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Post by kmoksha » Tue Nov 30, 2010 8:51 pm

Embankments that doom the people


The periodic floods in the Kosi basin and embankment breaches have landed the people of north Bihar in a perpetual mess. In assembly sessions, politicians discuss flood relief but seldom the cause behind the disasters, reports Surekha Sule.

9 April 2010 - The Kosi river in north Bihar, which meandered through 15 different channels over 160 kms for 250 years, was finally ‘tamed’ in 1962-63. To arrest her strong currents, embankments were built on either side of its westernmost 8 to16 km-wide channel. However, this move also ended up entrapping 12 lakh population. Over the past 50 years, two generations of people living on this 160-km-wide stretch have forgotten how their forefathers lived with the floods, came up with a decent farm produce, and slept in peace trusting that Kosi would never bother them.

A bridge that collapsed and got buried under the silt at Birpur. It was one of the first casualties of the 2008 floods following the Kusaha breach. Pic: Surekha Sule.

Although the people have been witnessing adverse consequences of this ‘intervention’ ever since the embankments were built, the worst possible disaster struck them when a breach at Kusaha in Nepal on August 18, 2008, turned them into paupers overnight taking away their peace forever. The fertile soil they had so fondly tended to was transformed into wasteland with heavy sand silt. The victims entrapped within have been wailing over this predicament for five decades, in vain. Now those living outside the embankments have also joined the chorus. Whose benefit and security are these embankments for? Isn’t it a lose-lose situation?

The Kosi yatra

I was part of the 12-member media team that toured the Kosi basin along with the members of Barh Mukti Abhiyan and Kosi Adhyayan Dal recently. The ruined roads, caved-in bridges, collapsed houses, and sand-cast farms grimly reminded us of the horror left behind by the 2008 flash floods. We drove miles and miles through the white soft sand dotted with a few green patches and large water-logged areas covered with deadly hyacinth. Human habitation on either side of the rough-hewn road did not seem to end as people prefer staying closer to the roads for quick escape. Except for the embankments and a few elevations, there were no safe spots.

Even now, the people have nothing to work on. Distress migration to Delhi, Kolkata, Punjab, Haryana, etc., is rampant.

The Kosi yatra commenced at Khagaria – known as Saat Nadiyonka Sasuraal (Seven Rivers’ Marital Home) as all the seven rivers of north Bihar converge upon Khagaria (see map) which comes under the spell of floods each year without fail. With Saharsa as our base camp, the visits included three categories: the 2008 flood victims’ area in Supaul, the villages within the embankments, and the settlements (officially called ‘encroachments’) on the embankments.


“We were in difficulty before the breach…. We haven’t slept peacefully even after the breach was plugged. Our woes continue to torment us. The roads and the bridges have not been restored. We have no electricity since 1984.”

Khagaria carries an unenviable epithet -- “Duba” (drowned) district -- as not a single inch of land has been left untouched by the rivers. It is being cordoned off in a 26-km-long, 12-15-foot-high ring-like embankment. The notoriety is such that demanding cars or motorcycles for dowry is passé; people now prefer boats as this is the mode of transport Khagaria relies on from June to October. In fact, they cite the example of an IAS officer who got a fibre boat in dowry. During floods, people shift to the upper stories, live on the roads or railway lines, and even embankments.

Village Manganj (east), block Triveniganj, district Supaul

On the fateful August 20, 2008, Reenadevi’s husband Ramesh Sah, a halwai, had gone to Triveniganj to cook a feast. When the floodwaters kept surging, Reenadevi shifted her children to a cot first and then to a table placed on top of it. Then again, she placed a few boxes on top of the table. Finally, she had to shift them to a nearby house perching on an elevation. They were rescued only after a week when Ramesh came in a rescue boat and took them to Triveniganj. The family came back in November only to find everything destroyed by the floods.

Some villagers said they somehow managed to live through the nightmare in five-seven feet of water for a few days by staying on rooftops. When some of them tried to escape, 16 persons were swept away by the strong currents. “Humne apni lungi utharke bahenko bachaya (I took off my lungi to save my sister),” said a villager. Although the area was water-logged for four months, it took two months for the relief teams to arrive.

The Manganj people had not experienced floods for over 50 years. The excess rainwater used to seep into large swathes of land and dry up on its own. They reaped the benefits through the enriched soil and put up with the inevitable periodic devastation. Now, having lost the fertile strips to white sand deposition left behind by months of water-logging, the families witness at least one member of the family migrating to Delhi or Punjab in search of work. No wonder a new phrase is doing the rounds: “dhotiwale Punjab/Haryana khet mein, pantwale Delhi mein”.

Village Ghiwaha, Block Chhatapur, District Supaul

At Ghiwaha too, as the ominous waters kept rising, the panic-stricken lot ran helter-skelter but had few safe spots to take refuge in. While some reached relief camps, others stayed with relatives or somehow made it to Nepal, Delhi, Kolkata, or Mumbai. For those left behind, it was a nightmare as the administration could reach them only after a week and distribute an emergency relief package containing one quintal rice/wheat and Rs 4,000 compensation. However, many needy families were left out.

The agony did not end here. Relief is yet to reach the families of five victims who died of snakebites. It’s been two years since the floods washed away the power lines and roads; but neither has been restored yet. Education and health services have come to a standstill and the area still remains cut off from the rest of the world.

When asked about the floods experienced 50 years ago, an elderly Ramprakash Mandal said the floods did not cause such widespread destruction then as the waters used to flow over a 40-km-wide stretch and recede soon. People were used to it and even prepared for it. But this time, they were caught unawares. The silt destroyed the land -- their only means of livelihood. “Then population was less. Farmers grew bajra and maize; not rice or wheat as is being done now.”

Ramprakash Mandal said how, with a lot of efforts, they sowed the seeds of an agricultural revolution through organic farming. The 2008 calamity wiped out everything with just one stroke and now they are back to 1962.

That calls into question the very rationale behind building the embankments. However, Shaligram Pandey still thinks embankments should be there but maintained well so that they do not breach again. Such high expectation from the administration despite the destruction caused by repeated breaches!

Mandal said: “Ek yug bita (an era has gone by). And people’s mindset has changed.”

From here, we reached Daheria village, block Chhatapur, district Supaul. The situation was no different here either. The same uprooted lives, destroyed infrastructure, and withered hopes.

Birpur and Bhimnagar barrage in Nepal

We witnessed tremendous devastation at Birpur bordering Nepal -- the first casualty of the 2008 floods on the Indian side following the Kusaha breach. The floods have wreaked havoc on many buildings and a highway bridge. The foundations of many houses have been washed away but some upper structures still stand precariously tilted to the sides. White sand deposits, water bodies and rivers filled with water hyacinth are a common sight. We also visited Bhimnagar barrage in Nepal later in the evening.

Village Sirwar within the embankment, district Supaul

Sirwar too has lost its roads and power lines to the floods and has been living in isolation. Boat rides through Kosi channels are the only means to reach the villages. The predicament of around 4000 population in this village is such that not a single government official or a teacher or a health worker visits them.

Mohammed Hasim, 70, remembers embankments being build around late 50s. He is one of the few lucky ones to have bought a nine-bigha land from a Rajput owner on a slight elevation. He cultivates wheat, maize in rabi season; not rice. He said: “When Kosi is in spate, we save our lives by climbing on the embankments. Then there is water all around. We get coupons but never get any relief material. Relief comes here but never reaches us. We do not know what administration means.”

In the absence of proper toilets, Ushadevi, Rajodevi, Shantidevi, and Reetadevi spoke about how difficult it gets, especially for women, when there is water all around for three-four months. People swim to neighbours’ houses as boats float only for fetching supplies, health emergencies, or to ferry people to the village from outside. During one such ordeal, Mohmed Niyamad’s niece drowned as she got stuck in a swamp and could not be saved. Snakes float in the water and many people have died of snakebites too.

There have been various tragic instances of people dying on the way to the health centre located outside the embankment. The village doesn’t have a trained midwife and deliveries take place at home. When the situation gets complicated, death seems to be imminent. In 2009, Ramdev Sharma’s daughter died on her way to the hospital to deliver her baby. Similarly, Momina Khatun’s 18-year-old daughter Rabbo’s baby and Basudev Sharma (40) who suffered stomach pain died even before reaching the hospital.

Matrimonial ties between the people living outside the embankments and those living inside are rare. Only poor families outside the embankments entertain matrimony as it costs them only one rupee. They call it mangani me shaadi (married at a cost required for engagement).

Three caste groups – Sharma, Yadav and Muslim -- live in Sirwar. Others are Bhagat, Thakur, etc. Most of them are “hasuva faros” -- one having no resource to work with. They have only a sickle to cut grass in other people’s fields. Everybody’s land has gone under water. Influential Rajputs from outside the embankments corner the land and give it out for tilling on the basis of sharecropping or rent or sale.

NREGA activist Suman Kumar Mishra said the works under the scheme have been undertaken using tractors and wages are deposited in the labourers’ bank accounts. When the latter withdraw money from the bank, contractors’ musclemen snatch the cash. Some 60 percent of daily-wagers have job cards but no money throughout the year.

At Khagaria, the Kosi river merges with the Kamla. Pic: Surekha Sule.

Momina Khatun, whose son Mehmood Moosa has migrated to Dehradun as a construction worker, said: “every woman’s husband is out for work and 10-15 men migrate for work each day.” On an average, Mehmood sends Rs 500-700 per month through someone coming home and informs her on someone’s mobile in the village. Momina’s husband died four years ago perhaps due to vocal cord cancer. Her second son lives with his family separately and her daughters are married. Her daughter-in-law works in the farm during harvest and gets one out of the 12 lots (boja) she cuts; i.e. some 50 kg of cereals over two months of rabi. They own two goats and a buffalo.

Saheb Sharma has three sons, three daughters (aged 2-14) and lives with his wife and old parents. He studied up to inter college in 1994, went to Delhi for work but landed up in menial jobs. He met with an accident while on duty and came back after two years. Now he works as a farm labourer and often takes land on rent. He has two cows, but milk does not fetch good returns here. On an average, Saheb Sharma earns Rs 1400-1500 per month, gets some cereals after farming, but pays half of the farm produce as rent to the landowner. His brother is in Dehardun and his wife with six children stays next door. Children go to school which have no teachers and hence, Saheb pays Rs 20 a month to a village youth for tuitions.

Entire population in Sirwar entrapped between the embankments lives below subsistence level and has no contact with the outside world except for a few mobile phones. The official response is as callous as it gets. They say the people have no business to live within the embankments as “they have been resettled”. Some 50 years ago, they were given land only for housing but not for farming. They were expected to till their land within the embankments after the flood waters receded. But the resettlements outside the embankments too have been water-logged and the people were forced to shift back to the villages or on the embankments. Their farmland within the embankments too went under water. There are some villages which got submerged several times in the last 50 years.

Village Belwara on the embankment, block Simri Bakhtiyarpur, district Saharsha

Despite such devastation, the official ‘solution’ to embankment breaches has been to raise the height of the dam from 8 to 15 feet. According to activist Dr Dinesh Mishra, “the raised embankments can be even more dangerous. The higher the embankments, the more the water held within which exerts far higher pressure on the walls. And if the embankment breaches, a lot more water will force out engulfing the nearby region for sure.”

We drove on the embankments in Simri Bakhtiyarpur block where soil was stocked on the embankment for construction. We had to cut short our journey as the jeep wheels got stuck in the soft white topsoil.

From the embankment, the difference in height between the riverbed level and outside the embankment was glaring. Because of the heavy silt accumulated over five decades, the Kosi riverbed here got raised by seven feet and hence the water flows at a higher level. On the way, we saw a collapsed sluice gate buried under the silt which was originally built to discharge water of a tributary into the Kosi. Since this tributary cannot discharge water into the main river, its water flows parallel to the Kosi outside the embankment, thus pulling a huge area under it. The water seeps through the embankments and a large area adjacent to the embankment remains waterlogged.

Now that the work of heightening the embankment is on, the people living on this embankment since 1987 have been served with notices labeling them encroachers. “Where can we go? We can’t stay within the embankment, can’t live on it, or get resettled at a lower level outside because of water-logging,” the villagers lamented.

Jawaharkumar Sharma said: “Our grandfather/great grandfather got 0.2 acre land in compensation and now we are 25 in the family. What do we get out of it?”

Umeshkumar, 24, who has migrated to Delhi earns Rs 2000-4000 and sends 1000-1500 to his family consisting of parents, wife, two children, and two brothers. His family pays Rs 5 to talk to him on someone’s mobile in case of emergency.

Village Tilathi right outside the embankment, block Simri-Bakhtiyarpur, district Saharsa

Shankar Yadav of Tilathi said the villagers had to bear severe losses as the land was acquired for three different purposes: for embankments, excavation, and for resettlement of the villagers inside. However, water-logging forced them back to the villages inside or on the embankment.

The waterlogged area is covered with hyacinth which prohibits the growth of farm crops. Wherever land is available, they grow rice, maize, moong, and vegetables. But only two months of rabi farming doesn’t fetch them enough. This time, 75% of the maize sown did not bear seeds and according to the officials, it was because of extreme cold conditions. Such adversities have been triggering migration. People come back here during February-April for rabi season and leave again for Punjab-Haryana to harvest wheat. Trains commute overloaded and overcrowded all the time.

Shankar said life was better before the embankments were built. “All the families in the village had land; but after the embankment, both sides are suffering losses, no one gains. In fact, kala azar (visceral leishmaniasis), malaria, and other water-borne diseases strike us regularly.”

When asked if they would migrate to a developed area with the family, the villagers said: “where do we go from our birthplace? We need schools, colleges, hospitals, roads, factories, and cottage industries close to our village.”

Village Chandrayan adjacent to the embankment, block Nauhatta, district Saharsa

In 1984, the embankment here breached and this was the first village to come under the fury of the flash floods. It breached early in the morning and within hours, the flash floods washed away countless human beings and cattle.

Ramnarayan Thakur said: “we were in difficulty even before the breach as the water used to seep through the embankments into our village. We have never slept peacefully even after the breach was plugged. Our woes continue to torment us. The roads and the bridges have not been restored. We have no electricity since 1984.”

Baidyanath Jha said the river flows within the embankments seven feet above the ground level. “Another breach, and we will all be swept away by the flash floods.”

However, an interesting suggestion came from Puneshwar Yadav who said a new embankment should be built from Kusaha (the 2008 breach point in Nepal) to Kursela (where the Kosi merges with the Ganga).

Media intervention

During our yatra, conversations with mediapersons laid bare crippling lack of intellectual debate on this issue. According to them, the media has not been able to generate opinion even though life has been uprooted several times. Between the ruling party and the Opposition in Bihar, there’s a clear consensus about building the embankments and raising their height. In the Assembly sessions, they discuss flood relief distribution but seldom the cause behind the disaster.

Thanks to government restrictions, a journalist added, media has limitations and is far from free. A senior journalist narrated how his seniors pressured him to suppress the truth. It talks about how old the embankments are and how badly they are being maintained but never turn it into a campaign. But some concerned mediapersons said they keep the debate rolling outside the press and said they would support any movement by the people or voluntary organizations to drive home the message.

Embankments for whom?

Every village within, outside, and on the embankments in the Kosi basin is replete with such sordid tales. The families are fed by their dear ones who migrate and are left to fend for themselves for four months in the flood waters.

Flood relief is yet another racket! ⊕

Surekha Sule
9 Apr 2010

Surekha Sule is a freelance journalist and environmentalist based in Mumbai, and a Media Fellow of the Ministry of Water Resources of the Government of India.

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Post by kmoksha » Tue Nov 30, 2010 8:58 pm

Repairing Kosi’s breaches not a longterm solution


A recent study on the Kosi deluge asserts that embankments are the root cause of the present crises. Only a longterm micro-level study of why the river course is changing along with firm policy decisions can remedy the situation, says Sudhirendar Sharma.

17 September 2008 - Dinesh Mishra has narrated stories about breaches on Kosi embankments since 1963 and the ritualistic manner in which the state has handled (or not handled) the situation (see here). Without doubt, it is neglect on the part of the hydrocracy that has kept millions under threat of floods, year after year and decade after decade. It is a blessing in disguise that the 18 August 2008 breach has brought the issue to mainstream discourse.

The worst is still to come

River embankments have been used world over as temporary flood control measure, and Bihar has been no different. But no river embankment has yet been built or can be built in future that will not breach. The report from a fact finding mission that I led, ‘Kosi Deluge: The Worst is Still to Come’, asserts that embankments on the Kosi are the root cause of the present crises. It seeks firm policy decisions to remedy the situation. Though considered unlawful, trapped communities have time and again engaged in creating artificial breaches for draining accumulated water from their surroundings.

Conservative estimates indicate that the current breach at Kusaha (in Nepal) may not be fully plugged before March 2009, the unwritten assumption being that till then the river will flow at or below the current level of discharge. This assumption may be seriously flawed as Kosi gets its peak flow towards the closing stages of the rainy season; the maximum ever discharge in Kosi has been a whopping 913,000 cusecs on October 5, 1968. So, things could get worse. Since floods are known to follow a pattern, one wishes that the river does not embarrass the engineers’ fraternity any further.

The 13-member fact finding team included flood expert Dinesh Mishra, ecological campaigner Pandurang Hegde, environmental researcher Gopal Krishna, river ecologist Rakesh Jaiswal and development practitioner Laxman Singh. We travelled in the Kosi flood plains in early March 2008. Associate members of this mission included Manas Bihari Verma (nuclear physicist), C Uday Shankar (hydro-geologist), Rakesh Bhatt (social anthropologist), Kavinder Pandey, Kameshwar Singh and Amarnath (all three from Bihar who accompanied for support). They not only traveled along the east and west banks of embanked Kosi but visited the Bhimnagar barrage and were witness to silt-laden on east and west canals emanating from the barrage.

The team was aghast to observe that neither central nor Bihar government ‘conducts any survey to assess the effect of flood control measures on socio-economic condition of the society’. The same holds true for Nepal as well.

It (embankment) jackets the river with the engineering assumption that a reduced cross section of the river will indeed increase its velocity and the power to dredge its base. Neither has happened in the case of the Kosi…

In our report, we argue that while flood control measures like dams, embankments and their repairs can provide temporary respite. It is a phenomenon that needs longterm careful micro-level study of the factors causing shift in the course of the river.

There has to be an acknowledgement that even if one fills the breach in the embankment the problem does not get solved forever. Even when one chooses to ignore changing morphology, i.e., the change in shape and structure of land on account of barrage and embankments, the estimated lifespan of a dam (proposed in Nepal since 1937) and embankment are 25 years and 37 years respectively. This underlines the transitory nature of techno-centric interventions.

Note also that there is a precedence of embankment demolition in India. The embankments built along a length of 32 kilometres on river Damodar in 1854 were demolished in the year 1869. The British had soon realised that far from controlling floods, the embankments were submerging fertile lands for which the colonial rulers were forced to provide compensation. The first ever compensation of Rs. 60,000 on account of submergence due to embankment failure was given to a farmer in 1896 in then Bardwan district.

What are the options for Bihar?

That the embankments have been temporary solution to the scourge of floods and that these have outlived their age three times over raises serious question on strengthening them to plug the breach in the present scheme of things. It creates a set of discomforting scenarios and compelling questions: one, will reinforcing a breached portion of the over-aged dilapidated embankment not leave the remaining stretch of the embankment vulnerable, even at the present level of discharge? But if band-aid is not applied the human misery may continue for long.

Two, given the present timeline the breach is unlikely to be plugged before March 2009, by which time a sizeable population would have (hopefully) moved to alternate locations. Should then the river not be allowed to follow its new course? Three, as the existing embankments were neither designed as permanent solutions nor have these proved to be so, how far investment in maintaining them can be justified even if it means providing temporary relief in such calamity?

Given the fact that the Kosi has been embanked for at least 135 km downstream from the site of the breach at Kusaha, the flow having once left the embanked river could at no point have rejoined that course. Consequently, the river was compelled to go into three of its previous channels: Sursar, Mitchaiya and Belhi. In all, the meandering river has 15 different channels (options) through which it flows or has flown. The 380 villages trapped inside the embanked river have heaved a sigh of relief because the river is not flowing through its erstwhile course.

Flood control on Bihar's rivers has never been easy. This is the venue of protest in Muzaffarpur, early this year, against embankments on another river, the Bagmati. Pic: Barh Mukti Abhiyan.

Locating a river as a blue streak on the map and feeling its currents while traversing through it make a world of difference. Our fact finding mission had an opportunity to undertake a boat ride along then main course of the Kosi, called Tilyuga which till 1948 was an independent river, to get a feel of the living waters of the river during March 2008. Moving against the current, it was observed that through its gentle meander the river was engaged in the ‘act’ of enriching the land by depositing rich silt. However, it was slowly but steadily corroding its embankment to liberate itself from its jacket.

Embankments have always been a double-edged sword. They jacket the river with the engineering assumption that a reduced cross-section of the river will indeed increase its velocity and the power to dredge its base. Neither has happened in the case of the Kosi as its massive cross section, varying in length from nine to 16 km at different locations along its length, has become a silt-dumping ground. Nothing could have been more shocking for the members of the mission than to observe from atop the embankment that the river-bed was several feet higher than the adjoining land. The high lands and low lands have been separated by the ubiquitous embankment, turning the low lying area permanently water-logged as the natural drainage from the area gets choked.

Now that the river has taken its course and that there is no way it could be brought back to its so-called original course over next eight to nine months, the best option for the state would be to initiate work on the root cause of the problem, i.e., of dismantling embankments. As the affected majority is moving to safer places and the river has already bypassed the existing embankments, there doesn’t seem any rationale in investing further on these structures that have failed several times over the past five decades.

Also, though considered unlawful, trapped communities have time and again engaged in creating artificial breaches for draining accumulated water from their surroundings. The general perception favours removal of embankments provided the act of demolishing does not create undesired conditions.

Like the Dutch hydrocracy that has started working on the ‘room for the river’ concept following failure to tame rivers Rhine and Meuse. The Delhi and Patna think tanks can emulate spatial flood protection measures as an alternative to jacketing of the river. (Spatial protection means creating space for the river to spread thereby reducing the impact of floods.)

The new approach not only warrants informed public debate but is based on broad political support. It is measures like these that need to be discussed and negotiated with communities in north Bihar, but not before the political stables in Patna (and in Delhi) get cleansed of their misconceptions!

Given its distinct geo-morphological (‘geo-morphology’ means the natural shape and structure of land) features and complicated hydrological characters, the Kosi is one of the Himalayan rivers that has yet to be understood in its entirety. It is high time policy makers gave up their outdated ‘conquest over nature’ paradigm and acknowledge ‘we shall have to learn to live with floods’. ⊕

Sudhirendar Sharma
17 Sep 2008

Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert and Director of the Delhi-based Ecological Foundation. The fact-finding mission was an Ashoka Fellowship Initiative (www.ashoka.org) aimed at getting an in-depth assessment of the perpetual flood cycle in north Bihar.

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Post by kmoksha » Tue Nov 30, 2010 9:01 pm

Playing politics with floods


An indifferent political system, trading of charges between state and central governments, and the apathy of the Water Resources Department have together created and compounded the misery of floods in Bihar. When floods struck this year, all the measures collapsed like a house of cards, which again is not a new phenomenon, writes Dinesh Kumar Mishra.

13 September 2007 - There has been a lot of furore about Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s departure for Mauritius on 26 July this year when his state was reeling under devastating floods. He was able to make an aerial survey of the flood-affected areas only on 3 August after his return to Bihar. Flood water had entered Patna, Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi and Motihari on 25 July and even the CM’s village had not been spared.

A record of indifference

But why such a hue and cry about a CM’s absence in the face of a natural calamity? This incidence is not without precedence. In 1968, there had been heavy rainfall in West Bengal, Orissa and Assam along with Bihar and UP, resulting in huge loss to life and property. That year is a landmark in the flood history of Bihar as the Kosi river's record discharge of 9,13,000 cusecs is yet to be bettered. It was also recorded as one of the worst floods in West Bengal. After visiting some of the flood ravaged areas in Bihar and West Bengal, Dr K L Rao, the then minister of irrigation at the centre, left for the USA to attend a seminar. At that time, H N Mukherji, MP, had expressed his anger at the insensitivity in official, administrative and political circles by lashing out in the Lok Sabha (18 November 1968), "…About the other levels, my hon. friend, the minister Dr K L Rao, an engineer himself, he left for the United States, immediately after the deluge for attending a seminar. I am sorry to have to say that knowledge acquired at this time of life is not going to be of much assistance to the cause of my country."

For years, the flood victims have expressed that the embankments along the rivers in Bihar have done more damage than good.

Why is there so much of enthusiasm within the state machinery when the people do not want these structures?

One of the worst floods witnessed by Bihar in recent times was in 1998. It affected 13.47 million people (almost as much as in 2007, which till date is 14.45 million), according to the state government own's numbers. The 1998 floods killed 380 persons spread over 28 districts. At that time, the ruling party in Bihar was busy organising the Ekjuta (Solidarity) Rally in Patna to fight communalism. This could have very easily been postponed to a later date as there was no emergency on the communal front. (In the 2007 floods, 257 people have lost their lives until mid-August, inclusive of boat tragedies.)

Ranjit Sinha wrote in the Deccan Herald on 28 August 1998, "Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav chose not to visit flood hit areas because probably that would have shifted the focus to the natural calamity which, in turn, could have resulted in lesser number of persons turning out for the Patna Rally. Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav had appealed to the 'brave' people of Bihar not to get upset by these little inconveniences as the country was faced with greater and more serious problems like communalism and price rise." Lalu Prasad had also advised the flood victims to enjoy fishes that had come with the floodwaters in 2004, according to another newspaper report.

Despite the state government claiming its 'preparedness', matters were no better for the common man during the 2003 floods in Bihar. That year, the army was deployed in Danapur sub-division of Patna district for relief and rescue operations. The state government failed to provide diesel for the army boats in time and the trucks carrying the food packets to Danapur from Patna did their job leisurely and only half the supplies could be reached to the take-off points for the IAF helicopters. In the floods of 2004, Lalu Prasad had claimed that he had deployed 11 helicopters for airdropping of food packets (one of these helicopters had crashed). He went a step ahead to claim that never before in the history of Bihar had so many helicopters been deployed for such work. He probably was not aware that in the worst ever flood of the last century which occurred in 1987, the state had pressed 13 helicopters into service.

This year, in 2007, four helicopters had been pressed into service and they too suffered frequent breakdowns.

State and Centre funding football

The responsibility of providing relief in the wake of natural calamities including floods primarily rests with the concerned state governments. The government of India supplements the efforts of the state governments where necessary by providing logistic and financial support. For this purpose, the state governments are allocated Calamity Relief Fund (CRF), which is contributed by government of India and the state government in the ratio of 3:1. Additional assistance is also provided to the state government in the event of a calamity of severe nature from the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) after following the laid down procedure.

In August 2003, a corpus fund of Rs.108.97 crores was available with the Bihar government in the CRF, as per the government's own reports. Out of this money, only Rs.19 crores were released from the fund for carrying out relief operations in the state till August that year. Yet, the Rabri Devi Government in Bihar repeatedly flayed the central government for not helping the state with the requisite money.

Anirban Roy wrote in The Hindustan Times (13 September 2003), "The state government is yet to get the central assistance of Rs.112 crores allotted in 2002-03 under special package for relief distribution in the flood affected districts. The central government has not released the money as it has taken the stand that the state government should first spend the CRF money before it seeks the release of more central funds." Obviously, the state government was not in a position to provide the utilisation certificates for the funds sanctioned to it earlier and wanted the flood victims to believe that the central government was responsible for it. That was the time when the RJD was in power in Bihar and the NDA was ruling in Delhi.

It is now 2007, and the scenario has reversed. The two governments have exchanged positions. Lalu Prasad Yadav at the Centre suggests that the state government has not made any demands to the Centre, and that the Centre on its own initiative sent relief money to Bihar although the state had not submitted the expenditure accounts for the previous year. The NDA Government of Bihar says that whatever assistance comes from the Centre is provided for under the regulations of the 12th Finance Commission and is not at the behest of any one minister at the Centre. Even so, according to a press report, Sushil Kumar Modi, the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar said in early August that the state had not received any money from the Centre.

Water Resources Department – adding its own share of misery

Into this backdrop comes the apathy of the Water Resources Department of the state, which has only added more misery. This year, the state government began with assurances that all the works of repairs and maintenance of the embankments would be completed in time, cautioning engineers that that they would be reprimanded in case of any failure of the embankments. Bureaucrats had been alerted to do whatever needed to provide succour to the people during floods. Disaster management departments had been told to prepare people to face floods, leaves of concerned officials had been cancelled, the public had informed of official phone numbers to be contacted in emergencies.

But when the floods struck, all the measures collapsed like a house of cards, which again is not a new phenomenon.

For years, the flood victims have expressed that the embankments along the rivers in Bihar have done more damage than good to the flood scenario. They have asked for the embankments to be removed, but instead of paying heed to these demands, the state government has plans of massive construction of embankments along the rivers. It is already working on a Rs.792 crores plan to embank the middle portion of the Bagmati. Construction of about 10 kilometres length was already done this summer. But in July this year, the entire newly constructed embankment was smashed to smithereens in the very first rain in the Sitamarhi district. The government has further plans in the form of a proposal worth Rs. 845 crores to embank the Mahananda tributaries and then to spend Rs.3,000 crores to jacket the other rivers in the state.

Why is there so much of enthusiasm within the state machinery when the people do not want these structures? The reasons are not difficult to assess. The government has yet to take up an evaluation of the performance of the embankments despite the fact that the flood prone area of the state has increased from 25 lakh hectares in 1952 to 68.8 lakh hectares in 1994 (the year of last assessment). It has mostly constructed embankments during this period along the Bihar rivers -- 160 kilometres in 1952 and these have gone up to 3440 kilometres in 2007 (this includes the 10 kilometres that were constructed this year and subsequently washed away). A sum of nearly Rs.1800 crores was spent on such construction during the plan period.

There is widespread resentment over relief distribution, trading of charges between various political outfits for inefficiency, dereliction of duties, corruption and opportunism. Also, governments regularly float suggestions of approaching Nepal for facilitating the construction of dams in the hills there, for better flood control. This has been going on for the past seventy years. These dams were first proposed in 1937 and negotiations are on with Nepal ever since! The carrots of these dams have been dangled before the people since independence and the Bihar blames the Centre for not facilitating the process with Nepal. The irony is that a combination of almost all the political parties has been at the Centre and in Bihar. Yet this issue with Nepal has still not been resolved.

All these tussles are annual rituals and once the floods recede, everything is forgotten till the next year. The game goes on and on and most of the flood victims are left to fend for themselves. ⊕

Dinesh Kumar Mishra
13 September 2007

Dinesh Kumar Mishra is the Convenor of Barh Mukti Abhiyan (Freedom From Floods Campaign). He is based in Patna.

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