The mighty Lakhandei river descends from the mountains of Sarlahi in Nepal, winds its way for 50 km before it enters India through Sitamarhi district in Bihar. The river waters the entire region of Sitamarhi, traversing a serpentine path of nearly 18 km before meeting the Bagmati river at Katra. The total length of Lakhandei river happens to be 170 km. Synonymous with ‘Jal-Jeevan’ and ‘Hariyali’, Lakhandei or the Laxman Ganga has been infusing life into the rugged terrains of Sitamarhi, nourishing the human settlements along its banks.
However, in the last decade, encroachment and unplanned waste disposal led the thriving river to silt up completely. There was water stagnation and pollution at several points along its course, while at others, the river had dried up beyond identification, leaving behind shallow trenches. The locals reeled under falling underground water levels; and the farms dried up along with their faith in their ‘Hariyali’ river.
But only up until IAS Abhilasha Kumari Sharma, the District Magistrate, took reigns of Sitamarhi. Her tireless efforts have restored the Lakhandei back to its glory, brimming with clean water. Thanks to her dedication and zeal, the revival of the Lakhandei has been successful in just a period of two months. The project is currently at its final stage.
Resolving an 82-year-old Problem to Revive a Dying River
Ram Sharan Agrawal, a retired businessman and a social activist from Sitamarhi, shares how the problem of Lakhandei is an ongoing struggle of 82 years. Nepal’s cooperation was needed to maintain the proper water flow in Lakhandei from its source. But, despite government interventions, the two nations failed to arrive at any permanent solution.
It was around 7-8 years ago when the inhabitants of Sitamarhi, led by Agrawal himself, decided to solve the crisis on their own. “Former DM Rajeev Roshan supported us and elevated the issue at the commissioner level meeting, after which the Bihar government took cognisance of the situation. The groundwork started in full swing after Madam (Sharma) took charge,” he shares.
DM Abhilasha Kumari Sharma—A Ray of Hope for Sitamarhi
Agriculture suffers in absence of proper irrigation. And the same held true for Sitamarhi.
The groundwater level in the district plummeted rapidly and at one point, there was no water up to a depth of 225 ft. Potable water was unavailable for drinking, parching an entire district during the scorching summers. On the other hand, the villages of Pipra Kalyan, Khap Khoraha and Bharsand witnessed extreme floods during monsoon.
Efforts had been taken at individual and official levels to restore Lakhandei to her former glory. But, nothing worked out for one reason or the other.
Until Sharma was appointed as the District Magistrate of Sitamarhi in August 2019.
The feisty IAS officer from 2014 batch headed straight away to the village homes, spreading the word about river revival among the villages.
Under her supervision, the engineers of the Water Resources Department formulated an elaborate blueprint to restore the Old Lakhandei river – an arduous task which they executed with perfect precision in the least possible time.
In total, 23 acres of land was needed for restoring the river, most of which were farmlands owned by small-scale farmers. Sharma ensured to secure the farmers’ consent before initiating the groundwork.
“With her down-to-earth demeanour and strong-willed personality, she earned the villager’s respect in no time. The farmers, who were skeptical about losing their lands in the project, now graciously consented, after she assured them of adequate compensation,” says Agrawal, who played a crucial role in the project.
Winning the Trust of the Locals
Getting consent from the farmers to use their lands for the project was another hurdle, which Sharma overcame with her positive assurance and friendly demeanour. 23 Acres were acquired with wholehearted permission of the ryots (farmers). Soon, work started to link the Lakhandei river from Dularpur Ghat to Bharsand, and ultimately with the Nepal segment of the river.
“(When I arrived at Sitamarhi), I found that the villages were deprived of irrigation. The groundwater table was depleting day by day, endangering the potable water as well as agricultural yield,” recounts Sharma.
“The people dwelling along the river were suffering from accumulation of polluted water from the drain, as the flow of the river stopped after monsoon and stagnation happened. Religious festivals like the Chath Puja or social gatherings on the river bank added on to the pollution.”
The degradation of the very river which once happened to be the lifeline of the region affected the socio-cultural fabric of the land as well. It was at such a juncture that Sharma stepped into the scene with full fervour.
Mobilising the Community through Awareness
To encourage large scale community participation, several social organisations were welcomed on board to motivate the people to start the revival work. With help from the local community groups and influential individuals, Sharma educated the people about the importance and benefits of the project.
With her positive attitude, all the government officials were also motivated to overcome all the bottlenecks promptly. Seeing her enthusiasm, the Water Resources Department released the funds in no time.
“The revival of Lakhandei is now in shape and will finally culminate by the end of March 2020. It was accomplished through our vigorous approach in just two months,” reveals Sharma.
“The Villagers are Our Real Heroes”
Currently, the river has been restored from Pitambarpur to Dularpur Ghat. Only the Link Channel excavation work remains, spanning barely 3 km. Sharma hopes that Sitamarhi will soon bask in her former green glory once the work is completed.
“To honour the incredible efforts of the villagers, we often say – ‘Woh Humaare Nayak Hai, Hum Unke Sahayak Hai’ (The villagers are our real heroes, we are simply enablers). This is perhaps the first time in this century that a river has been revived in the entire Bihar-Uttar Pradesh region. The entire work was done through the hard work of the villagers and government officials, especially Madam (Sharma),” says Ram Sharan Agrawal.
Sharma’s hard work has already earned her huge admiration and respect in Sitamarhi. The people of the district are hopeful of her gracious help in all future projects. She has truly set an exemplary benchmark for her counterparts in other districts to follow.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)