Kosi Floods: Bihar Battles State-Sponsored Catastrophe

The rhetoric of governance in India has nowadays become pretty elaborate and sophisticated. Every government waxes eloquent about ‘good governance’ rooted in principles of accountability, sensitivity, empowerment, administrative efficiency, disaster management, transparency and so on and so forth. The current Chief Minister of Bihar too had been busy packaging himself as a veritable brand ambassador of good governance, till the Kosi floods washed away all his carefully cultivated image and revealed the true face of his regime. It is governance at its crudest and cruellest, typical of a feudal-bureaucratic order.

That the Kosi floods resulted entirely from years of institutionalised apathy and criminal neglect is now an open secret even though the powers that be in Patna and Delhi are busy in a competitive blame game. A judicial probe ordered by the Bihar government focuses on the pre-2005 period as though the present government was mandated to carry forward every bit of the legacy it inherited from its predecessor. Even as late as August this year when the footsteps of the impending disaster had become audible enough for the people entrusted with the safety and maintenance of the Kosi barrage network, crucial time was allowed to be wasted. After August 18 when the breach had already occurred, the administration sat over this information for several hours and the CM went there after two days while the PM visit came after another week. The CM described the situation as ‘pralay’ (catastrophe/deluge) while the PM declared it a national calamity. A series of grand pronouncements followed but little attention was paid to actually stepping up rescue operation on the ground and rushing relief to the marooned.

In most cases, boats that were pressed into service were quickly appropriated by the rich and the powerful while the poor and the oppressed had the last claim, if any, on official rescue efforts. Instead of rushing relief to the victims wherever possible, the government opened a handful of ‘mega shivirs’ (mega relief camps) and said relief would be made available only to those who would come to government relief camps! Just as it is not sufficient to be poor and unemployed to be on the BPL list or get a job card under NREGA unemployed, it takes much more than bearing the brunt of the floods to be officially recognised as a flood-victim in the prevailing feudal-bureaucratic mode of governance. Right from day one, flood victims had to fight for getting every bit of official attention. And of course the government’s figure of casualties is limited to only those cases where post-mortems have been conducted and death certificates issued!

The most shocking was the spectacle of how flood-victims’ right to dignity and timely and adequate relief was sacrificed at the altar of what can only be described as criminal politics of pretentious charity. Many ‘Bihar government relief camps’ merely sported banners without any substantive arrangement for conducting any meaningful relief. Public money was used for narrow partisan politics with the Ministry of Railways running ‘Laloo-Rabri Bhojan Shivirs’ and Steel Minister Ram Vilas Paswan indulging in tall talks of his party’s plans to provide one million flood victims with ‘family relief packs’ and flood-resistant housing, all with resources made available by the Steel Authority of India Limited! There was also this shocking case of a Bihar minister inaugurating a relief camp by cutting ribbon. Sure enough, one man’s meat can be another’s poison – the plight of flood victims becomes a photo opportunity for publicity-hungry politics!

The CPI(ML) pressed its entire organisation into organising a rescue and relief campaign by mobilising support from the people. In terms of organisational reach, the flood-affected districts are certainly not among the party’s strongholds in Bihar. In most of these districts, Party work is still in a primary stage and confined largely among agricultural labourers, themselves the worst victims of the floods. Yet almost everywhere local units of the Party and AIALA lost no time to mount whatever rescue and relief operation they could. With support coming in from the rest of Bihar and also from other states, the relief campaign gradually gathered momentum and comrades combined the relief operation with the equally pressing task of organising the masses in struggles to secure relief and medical care from the government agencies. Teams comprising Central Committee members Comrades Dipankar Bhattacharya, KD Yadav, Rameshwar Prasad, Rajaram Singh and Dhirendra Jha and concerned state and local leaders visited flood-affected areas in Supaul, Arararia, Madhepura, Saharsa and Purnea districts. Students from AISA and JNU Students’ Union and doctors and health activists from West Bengal also joined the relief campaign. The CC of CPI(ML) and National Councils of AIALA and AICCTU contributed Rs. 100,000 each to the relief campaign and comrades of AISA, RYA, AIPWA and Kisan Sabha too carried out a mass collection and distribution drive.

As we go to press, the campaign is still on. For the flood-affected people of Bihar it is only the beginning of a long battle for survival, dignity and justice and all efforts must be made to win this important battle and punish the architects and perpetrators of this man-made disaster.

Kosi Flood: Facts and Observations

(In the wake of the floods in Bihar, Dr. Santosh Kumar, Former Professor, Water Resources, N.I.T., Patna, visited the spot where the breach in the Kosi embankment occurred, along with a team of the People’s Commission on Floods. Below are some of his observations.)

The desolate waterscape of flood-devastated Bihar, as far as Bihar’s two major ruling class rivals are concerned, is an arena for political one-upmanship with both Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav washing their hands off their own complicity in the devastation even as some 2 million victims wait for rescue and relief.

Kosi Flood Disaster

The Kosi Basin is the largest river basin in Nepal. It originates from the Tibetan Plateau of China. The seven major tributaries of Kosi drain a total area of 69,300 sq. km. before the river falls into Ganga in India, 42.4% of this area is in China, 44.3% in Nepal and 13.3% is in India. Floods in the past have created havoc in the downstream area of Nepal and India causing widespread human suffering. That is why the Kosi river is dubbed the Sorrow of Bihar. The highest flood recorded on August 24, 1954 was 24,200 cu.m/sec (8,54,615 cusecs) while the Kosi barrage has been designed for peak flood of 27,014 cu.m/s (9, 54, 000 cusecs). On August 18 this year when the embankment was breached, the discharge was only 4200 cu.m/s (1,48, 322 cusecs).

From the above data it is evident that the failure of the embankment was due to other reasons than the excessive rainfall. Progressive weakening of the spurs and embankment due to criminal neglect on the part of the engineers, contractors and bureaucrats has caused the catastrophe. When I along with other members of the People’s Commission on Floods visited the location of breach we found that the breach had occurred at 11.9 km from the Kosi Barrage and the length from the breach was 1735 m. Formation of an island upstream of the breach was also observed. It seems that the convergence of streamlines towards the poorly maintained spur put extra pressure on it, causing its failure. Consequently, failure of the embankment became a foregone conclusion.

Failure of the embankment resulted in gushing out of about 2832 cu.m/s (100,000 cusecs) water with great impact breaking into the Mahendra Rajmarg and then taking a southward route into the old 1892-1926 abandoned course of the river, thus leaving the pre-breach C-loop and following a straight route to the Ganga. Interestingly there is not much variation in the Kursela situation where Kosi falls into the Ganga.

In between the breach location and Kursela when the river took the new straight route, during its journey it flooded vast areas on both sides of the new course affecting 2 to 3 million people, damaging huge property, resulting in unprecedented loss of cattle wealth and human lives.

Manpower at Breach Site

The team of engineers deployed at the breach site seem to be deficient in their knowledge of river behaviour. This is due largely to the fact that very little of river engineering is included in the engineering syllabus. There is also lot of frustration among engineers over promotion-related issues. The living conditions provided by the administration to engineers are grossly inadequate. The payment to the labour force working in the adverse and difficult situation is not compatible with the work they have to perform.

Solution to Kosi Problem

No one can claim to possess a readymade solution to the perennial Kosi problem. Two expert committees have been formed: one each by the State Government (NDA) and other by the Central Government (UPA). Unfortunately, both these expert committees seem to be guided by their master’s will rather than providing technical justification for their respective proposals.

There had been widespread opposition to the construction of embankments as a flood control measure. However, no viable alternative solution is offered by those of such an opinion, except to suggest that people should learn to live with floods.

As far as the present situation of the river Kosi is concerned, there are two possibilities; one, the breach should be sealed and the C-loop be restored and two, the river should be allowed to flow through its new course. If the first proposal is accepted, recurrence of the August 18 event cannot be ruled out and if the second proposal is executed, it will require a sizeable population to be rehabilitated. In my opinion both the old course i.e. the C-loop as well as the new course should be maintained with construction of a Head Regulator across the breached section. This will facilitate bypass of part of the discharge through the new course thus reducing the pressure on the afflux bund as well as downstream of the barrage i.e. the old C-loop. The new channel with minor channel improvement can carry sufficient discharge. This will also not require migration of many people. Of course, whatever measures are adopted, a thorough study is required before taking any major decision. Till the study is complete, pilot channel can be an effective measure to divert major portion of discharge towards the barrage. It will also facilitate construction work at the breach site.

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