Bihar’s embanking mindset

Bihar has never been as well prepared to face floods as it is this year. This is partly because the Patna government, acceding to longstanding demands and also to avoid confusion over responsibilities, transferred responsibility for the maintenance of the state's river embankments last year from the Department of Revenue to the Water Resources Department. State officials also had Bihar's Disaster Management Department chalk out programmes to better equip the state's citizenry to face natural calamities – a move that some took as an indication that the state authorities were finally in agreement to face the problem of floods head-on.

Steps to address the problem were taken through to the end of last year, when state Water Resources Minister Ramashray Prasad Singh announced that intra-linking of Bihar's rivers would begin in April 2007, and an INR 8 billion proposal to embank the Bagmati in its middle reaches was sent to New Delhi for approval (see Himal March 2007, "The Bagmati's final sealing"). The state government also decided to allocate funds to raise and strengthen the Bagmati's existing embankments, while an INR 8.5 billion proposal to embank tributaries of the Mahananda River is also awaiting sanction from the Centre. Patna's plans even go beyond India's territory, extending to the repairing of embankments in Nepal. These changes, pushed through over the past several months by the Janata Dal (United)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, came after more than a decade of inaction on the part of earlier regimes. Nonetheless, they exhibit a depressing proclivity to maintain the disastrous focus of past administrations on embanking the state's rivers.

The problems with embankments have long been understood, even if Bihar's governments have not faced up to them. In 1998, the leader of the opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, Sushil Kumar Modi, raised the issue of 125 breaches in the embankments along Bihar's rivers, and sat for a dharna against Patna's apathy. In a subsequent press release, the government countered that, in fact, only seven breaches had occurred due to the rivers' currents. "At seven to eight places", it continued,

the farmers have cut the embankments to fill their fields … to charge the state government that because of the breaches in the embankments of the Irrigation Department, north Bihar is facing floods, is far from truth. The Irrigation Department has only the responsibility of protecting 29 lakh hectares of land, and is in no way responsible for the maharaji and zamindari embankments, Ahars or Pynes.

Despite the denial, the press release did not elaborate on exactly who was accountable for the majority of the breaches. The same issue arose way back in 1966, when Purnendu Narayan Singh charged the state government with a similar confusion of responsibility. "The irrigation and power minister has said that he is responsible only for 27-36 percent of the breaches in the embankments, and not for the rest of it," Singh noted. "He holds the departments of revenue, agriculture, river valley and irrigation for these breaches. There is no coordination, thus." Singh urged state legislators to set up a separate department to take on all responsibilities related to flood control.

Little had changed since those prescient remarks were made – until, that is, last December. Chief Minister Kumar's NDA government must be credited with finally taking the initiative to transfer the responsibility of the maintenance of the embankments to the Water Resources Department. Of course, only time will tell whether Bihar's flood-control establishment will truly change.

Dam pipedreams
Bihar has 3440 kilometres of river embankments, nearly all in the north. For more than a half-century, building and maintaining those embankments has been the only intervention undertaken by the Patna government towards addressing the problem of flooding. Meanwhile, the area of the state that is prone to flooding has increased from 2.5 million hectares in 1952 to 6.9 million hectares in 1994, when the last such assessment was done. The embankments provide partial protection to a little less than three million hectares of land, leaving around four million hectares unprotected, according the official estimates. Despite the extensive embankments, a large majority of Bihar's area is thus prone to flooding. It is therefore not far off the mark to conclude that the investment to date of nearly INR 18 billion has done more harm than good.

Embankments prevent a river from overflowing its banks during times of flood, but they also prevent the entry of floodwater into the river itself. This leads to a major problem, as the river is no longer able to fulfil its primary function: draining excess water. The situation is aggravated by seepage from under the embankments, which leaves the areas outside the levees waterlogged for months after the monsoon. Sluice gates located at the junctions outside the levees would in theory solve the problem, but in practice such gates quickly become useless; as the main river's bed rises above the surrounding land with the accumulation of silt, these gates let water out rather than in. As such, the only option left is to embank the tributary thus created, but this in turn results in water being locked up between the embankments of the main river and its tributaries. Moreover, no embankment can be built that will not, eventually, breach, resulting in a deluge. Breaches occurred at 104 points in the state in 1987, and 55 in 2004. Although these were two of the worst flood years of the past two centuries, breaches are common during floods every year.

For this reason, the current government of Bihar rightly considers embankments as merely a temporary measure. But it has followed in its predecessor's footsteps by urging that flooding can only be managed by building dams upstream in Nepal. This idea has deep roots in Patna. A large dam on the Kosi River was first proposed at Barahkshetra in Nepal in 1937, and negotiations over myriad potential dams on crossborder rivers have been ongoing ever since. In the absence of any agreement between New Delhi and Kathmandu, however, no such construction has been possible. At a 2002 seminar in Patna, one official said that given the resources available to the state government, the construction of a dam on the Kosi would not be possible anytime in the next half-century.

Localising disaster response

The disconnect between government policy and local, evolved knowledge goes well beyond Bihar. Despite evidence available since at least the early 1970s, most disaster-management organisations in Southasia continue to ignore the role of local communities in preparing for catastrophic events. This is particularly the case with regards to marginalised groups. Especially lacking in this regard has been any concerted effort at decentralisation and devolution of power and resources to local government levels, with an eye towards developing and implementing local plans to respond to disasters such as floods, droughts and earthquakes. 

All this is changing, at the surface. As in other fields, in recent years it has become politically correct to promote the participation of local communities in disaster management. The concurrent realisation is also growing that data and technology alone will not be sufficient to improve peoples' safety and lives. In practice, local participation and decentralisation involve complex processes, and, additionally, the devolution of power to local levels does not always translate into power being given to the most marginal groups. Increased access to resources, political and otherwise, does not always translate into increased benefits. Many organisations and governments have also not changed their attitudes towards local communities, instead continuing to misunderstand and undervalue their knowledge and practices. 

'Local knowledge and practices' are, after all, complex adaptive responses to both internal and external changes. As such, the nature of local knowledge is dynamic, invisible, diverse and context-specific. This amorphousness makes it difficult to identify, understand and use local knowledge effectively. As such, the dismissal of local knowledge also has ideological roots: it has a low 'prestige value', compared to modern scientific knowledge. A strong divide thus still exists between the technical or 'expertise' approach, and the social approach. The former emphasises formal education and degrees, while the latter tends to promote learning from life experiences. 

The flood of aid following natural disasters has reduced the strength of local responses that have evolved historically. With the army often playing a key role in responding to natural disasters, the decentralisation of power has been made even more difficult. Finally, it must also be conceded that some local knowledge can indeed be inappropriate in the modern context. All of these elements have contributed to a significant controversy over how exactly to involve local communities in disaster management. 

Currently, a paradigm shift from relief to preparedness is ongoing throughout Southasia, largely due to the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake. Most Southasian countries are now well on their way to endorsing disaster-preparedness policies, strategies and acts on the national, district and community levels. None of this is of any use, of course, unless these policies can be implemented on the ground. 

This current momentum could be used to move towards a holistic approach in disaster management, by taking into account local contexts and needs. It has to be remembered that people are often vulnerable not due to a lack of knowledge, but to a lack of assets. Solutions in disaster management also need to go beyond the dichotomy between local versus state management levels, and to integrate a cross-cutting network of institutional linkages. The participation of local communities can contribute significantly towards the building of flexible systems, to ensure the relevance and sustainability of Southasia's disaster management.

~ Julie Dekens

Nonetheless, Bihar's Water Resources Department's 2006-07 annual report insists that "building dams in Nepal with appropriate flood cushion in the reservoirs is essential as a long-term measure." But while the general feeling in the state is that these dams hold the key for the future of north Bihar, it is a little known fact that there is no provision for a 'flood cushion' in the prevailing design proposals for dams in Nepal. Engineers quietly concede that the proposed dams would probably not offer much in the way of flood control, as they would be built primarily for the purpose of power production. Regardless of the reality, Nepali dams continue to be held as north Bihar's badly needed saviours. No realistic plan is being formulated to help the state cope with floods in the interim.

As it uses the indefinite postponement of dams in Nepal as a policy crutch, the Patna government now wants the existing embankments to be strengthened and raised. It also wants to blacktop the embankments in order to facilitate vehicular movement, and is in the process of evicting families that have taken up residence on the embankments. Ironically, many of these 'encroachers' have taken to living on the embankments because their own homes have fallen victim to floods – a direct result of the state government's wrong-headed or poorly implemented flood policies.

Managing disasters
Though the Patna administration is unable to understand the root causes of Bihar's flooding problems, there is a common understanding of these among the state's affected communities. Official attempts to plug breaches or raise embankment heights are often challenged by locals on the basis of past experiences: the stronger and higher the embankments, they realise, the greater the threat to the people. It should also be mentioned that there are hundreds of villages situated within the embankments themselves – 380 within the Kosi embankments alone, with a total population of nearly a million. Added to this are the Kosi-embanked population on the Nepal side – nearly 150,000 in 34 villages – and the populations of settlements that exist within the Gandak, Kamla, Bagmati and the Mahananda embankments.

In June, the new state govern-ment's commitment to solve the problem of flooding was tested. Reports arose that the newly constructed Bagmati embankment, as well as its 1970s-era predecessor, had breached at many places. In addition, because of pre-monsoon rains that took place that month, the Muzaffarpur-Sitamarhi road was swamped. The Water Resources Department promptly passed the blame on to Indian Railways, which is currently constructing a rail bridge near Runni Saidpur, in Sitamarhi District. Relief operations are now ongoing, with nearly 350 villages in the Bagmati basin underwater.

The administration was undoubtedly aware that its various statements and promises were not going to help when the floods finally came, and it thus attempted to reinforce its Disaster Management Department (DMD). On 5 June, the DMD outlined the steps that it was taking in the wake of the flooding. First, a three-person team would be spending at least five days in each effected village, telling the villagers about the government's programmes, facilitating the formation of voluntary relief groups, and preparing a disaster-management plan for each village. Thereafter, a multiple-day training workshop would be held on search-and-rescue and first-aid techniques. Ironically, the DMD plan encompassed the villages of Sitamarhi District, where the Water Resources Department is currently extending the embankments. It would appear that Patna's right hand is perfectly oblivious to what its left hand is doing.

This incomprehension of the requirements of flood management extends throughout the government. The unplanned construction of roads, railway lines, canals and embankments, without any regard for drainage patterns, have wreaked havoc in Bihar. The government has ignored the fact that floodwaters come accompanied by silt loads and that embankments prevent the spread of silt. This has reduced the fertility of the soil, which should have benefited from silt deposition. Meanwhile, the past few years have seen a craze for 'disaster management', though it is specifically the embankments that have allowed floods to reach such disastrous proportions. But the disaster managers seem to pay as little heed as the government does to the factors that exacerbate flooding in the first place. Bihar's tragedy is that as long as the creators and managers of disasters complement each other's work, there will be no space for discussion on how to improve the situation.

The communities of Bihar's floodplains have lived in these areas, by choice, for thousands of years. Annual flooding is a way of life for them, and they have evolved their own survival mechanisms. In not seeking to understand these strategies, the powers that be have accomplished a disastrous magic trick: they have converted floods that used to sneak in like a cat, into a tiger that no one knows how to handle. Unless the lived experiences of the people of the floodplains are brought together with the technical skills of engineers, Bihar's flood problem will not be solved. The people know how to live with the flood, and it is important for the authorities to finally learn from the people, rather than suggest diversionary measures such as dams in Nepal and more embankments in the Bihar floodplains.

~ Dinesh Kumar Mishra is an activist, engineer and convenor of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan. He is based in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand

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