Lives on the line

Omair Ahmad | Updated on November 01, 2019 Published on November 01, 2019

End in sight: No explanations are offered to those whose lives are at the mercy of State-approved constructions made in the name of development   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Border towns and villages are little more than statistics in bilateral discussions between States. And only the people who live in them can change this way of thinking

Mahendranagar, also known as Bhimdutta, is a small town in Nepal. It sits on the country’s border with India. It lies about 600km from Delhi and almost the same distance from Kathmandu. It is too small a town to have a major airport, so a part of the journey is by rail or air, and the rest by road. Such towns are seldom a topic of discussion.

We do talk about borders; we talk about bilateral relations (India and Nepal’s, for instance) but rarely do we discuss the people and the places on the borders, or the flavour of the lives there.

Had it not been for work, I might never have discovered Mahendranagar. As part of an Oxfam project focussing on people living near the transboundary rivers of South Asia, my colleagues and I were conducting a training programme for journalists from both India and Nepal. In terms of sharing river resources, Mahendranagar plays an important role in the ties between India and Nepal. The Mahakali River flows here. In 1928, the British built the Sharada Barrage across the border, connecting Mahendranagar with the Indian town of Banbasa. The barrage also diverts water to the parched agricultural lands of Uttar Pradesh. An impressive feat of engineering even 91 years after its inauguration, the barrage also provides single-lane access to people and vehicles crossing the border.

But there is not much traffic in Mahendranagar. I saw a couple of trucks go by, a bus or two, and private vehicles. What really catches the eye is the sight of women riding bicycles laden with goods. This seems the most robust form of trade exchange at the border. If all you need is a bicycle — no matter how heavily loaded — it is not substantial trade. But little is needed here. There is a saying in the mountains: “Na paani, na jawaani pahaad mein rehta hain (neither water nor youth remains in the mountains).”

The statement is said with a sigh, with weariness, because it is a testament of the failure to find gainful employment in the hills and the slow collapse of agrarian economies. The youth leaves because it is next to impossible to find jobs that will give them a better life.

Many of the villages along the Mahakali are ones where most men of working age are missing — they are employed in faraway cities. These villages are now run by women. The Oxfam project focusses on these women — helping them organise work and approach local administration with complaints. The women have formed small groups to protect the river from illegal sand mining and to keep it clean for sustainable fishing. With the help of handheld devices, they test the pH level of the river water, in order to assess the presence of pollutants.

It is striking how these small interventions have changed their lives. Within just six months, these women — who once hesitated to speak to outsiders — are telling off the men who use dynamite or toxins for fishing, demanding the local administration to deliver on promises, and calling on the mayor of the town when in need of assistance. They once invited a local official to a festival at a temple, only to call him out for delaying some infrastructural work in the area. The official had to then take an oath in public to finish the work at the earliest. I am told that he kept his word this time.

The small changes mean a lot to these women — all the more because they are the ones bringing these changes.

Such people are no more than statistics in the dealings of the State.

The massive Pancheshwar Dam on the Mahakali, for example, has been discussed by India and Nepal for years. It is said to be the largest such project in an area that is prone to earthquakes, and will displace thousands of families. The project has repeatedly failed to get environmental clearance and the lives of the people in the area upstream of the Sharada Barrage have been on tenterhooks. They are reluctant to build houses that they fear they will have to leave behind. Local administrators are unwilling to spend resources on improving facilities. Or protect children in the villages from falling prey to leopards, which, incidentally, are also being forced out of their natural habitat by the beast of development.

Development has affected life in many other ways. Often, water is released from the Sharada Barrage without notice. Whenever that happens, the villages downstream lose someone or the other to the sudden rise in the water level. And no explanations or apologies are offered to those whose lives are at the mercy of State-approved monuments erected in the name of development.

What keeps them — and perhaps us — going is the promise of change, no matter how small. The women of Mahendranagar deserve full marks for that.

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas; Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on November 01, 2019
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