How A Highway Built By India Stands To Threaten Livelihoods Across Borders

Posted by Soma Basu in GlobeScope, Politics
February 20, 2017

Radheshyam Yadav, a potato grower in Hirminiya, a small town in Banke District in Southern Nepal, had never thought that flood waters could destroy his field. His patch of land was safe since it’s quite far from the river. But last August, he had his worst nightmare. Just three days of incessant rain inundated his field. Yadav wasn’t the only one to suffer loss. All other families who owned land at the stretch of the Indo-Nepal border where India is constructing a highway which is about three-four meters high and 15 meters wide on the Indian side of no man’s land suffered a similar fate.

“Earlier, we did not mind the highway construction. We thought it would be good for business. Last year, mud was piled up near our fields, and a basic structure was given to the highway before the onset of monsoons. We wondered why the road was being elevated but did not pay much attention,” says Yadav. “On the second night when water started accumulating and had no way to go because of the highway, we realised what curse it could bring upon us,” he says.

Radheshyam Yadav’s house is in India while his land is in Nepal. With his family, he grows potatoes in Hirminiya.

So, all the men of the village gathered and started digging the highway to create a channel for the rainwater to pass. “We could only save our village by digging channels across the highway. Even the Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) jawans helped us instead of stopping us at the border. Later, we were told that to avoid such problems again, contractors have started making channels and bridges across the highway,” says Gulab Rai, another farmer who dug channels across the highway on the night of rain.

However, farmers say, the channels being built by the Indian contractors are narrow and would not help during floods. “Since it is narrow, there would be chances of these channels getting clogged from time to time,” says Gulab.

Meanwhile, the channels that aim to save the farmers in Nepal from deluge have now become something that the Indian farmers, on the other side of the highway, are worried about. They fear that the channels would bring down a huge quantity of water during floods, and with great speed, causing damage to their fields and crops. “Earlier, the rain water would just take its own course and drain out. Excess rain was never a threat as it has become now,” says Anwar Ahmad, a farmer from Lakhaiya, in Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh in India.

India is constructing the highway not just in Banke but across the border. The highway, to ease public movement and transport, would run parallel to the 1,600 km India-Nepal border. Strangely the Indian authorities are tight-lipped about the construction. Senior officials of the Uttar Pradesh State Highway Authority even denied that any highway is being constructed across the border. But, in December 2015, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, in a reply during question hour in the parliament had said that India is constructing and upgrading roads along all the Indian borders. Not just the 1,377 km along Indo-Nepal border, roads along the 3,796 km along India-China border is also being constructed. Construction and upgradation of roads of 4,379 km along India-Bangladesh border and 689.95 km along the India-Pakistan border have also been going on. 

The elevated highway under construction in Hirminiya

The residents of the villages near the border say the construction of the highway had started long ago. But it was only in February 2015, at the 11th meeting of the Nepal-India joint working group on border management, that Nepal was informed the Government of India has “sanctioned construction of 1,377 kms of roads along the India-Nepal border on Indian side and development of around 1,440 kms long road network in Terai region in Nepal as well as survey for construction of cross-border railway links at five locations on the border area are at an advanced stage.”

Nepal had discussed its concerns about the border road with the Indian representatives in the joint working group, informs joint-secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Nepal, Laxmi Prasad Dhakal.

An official of the Joint Consultation Team, on condition of anonymity, said that the concerns raised at the meeting was about the embankments at the Mahakali river (far western Nepal) and not about the highway that was causing inundation. The minutes of the meeting confirms what the official said. Dhakal told the correspondent that in the meeting the Indian officials were informed that since rivers flow from Nepal to India, the Indian highway could disturb the natural flow of these rivers and cause floods. But, the minutes of the meeting had no mention of this. According to the Indian Embassy in Nepal, the border road project was approved by the Indian cabinet in 2009.

In 2009, the road construction began in small stretches. Eighty-year-old Ram Maurya and his neighbours lost their houses in Rapti river floods. About 40 families from Holiya and nearby villages were forced to relocate. In the absence of land, they were settled in the middle of deep woods of Abdulla Ganj Forest at India Nepal-border in Banke. Their colony is now known as Holiya Basti, named after the village they lost.

“India was constructing a road on the other side, and it blocked water from Rapti and numerous other seasonal streams,” says Maurya. Every year since then floods kept reoccurring and ate away villages. About 150 families now occupy the patch of land that was initially allotted to 40 families. “Every year, we have to dig a new well and travel about 60 km to the district headquarters to submit an application for tube well. Our requests are heeded only if it’s election time because they would want our votes… but most of the time we return without any success and have to manage with what we have,” says Maurya.

People in Holiya Basti survive without basic facilities such as water and health services in the middle of a forest

Maurya and others fear that this Monsoon would be more severe. The highway is now extended to other parts as well. Munsipur, Kalabanjar, Udhamganj, Laxmanpur and Narainpur would be worst hit once the rains start in June. “The four months of Monsoons would not even spare the Nepalgunj Airport in Piprahawa. Perhaps, then the government will sit up and take notice,” says Maurya.

“It is not just about the border road. Unilateral action by India to build structures on its side always causing a serious problem in the Nepalese territory, leaving Nepal to accept fait accompli,” says Dwarika Nath Dhungel, the former secretary in Nepal’s water resources ministry.

“We expect India to inform Nepal when any such construction is about to take place. India never pays heed to this protocol, and whenever Nepal raises this issue, the Indian embassy debunks our claims by releasing press notes,” he says.

Dinesh Yadav, a Constituent Assembly member from Banke, says that while India continues to behave like a bully, Nepalese government officials are scared to speak out openly about the issues. “Inability of Nepalese officials to be strict with India has cost people their home and land,” he adds.

All photos by Soma Basu

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