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TRAVEL | Essay

When the Krishna River rises

This summer I returned to Yadahalli, where 18 generations of my family have lived in a 300-year-old house. It will be my last visit to the home I was raised in because my parents will move this year, displaced by a dam project.

The author's village and house, flooding.Sena Desai Gopal

YADAHALLI, India — I am not yet 50, but my childhood seems as if it happened to someone else in another life, another time. When I was a girl, the 870-mile Krishna River behaved itself. It kept a respectable distance from my village here in Southern India and my family kept a respectable distance from it. Come monsoon season, after summer, the river flooded the low-lying areas around Yadahalli for a couple of weeks, leaving fertile volcanic soil when it retreated, so farmers could harvest an additional crop. Twenty years ago, the floods came to the village’s doorstep, not receding for months, because of a dam downstream. Eventually, everyone in Yadahalli will have to move.

This summer I returned to Yadahalli, where 18 generations of my family have lived in a 300-year-old house. It will be my last visit to the home I was raised in because my parents will move this year. The water table is rising from stored backwaters and moisture is seeping up 2-foot-thick walls, producing mold. Parts of the house have collapsed from water damage.

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Everything went downhill very gradually, so if you wanted to ignore it, the way many villagers did, you could. The Upper Krishna Project was sanctioned by the government in 1956, but construction was delayed for seven years and only then happened in spurts. The World Bank-funded dam project will submerge 176 villages; the fate of another 20 is up in the air. The government is unable to accurately predict how many villages will flood, and for how long and how much. My generation was raised with this uncertainty.

Yadahalli will be underwater in my lifetime. So far, more than 70,000 families have been displaced. The government is planning on raising the dam’s height and when that happens, more than 123,000 families will have to relocate. According to government predictions, when the dam rises, Yadahalli will drown. But, we are not sure when and we watch the rising waters anxiously.

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The author's family graveyard, flooding.Sena Desai Gopal

”During monsoons, the water comes within 100 feet of our property,” says Shrinivas Chabbi, an engineer involved in anti-dam activism. He lives in Bagalkot, a city of half a million people, that was not expected to flood — but did.

The first 11 villages were flooded in the 1970s and were given between 2,000 and 3,000 rupees (about $36) per acre of land they would lose. It took years for the families to receive the money, during which time a group of lawyers began lending the displacees money against their compensations. By the time the government actually gave the victims their money, most of it had already been spent, adding another layer of complexity to a feeble rehabilitation plan.

In 1996, floods were so severe that more than 500 people had to be evacuated in boats. By then, the State of Karnataka, where the project is located, had rescinded the World Bank loan contingent on stringent rehabilitation guidelines. With that, the government was off the hook — it didn’t have to worry about rehabilitating.

Villagers are part of the problem. The government built homes in rehabilitation centers, but the villagers rent out those houses and continue living in their doomed properties. The rentees don’t stay for long, and many centers have become ghost towns.

Child's pink tricycle by the author's family house. Most of the village is deserted.Sena Desai Gopal

The biggest loss is the heritage. The communities that have grown along the Krishna for centuries and will be gone forever. No adjuster can put a price on that loss.

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My uncle drives me to Chowdhapur, a few miles from Yadahalli, a village of about 300 people on the Krishna. We go along a pot-holed tar road through sugarcane fields, which disappear at one point, so we’re driving through the backwaters, the road less than two feet above the water. A severe monsoon and the backwaters will flood the road, cutting off the only access to Chowdhapur. When that happens, villagers move to higher ground, build makeshift shacks and wait for the floods to recede.

Today, however, it’s a beautiful sight: a vast lake flanked by sugarcane stalks dancing in the evening breeze. We pass two girls walking home from school, which is three miles away. There is no bus service.

Ironically, the fields around Chowdhapur don’t belong to its residents, who are mostly day laborers who supplement their income by keeping cattle, sheep, and goat and fishing in the river.

”This is an orphan village,” says Janbulli Talwar, a woman with three grown children who doesn’t know her age. She is squatting by her front door, braiding her granddaughter’s hair. “We hardly got 70,000 rupees for our properties 20 years ago.” That money (about $1,000) is gone now, she tells me.

Alcoholism, exacerbated by poverty, illiteracy, and an uncertain future is a problem in this and other poor villages. The government provides food rations so no one goes hungry, but some men see it as income so they don’t need to work.”

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Only women face everything,” says Kusuma Talwar, a fiery woman in a red sari. “We have to earn, take care of our families, and deal with the uncertainty of the dam.”

A villager standing by the backwaters, watching how fast they are rising.Sena Desai Gopal

Dilshad Pathar, mother of 12-year-old Shalil, says she sometimes cannot afford the 200 rupees (less than $3) for her diabetic son’s monthly insulin. Other village women contribute so Shalil can get his dose.

Yadahalli is economically sound and literate enough that the villagers have successfully moved to a newly constructed village on higher ground. The new village has schools, playgrounds, and neatly-laid streets.

The evening before I leave for my home in the United States, I walk around my childhood home trying to commit everything to memory. Much of it isn’t a pretty sight: ruined stables where horses were once kept; crumbled walls with grass growing between the rocks. The stone well where I learned to swim, now is filled with muddy flood water. When I was a child, it was fed by natural springs in which tiny crabs took shelter. The dainty fish that crowded around my feet when I swam are gone.

I watch the rising river from an island, about 65 feet by 35 feet, that my father has built in our backyard. It is less than a foot above the backwaters. The river looks peaceful now, but I know how treacherous it can be. It can swallow Yadahalli whole.

It is a hauntingly beautiful sight. Acacia and palm trees in the distance, half-submerged; flamingoes, geese, egrets, and herons; crocodiles basking on the tiny islands poking out of the backwater. In the distance, I see the family graveyard where all of my ancestors are buried. The ornate temples over the graves are gone, all underwater.

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Also submerged now are mango, pomegranate, chikoo, and guava orchards I ran through as a girl with my gang of friends. Underwater are sugarcane, maize, and jowar fields, and the houses of the people I knew — the village tailor, carpenter, bangle seller.

Life is impermanent, but for something to end like this, suffocated by a river that has nourished, is hard to accept. The dam was always a distant reality. No one really expected the government to build it.

But, for now, life goes on for the few who have stayed. During the day, wood smoke comes out of the kitchens of the few families that still live in Yadahalli — everyone cooks by live fire. A few children run through the streets. A child’s pink tricycle is parked underneath a pipal tree by our house. And, at night, when the village sleeps, I can hear the owls hooting, wild boars grunting, the jackals howling. And, from one of the homes. there is night-long marriage music for a daughter about to marry. The notes of the flute, the sitar, the harmonium.

But I know, soon, all these sounds will be gone.

When the river rises.

Sena Desai Gopal is the author of “The 86th Village,” released by Polis/Agora books in April 2022. She can be reached at sena_desai@yahoo.com.