|Photo: Arpan Shrestha|
|Nowhere to go: temporary housing along the Kosi|
While a timetable has now been announced for plugging the embankment breach on the Kosi, local communities are left to wonder – how much will it help?
As of mid-November, all arrangements to patch up the massive breach at Kusaha had been completed, and the Kosi River was slated to be brought back completely within its embankments by March 2009. Does this mean that everything will be back to normal at that time? Flood victims are, of course, consoled time and again that there will be no repeat of this year’s massive catastrophe. But the Kosi refuses to accept the verdict of engineers and the order of politicians by dutifully returning to its natural floodplain, thus continuing to defy the skills of the former and the powers of the latter to contain it.
Over a hundred years ago, an indigo planter in Purnea District of Bihar named Shillingford observed that the Kosi was prone to swinging like the pendulum of a wall clock between its eastern and western flow boundaries. He warned that it would again bounce back to Purnea from where it was flowing in those days. Since neither scientific nor historical evidence was available at the time to back up Shillingford’s warnings, Viceroy George Campbell responded only by saying that one should refrain from making predictions about the Kosi. The only thing that could be said about the river with any certainty, he continued, was that its behaviour was most uncertain. This year, both were proven right.
As it flows from Nepal’s hills into the Bihar plains, the Kosi is a meandering river. Over time, it has utilised some 15 different water works, consuming such rivers as the Triyuga and the Bhutahi Balan. It is said that the river once directly joined the Brahmaputra to the far east, at which time it was not a mere tributary of the Ganga. This implies that, at some point in the past, the Mahananda, the Teesta and the Atreyi must have all passed through the channel of the Kosi. The reason for this significant meandering is the tremendous sediment load that comes along with the Kosi’s flow, which fills the riverbed and forces the river to seek a different course. It is for this reason that embanking such a river is particularly fraught. After their initial enthusiasm for ‘river-taming’, British engineers eventually came to oppose any attempt to embank Himalayan rivers, after they realised the difficulty in maintaining embankments, including those constructed at a minimum cost. In 1908, an engineer named Captain F C Hirst publicly stated that embankments were an insult to a river – an insult that would not go un-avenged.
Such pronouncements went unheeded, however. In 1955 and 1963, around 125 km of the Kosi’s westernmost channel was embanked, at which point all of the river’s water was forced into this waterway. A barrage was also constructed to regulate the flow on the India-Nepal border, located just within Nepali territory. Upstream, barrage bunds were constructed for dozens of kilometres, on both sides of the river. Similarly, dikes were constructed for a hundred kilometres downstream on both sides. In this way, both the waters and the sediment that had traditionally flowed through multiple channels were confined to just one. The large majority of this sediment load subsequently became trapped, leading to a phenomenal rise of the riverbed, to the tune of 10 to 12 cm per year in many places. This inevitably made the embanked channel significantly more destructive than it had been previously: such an elevated river can never remain stable, after all, as it will constantly seek to break free of its shackles.
The engineers and politicians working on the Kosi project must have been aware of these dynamics in 1955, just as they have been made aware now. Breaches in the embankments downstream from the Kosi barrage have been relatively common, and have occurred seven times before this. The breach at Kusaha was the first to happen upstream of the barrage. There have been three breaches within Nepal. The first was in 1963 at Dalwa, where the loss of property was relatively small, and there were no casualties. A potent lesson was on offer at that point: the embankment that could have been maintained at a cost of INR 1.5 million ended up requiring INR 11.5 million in repairs. In the second breach, in 1991 at Joginia, the river eroded the embankment for a stretch of about two km, but receded without causing any damage. Again, the cost of plugging the breach totalled some INR 52.7 million, in addition to compensation of nearly INR 2 million to Nepal for crop losses, shifting houses and the like.
This year, the routine maintenance cost would have been around INR 8 million, while the estimated cost of repairs now looks to add up to close to INR 2 billion. According to the latest available information on losses (from the beginning of November), in India alone the breach waters have impacted upon five districts, 35 blocks and 993 villages – an area of some 340,000 hectares and a population of nearly 3.4 million. Around 275 people have been killed, and some 341,000 houses destroyed. The restoration cost of such damages has been put at INR 140 billion in the Indian portion alone. This is in addition to the expenses on relief operations. The damages in Nepal have been relatively low, but given the short stretch involved, overall the picture has been horrifying.
Plugging the breach at Kusaha – currently the much-publicised stuff of headlines – would mean a restoration of the status quo, once again bringing the river within the embankments. While the residents of breach-hit areas will feel secure, the question nonetheless looms: How secure would they really be? On the day, next March, when the river is thrown back into captivity, the local political administration will undoubtedly celebrate its ‘victory’ over the Kosi; on that day, too, the river will start work on its next assault. Meanwhile, policymakers will continue to talk in circles about projects that are too complex – both physically and politically – or are simply unworkable, such as the proposed high dam at Barahkshetra and the various ‘river-linking’ schemes that have been proposed.
One question that has not been asked by the Indian government or the national and international NGOs operating in the area is where the floodwaters would have gone had the embankment not breached at Kusaha. The general feeling is that, wherever this water might have gone, it would have created far less trouble, if any at all. Indeed, the communities living within the embankments suffer in silence, but prepare themselves for the river’s wrath every year. The continuous human tragedy of this entrapped humanity is hard to comprehend.
It was on 31 March 1963 that the construction of the Kosi barrage at Bhimnagar was completed. The engineers involved felt certain they had finally taught the Kosi a lesson on how to behave. It was on the same day that 380 villages in India and 34 villages in Nepal were trapped between the river and its embankments. In 2001, the population of these villages was about a million in India, and nearly 150,000 in Nepal. It is over these people that the Kosi waters continue to pass almost every single year, without anyone taking the slightest notice. In the 45 years since 1963, Kosi floodwaters have inundated these villages 37 times.
The waters inevitably remain for three to four months, completely cutting these communities off from the rest of the world. Kharif, the monsoon crop, is invariably lost, and rabi, the spring crop, will grow scantily on lands that have been eroded, waterlogged or sand-cast. Anyone who leaves his or her village in this area during the rainy season is never sure whether the house, or even village, will remain upon return. For the more than one million people living within the embankments, there is no bank, no hospital, no college, no blacktop road and no cinema hall. The literacy level and other socio-economic indicators within the Kosi embankments in India are the same as the national average at the time of Independence. Whatever civic amenities and services that do exist are located outside the embankments, and thus are not accessible for a significant part of the year.
When the embankment project was originally formulated, in 1953, there was no provision for the rehabilitation of these affected communities. Indeed, Indian political leaders at the time simply promised that nothing untoward would happen. As construction began, however, the locals quickly realised that the government project was going to dramatically impact on their lives. A movement began in 1956 that eventually forced the Patna government to assess the cost of rehabilitation; but the rehabilitation scheme was valued at some INR 112 million, almost a third of the entire INR 371 million project. The government quickly dubbed this cost disproportionate, and a new scheme was hatched for just INR 21.2 million. The basic feature of this plan was to get the affected people to be located outside, but cultivate land inside the embankments. This proved impractical, and the people soon returned to their villages within the embankments.
Over the following decades, several commissions were appointed to look into rehabilitation, but little came of it. The Patna government’s policy line, meanwhile, has changed little: the villagers have been paid compensation, and should vacate the endangered villages; the government does not spend money on protecting the villages. Of course, it is difficult to tell the river that it may erode the dwellings, as they have been compensated for, but that it should spare the agricultural fields, which have not.
Either way, it is futile to expect much from the government, as hardly any political energy has been spent, at the state or national level, to look into the welfare of those trapped within the embankments as well as in the larger Kosi basin over the past half-century. Farmers that were making a respectable living until 1950s have been reduced to paupers, while their environment, culture, social fabric, flora and fauna have all been dramatically degraded. Families from outside the embankments refuse to marry their daughters to boys from within. With the breach in the embankment at Kusaha and the Kosi making a break for freedom, a tenuous peace has suddenly returned to these villages – but they will be back to square one when next March comes around, and the breach is, inevitably, plugged.
What will happen is the breach at Kusaha will be plugged, the new course of the river will dry, and 414 villages in India and Nepal, with a population of some 1.2 million, will revert to being trapped within the two embankments and exposed to the vagaries of the river. Those living in the protected countryside of the eastern embankment will feel secure, at least for the time being. But the risk for them will be far greater from now on, as the possibility of a breach at some point down the eastern embankment cannot be ruled out. (A breach of the Western embankment is less likely, because the Kosi is at the westernmost end of its pendulum swing.) The river’s flow this year was, fortunately, fairly low, but one can only imagine the devastation that would have resulted from higher discharges. In the past, after all, water levels in the Kosi have been four times higher than were recorded in 2008.
It is also important to note that, for the first time, the river this year breached the bund upstream from the Bhimnagar barrage, devastating four Nepali panchayats along with a vast area in India. This gave an international dimension to the catastrophe, along with embarrassment for the governments in New Delhi and Patna, because the maintenance of the barrage and embankments in both countries is the responsibility of Indian authorities. Such a situation will likely never be allowed to happen again. This would mean that the entire length of the Kosi embankment, measuring nearly 300 kilometres, would have to be put under constant surveillance, forever – a tall order by any standard. The day will come when it will simply not be possible to bring the Kosi back within the embankments, due to the exorable rise in the river’s bed. And on that day, the new course will be embanked yet again – not because the people of eastern Bihar will demand it, but because the government will be left with no other option.
Many suggestions that have arisen from time to time, though none seem to be any closer to a solution. Part of the complication is, of course, that the Kosi flows between two countries, thus allowing for negotiating parties to agree, disagree or, as has happened thus requiring negotiations, which have by experience, been endless. While negotiations must be continued, a serious search for solutions at the local level in Bihar must be simultaneously embarked upon. In this, should we not be asking the question of how people survived before the 1950s, before the embankments were built? What were the embankments built as an alternative to, and why did was that alternative seen as untenable?
Along this line of thinking, possible solution could be to activate all of the river’s 15 channels, from where it begins near Chatra in Nepal, and distribute the water and silt from there into all of the channels, at least as far as possible. Such an approach would require bilateral negotiations between India and Nepal, however, even as past water-related negotiations between the two have dragged on for decades. Besides, such a ‘spreading’ will require remarkable technological and socio-political ability. The people would essentially have to be asked to learn to ‘live with the flood’, and also take its advantage, like their forefathers.
In the Kosi belt, it is very easy to find elderly people who say, with confidence, that their situation was much better during the ‘pre-embankment’ days. We can only assume that they have some good reasons for saying so; in these days, the inconvenience of a few weeks of flood was life-giving silt on the fields, and easy drainage of water post-monsoon. It is essential to revive the traditional knowledge, and to polish the same with modern science. There is a need to bring the lived experiences of the local communities together with the skills of the engineers. Unfortunately, mutual contempt has grown up between these two groups, with the engineers feeling that the community consists of laymen, while the community feels that the engineers are in cahoots with the politicians’ and administrators’ perceived aim to exploit them. As long as this mutual mistrust exists, no solution is possible.
Ultimately, the essential problem with the Kosi floods is that of handling sediments and improving drainage. The political and geographical situation along the Kosi is such that water and silt cannot be prevented from coming onto the plains. The fact is that the entire length of the river is not available with which to plan, while the remainder too presents severe challenges. The Ganga plain requires spread-out flooding, and this term should not be seen in a necessarily negative light. While flooding in this area is regularly made out to be a disaster, the fact is it is not; before anything else can progress, this needs to be appreciated. With this understanding, all obstructions to the smooth flow of the Kosi’s water need to be removed, and the silt needs to be allowed to spread over as large an area as possible. Only then can an open debate begin over how the powers-that-be should proceed. Once the people settle on a real, workable solution, the state will, eventually, be compelled to follow.
~ Dinesh Kumar Mishra is an activist, engineer and convener of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan and is based in Jamshedpur.