be implemented and asking for compensation since May, but all that we are given are empty promises. We will just have to keep knocking on the government's doors if we are to get our due."