Kosi: a river that can’t be pinned down

by Nachiket Kelkar

The memory of a catastrophic flood, though frequent for the people of eastern Bihar, is still an important one. The river decides the course of millions of lives as she changes her flooding course year to year.

For the mighty Kosi River, the adjective ‘dynamic’ is but an understatement. While surveying the status of river fisheries across the Kosi floodplains, we were faced with a peculiar challenge: To find the right river from several promising claimant water bodies across 3000 sq.km. of eastern Bihar that were quite like her. For any real idea of the current course of Gangetic rivers we needed the very latest satellite imagery, or else there could be big confusions about observed and expected land and water areas. It seemed quite straightforward from a view of the maps. Yet our search for the Kosi River’s main course was exactly like the search for a lost person.

We had started from the lower Kosi belt, hoping to follow it up north. Fisher friends in Navgachia town had returned from a long and tiring fishing journey of 100 km upstream of the Kosi from the Rajghat pontoon bridge. For them, the Kosi should have been relatively predictable in its course. But, within a group of seven fishers interviewed, we got three mutually exclusive descriptions of where the course could be got. Had we gone by boat, it would not be difficult, they said, but since we were travelling over land, the braids of the river in between could easily mislead us. To add to the haze, we asked more people where the Kosi was, and got totally lost.

The Mukhia community of fishers at Fattepur near Birpur pointed to a dry dirt road passing through their village, and said ‘the river was here last year’, and then directed us to move 5 km westward, where she was flowing now. We had to take an extra 10 km diversion to reach this spot, where around 100 cows were grazing in a desiccating marsh. The river had fled from this location.

At Chakla-Chhatapur, a community of elderly fishermen forced us to sit on plastic chairs in a bamboo woodlot’s shade, while they sat around us on the ground. After a few greetings the sarpanch swore to us that the main channel of the Kosi flowed 3 km away from their village, but we couldn’t go there because of the quicksand along the intervening floodplain. We did reach a little downstream after driving over an uncertain and tricky road, but just saw some wetlands. This would not be the main course… although the fisherman who accompanied us swore it was. As we moved from village to village, talking to fishers and farmers, each time the Kosi was very near yet very far. After ten failed attempts we started thinking we were geographically challenged and hopelessly lost.

But then we found her, finally, as a large braided channel exactly as situated on the map, with believable dimensions and stretching out upstream and downstream into the horizon. Travelling across the wetland zones we reached the Baluwaha ghat embankment, where the Kosi Mahasetu (bridge on the river Kosi) was being built after 78 years.

Tiny fields cultivated by flood-displaced settlements surrounded the embankment. Here lay our destination near the Shahpur-Navhatta villages overlooking the Kosi. But our happiness was short-lived.

In the last conference of the fisheries survey, a 90-year old man spoke in a quavering voice: ‘The river was never here, where you are seeing it now…’ he pointed across the embankments, and said, ‘This is NOT the Kosi. Our Kosi was different, at least 30 km away’, and he pointed across the raying noontime sun to the east.

We can still never claim to have found the right main course. Perhaps there was not one main course. Maps didn’t lie, but they were not correct too. Their boundaries and district delineations meant nothing here. The fuzzy boundaries implied that there could be no realization of land or water tenure, of the sense of place, or of belonging and affiliation to ‘native’ property. And still, each village had its own Kosi, its own identity in some sense, far different from the mapped idea of Kosi even in the latest satellite images.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 29 August 2012.

Photo credit: AFP