Alok Gupta | Bihar: Monsoon rains had quelled the scorching heat. The season of fertility and hope had begun in North Bihar. Asif Wahab and Nasreen Parveen were excited about their monsoon wedding. They had started counting the wedding days. But on the same day, on the threshold of Asif, instead of his wedding programs, the furious old Gandak river had come to a halt.
The bride was upset. She was terrified of the possibility of the marriage being postponed. The cost of the wedding banquet was also going to waste. On the other hand, the neighbours were taunting him for his misfortune. But that mighty river showed no mercy. “I was on the verge of a panic attack,” says Nasreen.
With her henna-adorned hands, she picked up her wedding invitation. It was written in it that Ashif and Nasreen’s marriage is on August 6, 2020.
Nasreen said that they called up Asif and reminded him of his promise. Asif is a mechanical engineer in Raghunathpur village in the Muzaffarpur district of Bihar. “It was the happiest day of my life, but it also turned out to be the scariest,” he said.
A state with fiery rivers, youth and risky monsoon weddings
About 60 per cent of the population in Bihar is below 25 years of age, making it the state with the largest number of youth. It is the most sensitive state of India regarding floods. Every year, about 80 per cent of the population in North Bihar is affected by floods during the monsoon months from July to September.
There are also many rivers in Bihar and the number of youth is also very much. Major rivers like Kosi, Gandak, Budhi Gandak and Bagmati originate from the Himalayas in Nepal and flow into northern Bihar. There, they often cause massive devastation. Due to this, there has been a large-scale migration of youth to other states.
A long-term study published earlier this year calculated the socio-economic impact of floods in north Bihar at the village level for the first time. It found that between 2001 and 2020, 48 per cent (about 11,400) villages in the region were flooded every year or every other year.
The geography of north Bihar, where rivers meander over the plains, makes it naturally prone to floods. Poor management of silt, embankments, dams and barrages has added to their ferocity, says Bikash Ranjan Parida, assistant professor in the department of geoinformatics at the Central University of Jharkhand and lead author of the study.
As well as migration patterns, monsoon flooding is impacting cultural practices, such as wedding customs. The monsoon is one of three wedding seasons in India.
Entire village gathered together for a wedding
Postponement or cancellation of marriages, except in exceptional circumstances such as a death in the family, is considered inauspicious and inhuman in patriarchal Bihar in this region. This also affects the prestige of the village. Because of this, the entire village of Raghunathpur, along with Asif’s relatives and neighbours, started thinking about the way to reach the bride’s village in Paharpur, about 6 km away.
There is a saying in North Bihar, “After all, floods come every year, marriages last forever.” With this feeling, Asif’s relatives came up with the best solution. This was the solution, Tractor. Its large wheels could easily move in the water. A trailer was to be attached to the tractor, in which 30-40 guests could sit and travel.
Sad and disappointed, Asif said agitatedly, “But what about my reputation? It was against my dignity to reach my bride’s house on a tractor. It is a vehicle that is used to transport crops and waste.”
His cousins supported him. Traditionally a groom must ride a horse. Nowadays most people travel by car. It was against his honour for young Asif to reach his wedding on a tractor.
In the midst of this discussion, a guest thought of using boats to take the groom and his relatives to the bride’s village. Ashif liked the idea. But others did not like the idea.
Asif’s family had invited over 200 guests. But there were not enough boats for these guests. About 160 guests were left behind. They were all disappointed at missing out on the grand wedding feast and the opportunity to dance in the rain. It is a different matter that this rain was unpredictable but on a happy occasion the rain was fun.
Asif recalls, “I used to feel guilty for my tantrums. But there was a different reason for this. The people closest to me were on the boat and many did not know how to swim. A strong current of water could overturn these boats. That’s what bothered me.”
Floods are getting worse in Bihar
In Ashif’s village, the Burhi Gandak has breached its embankments since construction started on them in 1954. “They crack every three to four years, but the magnitude of flooding has increased in the last few years. It was exceptional in 2020,” Ashif says.
Between 1970 and 2020 more than 3,700 km of embankments were built to protect around 2,000 million hectares (mha) of land. The state government spends tens of millions of dollars every year on building, maintaining and repairing this vast network. But these structures, instead of preventing inundation, have increased the flood-hit area in north Bihar, which nearly doubled from 25 MHA in 1952 to almost 50 mha in 2011.
Asif says that in his village, Budhi Gandak has been demolishing embankments ever since they began construction in 1954. “Fifty occur every three to four years, but the magnitude of floods has increased in the last few years. It was even more dangerous in the year 2020.”
Between 1970 and 2020, more than 3,700 km of embankments were built to protect approximately 2,000 million hectares of land. The state government spends millions of dollars every year on building, maintaining and repairing this vast network. But these structures, instead of stopping the floods, have increased the flood-affected area in northern Bihar. It almost doubled from 25 million hectares in 1952 to about 50 million hectares in 2011.
Lead author Parida says: “The future looks bleak for the region as climate change could increase rainfall intensity and cause more devastation.
When the boats carrying Asif and his guests reached National Highway 28, about 2.5 km from the bride’s village, the bride’s family was not among the first to greet her. Instead, they were flood victims who took to the highway to escape the wrath of the river.
“They were eager to meet me and show their respect for the courage of my relatives and villagers,” says Asif. His gesture showed that despite losing everything in repeated floods, the people of the area try their best to keep their promises.
Politics over science
Dinesh Mishra, a leading expert on rivers in the region, points out that the mismanagement of flooding is more harmful than the floods themselves. “Floods here have been happening here for centuries. The simple solution is to let the river flow freely and let floodwaters spread the excess silt to farmland.”
Bad incentives means that failed policies continue to be pursued, and local people are not consulted, says Mishra. “Governments want a top-down approach [because] constructing embankments and dams brings funds worth millions of dollars.” He anticipates that politicians will soon blame climate change for the region’s annual floods to justify building more embankments.
Such frequent devastation has high costs. It impacts the economy of Bihar, where 76% of the population is involved in agriculture, and has contributed towards making it the state with the lowest per capita domestic product in India, with high outmigration.
And there is an impact on culture and traditions. After their experience, Ashif and Nasreen have one piece of advice for young people planning to get married: “Don’t get married during monsoon months.”
“We couldn’t perform many rituals such as the haldi ceremony,” says Nasreen, referring to the ritual on the morning of the wedding, when turmeric is applied to the bride and groom. It is normally held in an open courtyard – impossible to do on a rainy day, when the turmeric would run. To make matters worse, the majority of their friends were caught in the floods while trying to reach the celebration.
This article first appeared on The Third Pole.
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