“Machhli khao!” This was the advice of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Indian Minister of Railways and, as the head of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Bihar’s boss. “Let them eat fish,” he told the people, as the whole of north Bihar was reeling under the floods of 2004. The reaction of the flood victims of Bihar to his suggestion was silence.
Floods are an annual event in Bihar, and some years they are worse than others. As the floods begin to peak in late July or August, they bring with them a by-now predictable routine of governmental statements, accusations and recriminations. As the monsoon brings its deluge, this year too, there will be highly charged reportage on the breaching of embankments along the state’s rivers, once again the demand for a high dam on the Kosi River deep within Nepali territory, and repetition of the charge that Nepal has ‘released’ waters to flood Bihar. Once again, Patna will make shrill demands for disaster relief from the central government, there will be allegations of inadequate relief provided, others will accuse the Bihar government of misuse of flood relief, and so on.
The recriminations will stop as soon as the flood waters recede by end August or early September. Nepal will be forgotten, as will be the embankments.
Everyone will await the next flood season, when the cycle begins all over again. As we enter July, there is also the added political confusion in Bihar this year, linked to the non-formation of government after the Bihar Assembly elections of February 2005. The call for fresh polls in the state has further added to the uncertainities and as the flood season draws nigh, the blame game among the politicians and government departments is likely to be played at a higher pitch.
To be better prepared for this year’s Bihar floods, it is best to analyse the response of previous years, and in particular, the experience of 2004. It is very important for the sake of the millions who will be affected in North Bihar that we begin to learn from our experience of floods and not merely be led through the annual charade of flood-related acrimony.
Living in peace
Urbanisation, changing population patterns, the development of infrastructure and the rapid spread of media all have changed the way in which the floods impact us and how they are reported. The recriminations and improper response can be explained by the lack of understanding of floods. Floods are a natural phenomenon in north Bihar, for this is where the great tributaries of the Ganga originating in the Nepali hills enter the plain, gorged with the monsoon precipitation. The greatest of the rivers is of course the Kosi, called the ‘river of sorrow’ by the British, which with its seven sub-tributaries covers the entire eastern half of Nepal and even reaches deep into Tibet. While the snow- and rain-fed Kosi waters the eastern half of Bihar, the western half of the state is fed by the sub-Himalayan rivers of Kamala and Bagmati, the latter with headwaters in Kathmandu Valley.
Certain basic aspects of hydrology need to be understood. Himalayan rivers naturally carry a heavy silt load, which has little or nothing to do with deforestation in the hills as has been claimed.
The fertility of the Ganga and Brahmaputra plains is, in fact, the result of this annual watering and deposition of silt. Historically, the plains people had learnt to live with the floods as representing a troublesome phenomenon for a couple of months. The rivers were allowed to spread their waters over the vast flatlands, which moderated the intensity of the floods. There were inconveniences, but society was never fatally affected. The river was allowed to perform its duty of land-building with its silt, and the fertility and moisture content of the soil was optimised. Life was good in the Ganga plains, and the floods helped make it so, which is why we have such a high population density here.
This was the path of least resistance to nature that our ancestors chose, and they also adapted their traditional housing and cropping patterns to the floods. Vedavyas, in the Mahabharata, had cautioned people to “Do all good things during the day to get a good sleep in the night and make all the preparations during eight months to live in peace during the rainy season.”
It was only in modern times that we had to devise means to ‘tame’ the rivers, that too with technology devised in the past century for countries of the North which do not have the same sedimentation rates of our Himalayan rivers. Starting in British times, the technocratic solution has been to put up dams to hold back the river waters, or to straitjacket the rivers within embankments. This is how the maintenance of the embankments of the various rivers of Bihar has become an annual ritual before the flood season. In reality, what this has done is locked the silt within the embankments rather than let it spread its fertility over the land. This also raises the bed of the river within the embankments, pointing to future catastrophes when breaches occur. Besides the fear of their collapse, the levees have also obstructed drainage. Ironically, the very structures which are meant to protect the people from excess water during the monsoon create waterlogging during the rest of the year.
As far as Nepal is concerned, every year it gets a battering from the Bihar politicians who need to play up someone else’s fault for the floods even though it may be a natural phenomenon more drastic in some years than others. And so there is finger-pointing at Nepal having opened the floodgates of its reservoirs, when in fact there are no reservoirs in Nepal which can be emptied on Bihar. There are two barrages close to the Indian border, one on the Kosi and the other on the Gandak, which feed irrigation canals that serve Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Both these barrages are managed by Bihar’s Water Resources Department. There is hope that the proposed high dam on the Kosi will impound enough water to keep the floods from peaking in eastern Bihar, but there are also serious questions with regard to the very concept of a high dam.
Besides the technical challenges of constructing a high dam in a highly seismic zone, issues that are pending relate to the naturally massive sedimentation of the Kosi and what this would do to the pondage, the matter of inundation of a large part of eastern Nepal’s populated hinterland, the loss of fertility in the plains due to absent sedimentation. An alternative means to distribute the flood flow in the plains is a matter that has never been brought up for serious discussion. Doubts have also been raised as to the very raison d’etre of the high dam, for experts say that a sizeable catchment area that is the source of Bihar’s floods is actually located below the proposed dam site. All in all, say the sceptics, it would be wiser for Bihar to face the floods locally. The plains people have centuries of experience living with the late monsoon inundation; if their wisdom and the expertise of the engineer were to be combined for the common good, we could make the floods bearable in the years to come. Essentially, what this means is replacing ‘flood resistant houses’ with ‘flood tolerant houses’, and the ‘flood resistant crops’ with ‘flood tolerant crops’.
The 2004 Ritual
As the floods picked up steam in July 2004, as expected, three central ministers in New Delhi – Jay Prakash Narayan, Tasleemuddin and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi – made pronouncements about the imminence of the high dam on the Kosi. Bihar’s own Minister of the Water Resources Department (WRD) announced that all the necessary repairs at 274 vulnerable points on the embankments would be completed in time and everything was fine on the flood front. He, too, reposed his faith in the proposed dam in Nepal, where he said construction would start soon. But the fact was there was no flood on the Kosi last year.
As the ministers were becoming overwrought about the Kosi, the flash floods were occurring in the Bagmati basin to the west. On 7 June 2005, altogether 50 persons were washed away by the Bagmati in Sheohar and Sitamarhi districts, and the blame was predictably passed on to Nepal for releasing the water. The Indian Army was called in on 22 June to take care of the rescue and relief operations, while in Patna, on the floor of the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council, it was a free for all with charges, counter-charges, walkouts and demands for resignations. In other words, the annual ritual had begun. Demand for emergency assistance, charges of corruption and mismanagement of relief operations, shortage of boats, inaccessibility, and accusations of mass breaching of embankments became the order of the day.
Amidst the furore and the mud-slinging, the WRD minister blamed the engineers for dereliction of duty. The Association of Junior Engineers retaliated by blaming the government for not following the recommendation of the Technical Advisory Committee on Floods, that 97 vulnerable points along the embankment lengths in the state be strengthened or repaired at a cost of INR 117 crore. Meanwhile, amidst incessant rain, the transport and communication lines to the northern districts were down, and the Indian government had to request Nepal to allow passage of relief materials to Sitamarhi, Sheohar, Darbhanga and Madhubani.
Ten helicopters were pressed into service, with the Air Force claiming on 23 July that this was the largest such deployment ever for flood relief in the country. But 13 helicopters had been deployed in the flood relief in 1987, according to Bihar’s Relief Administration. Helicopters add glamour to tackling flood, but one must ask how useful is it to air-drop rations. The Times of India reported on 2 August 2004 that relief material worth less than INR 10 million had been air-dropped at a cost of a “whopping” INR 80 million. Of the estimated five million marooned by the rising waters only 400 were rescued by choppers, said the newspaper. According to another source, INR 200 million crore had been spent to airdrop INR 20 million worth of foodstuff.
As for the airdropped rations, they consisted of sattu (roasted horse gram powder) packed by a certain ‘Agrasen Sattu Factory, Hazaribagh, Bihar’. Hazaribagh lies today in the state of Jharkhand that was carved out of Bihar in 2000. One may conclude, therefore, that the food packets were at least four years old, packaged when Hazaribagh was still in Bihar. The quality of match-boxes and the candles distributed were of equally poor standard. The government distributed only 600,000 polythene sheets as relief, but that could hardly have been enough for the more than three million people who required some sort of cover during the deluge. That the relief operations of 2004 cost the exchequer INR 560 million in total indicates a full-fledged scam that cries out to be uncovered.
The number 49.9
The state authorities tend to play fast and loose with the data in order to exaggerate or minimise issues according to their advantage. For example, the WRD consoled itself that there had been only 55 breaches along the 3430 km of its embankments in 2004, compared to 300 breaches during the earlier devastation of 1987. But the WRD’s own reports indicate that there were a total of 105 breaches back in 1987. In the hope of upping disaster relief from a friendly government at the centre, the Patna ministers were hellbent on proving that the 2004 flood was the worst-ever in the living memory. But data shows that 1987 far outpaced 2004 (see table) and was the most devastating inundation since the time records were kept. This record for 1987 holds good for the area affected, crops damaged, population affected and lives lost.
It must be kept in mind that the 2004 waters impacted mainly north Bihar. The government reported that the flood-affected area had touched a figure of 49.9 lakh hectares, which is patently absurd. The northern plains have an area of 53.8 lakh ha with a population of 52 million. A cursory look at the loss data would suggest that if 49.9 lakh ha of land was submerged, no less than 50 million people should have been affected by the floods, given the population density of north Bihar at 880 persons per sq km, while the affected population was only reported to be 21.2 million. The region has 21 districts together with one sub-division of the Bhagalpur district, Naugachhia. Two districts of north Bihar, namely Siwan (2.2 lakh ha) and Saran (2.6 lakh ha) were not hit. Subtracting these two districts, we are left with 48.9 lakh ha. What this means is that the flood area as described by the Disaster Management Department was more than the actual area of the concerned districts. All the other Patna government offices involved, including the Water Resources Department and Department of Statistics, merely repeated the given figure, not bothering to deal with the discrepancy.
It was only after an article noting the faulty mathematics was published in Patna’s Dainik Hindustan on 26 August 2004 that the figure for the flood-affected suddenly dropped down to 23.5 lakh ha. Meanwhile, the memorandum submitted by the state to the team from the central government contained the same fantastic 49.9 ha figure. A central team which visited the state starting 13 September did not locate the discrepancy, and the same was true for the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi.
To cap it all, the report of the Task Force, published on 21 December, contains the same 49.9 figure, even though the team was made up of six persons with the rank of chief engineer, from Bihar alone. If this mistake regarding basic flood data were deliberate, it smacks of conspiracy. If it were a slip, then it exposes the casual manner in which flood emergencies are handled by layer after layer of state and central government institutions.
Bihar today has 3430 km of embankment along its rivers. The floodprone area in the state today is 68.8 lakh ha. Whereas in 1952, when there was virtually no flood-control infrastructure in the state, the vulnerable area was limited to 25 lakh ha. It is clear that the floodprone area is on the rise even as we build more and more embankments and invest in other forms of flood control. The Bihar government recently received a grant of INR 3.6 billion to raise and strengthen the embankments of the Kamala and Bagmati, but experience shows that this is a waste of money. Building and strengthening embankments will merely lead to the rising of the riverbeds within, due to constricted flow and sedimentation; they also lead to ever-more waterlogging. Planners and politicians also tend to forget that a large number of people in Bihar live within the embankments, and their lives are endangered when the levees are made sturdier and taller.
The absence of an elected popular government in Bihar, where politics has been in limbo since the Assembly elections of February 2005, is expected to make this year’s flood season a difficult one for the people, particularly if the rain gods decide to unleash another deluge like last year’s. The WRD has identified 280 schemes to be taken up to prevent breaches in the embankments. As is customary, all works on the Kosi embankments have to be completed before March every year, and all other maintenance and repair works are to be completed by the end of May. This year, with files shuttling between the various sections of the Department of Water Resources, things have been tardy. It is quite likely that there will be breaches in the embankments that are directly linked to the political confusion in Patna.
As the politicians fight and the bureaucrats dither, a new monsoon season is upon us. No one is talking about the impending manmade disaster that the people of Bihar are destined to face in the coming months. Will some body tell the flood victims when they face the rising waters what happened to the report of the task force that was appointed last year after Manmohan Singh’s visit and what actions have been taken to safeguard the interest of the people? Will somebody also tell the people of Kusheswar Asthan, Chandauli, Khagaria, Darbhanga, Danapur, Jhanjharpur, Runnisaipur, and Kataunjha that enough food grains have been stored at respective places and it will not have to be transported from Patna this time? Will the people living on the embankments not be threatened with evacuation in the name of raising and strengthening of the embankments? Will the victims of erosion of the banks of the river all along the state get recognition that the Government is aware of their problems and adequate steps will be taken to reduce their sufferings?
More questions: Will somebody ask the politicians, both at the centre and the state, why they stopped chanting the Kosi high dam mantra after the floods abated last year? Will someone tell the people of Bihar why the high dam on the Kosi has not been built despite years of ‘fruitful negotiations’ with Nepal? And will someone tell the people of Bihar that if the construction of the high dam is absurd, why nothing is being done to help the people face the floods locally? Just as we do not talk about the floods and ask these questions in the dry season, we are not left with any option than to face them silently in the rainy season.