Guest Blog by Eklavya Prasad, Megh Pyne Abhiyan
Last week, a note was in circulation, which listed few border related conflicts between India (Bihar) and Nepal (Parsa). Of the nine points mentioned in the note, seven were directly or indirectly related to either a river, or access to water, or flood protection works. Out of the seven, one issue was with regard to an old concern involving River Pandai, which has witnessed different dimension of cooperation and discord between communities across the Indo-Nepal border in Pashchim (West) Champaran and Parsa districts respectively. However, the note highlight the conflict as a recent one with a specific intent and that was explained as ‘नेपाल की करतूत : पानी रोक लिया, ताकि एसएसबी के जवान परेशान हों‘ (Nepal’s handiwork : They stopped the water to trouble the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) jawans). After having read the note, I decided to write this piece based on my own understanding and learnings (through direct interactions and personal communication in the past and references) about River Pandai and Bhikhna Thori, to provide a comprehensive perspective.
The past will help in understanding the present
Bhikhna Thori or popularly known as Thori of Dhamaura panchayat, is one of the most favoured picnic spot on the Indian side in Gawnaha block of Pashchim Champaran in Bihar . The presence of River Pandai is a value addition. However, Bhikhna Thori was devastated by the fury of Pandai on the night of August 12, 2017 and it lost approximately 31 houses, an ancient temple, two government buildings and approximately 20 shops in the market space.
Pandai is a small transboundary river, supposedly deriving its name from the “Pandavas” of Mahabharat and is the left bank tributary of Budhi Gandak and it originates from the Someshwar range of hills, and the outfall point of the river is Tularamghat. Pandai flows into Bhudi Gandak after the latter has covered a distance of approximately 54 kilometers (km) from the point of origin. Pandai marks the international border for a short stretch between the Chitwan National Park in Nepal and the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in India.
Since long, Bhikhna Thori and its people have been ridden with multiple challenges, for instance:
- As per sources and references, around 2002, Government of Bihar stopped collecting land revenue from the residents of Bhikhna Thori due to the conflict between the district administration and the forest department concerning the jurisdiction of land. Threat of being evicted by the forest department gripped the people of Bhikhna Thori. This ordeal was finally resolved in 2010 when Bhikhna Thori was officially acknowledged by the Bihar state.
- Periodic local reporting between mid 2011 and late 2019 in newspapers have highlighted the prevalence of acute water scarcity in Bhikhna Thori since 2008
- Villagers from Bhikhna Thori frequent Amrit Dhara (spring water) in Thori village (VDC in Parsa district in Province No. 2 of Nepal) on a daily basis after crossing the Pandai river to get water for household chores. Increased water demand has proportionately worsened the situation in Bhikhna Thori.
- In 2016, the Public Health Engineering Department, Government of Bihar installed two solar pumps for drinking water supply at a cost of about Rs 18 lakhs. The 2017 floods damaged one of the pumps and the second pump was virtually non-functional. According to reports the department had made arrangements for 5000 litres of water per day through tankers in 2008. However, the supply was discontinued in 2016. There are two reasons given for the stopping of the tanker water supply, first is due to non-payment to the supplier, and second, due to the two deep tube well commissioned in 2016.
- State and district administration have been slow in permanently resolving the local water issue. There have been multiple stopgap arrangements that have been executed, but none have been able to ensure water for drinking and irrigation across a calendar year.
- Unsteady relationship with the neighbouring communities in Nepal contrary to the past scenario when communities collectively resolved the conflict/s through mutual interaction. Presently, the issues are to be resolved through talks between New Delhi and Kathmandu.
- River Pandai’s water distribution at the local level has become the main cause of conflict leading to clashes between communities from India and Nepal.
The past nuances that facilitated trans-boundary cooperation
Historically, villagers staying in close vicinity and slightly far away from the river but solely dependent on it for water both in India (Dhamaura panchayat’s Ekwa, Bhawanipur, Khairatia, Bhikhna Thori, Nuniva Tola and Parsauni villages) and Nepal (Nirmal Basti VDC’s Buddh Nagar, Ram Nagar and Burma Nagar villages), informally converged to solve the problem locally by developing access mechanisms collectively. An informal agreement was made between the two parties to construct, manage and maintain a temporary diversion structure for ensuring water to the dependent communities. River Pandai was split into three channels. The first channel provided water to Nepal’s Ram Nagar, Buddh Nagar, and Naya Tola Ram Nagar. The second and third channel ensured water to Ekwah, Bhawanipur and Khairatiya and Bhikhna Thori villages. The repair and maintenance of the three channels were done by the informal water groups from the villages that were dependent on these three channels respectively. During summers when the flow in Pandai used to substantially reduce, water in the three channels decreased and at times the flow used to seize as well, sparking row over access to the minimum flow for overcoming the local water shortage. During such conflicts, the then informal village level water groups and villager elders often embraced larger responsibilities to de-escalate the hostility and to arrive at an agreement of sharing water even during scarcity.
Today, many are of the opinion that the informal system worked effectively but with the decline of the traditional institutions, the problem keeps resurfacing on a frequent basis and with more hostility. And the absence of a legal and institutional framework coupled with lack of focus, priority, agreement or treaty for small transboundary rivers between India (there are many such rivers all along the border in West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand) and Nepal further complicates the problem.
As of today, Ekwa, Bhawanipur, Khairatia, Bhikhna Thori, Nuniva Tola and Parsauni villages on Indian side confront the problem during summer season when the flow in River Pandai reduces substantially or when the flow of the river is diverted towards Buddh Nagar, Ram Nagar and Burma Nagar villages in Nepal.
The present context
According to the local narrative, in 2013, after a local water dispute, an agreement was reached (details of which have yet to be accessed) between the two parties. The agreement specified percentages of water to be distributed in all the three channels to overcome any possibility of disputes. The channel carrying water to Nepal was allocated 40 per cent water of the flow, whereas the remaining two channels meant for Indian villages, was assigned 30 per cent each of the river water. In 2020, the villagers from India expressed their resentment over the blockage of the channels, which the note referred to in the beginning of the article highlighted this as a deliberate attempt by Nepal to cause inconvenience to the SSB jawans. According to news report and through personal communication[i], Nepal constructed a bridge over Pandai in 2019 for enhancing their internal communication and connectivity between Thori and Nirmal Basti VDCs and the adjoining VDCs. After the construction of this bridge (as visible in google photo), the work on the approach road was being done and during this process, the channel carrying water to the Indian side is said to have got filled. This is the reason why water in one of the channels seized to flow, whereas it is being claimed that both the channels got blocked. The controversy is whether the channel got filled inadvertently during the work or was it deliberately filled. Indian people are adamant that the 2013 agreement between the two parties must be referred to and the supply restored.
It is being claimed that because of this development, water in both channels coming to India have completely stopped. However, there are reports that just one of the channels has dried up whereas the other is still carrying water to the Indian villages. During the informal interactions and negotiations between the people of India and Nepal, Indians were asked to develop a system that will aid them to further share the water from the active channel till the time any amicable solution is defined. The stalemate continues.
This conflict is about a small trans-boundary river, which does not feature in any trans-boundary river discourses, treaties and consultations between the two countries. According to an ongoing research by Megh Pyne Abhiyan on identifying small trans-boundary rivers across India-Nepal border in Bihar, we have been able to identify at least 75 such small, little known and even unnoticed rivers in Pashchim Champaran, Purbi Champaran, Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Supaul, Araria and Kishanganj districts of Bihar that flows from Nepal and we are still counting. These rivers are very important sources for the people and have substantial local influence and impact on communities on either side of the border. It is time that we must focus on small trans-boundary rivers in a way that cooperation and coordination persist. In addition, it is pertinent to mention that the problem of inaccessibility to water or intermittent supply encountered by the people of Bhikhna Thori since more than a decade has further complicated the trans-boundary conflict.
Will the people of Bhikhna Thori continue to depend on Nepal for water or will the Government of Bihar proactively locates and executes an effective measure to permanently end the decade long local water ordeal?
Eklavya Prasad, Megh Pyne Abhiyan, Bihar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
· Siddiqui. S (2017); India-Nepal border plagued by water troubles; The Third Pole – https://www.thethirdpole.net/2017/05/02/india-nepal-border-plagued-by-water-troubles/
· Personal communication – 2010, 2011; 2012, 2013, 2017 & 2020
· Jamwal. N (2017); Why Deadly, Worsening Flash Floods in Bihar’s Border Villages Don’t Get India’s Attention; IndiaSpend – https://archive.indiaspend.com/cover-story/why-deadly-worsening-flash-floods-in-bihars-border-villages-dont-get-indias-attention-94924
· Google Earth Pro
[i] Vinay Kumar; Personal Communication; Pashchim Champaran; 2020