Print edition : October 10, 2003

Malda district in West Bengal has lost huge swathes of land to the fury of the Ganga, and thousands of families have been deprived of their homes and livelihoods.

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY in Malda Photographs: Parth Sanyal

You keep going your way, I'll keep going my way. River stay away from my door.

- American folk song

IN all cultures and communities, the river has pride of place in literature and music. But when the life-giver and provider of sustenance suddenly starts engulfing those dependent on it, its benign presence becomes a terror, as in the case of 82-year-old Samsuddin Ahmed of Malda district in West Bengal. The Ganga, flowing 4 km from where his house stands today, is a source of recurrent sorrow and loss for him.

The eroded eighth embankment of the Ganga in Panchanandapur in Malda district.-

In 1971, Samsuddin's family owned 100 bighas of land (approximately 10 acres or four hectares) in Bishnatala mouza in the K.B. Jhaubana gram panchayat. But with the Ganga changing course and eroding its left bank in the district, his family lost all its land. It has had to shift from place to place, according to the river's whims and moods. It was in 2000 that he last surrendered his hearth and home to the river. "Even today we are not safe where we stand. It is just a matter of time, when the river will swallow this too," the octogenarian told Frontline. When Samsuddin shifted to the new location in 2000, the river was 7 km away from his house; three years later, it is a little less than 5 km away. The entire Jhaubana region, where he had his land, has been claimed by the river. Last year it was declared extinct.

There are thousands of affected people like Samsuddin in Malda district, who have lost everything to the Ganga as it inexorably eats into its banks. This year the erosion started from the first week of July. On the night of September 5, Gangabhavan, the most important building of the Irrigation Department in the district, was engulfed by the river. On September 9, the river struck again, claiming 4.5 hectares of land and affecting several villages in Panchanandapur. On the night of September 9, the water level was quite high, and the velocity of the flow was more than 4 metres per second when the river attacked its left bank.

A.K. Bala, District Magistrate, Malda, told Frontline: "The erosion problem is very serious. Of the five blocks that have been affected by erosion and subsequent inundation this year, the worst hit are Panchanandapur, Kalyachak II, Ratua I and Manikchak." With nearly 67.65 sq km of land being lost owing to erosion and inundation, more than 3,500 families have been affected. The majority of them have sought shelter under makeshift tents of bamboo and polythene on either side of the road leading to the river.

Qutubuddin and his family of five lost all their land 30 years ago in erosion by the Ganga. "The place where my house stood is now a little more than 2 km inside the river. I have had to shift my family four times in the last 20 years. And after this year's floods and bhangan (erosion), my wife and four daughters and I are living on the side of the road under a polythene sheet." These people prefer floods to erosion as a form of catastrophe. "It is true that floods cause a lot of destruction, but it doesn't take everything away from you. We always have our land to go back to when the waters recede. Besides, the land itself is made more fertile. But bhangan just swallows up everything we have," he told Frontline.

Local residents on a stretch of the broken embankment.-

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government of West Bengal has provided tarpaulin, medicine and food to the affected people. Each affected family is assured of 12 kg of rice a month. The government has also released Rs.3 crores for the rehabilitation of those who have lost their entire property. About 32 ha at Kalyachak II has been identified for this.

THE gravity of the situation can be understood if one realises that when the Gangabhavan was constructed in 1975, the Ganga flowed 5 km away from it. "Prior to 1972, when the Farakka Barrage was constructed, there were floods and erosions, but the rate of it has increased to incredible proportions owing to the presence of the dam. Recent records state that from 1980 to the present, around 4,900 hectares of land has been lost to the Ganga," Pundarikaksha Roy, Executive Engineer, Irrigation Department, Malda, told Frontline. The land lost to the river includes not just residential villages, but mango plantations and agricultural land.

Pundarikaksha Roy, Executive Engineer, Irrigation Department, Malda.-

A survey conducted in 2002 revealed that the depth of the channels of the river from Manikchak Ghat to the Farakka Barrage ranges from +4 to +6 metres (from the riverbed level), and near Panchanandapur, where the land levels are between 24 to 25 m, it is -11 m. Hence the river has cut depths ranging from 18 to 33 m in various regions on its left bank. The soil in Malda is predominantly of the alluvial type, consisting mainly of fine silt and sand and some clay at the top. As a result the soil has no cohesion, and as soon as the river forms deeper channels along the left bank, the bed material is scooped up. With the base gone, the banks collapse into the river.

The Ganga, which has a total catchment area of 9,69,339 sq km upstream of the Farakka Barrage, carries a normal flood discharge of 29,452 cumsecs (cubic metres per second), and it carries an average silt load of 33 lakh tonnes annually. This has seriously affected the geomorphological formation of the river. Several large chars (islands formed by silt deposits), such as the Gadai char and the Dakatia char, have been formed and this phenomenon, along with the opening up of deep channels, has affected the linear path of the river.

The Ganga in its fury destroys homes, land and lives every flood season.-

The problem of erosion along the left bank of the Ganga in Malda district has been of concern since the early 1960s. But an official report says that "the problem manifested itself to forcible magnitude during the post-Farakka condition". Since 1937, when the reach between Rajmahal and Farakka was straight, the river started meandering towards the left bank, and in 1963, the Panchanandapur region, 20 km upstream of the Farakka Barrage, came under the threat of erosion. Between 1931 and 1978, according to official reports, a total of over 14,335 hectares of land in Malda district was lost to the river.

A recent study of the exposed banks after the erosion has revealed that in many reaches, "a relatively thin topsoil overlays the typical fine sand layers in the Gangetic region, indicating that the river bank material is relatively more prone to the erosion action of the river and, possibly, the land was sometime in the past the playground of the Ganga". If this theory is true, then the Ganga is actually finding its way back to its earlier course.

Samsuddin Ahmed, who lost his home and land owing to erosion.-

The Pritam Singh and Keshkar Committees, constituted in 1980 and 1996 respectively to identify the causes of the recurring erosion and floods, suggested certain long-term and short-term policy measures to combat it. However, owing to the lack of funds at that time, the West Bengal government could not implement all of them. Nevertheless, the State government did take up certain anti-erosion measures, such as constructing spurs and the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth embankments. This year erosion caused the eighth embankment to collapse, leaving about 450 m of the area exposed to the river.

Three channels have been formed on the river on its way to Farakka with the left channel carrying approximately 75 per cent of the flow. Adequate deepening of the central channel will serve to diverge a major part of this flow from the left to the middle course and thus mitigate the fury of the river.

At one of the sheds erected in Panchanandapur to house the families displaced by the river.-

"This entails a huge expenditure, which only the Central government can bear. The Ganga is a national river up to Farakka and even has international stretches," said Roy. He added that a survey conducted last year had indicated that the deepening of the central channel should go up to at least 10 m to equal the average depth of the left channel. It is only if the central channel is deepened beyond this minimum level that the desired diversion from the left channel can take place. As for floods, Roy is emphatic that only the construction of a ninth embankment can protect the town of Malda. "This is only for flood control, it can do nothing against erosion," he said.

"We are not taking any short-term measures like building spurs, or attempting to reduce velocity as, we have seen from our past experience that it will no longer work. The central channel has to be dredged regularly. The Central Water Power Research Station has conducted a study and come to the same findings," said Roy.

The Ganga being a national river, the floods in Malda have a relation to what happens in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As Amrish Kumar Singh, Assistant Engineer, Irrigation Department, Malda, explained, the Ganga is joined by the Yamuna in Allahabad, and thereafter it flows through Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Patna in Bihar, where it is further strengthened by the two tributaries, the Son and the Gandak. Hence for flood forecasting in Malda, it is imperative to know how the water level rises in Patna, as it takes about three days for any tidal situation to reach Malda from there. The erosion, however, takes place mostly when the floodwaters recede. "On an average, nearly 300 to 350 hectares of land are eroded with the flood waters receding," said Roy.

The situation in Malda looks grim. The water level is rising. But the people are more worried about the extent of land that will be lost when the waters recede.

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