No one’s ashamed!

Despite a long history of incompetent governments, corruption and mass tragedies, no one is held responsible for the Kosi breach

Dinesh Kumar Mishra Patna

Yamuna Prasad Mandal, MP, expressed his frustration over the breach of the western Kosi embankment on August 20, 1963 at Dalwa in Nepal and charged the state government at Patna on
September 4, 1963 that he had cautioned the government time and again about the impending disaster at Dalwa but nobody was bothered and he was "ashamed that no timely action was taken up". This was the inaugural breach in the Kosi embankments that were constructed in the late 1950s.

The engineers and politicians and local people were still rejoicing the taming of the river as the barrage was completed on March 31, 1963. This was a feather in their cap as they had controlled the vagaries of a river that had shifted about 160 km in the past 200 years. On August 9, 1963, Dr KL Rao, the then irrigation minister at the Centre, had expressed his concern over the situation that it was the first time that all the water of the Kosi had been made to pass through the embankments. If anything had gone wrong with these embankments the hopes of the people living in the Kosi basin would have been belied. It was for the first time that the local people could cross the river without boats and without risking their lives -- but their hopes were belied, for sure.

After the breach, the floodwaters had spread into Dalwa and started flowing to a depth of 15 to 45cm into the countryside through the gaps in the retired line and the western embankment. The floodwaters first fell into the Sakardehi river and flowed back into the Kosi through the Tiljuga. According to official sources, the land between the retired line and the western embankment was about only 52ha and there was waist deep water over 40ha in Dalwa. There were 47 families in this village with a population of 241. Of these, 92 persons from 22 families were shifted into tarpaulin tents at safer places on the embankment, according to official sources. Nobody had died in this accident.

Because of the international dimension of the breach, the situation remained tense and the government of India was informed of the eventuality. The responsibility of the breach was passed on to bad road conditions hampering the delivery of stones at the breach site and the rats and foxes that dig holes in the body of the embankments leading to its failure. Those were the good old days when politicians used to be ashamed of their failures. Clearly, they have ceased to express or feel an iota of shame with the passage of time.

Soon, the apologetic faces of our politicians changed and they became arrogant when faced with inconvenient truths like breaches in the embankments as Kosi started attacking the western embankment near Kunauli in 1967 on the Indian side of the border. In reply to a question by SM Bannerji about preventing breaches in the Kosi embankment, Dr KL Rao replied in the Lok Sabha on July 12, 1967: "In (the) case of a river nobody can say whether a breach will occur or not, and especially, in case of the Kosi, because the Kosi is all the time moving towards the west. It is on account of this peculiar nature of the Kosi that we have taken up the Kosi Project and this has prevented the river from moving and it has stayed in its place for the past ten years; it should have moved on to Jhanjharpur and nearer to Darbhanga."

This is what Dr Rao said in 1967. If he had said the same thing in 1954 after his visit to China to study the performance of the Hwang Ho embankments, the embankments on the Kosi would never have been built.     

Then on, the embankments are breaching regularly. The next incident took place in 1968 near Jamalpur in Darbhanga when five breaches occurred in October on the western embankment that engulfed over 200 villages in Darbhanga, Saharsa, Samastipur and Munger (part of which is now known as Khagaria). The maximum discharge of 9,13,000 cusecs in the Kosi was observed on October 5, 1968 and that record is not yet broken. Engineer PN Kumra had conducted an enquiry and had once again found rats and foxes for the debacle. Bihar was under president's rule then.

The third incident occurred at Bhatania on the eastern embankment in 1971 when the approach bundh collapsed between 10 to 19 km below Bhimnagar and many villages were washed away; but the eastern embankment remained intact. Bhola Paswan Shastri of Sanyukt Vidhayak Dal was the chief minister. Since the damage was done only to eight villages and that too within the embankments, the incident did not get wide publicity. 

The next incident occurred on the eastern embankment in 1980 near Bahuarawa in the Salkhua block of Saharsa district, 121 km below Bhimnagar. The river eroded the embankment in about 2 km reach but just after eroding it receded very fast and did not spill on to the countryside. The state was then ruled by Jagannath Mishra of the Congress.

In 1984, a tragedy as bad as Jamalpur struck the eastern embankment near Hempur village in the Navhatta block of Saharsa district, 75 km below the Bhimnagar barrage. It had uprooted half-a-million people and had engulfed 96 villages in seven blocks of Saharsa and Supaul districts. People could go back to their villages only after the Holi festival of 1985 when the breach got plugged. Chandra Shekhar Singh of the Congress was the chief minister.

In 1987, there were two breaches in the western embankment near Samani and Gandaul village. Bindeshwari Dubey of the Congress was the chief minister. In 1991, there was a breach in the western embankment near Joginia in Nepal that led to a political crisis in Bihar and the state's water resources minister had to resign his post. This resignation, however, was not accepted by Lalu Prasad Yadav who was the chief minister. This was a repeat performance of the Bahuarawa breach where the river had receded after eroding the embankment.

As for the current tragedy of this gigantic scale, the Kusaha breach took place in the regime of Nitish Kumar (chief minister of the Janata Dal (U)-BJP-led regime) and it will take about a year to get the complete story. Thus, virtually no party (including president's rule) can claim that it has not been involved in such accidents. Yet, blame games and mud-slinging continues unabated. History stands testimony -- these breaches will not be plugged before March next year.

Thus, there have been altogether eight breaches in the Kosi embankments so far, five in India and three in Nepal. Three of the eight breaches have occurred in the western embankment and five on the eastern. When it is suggested that the river is trying to shift to its older courses on the east, did the engineers and their political masters not argue that in case of Dalwa, Kunauli, Jamalpur, Gandaul, Samani and Joginia, the river was trying to go further west? Did the river not want to go east in case of Bhatania, Bahuarawa and Hempur? Is there any pattern in the behaviour of the river? And if the river wants to go east or west, why on earth were the embankments built at all?

There is no answer. The Kusaha breach has the unique distinction of having occurred upstream of the Kosi Barrage implying that the barrage will have no role in manipulating the river flow while plugging the breach and engineers will face a tough time accomplishing the job.

After 45 years of the Dalwa breach, the Eastern Kosi Afflux Bundh breached at Kusaha village in Nepal on
August 18, 2008 and surging waters smashed four panchayats of Nepal. The damages within the districts of Supaul, Araria, Saharsa, Purnea, Katihar and Khagaria of Bihar is yet to be assessed. Hundreds of people are feared dead and the monsoon crop is almost fully destroyed besides sending lakhs of population literally on the streets. At the time of writing this report (mid-September 2008) 43.18 lakh people spread over 18 districts and 2,434 villages were hit by the recent floods killing 120 of them and a crop area of 2.89 lakh hectares has been submerged in these floods. As many as 3, 35,410 houses are reported to be destroyed in these floods. Some 129 cattle are also reported to have died in the floods.

The flood season is not yet over as the maximum observed discharge of the river was 9,13,000 cusecs on October 5, 1968 and the floods of 1971, 1974, 1978, 1984, 1987, 1996, 2002, 2004 and 2007 had always kept the engineers and the administration on their toes. Hathia (early October rains) are still due and one can only imagine the plight of those who are camping in 359 relief camps opened so far in case even half or one third of the maximum discharge passes through the river in days to come.

Statistically, the flood of 2008 is nuts as compared to earlier floods. Surviving elderly people still remember the floods of 1954 (before the state went on an embanking spree) -- the total population affected was 76.10 lakhs out of a total of 183.93 lakhs in north Bihar. This flood affected 8,119 villages (out of 21,107 in north Bihar), damaged crops over an area of 15.96 lakh hectares. It damaged 1,79,451 houses and claimed 63 human lives and 1,944 cattle.

In 1974, the floods hit a population of 163.90 lakhs and an area of 31.82 lakh hectares submerging crops over 17.51lha that were valued at Rs 266.78 crore. Around 5,16,353 houses valued at Rs 54.58 crore were damaged. The total loss  in this year's flood was put at Rs 354.59 crore of which Rs 79.63 crore was the value of public utilities. The flood claimed 80 human lives and 288 cattle.

In the floods of 1987, 46.68 lakh hectares of present day Bihar with a population of 282.38 crore was hit by floods and crops in 25.10 lakh hectares were lost. This flood engulfed 23,852 villages (Bihar portion), destroyed 16,82,069 houses and killed 1,373 people besides killing 5,296 cattle. Around 58 army boats, 13,834 private and government boats and 13 choppers were pressed in service for relief and rescue operations that year.

In 2004, the floods hit a population of 2.13 crore living in 9,346 villages destroying crops over 13.99 lakh hectares. This flood ruins were spread over 9,346 villages and had hit a population of 21.3 million. The water spread area of the flood was 27.72lha and the crops over an area of 13.99 lha were lost in this flood. More than 885 persons and 3,274 cattle perished in that year's flood.

Interestingly, the Disaster Management Department of the state no more discloses the area affected by floods since 2004. It so happened that in its reports, the department showed that the flood affected area of the districts was more than the actual area of districts - and when that was pointed out to the department, it ceased to give the information ever since.

Last year, in 2007, a population of 24.8 million was hit by the flood that was spread over 12,610 villages. The flood destroyed crops on 16.63lh area and 7,37,000 houses, killing 960 persons and 1006 cattle.

 

This history is being cited not to dilute the despair and misery being suffered by the people of the Kosi basin during the current mass displacement due to the flood. It will take decades to make up the losses there, as it happened in all the previous floods; but it is necessary to place facts on record since the holiest document on irrigation and flood control in Bihar, the Second Bihar State Irrigation Commission (1994), does not even mention these accidents. Thus, as a corollary, future engineers of Bihar would never know that anything of that sort had happened earlier and they might presume any future accident as the first of its kind. It is difficult to believe that such professionals would ever be able to find a solution.

Vested interests have a major role in these debacles. In case of the Dalwa breach a sum of Rs 15 lakh was spent on the repairs of the embankment but the plugging cost after the breach was Rs 11.5 million. In case of Bhatania, the account books of the Kosi Project suggest that during March to August 1971, a sum of Rs 335,788 was spent on repairs at the Bhatania site, but the subsequent repairs between 1972-76 cost the exchequer Rs 28.6 million.

Nearly Rs 80 million were spent on the plugging of the Hempur breach in 1984-85. In Joginia (1991), the Water Resources Department of Bihar wanted to save Rs 25 million but ended up spending Rs 51.7 million in plugging the breach, besides paying a compensation of Rs 19.80 lakh to Nepal for the temporary acquisition of land and loss of land and trees there. Humiliation faced by Indian engineers was an added cost. It will be interesting to know the repair cost this year and the subsequent cost of plugging the breach. And who would foot the bill?

  Who is to blame?

A former minister of water resources of the state holds the view that this is not the time for blaming anybody and everybody should join hands to provide succor to the flood victims. That is a sensible suggestion but does anyone listen to the dissenting voice or even suggestions ‘not favourable' to the establishment even during peace time? Do laymen have to tell the establishment manned by thousands of engineers that it was their job to keep the river in place and the embankments were meant precisely for that purpose?

Jaiprakash Narain Yadav (now Union minister of state for water resources) made a scathing attack on the government in view of the Saharsa tragedy: "The people of Saharsa today are crying for help for a match-box, some candles, bleaching powder, medicines and food and the minister from that place is playing with the sentiments of the people. I want to tell the minister that you are responsible for what has happened there. You should resign but you are a thick-skinned person, your resignation has got no meaning... Apologising alone will not help the people."

That was on September 13, 1984 in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha when the 1984 breach at Hempur was being discussed. Will someone apologise to the people for what has happened or will anybody feel ashamed of it?

The people of the Kosi basin are expecting observance of that formality, at least. Apologies notwithstanding, the truth is, three million people of the Kosi basin are uprooted from their homes and hearths for one full crop year and it will take them years to come back on track. 

 

The writer is a flood expert and Convener, Barh Mukti Abhiyan, Patna