Kosi’s Kiss

For decades, monsoons have almost always meant apocalypse now for the people of Bihar, while an inefficient and corrupt state machinery counts the cash
Dinesh Kumar Mishra Patna

A breach in the eastern Kosi embankment at Navhatta nearly 75km down the Kosi barrage in Saharsa was being discussed in the Bihar legislative council on September 14, 1984. Participating in the debate, Dr Sharda Prasad Singh had accused the state government saying, "The spot where the Kosi has breached its embankment is located in the lower area. If the carelessness continues the way it did this year, the day is not far when the Kosi would breach the embankment upstream of the barrage, north of Birpur... then the resulting flood and diversion of water into Ganga will bring unprecedented devastation to the Bhagalpur division." Thereafter, Shiv Nandan Prasad Singh added, "When this embankment was being built while I was a child, I remember the intellectuals of the area used to say that one day the entire area of Saharsa and Madhepura would be swept away and dumped into the Bay of Bengal." He used very harsh words blaming the chief minister for the devastation.

Every word of Sharda Prasad Singh's statement proved prophetic when the river breached its embankment near Birpur, upstream of the barrage, on August 18, 2008.

Pointing fingers at the Centre 26 years after the Navhatta breach, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said, "The Centre helped the drought-stricken people of Bundelkhand as well as the people of West Bengal and Mumbai mauled by floods. But what is the fault of the Kosi people that the Centre refused to help them though they were devastated by floods in August 2008, notwithstanding the prime minister's statement that it was a natural disaster? We helped the marooned people and have already submitted a rehabilitation package of Rs 14,800 crore, but the Centre is silent over the demand." He was addressing a gathering on April 3, 2010, at Birpur, the headquarters of the Kosi project, where he had come to inaugurate the Rs 751 crore renovation project of the Eastern Kosi Main Canal (EKMC).

His frustration was authentic as the 2008 floods had hit five districts, 35 blocks, 412 panchayats, 993 villages, 33.29 lakh people and 3.68 lakh hectares of land, destroying 2,22,754 houses and killing 527 persons and 19,323 cattle. If it were 1984, the leaders would surely have blamed him for the disaster. Never before in the known history of the Kosi was so much damage done in a single year and never had so many people died in a single stroke of floods in the basin with nobody to take the blame.

The chief minister used the occasion to reiterate his promise of creating 'Sundar Kosi' (beautiful Kosi). One wonders why 527 people had to lay down their lives to catch his attention and promise the dream of a Sundar Kosi. Moreover, far from speaking the whole truth, he had nothing to say about the abject failure of the state machinery in maintaining the embankment that had led to this disaster in the first place.

The rehabilitation of people affected by the 2008 floods is far from complete as there is no money to do it the way it was desired. Most of the victims have already braved the winters and rains of 2008 and 2009 under some makeshift arrangement, and the much publicised relief - for instance, the grant for desilting the fields over which sand has been deposited subsequent to the breach at Kusaha - is yet to reach them. A trip along the Birpur-Bathnaha Road or the EKMC speaks volumes about the failure of the state in restoring land for farming. The landscape still resembles the desert around Jaisalmer, except that the sand here is silver grey. Mass migration is an obvious corollary of such a tragedy, the MGNREGS not withstanding.

Says Dilip Jha, a social worker of Araria, "In Narpatganj block, farmers were given cheques for removing sand from their fields, but the bank returned the cheques saying there was no money in the account. The BDO of the block says he is newly appointed and so has no information about the fate of the programme." There have been rampant cases of corruption involving block-level officials, banks and even panchayats that are responsible for selecting beneficiaries and making payments to the flood victims, forcing the state government to institute an enquiry into the allegations of misappropriation. A team of vigilance officers is already doing the rounds in Supaul, Madhepura and Saharsa. 

A central team that visited Bihar after the state government had demanded Rs 14,800 crore as rehabilitation package last year, said it has not received the detailed project report (DPR) of the proposal. Dr Jagannath Mishra, former chief minister of Bihar, said, "The state government says that the Centre does not care about the plight of our people and the Centre says that it did not receive the DPR. You are free to play politics among yourselves, but why should the people be made to suffer? They are not at fault. The prime minister had visited the Kosi area on August 29, 2008, and had given Rs 1,010 crore for conducting relief operations, but what about the rehabilitation cost after the operations were over? Why was the package given to Tsunami victims not given to the Kosi victims as well? If the state government did not give the DPR of the proposal, does it absolve the Centre of its obligations to the people who are citizens of this country first?"

The ruling parties at the Centre and in the state compete with each other for taking any credit they might get for helping the people. It suits the state government to blame the Centre. The game gets tardier if different parties rule at the Centre and at the state, as is the case today. 

Data regarding losses from the Kosi breach is yet to be finalised. The committees formed in every district to look after rehabilitation rarely meet. Some 3.5 lakh houses are to be built at an estimated cost of Rs 1,50,000 each, but nobody knows where the money will come from, or who would build the houses and when.

There has been large-scale bungling in the selection of beneficiaries. Those with their houses intact were identified as homeless, while those who lost all their belongings in the houses that were swept away could not get their names registered as victims. According to official figures, damaged houses in Supaul, Madhepura and Saharsa numbered 80,696, 1,14,545 and 25,045 respectively - a total of 2,20,286. By some strange logic the government has decided to rebuild only 1,60,000 houses in these three districts and under the 'Owner Driven Reconstruction Scheme', a target of building 15,000 houses each in Supaul and Madhepura has been fixed. Saharsa has only 2,250 houses to its credit. Only 1,466 families in these three districts have been given part grants of Rs 55,000 so far by the banks. 

One wonders how many years more would it take at this rate to complete the rehabilitation work. Indeed, 25 years after Bhopal, the endless abyss of depression out there does not raise even a faint drop of hope out here.

The chaos on the housing front led to police firing on February 18 this year at Basantpur block office in Supaul district, in which 27 rounds were fired at a crowd of 3,000 demonstrators. The government had given an ex gratia grant ranging from Rs 1,500 to Rs 10,000 for those who had lost their houses in the 2008 floods. It was suggested that the additional grant of Rs 55,000 would be given only to those who were given Rs 10,000 in the first instance. The demonstrators were demanding that the grant of Rs 55,000 should be given to all, irrespective of the amount paid earlier. The police have registered cases against 49 persons and a mob of about 3,000 (case no. 21/10). Three have been arrested and the rest are absconding.  

People murmur that the delay is deliberate and meant to postpone the beginning of construction till the elections so that the electorate can be reminded of the good work done by the government for the flood victims. The ruling party had won all the parliamentary seats in the flood-hit area in the 2009 elections as relief operations were carried out in a just manner, probably for the first time in the state, following the breach. It would not be surprising if breaches are engineered in this election year by groups with a vested interest in gaining public appreciation by distributing relief materials.

With normal rains predicted this year, there is a possibility of floods that can easily be rated above normal. This would mean a good number of breaches in the embankments, overtopping and sweeping away of state and national highways, and village roads that would be swept away in large numbers. There will be massive drainage congestion which might lead to postponement of elections in some constituencies. This had happened during the parliamentary elections of 1998. 

This can happen again despite the disaster management department claiming to have all the preparations in place to meet any eventuality and the state water resources department assuring people that all the embankments are strong and sturdy. Elections to the state assembly are due in October this year (the new government must be installed before November 24, 2010), and the floods and its aftermath will be a crucial factor in deciding the voting pattern with relief distribution holding the key.

There is a flip side to this assumption too, which needs to be spelt out. There was a mini general election for the Vidhan Sabha during the rains in Bihar last year and the people living beside the Kosi embankments demonstrated before the district collector of Supaul demanding relief. He expressed his inability to do anything because the model code of conduct for elections was in force. 

Indeed, the flood victims asked the collector if the river was informed of the model code of conduct and that it should not flood the basin till the election process was over? He had no answer. The people will have a tough time if that happens again this monsoon and all the arrangements made by political parties, and maybe NGOs too, will go waste.

The government has taken up a massive programme to raise and strengthen all existing embankments along the rivers. Black top roads are proposed over almost all these embankments. This will surely improve communication as long as the embankments are intact but will create problems on the flood front in future. Capt FC Hirst, a British engineer who had studied north Bihar floods, had in 1907 made the following comment on a similar exercise in the Hwang Ho basin in China:

"The Chinese, however, give us the best example of the deplorable results which wrongly designed attempts to benefit one generation have had on posterity... Each succeeding generation has been compelled to raise the height of the embankments, to make them keep pace with an ever-increasing flood level... unusually heavy flood breaks down or overtops the embankments, and the pent-up waters deal death to the posterity of those who, originally in good faith, prepared the way for disaster... 

"The terrible results of the embankment system in China should serve as a warning to Indian engineers; it is very doubtful if the warning has yet been taken; and it is more than probable that the heavy floods which in very recent years have devastated several of the north Bihar districts are mainly, if not entirely, due to the prevalence of embankments... An embankment, with little or no waterway through it for carrying off the flood waters, is a glove thrown in nature's face - an insult which she has not yet been known to leave unavenged."

That warning has never been heeded. 

The raising and strengthening of embankments is being carried out on the Kosi, Kamla, Bagmati, Mahananda, Gandak, Burhi Gandak and their tributaries. While the government would make all attempts to protect the Kosi embankments, the other embankments would remain vulnerable as ever. The Bagmati, however, presents the worst scenario. 

The river that stretches from Dheng in Sitamarhi district to Badla Ghat in Khagaria was embanked in its lower reaches in the 1950s and in the upper reaches in the 1970s. The middle reaches of the river was left open. Its upper embankment is designed to carry a discharge of nearly 2,70,000 cusecs. The government has taken up a Rs 792 crore programme to jacket the middle reaches so that the entire length of the river in Bihar is embanked. But the lower embankments have a capacity to discharge only 1,60,000 cusecs. 
Many senior engineers laugh at the exercise but some suggest that there must be some model study going on in Pune and one of the embankments may have to be shifted. There is no public discussion over the issue. Whether local people will allow that shifting of embankment to happen is altogether a different story. 

Nature has not given any hills to north Bihar but the State has built nearly 2,800 kms of mountainous ranges in the form of embankments along rivers - a process that has gained momentum in the last few years. Rivers naturally flow at the lowest point of their valleys but the state is forcing them to flow on top of these artificial hills even as the water is known to find its own level. The rivers, therefore, would end up spreading water into their catchments instead of draining the water out. That is what has happened in north Bihar and will continue to happen, bringing more misery into the lives of people there.  

Based in Bihar, the writer is convenor of Barh Mukti Abhiyan

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2010

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