A transplanted village

Print edition : September 25, 1999

THE river dictates lifestyle in Ghonghepur, a speck on the edge, a victim of the Kosi's western embankment. The small village will have a place in any flood map of north Bihar, and its claim to fame is the stagnant waters of the Kosi and the Kamala that engulf it for most of the year.

The embankment that was meant to protect the village is, according to residents, sometimes the only dry stretch of land available. Most households have built makeshift homes there; some live there permanently - in huts of bamboo, rags and hay, in between temporary shops. A village transplanted on to the embankment.

Even as the Kosi erodes an area, it builds up land elsewhere. Large tracts suddenly become available for cultivation, but crops ripe for harvest go under. The unpredictability makes farming or any other investment a risky venture, and young men leave ear ly, as labourers in search of employment, mostly to Punjab and Haryana. Women and children and the old subsist on the edges of poverty. They are at the mercy of moneylenders and dependent on the money orders that take a long time to reach their destinati on. Cattle provide a major source of income, but milk must reach the cities the same day. For most part of the year, hours in a boat is the only way to reach civilisation. There is no land worth working on.

The local school exists only on paper; the Kosi claimed it long ago. The teacher seldom comes, thanks to the flood. Children catch fish, cut fodder or herd cattle, and pin their hopes on becoming labourers in the cities. Sometimes they are lent to the ca rpet weaving industry in towns far away.

The water from the handpumps on the slopes of the embankment emits a stench. The same as that of the Kosi, only a step away. The nearest government health centre is 4 km away, accessible by boat. No one goes there, because "there is no doctor". The sick go to Ajith Vastralaya, the textile shop, right there on the embankment, where the wooden shelf has more of tonics and tablets and emergency medicines than clothes. The owner, Mahendra Prasad Sah, is the village "medicine man". Mahendra Prasad has a medi cine for every known disease in the village and ostensibly has the licence to sell them. "The really sick (if they are lucky) go to the public health centre 12 km away by boat, paying Rs. 25 per head," he said.

The village has no fixed boundary. No one can say when a submerged piece of land will emerge again. The villagers know the Kosi will force them to leave, if not today, tomorrow. They are ready to leave to return later. For the State government, they do n ot exist.

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