Owing to climate change and erratic rain cycles, farmers in Bihar’s West Champaran are reeling from the loss of crops to floods and droughts, and from the hefty debt that they are now entrapped in.
Flash floods along the Indo-Nepal border
Floods in Bihar have frequently made national headlines and elicited quick responses from bodies like the central and the state disaster relief forces. But not in West Champaran, a district along the Indo-Nepal border with a sizeable Adivasi population and relatively low socio-economic indicators. Harkatwa village in West Champaran, where Tanju Devi reports from, saw sixty floods in 2017 alone. Most of them were flash floods and none of them were adequately compensated for.
“The area is extremely flood-prone, we have small and big floods many times in a year; not all of them are equally disastrous but for those that are, the farmers here receive no compensation. Neither is there enough preparedness on part of the government’s disaster management teams”, says Tanju, whose family also lost their crops in the flood in August 2017, one of the most devastating ones in recent years.
Showing Tanju the remains of the crops destroyed by the flood, Prabhunath, a farmer, talks about the extent of the damage. “Part of the crop got swept away with the water and the rest is buried under a thick layer of silt. The government officials who came to inspect say that they will only compensate us for the areas they can see the damaged crops in, but they should conduct a proper inquiry and compensate us for the part completely under silt as well”, he says.
After repeated trips to the Agriculture Department at the district headquarters, Tanju ensured that the officials visited Harkatwa again and closely examined the areas completely covered in silt to assess the damage. Till then, the government had only compensated the flood-affected families for the damage caused to their homes; the households were given some ration, some utensils and other articles of daily use as immediate relief. But the farmers were not compensated for the crops they lost to the flood.
“Many farmers here take loans in the sowing season, for seeds and irrigation facilities. Few take formal loans from banks, most turn to local money-lenders who charge them exorbitant interest rates, sometimes up to 10 percent per month. This, coupled with natural disasters, only entraps them in an endless cycle of debt”, says Tanju.
According to excerpts from a study by Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a group working on water conservation and sanitation in Bihar, the annual collective debt amount in the flash flood-affected villages of West Champaran ranges from 2-10 lakh rupees.
Erratic rainfall and droughts
While some farmers seek compensation for the crops flattened by the silt from the flood, others are reeling from the aftermath of a major drought that preceded the flood in parts of the district.
Many farmers who had lost their winter crop to floods in the later half of 2016 had taken loans to install borewells and pumps to irrigate the summer crop during the drought in mid-2017, pushing them into further debt. Tanju found out that some farmers even sold part of the produce kept aside for household consumption in order to make ends meet.
Simultaneous floods and droughts are not uncommon in Bihar. Officials from the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority have attributed the situation to the erratic nature and uneven spatial distribution of rainfall, an outcome of climate change. Parts of Gaunaha, the block Harkatwa falls in, faced a severe drought in 2017, and in the same year, Gaunaha also recorded the highest rainfall in the district exceeding normal rainfall by 76.8 percent. Overall, West Champaran recorded a rainfall deficit of 18.4 percent; a similar deficit was recorded by many other conventionally flood-prone districts.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has also asked for a review of major dam projects like the Farakka Barrage to assess the benefits and harms that they cause.
Fighting for a more responsive system
Tanju made video reports on both the drought and the flood situations and regularly followed up with authorities at the block and the district levels.
“I visited the officials along with members of the community, and often, we were made to run from pillar to post. Officials at the District Agriculture Office would redirect us to the Block Development Office and from the block level, we would again have to go back to the district authorities. Such twisted processes discourage people from coming forward with their problems”, says Tanju.
“Do we spend time sowing the fields or following up with the government?” asks Narayan Sarkar, a farmer from Sarpharwa, one of the drought-affected villages in Gaunaha.
Eventually, Tanju and the community’s efforts bore fruit as the local administration released some compensation for the affected farmers’ households. Farmers who lost their crops to flood received 400 rupees per katha (approx.1361.25 sq ft) of cultivated land. The drought-affected farmers were compensated based on the amount they spent on water pumps used to irrigate the land.
None of the farmers Tanju spoke to were covered by the central government’s crop insurance scheme– the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. One of the criticisms of the insurance scheme, which provides insurance in case of extreme weather conditions, is that it is compulsory only for farmers who take loans from banks; not enough awareness has been generated amongst farmers about the scheme otherwise.
Tanju is now making videos documenting the “impact” process or the steps involved in getting the government to act. “I made these videos only to ensure compensation for the farmers, the next step will be to get the local bodies like the panchayat (village council) to ensure that the land is levelled and made cultivable again.” Tanju also hopes that the government will make its disaster-response system more effective.
Video by Community Correspondent Tanju Devi
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team