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Dams and embankments in the Ganga-Kosi floodplains, BR, India

Flood control structures and management paradigms have proved to be highly problematic for livelihood security, ecological productivity, and human development especially for marginalised sections of Bihari society, who have been reduced to flood refugees


Controlling river flooding has been a politically sensitive and conflicted issue in the naturally dynamic and abruptly shifting rivers of North Bihar in India [1,2].  With majority of the discussion being focussed on the impacts of engineering structures (dams, embankments, and their operation) on human vulnerability to flooding hazard [3,4,5], a new perspective on ‘flood control politics’ in this region [6,7] has emerged. This perspective has brought to the fore issues of serious conflict and marginality that millions of people face with centralized state and local non-state regimes of power and control, being trapped between embankments and highly exposed to flood risks due to the very structures that have sought to protect them [6,7,8,9,10]. Conflicts today are based on differential access to land and flood protection, blocked access to water bodies for fisheries and aquatic crop resources, and the constant reality of adjusting to displacement-induced poverty and socio-economic vulnerability [7,10,11,12].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Dams and embankments in the Ganga-Kosi floodplains, BR, India
State or province:Bihar
Location of conflict:Saharsa, Supaul, Katihar, Bhagalpur districts
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Aquaculture and fisheries
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Specific commodities:Land
Sand, gravel
Ecosystem Services
Construction materials and boats
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Total length of embankments in the area: 300 km

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Project area:1,200,000
Level of Investment for the conflictive project285,714,285
Affected Population:1,500,000 to 2,500,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1954
Relevant government actors:Government of India, Government of Bihar, Departments of the state of Bihar: Public Works, Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries, Water Resources, & Revenue and Land Reforms: national, state, and district-level relief work bodies, local block development officers, district administration and police
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Barh Mukti Abhiyan, Bihar, 1991
Civil society organizations, international forums, academic institutions, hydrologists:
Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, Kathmandu:
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur,
Prof. Rajeev Sinha.
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLATENT (no visible organising at the moment)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
Landless peasants
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Boycotts of official procedures/non-participation in official processes
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
State-level discussions, activist writings
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Potential: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Other Environmental impactsGreenhouse gas emissions from submerged aquatic vegetation in waterlogged areas may be high
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths
Potential: Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession
Other socio-economic impactsOutmigration for labour and coolie work, associated vulnerabilities related to remittance economy, isolation of families
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Institutional changes
Land demarcation
Strengthening of participation
Local political strife
Proposal and development of alternatives:The Barh Mukti Abhiyan has been at the forefront of constructive and robust critique of ‘hard engineering solutions’ in favour of soft flood control strategies based on local channel diversions and drainage network systems for containing and routing flood water through agricultural areas and wetlands. The Abhiyan’s foundation is based on a belief that the local communities would be self-reliant and achieve better control of floods than what is even possible by current embankment and dam operations [5,10]. The embankments provide a false sense of security to people, but instead can worsen floods by not allowing releases of water (in fact, embankments have been broken down by people in some cases to allow flood waters to find their way) [7,10]. The problem of flood risk for lakhs of people trapped between embankments needs urgent resolution by identifying solutions for better resettlement of affected families. Currently, displaced settlements regularly have to move around, with an interval of about 3 years at any given site. This lack of livelihood security has also led to cases of violent conflict between displaced refugees and settled village populations in the countryside.
Hydrologists have also identified the better management of barrage operations in order to provide ecological flow regimes in the river channel through the dry season, at a steady flow rate. It is argued that the current modified extremes will reduce the intensity with which barrages are compelled to release waters (in a burst, typically) at the onset of the monsoonal flooding season. Managing releases from barrages based on ecological flow (e-flow) regime guidelines would also temper down the ultimate impact of immediate alarm situations that often occur due to extreme rainfall in the Himalayan catchments or with breaches of upstream embankments [28]. E-flow maintainance also involves allocating and using irrigation water with greater efficiency and productive output, improving communication across different sectors demanding water, and decentralized management of canal and groundwater irrigation systems. These solutions are more at a systemic level but their flood management implications are critical.
More proximate solutions include providing aid packages to displaced as well as embankment-trapped villages, better alarm systems (e.g. Flood Management Information System-Bihar), and improved disaster response both on part of the state and civil society.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Several settlements still continue to remain trapped within embankments, and face conflicts from not only the state structures of water management / control, but also local power structures strongly based on caste and class divides, and conflicts that result from entrenched paradigms of water control continue over agriculture, ownership of and access to land and water, and fisheries / aquatic cropping systems. Baghel (2014) accurately points out that despite wide acknowledgment of these problems and risks, governments continue to wholly depend on the same flood control approaches, citing immediacy and the need for more engineering to mend the failures of current engineering. Underlying this rigidity are many factors, right from a rationality that remains persistent despite its chequered but long history, the drive for control of landscape boundaries and revenue, and political strategies and corruption that is based on maintaining risk in societies for continued reproduction of power structures and control.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Hunter, W.W. (1874) A Statistical Account of Bengal. Vol. I-XX. 257 p.

The Permanent Settlement Act, 1793; The Laws (Local Extent) Act, 1874. 1–17; Bengal Act II of 1882.

Baden-Powell, B.H., 1901. The Land Systems Of British India. Manual Of The Land-Tenures And Of The Systems Of Land-Revenue Administration Prevalent In The Several Provinces.

Mitra, B.B. (1934) The Laws of Land and Water in Bengal and Bihar, with the Case-law Thereon, Eastern Law House, Calcutta, India.

Bihar Fish Jalkar Management Bill - 2006 (Bihar Act 13). Govt. of Bihar, Patna, India. 11 p.

Flood Control Policy, 1954, Government of India, based on Flood Committee Report (1928)

Embankments Act

The Bengal Tenancy Acts of 1882 through 1885.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Kelkar, N. (2014) River Fisheries of the Gangetic Basin, India: A Primer. SANDRP, Delhi, India. 53 p.

8. Hill, C. V. (1990) Water and Power: Riparian Legislation and Agrarian Control in Colonial Bengal. American Society for Environmental History, 14(4), 1-20.

33. Thoms, M.C. (2003) Floodplain–river ecosystems : lateral connections and the implications of human interference. Geomorphology, 56, 335 – 349.

Rorabacher, J.A. 2008. Gerrymandering, poverty and flooding: a perennial story of Bihar. EPW, 43(47), 45-53

Chakraborty, T., Kar, R., Ghosh, P. & Basu, S. (2010) Kosi megafan: Historical records, geomorphology and the recent avulsion of the Kosi River. Quaternary International, 227, 143–160.

Baghel, R. 2014. River Control in India. Springer. 180 p.

3. Somanathan, E. (2012) Are Embankments a Good Flood–Control Strategy? A Case Study of the Kosi River. Discussion Paper 12-04, Indian Statistical Institute.

Mishra, D.K. (2008) Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters. Dehra Dun and Delhi, People's Science Institute and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Iqbal, S. (2010) Flood and erosion-induced population displacements: a socio-economic case study in the Gangetic riverine tract at Malda District, West Bengal, India. Journal of Human Ecology, 30, 201–211.

Mishra, D.K. 2008. The Kosi and the Embankment Story. EPW, 43(46), 47-52.

Singh, P., Ghose, N., Chaudhary, N. & Hansda, R. (2007) Life in the Shadow of Embankments – Turning Lost Lands into Assets in the Koshi Basin of Bihar, India. WinRock International India. 54 p.

Sinha, R. & P.F. Friend. (1994) River systems and their sediment flux, Indo-Gangetic plains, Northern Bihar , India. Sedimentology, 41, 825–845.

Bhargava, M. (2007) Changing River Courses in North India: Calamities, Bounties, Strategies Sixteenth to Early Nineteenth Centuries. Medieval History Journal, 10, 183–208.

Sarkar, S.K., Bhattacharya, A. & Bhattacharya, B. (2000) The river Ganga of northern India : an appraisal of its geomorphic and ecological changes. Water Science and Technology, 48, 121–128.

Sinha, R. (2008) Kosi: Rising Waters, Dynamic Channels and Human Disasters. EPW, Nov. 1: 42–47.

D’Souza, R. (2004) Rigidity and the affliction of capitalist property: colonial land revenue and the recasting of nature. Studies in History 20: 237–272.

Singh, P. (2008) The colonial state, zamindars and the politics of flood control in north Bihar (1850-1945). Indian Economic & Social History Review, 45, 239–260.

Gyawali D. 1999. Institutional forces behind water conflict in the Ganga plains. Grid-Group Cultural Theory 47:443–452.

Dixit, A., Moench, M., & Opitz-Stapleton, S. 2008. When realities shift: responding to floods and the challenge of climate change in the Gangetic Basin. Working with the Winds of Change Report, p. 271-285.

Sinha, N. (2014) Fluvial Landscape and the State: Property and the Gangetic Diaras in Colonial India, 1790s–1890s. Environment and History, 20, 209–237.

Sharma, M. (2006) Landscapes and Lives. Oxford University Press, New Delhi. 12-41 p.

Mukherjee, J. (2011) No voice, no choice : Riverine changes and human vulnerability in the “ chars ” of Malda and Murshidabad. Occasional Paper No. 28, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, India, 91 p.

Mishra, DK. 1999. Flood Protection That Never Was Case of Mahananda Basin of North Bihar. EPW 34:2013–2018.

Kumar, M. 2012. Governing flood, migration and conflict in North Bihar. Independent Report, 21 p.

Lahiri-Dutt, K. (2014) Commodified Land, Dangerous Water: Colonial Perceptions of Riverine Bengal. In: Asian Environments: Connections across Borders, Landscapes, and Times. Edited by Ursula Münster, Shiho Satsuka, and Gunnel Cederlöf, RCC Perspectives 2014, no. 3, 17–22.

Guha, R. (1963) A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement. Duke Univ. Press, USA. p. 264.

Devkota L, Crosato A, Giri S. 2012. Effect of the barrage and embankments on flooding and channel avulsion case study Koshi River, Nepal. Journal of Rural Infrastructure Development Nepal 3:124–132.

Dixit, A. (2009) Kosi embankment breach in Nepal: need for a paradigm shift in responding to floods. EPW, 44, 70-78.

Rampini, R.F. and M. Finucane, 1889. The Bengal Tenancy Act. Act VIII of 1885. Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, India.

Ray, K.B. (1954) Flood Prevention in the Rivers of Bihar , North Bengal and Assam. Economic Weekly, October 9, 1121–1126.

Sinha, R. 1998. On the controls of fluvial hazards in the north Bihar plains, eastern India. In: Maund. J. G. & Eddleston,

M. (eds.) Geohazards in Engineering Geolo. Geological Society, London, Engineering

Geology Special Publications, 15, 35 40.

Hill, C.V. (1997) River of sorrow: environment and social control in north India, 1770-1994. Association for Asian Studies, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Mishra, D.K. (2012) Resuscitating a Failed Idea - Notes from Bihar. EPW XLVII: 48–51.

Singh, V. (2014) Gangetic Floods: Landscape Transformations, Embankments and Clay Brick-Making. In: “Asian Environments: Connections across Borders, Landscapes, and Times,” edited by U. Münster, S. Satsuka, and G. Cederlöf, RCC Perspectives 2014, no. 3, 17–22.






Meta information
Contributor:Arpita Lulla, Kalpavriksh, [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2594
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