By the time the Ganga winds its way across the north Indian plains and enters Bangladesh in the dry season, there isn’t much water left in it. In future there will be even less water.
This is not just an international problem between India, Bangaldesh and Nepal. Increasingly, Delhi will have to deal with the conflicting water needs of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.
Since India achieved independence from British rule in 1947, the Ganga and its tributaries in North Bihar have seen a surge in embankment building for flood control and irrigation. Far from controlling floods, these interventions have made drainage congestion and water logging worse. The resulting floods have spread human misery, and seriously affected the ecology of the plains. Social and environmental activists in Bihar have been left to pick up the pieces.
North Bihar’s human and environmental crisis is a result of bad governance, promoted by inflexible technological choices. And it affects almost all aspects of public life, not just river management. But this is not acknowledged in discussions between Patna and the federal government in New Delhi. Both have tried to sidestep the issue by looking for a politically easier technical solution that will divert attention from their own past failings—a high dam upstream in the mountains of Nepal. But delays in building such a dam could widen the contradictions between New Delhi and Bihar, and bring their dispute into the open.
Bihar today feels marginalised by its upstream and downstream riparian states in India. The dispute between Lucknow and Patna over a 1993 proposal to build a barrage across the Ganga at Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh persists. This has not received as much media attention as the celebrity status of the Cauvery dispute in which Tamil Nadu is at loggerheads with Karnataka. Or the Narmada controversy in which the state machinery is in conflict with environmental activists and residents. But in Bihar, a future water dispute could affect significantly more people.
Both the Farakka Barrage built between 1961-74 near the point where the Ganga enters Bangladesh and the Damodar Valley Project cater to West Bengal’s needs while saddling Bihar with social, environmental and perhaps political consequences. The signing of the Farakka Treaty between Delhi and Dhaka in December 1996 has added to Bihar’s fears of losing its rights over the waters of the Ganga.
The Bihar state government recently issued a White Paper with an annexed collection of letters and documents exchanged between officials of New Delhi and Patna. It highlights this fear of marginalisation and the potential for conflict that could have ramifications beyond Bihar (see excerpts on pg 30). The 62-page document from the government of Bihar’s Department of Water Resources (BGDWR) in Patna is mostly in Hindi and was issued last year. The picture of dispute that emerges from this document, however, depicts a primarily state-level pursuit where the main actors are the bureaucracies in Patna and New Delhi.
The government of Bihar and its politicians are becoming sensitive to their rights over the diminishing dry season flow of the Ganga. Bihar’s formal use of the waters of its rivers began only after India’s independence in 1947, while the upstream state of Uttar Pradesh had been developing irrigation schemes on the Ganga and its tributaries since the beginning of this century, with construction accelerated since independence. Because water has been diverted upstream for irrigation and urban industrial uses, the historical discharge of the Ganga that flows into Bihar has declined. Patna is concerned about its share of the water amidst plans for present and future projects in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In addition, increased pollution from urban and industrial effluents released in upstream states would make even this reduced flow less fit for human use.
It came to the government of Bihar’s notice through newspaper reports that UP was contemplating building a barrage on the Ganga, ostensibly to supply water to Kanpur. Bihar’s concerns were conveyed to the government of India, but not only did it receive little sympathy but its request to be included in discussions on the Kanpur Barrage was denied. Bihar also complained that Delhi signed the Farakka Agreement with Bangladesh without taking it into confidence. From Bihar’s point of view, upstream states were left free by Delhi to pursue their programmes of water use, while Bihar’s concerns were ignored. Then suddenly, an international obligation that required releasing stipulated flows downstream to Bangladesh and West Bengal was entered into without Bihar’s consent even though the main burden of fulfilling the obligation would eventually fall on Bihar from its share of the Ganga.
It is clear that to arrive at the lean season flows that would be made available at Farakka in the 1996 agreement, the union government used the data provided by Bihar. However, the projections of water requirements by 2025 show that flows in the tributaries originating from Nepal will not be sufficient to meet the demand in the years to come, especially in February and March. The Bihar government’s White Paper therefore suspects that there are ample reasons to believe that Bihar’s water rights are being curtailed to meet India’s international obligations as well as to allow uncontrolled diversions in upstream and downstream states. Upon reading news reports of an impending treaty with Bangladesh, the Bihar water resources minister and his department made repeated pleas to be included in the international talks at least on par with West Bengal which prepared the draft agreement. But the quick pace of events between Delhi, Calcutta and Dhaka led to a treaty with Bangladesh that ignored Patna altogether.
To assuage Bihar, the union minister for water resources visited Patna on 13 December 1996, the day after the signing of the 1996 Farakka Treaty with Bangladesh in New Delhi. He assured officials in Patna that the interests of Bihar would be protected in the implementation of the 1996 Indo-Bangladesh Agreement on the Ganga waters at Farakka. He also promised that a meeting between Bihar and union government officials would be convened in Delhi to discuss the grievances of the state. This meeting was eventually held in Delhi on 24 January 1997, but not before an agreement was signed on 9 January, 1997 between India and Nepal to initiate a joint Detailed Project Report study for the Kosi High Dam as well as the Sun Kosi-Kamla Diversion projects in Nepal. Comparing the dates, one sees that the Kathmandu meeting, and the agreement it produced, was an important strategic step taken by Delhi before entering into discussion to mollify Bihar.
In its 24 January meeting, Delhi told Patna that the Farakka Agreement had no intention to curtail the use of Ganga waters in upstream states. There were also promises that the discussions with Nepal, which were ongoing, would be accelerated since the Kosi High Damat Barahakshetra in Nepal would solve all the problems of low flow during the dry season. Delhi had no objections to the eight co-basin states of the Ganga jointly searching for a mutually agreed solution to share the dry season’s low flow. The central government in Delhi would intervene in this process only if the states failed to agree. Except for minor issues of release of funds for projects, the bureaucrats in Patna were perfectly satisfied with Delhi’s actions, especially those regarding discussions with Nepal on the Kosi High Dam.
Despite these assurances, there is lurking concern in Bihar that the Kosi High Dam may again be dropped from the central government’s priorities. Leading up to the Ganga water treaty at Farakka, a plan to build a dam on the Sunkhosh in Bhutan to divert water to Farakka and meet the future shortfall was reported in the Indian press. Such a plan, according to the Bihar government’s White Paper, will only solve the problem at Farakka, whereas building a high dam in Nepal will simultaneously solve Bihar’s problems of dry season water availability, flood control in the state and electricity supplies. It also cited the need for flood cushioning in the Tehri Dam under construction on the Bhagirathi River in Uttar Pradesh as well as in other dams proposed on Ganga tributaries, such as the Pancheshwar on the Mahakali River on Nepal’s western border with India. While Bihar’s past experiences in this regard did not provide reasons for enthusiasm, Patna was prepared to give the benefit of doubt to Delhi’s assurances that the Kosi High Dam project would be pursued more vigorously with Nepal.
At about the same time that the Bihar government was issuing its White Paper, grass-roots activists from its poorest and most-neglected regions were gathering at Nirmali near the Kosi River in early April 1997. The meeting was organised by the Barh Mukti Abhiyan (bma, or Freedom from Flood Movement) and fundamentally challenged the concept of water resources development. Nirmali, situated in the Kosi’s inland delta region, was a symbolic choice. It was at this exact spot 50 years earlier that the historic Nirmali Kosi Sufferers Conference was held, which provided the major political thrust in independent India for the Kosi Project. The conference was attended by luminaries such as Rajendra “Prasad (subsequently president of India), C.H. Bhaba (then minister of works, mines and power of the interim government) and other eminent politicians, engineers and public figures. The 1947 Nirmali Conference promised a 290-metre-high dam on the Kosi at Barahakshetra in Nepal with a storage capacity of 11 million acre-feet and a 1,200 MW power plant.
The 1953 floods, and the visit by a delegation of prominent Bihari politicians to Delhi to tell Jawaharlal Nehru that inaction on the Kosi was causing grave damage to the Congress Party’s image in Bihar, resulted in a greater push for a modified Kosi project. This scheme, which was eventually implemented, consisted not of a storage dam but only a barrage at the Nepal border and embankments as well as ring bunds in the plains downstream. Thus, the institutional momentum set in motion by the 1947 Nirmali Conference in the heady days of post-independence India culminated in a programme of “jacketing” rivers by means of embankments in the plains of north Ganga. This “single mission” continues unchecked to this day, unquestioned from within the establishment. And the resulthas been water logging and social degradation, which the embankment builders in Delhi and Patna have been reluctant to concede.
Fifty years later, the BMA’s 1997 Nirmali Conference exposed the social and environmental repercussion of embankment and irrigation projects that ensued from the 1947 conference. The six-point resolution passed by the 1997 meeting “vehemently opposes the construction of the proposed Barahakshetra high dam in Nepal”, and calls for a people’s evaluation of all the flood control and irrigation projects implemented so far.
From the vantage point of environmental and social activists, Bihar’s water problem looks quite different from the state or central government. Their concern is not so much water rights over large rivers as the degradation or destruction of fertile farmlands, and the havoc wrought on many poor people as a result of wrong technological choice for harnessing water. Flood control embankments, barrages and canals for surface irrigation schemes are often insensitively designed and poorly managed. Activists also do not trust the ability of the bureaucracy or politicians to make things better.
In the case of the state organisations, the perception is tied to the culture of control and secrecy mediated by procedures. A procedural prescription (such as more surveys, embankments and discussions with Nepal) that may be perfectly legitimate to the state organisations is the source of the entire problem for the activists. This rift in perception needs to be probed for the lessons it provides for proper water management in Bihar, and elsewhere.
During the British Raj, there were serious doubts about the viability of large-scale surface irrigation schemes in the floodplains of northern Bihar of the type that have subsequently been pursued vigorously since independence. The plains are crisscrossed with meandering rivers and oxbow lakes. Because of the heavy load of sediment, which the rivers from Nepal carry naturally from high intensity rainfall over a geologically fragile Himalayan watershed, rivers change courses periodically capturing one channel and abandoning another. These flood plains also have high groundwater levels, implying that surface irrigation schemes would contribute to making the water table even higher, adding to water logging.
After independence, however, large-scale river regime modifications were carried out for flood control and irrigation. And 50 years later, activists in north Bihar are busy countering the negative social and environmental costs of these massive schemes and the heavy toll they are taking on the body politic of the state. These groups have to counter the enormous financial and political clout of the construction lobby from within the Bihar bureaucracy as well as the contractor fraternity, which have a high incentive in preserving the status quo.
Embankments are the foremost object of activist anger. They were designed and built along riverbanks to prevent a river from spilling onto adjacent land during high flows. Unfortunately, the monsoon’s season gift is the dry seasons poison. Embankments prevent drainage of water accumulated during monsoon rains outside the embanked area, as well as seepage through the mud levees when the flow is high. In addition, small streams and drainage channels cannot discharge into the “jacketed” river once the flood level in the river channel has subsided because their courses are blocked by the levees. In theory sluice gates in the embankments should be able to solve this problem. In practice, they are ineffective because they jam or are placed in inappropriate areas. They also fail to drain because the river into which they are supposed to empty gets aggraded with sedimentation to a level where the riverbed is higher than the surrounding land which the sluice gate is supposed to bail out.
When embankments, irrigation canals, roads and railways are built in the north Ganga plains, they often block the natural channels. The outcome is severe drainage congestion and water logging, and land that would have been flooded only for a week or two is inundated for months, making agriculture and even daily living impossible in an otherwise highly fertile area. The length of flood embankments in Bihar increased from 160 km in 1954 to 3454 km in 1988, but flood prone areas have also increased in this period, from 2.5 million hectares to 6.46 million hectares. For Bihar’s barefoot activists, it is obvious that embankments do not protect their villages and land from floods. But for the water bureaucracy in Patna in its single-minded pursuit of embankment-building, this truth is too uncomfortable and is filtered out.
In tackling such contentious resource management issues, social sciences have generally taken one of two approaches—descriptive (such as economics and demography) or interpretive (values, motivations and the meaning that human agents create in the conduct of social life).One interpretive approach to studying and understanding society goes by the name of “Cultural Theory” which maintains that, depending upon the degree of openness, there are only five permutations of possible social environments. These give rise to five styles of organising:
Hierarchy is characterised by unequal roles for unequal members and its overriding concern is control. The army, the water bureaucracy and the internal structure of large corporations are examples of this institutional style.
Egalitarian communards lack internal role differentiation but are held together in bounded group loyalty and allegiance to an ethical cause. Resolution of disputes is difficult, schisms are frequent. Groups are held together only by alarmist causes that highlight threats from the outside. Social, environmental or religious campaigns are based on this style.
Individualism gives rise to a libertarian social context where all boundaries are provisional and subject to free negotiations. Networks are based on bargaining rather than on bounded group loyalty. This is the style of the market and its businessmen.
Fatalism of the conscripted means enduring the isolation of individualists without the freedom to organise one’s own network and suffering the constraint of hierarchy without the support of loyal group affinity. Just coping with everyday living as best as fate allows is the only viable strategy. This is the lot of the peasantry of the Bihari plains.
The hermit who, unlike the fatalist, could exercise power but has voluntarily withdrawn from it, is at the centre of inaction. This is a world away from all the four styles that is without competition or transaction, a retreat neither open nor connected where new action could grow out of inaction. It is this environment of the deserts and caves, of exiles and hibernation, where future reformers are born.
The actions of the main players in the Ganga floods—the Bihar bureaucrats, politicians in Delhi and Patna, Nepal, and grassroots activists—can be analysed using the framework of Cultural Theory. The concerns of Bihar government described above come from the hierarchic solidarity. It is a perspective generated from the way governments and their machinery are organised. The grassroots social and environmental activists belong to the egalitarian brotherhood. There is fierce disagreement between the hierarchic functionaries and the egalitarian activists about fundamental values of governance, life-styles, technological choices, and approaches to resource use.
These disagreements and the social dynamism they are imbued with are not easy to explain in conventional terms such as Left vs Right, State A vs State B or Urban vs Rural. In each of these conventional categories there are alliances and counter alliances that cut across these divides. A better explanation is needed. For instance, why does a minister, a member of the legislature, or a member of the police force take part in demolishing an embankment which they themselves may call an “anti-social act” which is the case in Bihar? What group affinity and peer pressure, or alternatively, what sense of injustice in the established order, makes these pillars of society engage in such a drastic course of action? This high drama that is emerging in the plains of north Bihar is an indication of two very different social solidarities on a collision course.
While hierarchs exercise power through established procedures, egalitarians are structured in such a manner that power is best exercised through criticism of the establishment. Cultural Theory would say that this is the only way they can exercise power, indeed the only way they can even exist without splitting. Their activities can flare up after a long period of dormancy if social or environmental inequity reaches the point where they become unbearable. An oft-heard criticism of activists and environmentalists is that they only criticise and do not come up with constructive suggestions. But this is not the job of the egalitarians. Only when the hierarchs fail do egalitarians mushroom. Those who would want to blunt egalitarian critique would, therefore, do better if they started reforming the hierarchs.
In 1947, when eminent leaders gathered in Nirmali to promise flood control through high dams and embankments, the people of Bihar believed them. For decades they behaved as the classic “fatalist masses”, not questioning and not reacting. But the promised security did not materialise whereas their insecurity and destitution increased. They reacted in anger. At the same time, the “single mission” embankment-building hierarchic dominance with its hype, hubris and closure to criticism grew near absolute. The situation was ripe for the egalitarians to emerge, since trying to make changes in the margins without questioning the base was no longer enough. This is not just a struggle between the water bureaucracy and the activists, with the fatalist masses providing the background for the struggle of hearts and minds. There is a fourth element: individualistic businessmen. They exercise power neither through the bureaucrats’ procedures or the activists’ critiques, nor through the resignation of the fatalist masses. Theirs is a dynamic exercise of power through active networking and deal-making.
Water development and management in the Himalaya-Ganga in the 1990s is no longer a one-style, single-actor domain. It is now a contested terrain, and all three groups are engaging in alliance-building and coalitions. Embankment contractors and elements of a rent-seeking water bureaucracy exhibit one alliance, pump suppliers and farmers as well as the rural development bureaucracy maintain another, while grassroots activists and judges of the judicial activism school or government auditors, for example, represent still another coalition. Nor are these alliances limited by political boundaries. North Bihar’s contractors and pump suppliers have networks in Nepal, as have the social activists. Nepali contractors have worked on the construction of the Farakka Barrage, and Bihari activists cooperate with their Nepali counterparts in opposing the plans of their respective bureaucracies for embankments and high dams
Being on the receiving end of technology choices made by others, whether at the scale of Bihar’s peasant households, or at the level of states and nations, is an unenviable situation. It has immense potential for future conflict, especially when people become conscious of what they have lost or are about to forfeit. This one-way imposition will last only as long as people remain fatalistic. The fatalism of Bihar’s peasants is now changing into the activism of its “Senas” and “Abhiyans”.
Bangladesh, marginalised till 1971 as East Pakistan, was able to mount a campaign after independence against the unilateral Indian decision to build the Farakka Barrage. Nepal exhibited fatalism in the events leading up to the construction by India of the Tanakpur project on the Mahakali River on Nepal’s western border with India. New Delhi’s initial negotiating position on the Farakka was similarly categorical. Bangladesh was told that if it wanted more water, it would have to agree to the Brahmaputra link canal. In this sense of marginality, New Delhi has not treated Bihar in the 1990s any different than it treated Nepal on the Tanakpur issue in the mid-1980s, or Bangladesh (East Pakistan) in the 1960s.
An important feature of marginality is the ease with which the marginalised fall victim to hype. The peasants of Bihar believed that the 1947 Nirmali conference would be the end to floods. It took the scepticism of activists to make them aware of their loss, and to fight for survival. Cornucopian dreams of being able to build the Ganga Barrage also allowed Bangladeshi hierarchs negotiating the 1996 Farakka Treaty to side-step the difficult issues of water rights, environmental and social problems, as well as the question of hydrological risks. Given increasing water use in the upstream reaches of Ganga, Bangladesh may have been wiser to consider in greater detail what happens to the 1996 agreement when the flow falls below 50,000 cusecs, as it probably will in most years.The exchanges of notes between New Delhi and Patna about the proposed Kanpur Barrage show that “single mission” hierarchies in an uncontested terrain tend to further their mission by ignoring uncomfortable consequences of their actions. A potentially serious interstate dispute over water rights between Bihar and Uttar Pradesh was averted by Delhi’s promise to provide irrigation, electricity, and flood control as well as navigation benefits from the Kosi High Dam in Nepal. Just as the rights issue at Farakka was earlier transferred to the cornucopian dreams of a Brahmaputra Link Canal in the earlier stages of negotiations with Bangladesh, the Kosi High Dam has become the new mantra of salvation in Bihar promising a cure for all its ills. Hence the statement by Bihar’s water resources minister in the Bihar assembly: “The solution to all our problems in Bihar is Kosi High Dam.”
The assumption of hierarchs implicit in resolving all the three disputes surrounding the projects discussed above—Tanakpur, Farakka and Kanpur barrages—is that storage and augmentation solutions will be found in Nepal. If concerns in Bihar regarding upstream water uses and declining flow are even partially valid and if the political will to curb water wastage and profligacy is missing, the treaty on the Ganga at Farakka as it stands will not function without such augmentation measures. If water is withdrawn without any curb in upstream profligacy, according to the Bihar administration, the state will be left dry in the lean seasons.
Placing the blame then on “Nepali intransigence” for delays and shortfalls because the Kosi High Dam has not materialised will be much more politically palatable than introspection into one’s own misuse and unequal resource allocation among states. Blaming the upper riparian is the ultimate cop-out.
The colossal challenges of water management in the Himalaya-Ganga in the decades ahead will depend to a large extent on the kind of statesmanship available to balance the interests of the regulatory bureaucracy, innovative market and cautionary activism. Each needs to be allowed space to manoeuvre. For the past 50 years, the engagement has been lopsided, mostly in favour of the authoritarian bureaucracy. Since the 1990s, the balance has shifted in favour of an alliance between the hierarchy and business in its latest incarnation of liberalism and privatisation.Such an alliance is still unbalanced because it functions as a two-legged stool, hardly more stable than a one-legged one that exists when only the hierarchy dominates. Grassroots civil society is the third leg, which includes environmental and social activists, religious groups and other bodies that are motivated by callings other than financial profit or control. They provide the counterweight to check the authoritarian tendencies of the hierarchy and the rapacity of the free market. It may be uncomfortable for a hierar chy used to uncontested monopoly over decision-making and for a market expecting easy profits to engage creatively with social activists. But doing so will at least ensure that they get something, but not everything they want. The alternative is chronic confrontation, where no one gets anything.
“If this is protection, we don’t need it.”
THE village of Ghonghepur at the southern tip of the West Kosi Embankment in Saharsa district of Bihar has been wallowing in stagnant water for the past 30 years. When the embankment was built in the late 1950s to protect the villages from the Kosi, it was supposed to be terminated at Bhanthi. For some technical reason that no one remembers anymore, the embankment was extended by four kilometres up to Ghonghepur and a disaster was delivered at the door-step of the village.
The embankment starts at the Nepal border and travels along the Kosi’s west bank and ends at Ghonghepur, 126 km away. The embankment is open-ended and the Kosi is free to flow anywhere it likes from here on. For some years after the embankment was completed, things went well. But soon, the Kosi started back-spilling into Ghonghepur.
Villagers, who had got used to the flood-free monsoons suddenly were wading in knee-deep waters again. They asked the state government for help, and the government acted swiftly and sympathetically to build another embankment at right angles to the existing one to prevent the back waters of the Kosi from entering the villages. They called it a “T- Spur”. The engineers were happy, the contractors were happy and the villagers were happy. Till the next monsoon.
The floodwaters of the Kamla River which meets the Kosi further downstream were now blocked by the T-Spur. Villages that were earlier flooded by the spills of the Kosi, were now getting flooded by the Kamla waters. Huge tracts of farmlands which were supposed to benefit from the West Kosi Canal are now under water from June to January every year.
The only dry place around is the embankment, which ironically is the reason for the flooding. Every household has a sort of makeshift ‘monsoon home’ on the embankment where they can find shelter when the waters rise. Some families which have lost all, now live on the embankments permanently, shops have come up and the embankment itself is an elongated village with a vast sea on either side.
The slopes of the embankment are a grazing ground for cattle and a public toilet for the entire village. Most young people don’t live here anymore, they have migrated to work in Punjab. Children don’t go to school because of inaccessibility, the primary school in Bhanthi is deserted. The literacy rate in Gonghepur for men is 14 percent and 4.4 percent for women.
Raj Kumar Sada lives in Gonghepur. He says: “Ghonghepur is a village protected from floods and if this is protection, we don’t need it.”
-Dinesh Kumar Mishra
How can you make the blind look, or the deaf listen?
IT is August and the road between Samastipur and Darbhanga in Bihar has been closed because the flood waters have overtopped the road. The road leading to Samastipur beyond Laheriasarai is quiet, there is a sea of water on either side of the road. Many people from neighbouring villages which have been submerged have come and taken shelter along the road embankment. The huts are built of plastic sheets, jute mats, old saris, salvaged materials, bamboo, thatch. Three generations of one family is huddled inside one of these huts.
Raghunandan Yadav, 70, of Narayanpur and Lakhan Sahu, 60, of Taralahi say it all started when an embankment was built near the Bagmati River during the Emergency in the mid-1970s. Some people protested, but this was the Emergency and the protests were muted. The government proceeded with the embankment, and since then Naryanpur and Taralahi are chronically flooded. Before the embankment was built, the floodwaters would drain away soon after they flowed in. But now, the embankment acts as a dam and prevents flood waters from draining away.
Raghunandan says: “This year water has stayed unusually long. It started rising on 20 July and it has remained till mid-August and it looks like it will stay for another month. The tops of trees look like islands in an ocean. Many ministers, top officials, engineers pass through this road every day but none of them ever bother to look into why we are living here on this road. The entire district of Khagaria is under water. But how can make the blind look, or the deaf listen?”
A 100 metres up the road, besides the huts of new refugees, a funeral pyre is being prepared on the road to cremate a body. The villagers squat silently and watch. The road beyond is submerged and the water flows smoothly over the asphalt. Says Raghunandan: “This is what we are reduced to. It may be my turn next time to be cremated on the road. My children may not be able to afford the cost of cremation and may as well dump my body in the water. We cannot live in peace and this is the death we get.”
An official “Bihar Government” car with tinted windows passes by flashing red lights. It does not stop.
– Dinesh Kumar Mishra