Bihar Floods: The Inevitable Has Happened

(Below are excerpts from an article by Dinesh Kumar Mishra, activist on water-related issues in Bihar, which appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly, September 6, 2008.)

The overflowing Kosi had, as of end-August, wreaked destruction on more than three million people living in north and east Bihar. A field visit reports on the misery of the affected, haphazard rescue efforts and criminal exploitation of the uprooted. The immediate task is to improve relief operations and then provide support to the displaced who will not be able to find work until the 2009 kharif season. A blame game is now in operation, but since the early 1960s whichever the party in power, the people of Bihar have been affected by official apathy towards the embankments on the Kosi. This time it is a clear case of dereliction of duty by the state government in repairing upstream barrages before the monsoon of 2008 that has resulted in devastation.

Kusaha Breach

(At) the village Kusaha in Nepal on the eastern afflux bundh of the Kosi, (where the breach occurred this year – Ed/-), two spurs were constructed at 12.1 km and 12.9 km (from the Bhimnagar Barrage), the former 200 m long and the latter 269 m long. The river meandering between the two embankments of the Kosi came so close to the spurs that it started eroding the one at 12.9 km. That was on August 5 this year. Slowly the river touched the spur at 12.1 km also and now both the spurs were under the attack of the river. ... The river continued gnawing at the embankment and the inevitable happened on August 18.

Thus, there was almost a fortnight’s time available to take precautionary measures and that time was squandered. The story that is now floating around suggests that the two Indian contractors allotted the work of repairs in Nepal near the breach site were obstructed by the local Nepali population who were demanding employment. ...Had the contracts been given to Nepali contractors, they would have been in a better position to handle the situation such as in dealing with the labourers... What, however, did not happen was that the Nepal government should have been but was not taken into confidence to take care of the law and order problem, if there was any, at the site and on the access road to it. Official channels through the government of Bihar, the government of India, the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, and the ministry of external affairs, were all available to deal with other impediments and a fortnight’s time was not short for the purpose... Only an inquiry will reveal whether or not these efforts were made...

Dereliction of Duty

There is a set procedure to keep the embankments and the river in their respective positions and the process starts with a visit to the area by the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The TAC consists of engineers from the Central Water Commission (CWC), the Ganga Flood Control Commission (GFCC) and the water resources department (WRD) of Bihar who meet in February every year. The TAC recommends precautionary measures to save the embankments, the estimates are prepared based on these recommendations and the work taken up is to be completed by June 15. A field emergency in the month of August smacks of irregularity in completion of the work on time and the afflux bundh was allowed to breach. A clear case of dereliction of duty has led to destitution of millions of poor Bihari families and demands trial of the persons guilty of the offence in a court of law. ... A small laxity in the maintenance of the embankment has become a major catastrophe for the people and the floods that used to sneak in like a cat are this year roaring like a tiger.

... A visit to the area reveals the anger and frustration of the people and the irony is that the minister of water resources, and the minister of disaster management and the secretary of the disaster management department, all belong to Supaul, one of the worst hit districts...

Shortage of Boats

... Inaccessibility is the real problem and arrangements are needed to either rescue the people and take them to relief camps or reach relief to them wherever they are. That can be achieved only by increasing the number of boats and helicopters. It is intriguing that the government is shying away from deploying helicopters. It had deployed 13 helicopters during the floods of 1987 and 11 in 2004. There is no reason why they should be content with using only three this time. The number of boats is incredibly small compared to the number of persons needing evacuation.... Boats, at the moment, are the prime need. Other things will follow.

Blame Game

After blaming Nepal and the Nepali people of non-cooperation, the engineers and their political masters in Bihar have started saying that the river has changed its course and it now wants to move to east. If that is true, why on earth were embankments constructed along the river? Were they not meant to prevent the river from moving either east or west? How did the department of water resources know that the river wanted to change its course? Why did it help the river in accomplishing its objectives? Did the engineers and politicians not say earlier that the river was trying to move to west in case of breaches at Dalwa, Jamalpur and Joginia? Who will be responsible for the damage to life and property that has been caused by the negligence of a few?

History of Breaches

But does anyone remember that this is the eighth incident of its kind and that the first breach in the embankment had occurred in 1963 near Dalwa in Nepal, much before the Kosi project was completed. Binodanand Jha of Congress was the chief minister then and the responsibility of the breach was at that time placed on the rats and foxes that had dug holes in the body of the embankments through which water had seeped and they had breached! The second incident took place in 1968 near Jamalpur in Darbhanga when five breaches occurred in October. Engineer P N Kumra of CWC had conducted an inquiry and had once again identified the rats and foxes as the culprits. The state was then under president’s rule. ...In 1984, a tragedy as terrible as Jamalpur struck the eastern embankment near Hempur village in the Navhatta block of Saharsa district, 75 km below the Bhimnagar barrage. The floods uprooted half a million people and engulfed 96 villages in Saharsa and Supaul districts. People could go back to their villages only after the Holi festival of 1985 when the breach was plugged. Bindeshwari Dubey of the Congress was the chief minister that year.

In 1991, there was a breach in the western embankment near Joginia in Nepal that led to a political crisis in Bihar and the minister of water resources had to resign his post. This resignation was never accepted by Lalu Prasad Yadav who was the chief minister at the time. This was a repeat of the Bahuarawa breach where the river had receded after eroding the embankment. The Kusaha breach took place in the regime of Nitish Kumar and it will take about a year to get the complete story. Thus, virtually no ruling party (including the administration under president’s rule) can claim that it was not involved in such an accident. ...There is no history of these breaches being plugged before March of the following year.

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