Above the Danger Mark

It is five months since the monsoon ended, but parts of northern Bihar are still under water. The embankments that are supposed to control floods, trap the water instead. When the next rains arrive in June, the rivers will overflow again and the annual ritual of calling for a high dam on the Kosi River in Nepal will begin once more.

In 1928, writing about the floods in the Indian state of Orissa, the chairman of the Orissa Flood Committee, Addams Williams, noted that "…the problem in Orissa is not how to prevent floods, but how to pass them as quickly as possible to the sea. And the solution lies in removing all the obstacles which militate against this result…To continue as at present is merely to pile up a debt which will have to be paid, in distress and calamity at the end." True to his fears, the "debts" have indeed "piled up" in the following years and the time has come to pay back in terms of annual calamities. But the point of reference here is not Orissa, but the annual floods in Bihar.

When the British first came to India, they were essentially traders and had little to do with matters of irrigation or flood control. In fact, they learnt the technique in India, seeing the 14th-century Yamuna Canal built by Feroze Shah Tughlaq, and developed it to collect revenue and were quite successful at that. Where they failed was in trying to tame rivers. After their unsuccessful attempt to embank the Damodar river, the "sorrow of Bengal" as they called it, in the mid-19th century, the British vowed never to touch any river with a view to controlling it—a promise they kept till they left this country in 1947.

Their resolve, however, did not extend to zamindars and local rulers who used their own resources to try and control rivers. Many embankments thus sprang up along the rivers and these ultimately became a matter of great concern to the colonial rulers. For it needed only a breach to wash away any benefits the embankments might have brought over the years. The British were aware of the huge expense in relief and rehabilitation and so refrained from building any embankments. Instead, they tried to improve drainage and remove all hindrances in the path of the water on the assumption that it would improve the flood situation. They were also keeping a close watch on what was happening with the Hwang Ho (embanked in the 7th century BC) in China and the Mississippi (embanked in the 18th century) in the USA, and the stories of calamity that kept coming in year after year.

After the failure of the Damodar embankment scheme, questions were raised about the efficacy of embankments as a flood control measure. Embankments on a heavily silt-laden river not only prevent river water from spilling over, but also, by trapping the silt and sand within, slowly raise the river bed. This in turn necessitates an appropriate increase in the height of the embankments. But however high the embankments are, and there is a practical limit to this, rivers are never stable and breaches are always made.

Secondly, when the river is thus bounded in, the water which could have entered the river on its own gets caught outside the embankments and causes waterlogging there. The rise in water level within the embankments also increases seepage into the 'protected' areas.

Then there is the difficulty that arises where tributaries flow into the main river. As the embankments on the main river prevent entry of a tributary, a sluice gate becomes necessary. This sluice gate has to be kept closed during the rainy season because any sudden rise in the water level of the main river pushes the flood waters into the 'protected' area through the sluice gate. And when the sluice gates are kept closed, even for a short time during the rains, the tributary itself submerges the 'protected' areas.

The answer to this has been to embank the tributary too, which leads to another problem—the rain water gets locked between the embankments of the main river and that of the tributary. Since there is no place for this water to go, it can be taken out only by using lift pumps. The only other option is to wait for the water to evaporate.

But, the main argument against embankments is that there has been no embankment built so far that will not breach.

Before the state started embanking the rivers in India in 1955, planners had detailed information about the failures of the Mississippi and Hwang Ho embankments. Strangely, it was the 'success' of these experiments that were cited as an example for the construction of embankments in Bihar, where, by embanking the Kosi river, the first initiatives at flood control were taken in independent India.

Bihar has been facing all the problems mentioned above and the situation is getting worse year after year. The state had a flood- prone area of 2.5 million hectares in the beginning of the plan period in 1952. This had grown to 6.89 million hectares in 1994 even as the length of the embankments along the Bihar rivers grew from 160 km in 1954 to 3465 km in 1998 at a cost of INR 7.46 billion (USD1=INR 42). As construction of embankments was the only intervention in the name of flood control in Bihar, it is clear that the investment has done more harm than good.

The record of the present government (initially with Laloo Prasad Yadav as chief minister and, since 1997, his wife Rabri Devi) is interesting. Since its taking office in 1990, virtually no addition has been made to the embankment length and all the money for flood control, amounting to INR 2.3 billion, has been used in the repair and maintenance of the embankments.

Even more interesting is the view of the state minister of water resources, Jagadanand Singh, who says that embanking rivers is a wrong way to go about controlling floods and that his department has not participated in this 'sin'. If one gets the sense that here is finally one minister who has seen the light, one is terribly mistaken. The fact is that since most of the embankments were constructed by earlier governments, it has become convenient for the present one to blame the embankments for all the evils of floods, while giving the impression that it is against any further construction of embankments. Which is not what the annual reports of the water resources department have been saying. Since 1992, the reports have repeatedly mentioned that the government has plans ready to construct some 872 km of embankments, and that it is only lack of funds that is preventing it. Either the honourable minister does not know about the plans of his department, or he feels that his departmental reports are not worth reading.

Under these circumstances, the Bihar government finds an easy way out by publicising the idea of huge reservoir dams in Nepal. This not only provides it with an issue with which to beat the centre for not taking interest in the flood problems of Bihar, but also absolves itself of all responsibility for the floods and loss of life and property in the state.

Kosi and Kamla. There is permanent waterlogging in over 182,000 hectares of land to the east of the Eastern Kosi Embankment. The government claims that it has drained out water from 65,000 hectares but since two major sluices. one at Basua and the other at Belwara, are closed permanently, the effect of any drainage is nullified.

To the west of the Western Kosi Embankment, the situation is even worse. Travelling along the embankment. from Bheja to Ghonghepur. a distance of 31 km, all one can see is an ocean of water during the rainy season. It takes a drought like the one in 1992 for this area to produce some kharif (monsoon) crop. There is hardly a family from this area which does not contribute to the pool of persons sleeping on pavements in the major cities of the country, and there is hardly any able-bodied person from here who has not gone through this experience.

This area, between the Kosi and the Kamla embankments, technically, should be flood-free. But due to the problem of drainage, the flooding starts with the melting of snow in the mountains of Nepal, much before the rains. Some 94,000 hectares remain under water virtually throughout the year, and of this, 34,000 hectares are reported to be beyond redemption.

From time to time, plans have been made to drain this water out but the schemes keep shuttling between the Planning Commission, the Ganga Flood Control Commission, the Ministry of Finance, and so on, These drainage schemes, however, serve no purpose since the river beds of both the Kamla and the Kosi have gone up and lie much above the countryside outside the embankments. Drainage is not going to be effective in such a case. The only solution is to do away with the embankments and allow the river to go ahead with its natural land-building process.

Bagmati. Another area 'protected' from floods is Bairgania in Sitamarhi district. This block is located between the Bagmati and the Lal Bakeya rivers and both the rivers are embanked on either side. The Lal Bakeya is a tributary of the Bagmati and the embankments of the two rivers meet near the village of Adauri, thus forming a garland of embankments for the Bairgania block. But the upper end of the embankments bordering Nepal is open and all the water rushing out of Nepali territory gets stuck in Bairgania and its links with the outside world are snapped during the monsoon and the area becomes inaccessible. The kharif crop is invariably lost and the rabi (winter) crop also becomes doubtful because of the wet conditions of the soil. Banks do not lend to the people of this area since it is forever flood affected, although technically, the block is free from floods located as it is outside the two embankments. (This scheme was imposed upon the block against the wishes of the people during the 1975-77 Emergency.)

Mahananda. in the Mahananda basin, where the Barandi, the Kari Kosi and the Mahananda rivers flow from north to south and join the Ganga flowing from the west to east, all the rivers are embanked. The result is there is a U-shaped embankment along the Barandi, the Ganga and the Kari Kosi and adjacent to it is another U-shaped embankment along the Kari Kosi, the Ganga and the Mahananda. Rain water gets trapped between these embankments as no arrangement for draining the water has been made and even if one exists, it does not function.

When water starts accumulating along the Ganga with the onset of monsoon, 'anti-social elements', as the government likes to call them, cut the Ganga embankments to save their lives. Villagers in Katihar district do this regularly and are reportedly assisted by the local administration for the simple reason that the floods do not discriminate between an ordinary citizen and a government servant.

After the floods of 1987, people of Brindabari placed drums on the embankment to raise an alarm if anybody with a measuring tape or a Dumpy Level is seen on the embankment taking measurements to prepare estimates for plugging the breach. In Kadwa of Katihar district, the right embankment of the Mahananda was cut at three places in 1996, and till date, the government has not been allowed to close the gaps.

In Sitamarhi, the 'anti-social elements' have not allowed the government to plug the breaches in the Bagmati embankments so far, despite all allurements and/or threats. Their logic is simple. The river water will come out of these gaps slowly during the rainy season and the local folk know how to handle that. Their land will be cast with fresh silt which has a high fertility value. But more important, the water also will recede faster and a good rabi crop would be a certainty.

Surely them is something wrong with the official view that embankments are meant to benefit people when these very people cut them to save their lives. It calls for a debate on the entire flood issue in India because what is happening in Bihar, is being enacted in UP. West Bengal, Orissa and also Assam.

Dam it

The remedy suggested in the case of Bihar—damming the Kosi in Nepal—is unfortunately neither easily applicable nor is it likely to change things for the better. The high dam at Barahakshetra on the Kosi. where it issues from the hills into the plains, was first proposed in 1937 by Jimut Bahan Sen at the Patna Flood Conference. The British did not take the proposal seriously because the then chief engineer of Bihar, Capt G.E Hall, felt that there was no reason for Nepal to do something that would benefit Bihar. Also, the cost of the proposed dam was enormous. And the British did not pursue the matter with Nepal.

In 1945. the Bihar government proposed embanking the Kosi but this too was turned down by the centre saying that the technique was outdated. Instead, in 1947, it proposed the dam in Nepal. Finally, after a lot of debate and consultations, the embanking of the Kosi was approved in 1953. The construction started in 1955 and the embankments were completed in 1958.

The ghost of the Barahakshetra dam, however, keeps haunting planners and engineers as also the politicians in Patna and Delhi. Engineers take refuge in this dam. Whenever there are heavy Hoods in Bihar, the nonexistent dam comes to their rescue because when they had designed the embankments on the Kosi they had left a loophole that said the embankments would function best when the dam at Barahakshetra was built. The refrain of the politicians is the same when the state is flooded and they lament that the floods cannot he controlled without the Barahakshetra dam and that the matter is going to be taken up shortly with Nepal. Delegations are exchanged and by the end of November, everything is forgotten. This has been going on for the past 50 years.

This proposed darn is expected to produce 3300 MW of electricity, irrigate 1.2 million hectares of land in India and Nepal and protect low-lying areas in India from the Kosi floods (although the exact area that this dam is going to protect is not known). The dam's proposed height of 290 metres can store a quantity of water that can cover all of North Bihar under a 30 cm sheet of water. The dam was estimated to cost INR 1 billion in 1947, INR 1.77 billion in 1952 and INR 40.74 billion in 1981. The present estimate is INR 300 billion—equal to 1.5 years' Bihar's budget.

It boggles the mind that the Bihar government should offer Barahakshetra as the panacea to all its problems. Let's take a look at Bihar's track record. The state's water resources department is yet to complete a major or a medium-sized scheme where the cost escalation has been less than 10 times. In the case of the Western Kosi Canal (WKC), the cost escalation has been more than 40 times. This canal was originally estimated to cost INR 135 million in 1962. Current estimate runs at INR 5.7 billion and at that pace of revision, the final cost is anybody's guess. Extrapolate that to the final cost of the proposed damn, with its present estimate of INR 300 billion, and the figures become astoundingly high.

The WKC is not likely to be completed even in another 20 years because of a resource crunch. The Kosi Project, started in 1955, is yet to be completed according to the original plans. The government closed the project in 1985 calling it the end of Phase-1 and whatever work has been done since then has been termed Phase-2. It is the same story with the Gandak Project further to the west. If these projects are any guide, one really does not know when any project will be completed.

The issue of seismicity in the Himalayan zones is completely ignored when the Barahakshetra dam is mentioned. Back in 1954, it was announced in the Bihar assembly that the government had dropped the idea of getting the dam constructed because it was concerned about the safety and security of those living downstream. The danger of dams in the seismic-prone Himalayan region is yet to be settled as the debate on the Tehri dam proves. But it is a matter hardly discussed in the state where a damburst would decimate the population.

Even granted that all goes as planned, the Barahakshetra dam is not at all likely to solve the problem of Bihar's floods, although that would be the rationale for building it in the first place. The catchment area upto the Kosi at the proposed dam site is 59,550 sq km. Between the site and Kursela, where the river meets the Ganga, 13,676 sq km is added to the catchment area of the Kosi. This area is equal to two times that of the catchment area of the Kamla. In other words, a mass of water equivalent to two rivers the size of the Kamla will continue to flow below the dam even after it has been constructed.

This is exactly the amount of water that today gets caught outside the eastern and western embankments of the Kosi, causing severe waterlogging. Which means that there is not going to be any change in the present situation even after the construction of the dam. And since all the water that reaches Barahakshetra cannot be held behind the dam, some water will always be released through the dam and that will continue to make the life of those living within the embankments miserable for all time to come. The safety of the embankments is threatened even by small discharges of these days, and if there is a heavy shower in the month of October, as it happened in 1968 and 1978, no dam can be effective.

This year's flooding in the Ganga and the Brahmaputra basins has brought the floods into the centrestage and because states other than Bihar are involved, there is a possibility of some serious action. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has already indicated his intentions to take up the matter with Nepal, and one can only hope that the issues raised here are given due consideration before a final decision is taken. Let the dam not be built just for the sake of building it, and let the pre-construction assessment be realistic. If the dam is to be built for producing power (the Second Bihar State Commission's breakdown for the dam's cost in 1994 showed that more than 60 percent was to be used for generating electricity), let the people know the purpose of the dam and let them not be fed false hope as the one they got in case of the Kosi embankments.

"You have to live it yourself."

When the state started trying to tame floods on the Kosi River in the late 1950s, 338 villages were trapped between two embankments that were built on either side of this mighty river that flows down from Nepal. The villages were supposed to have been resettled, but once the embankments were built, everyone forgot about them.

For the past 40 years, the Kosi has flooded annually and inundated these villages. The bureaucrats in Patna don't even remember that they ever promised the villagers anything, in fact it is doubtful if they even know that there are people living inside the embankments.

Arapatti, in the Mahishi block of Saharsa district, is one such village. If you ever want to visit, make sure you take the route via Baluaha, located at the 92 km mark on the Eastern Kosi Embankment, and cross the main river here, then walk through the sand passing through the villages of Kothia, Thuttha, Majirahi and Murli. This is the village of Mahishi Mouza and has been eroded seven times in the past 15 years. The agriculture is almost lost forever because of sand deposits, erosion, lack of irrigation and the extreme poverty of the peasants.

Manoj Choudhary of Arapatti remembers the floods of 1968 well: "It was around Durga Puja that it rained very heavily and the water level started rising within the embankments. My parents were moving all our belongings to higher and safer places but the flood level continued to rise. We moved whatever essential item we could move to safer places leaving behind the articles that were thought to be less important and saw them taken away by the river before our eyes.

When every thing was washed away, my father put me on his shoulders. My mother started crying, and we stood for hours on the highest point in the village. Fortunately, the water started receding suddenly and we came to know that we had been saved because the embankment had breached at four places near Jamalpur."

Since then, Manoj has learned to live with the annual floods inside the embankment, but is still traumatised by his childhood memories. When the floods are particularly bad, the only place that is high enough to be safe on is an embankment near Mahishi. There are no schools, no health posts. Says Manoj: "Come and stay with us here during the rains. I cannot explain to you what it is like. You have to live it yourself."

Vijay Kumar

"Take back your canals."

Kasina-Pindari are two villages served by the Gandak Canals constructed in 1971 -72. That marked the beginning of the prob lem. Since the area is in a depression, water starts accumulating as soon as the monsoon rains start in June. The drainage canals dug by the British have long gone, and rainwater has no outlet

The irrigation canals that were brought here to usher the area into prosperity became a curse since they blocked natural drain age channels. The canal water never came to this area when it the was needed in winter, but there was plenty of water when it was not needed in the monsoon.

Before the canal were brought to Kasina-Pindari, farmers grew two crops a year, and the paddy was lost in only unusually harhs flood for the year.

Satanja, a combination of seven different grains, (wheat, barley, gram, pea, khesari, oil seeds and lentil) was an annual certainty.

Today, paddy is a gamble and satanja is possible only if farmer has a tubewell of his own or is prepared to pay the running cost of the pump at INR 30 per hour. It now makes more sense to go elsewhere to work than to farm the land. Most young adult males from these villages are in Delhi, Punjab, Haryana or Calcutta working in menial jobs.

In frustration, many villagers have destroyed the embank ments and reclaimed the ilted canals for cultivation. Politicians in Patna could not care less, even though these villages are the homes of at least three political heavyweights belonging to various parties, including the former chief minister of Bihar, Daroga Prasad Rai.

The farmers of Kasina-Pindari are fed up, and will cope with the annual floods as they always have. They have one wish: "Take back your canals from here, and leave us alone."

Rameshwar Singh

"What use is land if it can't feed you

Srikisun Singh, a man in his late forties, was grazing buffaloes on the crest of an irrigation canal by the side of the Siwan-Raghunathpur road in Bihar. I asked him if the Chandpur Minor Canal had made any difference to his life. He replied sardonically: "If the canal was useful, would I be grazing buffalos?" How much land do you have, I asked. "What is the use of having land if it cannot feed you. My land has turned to water. It doesn't matter whether I have 20 acres or 20 yards."

Srikisun Singh then recalled how the entire village was happy when the canal was built in 1971: "Everyone thought it was the end of their poverty. I went to Bokaro to earn some money. I couldn't get a decent job, so after three years I thought I'd return to my village and make money selling paddy. At least there was a farm to go back to, I thought. On return I came to know that the canal was complete, but the paddy that I had harvested before going to Bokaro was the last harvest that this village had seen. I have not harvested any crop ever since, and the buffaloes that I am grazing are not mine."

The villages of Amwari, Jajouri, Bahelia, Chakri, Kansar, Dudaha, Khujhawan and Jawanpura are located on the left bank of the Ghaghra river. But the state later built a canal that encircled the villages and the canal blocked the natural drainage channels.

Ever since 1972, the villages are inundated after the slightest rain. Some farmers still sow paddy in the area beyond the permanently waterlogged peripheries hoping that something might grow. But most years the crops are ruined, and if the paddy somehow survives till harvest time, it is destroyed by late monsoon floods.

Says Srikisun: "Our lands were the most fertile in the area and hence the costliest. But now we do not find any buyers for it. These fields used to yield a quintal of rice per kattha. Now, we survive on broken rice which we used to feed our cattle."

Bhuvaneshwar Singh

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