No entitlement: Living on borrowed flood lands
04 Apr 2016

By Pranita Bhushan Udas, ICIMOD

Ferrying people across the Gandaki river in Bihar. (Photo by Anjal Prakash)

When our HI-AWARE research team visited the small Bihari village in early February, we found
Chharke’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 Chharke 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 leaving as a result of the river consuming more and more land with 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 to 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 up north in Nepal, and I worry the water might reach us’, said a mother of five who has lived in Chharke for 35 years without land enti-tlement, and works for the government as a social mobiliser.

River erosion along the Gandaki river, Bihar. (Photo by Pranita Bhushan Udas)

‘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’?

Chharke households depend on agriculture. Their temporary homes are built upon an embank-ment above the river and they farm the adjacent land. 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, farm-ers are vulnerable to the weather and flooding causing many to migrate and seek jobs else-where.

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 INR 50 lakh in loans was taken out in 2016. Incidences of retaliation by moneylenders for fail-ure to pay back loans is widespread. In such situations, the only way to repay the loan is to in-denture 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 Chharke Vishampur show multiple layers of drivers and conditions leading to vulnerabilities. HI-AWARE’s research team is studying the socio-economic, governance and gender drivers and conditions leading to climate vulnerability,  focusing on villages with specific issues like the West Champaran district of Bihar and Chitwan in the flood plains of the Gandaki River basin in Nepal. The team is also studying in the mid hill villages of Nuwakot and Rasuwa districts in the mountains of Nepal.