No Entitlement: Living on Borrowed Flood Lands

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Ferrying people across the Gandaki river in Bihar.  
Photo: Anjal Prakash/ICIMOD

When our HIAWARE research team visited the small Bihari village in early February, we found Chharki’s streets lined with bamboo cottages topped with thatched roofs. Outside, women and children loitered. Very few men were visible. The children, most in dirty clothes, carried their younger siblings.

The majority of the 685 people living in Chharki are considered by some to be of a lower rank in Indian society - Dalit, Mushar, Mala, and Yadav members. These villagers live just one kilometre away from the Gandaki River, and is situated along Pipara Piparasi Bandh.

In 1980, a large flood displaced the community and subsequent years found families dispersing as a result of the river consuming more and more land every rainy season. Flooding in 2007 and 2013 caused families to move higher until the swollen waters of the Gandaki subsided.

Since 2013, the river’s waters have fallen short of the village’s cottages. Farmers attribute this less rainfall the past few years. Though relieved the water has not reached their homes, villagers live in fear that the next flood is imminent. ‘As the rainy season approaches, I see the lightning in the north of Nepal, and I worry the water might reach us’.

River erosion along the Gandaki river, Bihar.
Photo: Pranita Bhushan Udas/ICIMOD

A mother of five who has lived in Chharki for 35 years without land entitlement, and works for the government as a social mobiliser shared her concern.

‘Who would not like to have a better house’? she asked. ‘For women and children it is always good to have a permanent settlement. We have neither land entitlement nor are we free from flood to invest in a house. We think twice before we decide to invest in a house. The land where we live belongs to the government. Who knows if the next rainy season we might be chased away by flood’?

Chharki households depend on agriculture. Their temporary homes are built upon an embankment above the river and the land they farm is adjacent. Most of these land arrangements are of a sharecropping nature, or batiya. There are private pumps to irrigate crops with groundwater, but many households are not able to pay the fee to use the pump. With unpredictable rainfall, farmers are vulnerable to the weather and flooding causing many to migrate and seek jobs elsewhere.

Food support for families comes from the Bihar government. Families receive 3 kg of rice and 2 kg of wheat per family member per month. The combined food from the field and government subsidy is not enough to support each home. As a survival strategy, men leave the village to work in Punjab, Hariyana and other places as labourers. Depending on the need, some men leave from four to ten months at a time with most returning for the rainy season to help out should disaster strike.

Those unable to earn enough opt for loans but interest ranges from 60 to 120 percent a year. A baseline survey conducted by Water Action, a local nongovernmental organisation, found a total of 50 lakh in loans was take out in 2016. Incidences of retaliation by moneylenders for failure to pay back loans is widespread. In such situations, the only way to repay the loan is to indenture one’s self to the moneylender. Though the practice of zamindari was officially ended in Bihar, borrowers still fall into situations of bonded labour for defaulting on loans.

The livelihood challenges of people living in Chharki Vishampur show multiple layers of drivers and conditions leading to vulnerabilities. HIAWARE's research team is studying the socioeconomic, governance and gendered drivers and conditions leading to vulnerability in climate change context focusing on villages with specific issues like the West Champaran district of Bihar and Chitawan in the flood plain of the Gandaki River basin. The team is also studying in the mid hill villages of Nuwakot and Rasuwa in the mountains of Nepal.