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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 39

Flood Havoc by Kosi River in Bihar

Thursday 18 September 2008, by Chaturanan Mishra

North Bihar has floods every year and therefore there is a feeling that this year too it is largely the same as before even as the floods this time have devastated 16 districts, badly affecting some four million people. But this is not the case. The present Kosi flood reminds one of the floods before 1955 when the eastern Kosi embankment was not there and the Kosi was flowing in the natural manner causing heavy damages. It is a river which has a character of heavy erosion and thus changing its course of flow. Other rivers originating in Nepal do not change their course as frequently as Kosi. Since the embankment built at such a high altitude has been breached near the Indo-Nepal border and as the river belt ahead was silted, all the water came down suddenly as a deluge or a pralay. People in these affected districts were not experiencing floods since 1955 when the embankment was built and so were totally unprepared for this devastation.

I am one of those who have been saying all along that the embankment system in Bihar is unscientific unless every year or two the river-bed is cleared of silts and sands in off-season. But the engineers and government did not listen to this. Secondly, blanketing of the total embankment should be done every year as it is done in coal mines. As far as possible rivers must be allowed to have a natural way as the level of flowing is chosen by the flow itself. These suggestions were criminally ignored as no funds were provided in the budgets for maintenance.

The most important feature of the floods in North Bihar is that except Burhi Gandak all rivers originate in Nepal, a foreign country. Flood protection is in general a State subject under our Constitution but floods caused by rivers overflowing from a foreign country is a Central subject. When the river linking issue came up I raised this point with the Central Government and the then Minister, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, responded by saying that the government was considering the matter; however, the present Minister, Saifuddin Soz, replied to other points but kept silent on this main issue. At least after this ‘national calamity’ this issue needs to be addressed with all seriousness and a final decision expeditiously taken on the subject.

During discussions on the issue of river linking some time back when this idea was opposed by Laloo Prasad Yadav, the question of constructing the Kosi High Dam at Barahkshetra came up. This is again being talked about but this area comes under the earthquake zone and earthquakes of low intensity on the Richter scale occur there practically every year.

I therefore think that India should approach the UNO and FAO and immediately hold an international conference in the country to consider whatever needs to be done to save North Bihar and also tackle the floods in Assam due to the Brahmaputra which originates in Tibet.

AS regards the subject of responsibility, that is, who is responsible for this deluge, both the Central and State governments are responsible as it was known to them that the eastern Kosi embankment is overage and they took no precaution in this regard. Political parties also failed to raise this issue. Trade unions of Kosi workers, at least the Kosi Kamgar Union of which I was the President for many years, should have highlighted this matter. The difficulty with the present trade unions is that unlike in the past they don’t take up national and social problems and remain confined to their own economic demands.

The Bihar officers, many of whom are corrupt, do not take due interest in relief work. Ask those journalists who visited Gujarat in the wake of the earthquake there and found officers and NGOs working devotedly for the people and the same persons will tell you how negligent the Bihar officers are. Rehabilitating the millions of people uprooted in the eastern Kosi area is a very difficult task. The Central Government will have to come in a big way to meet this ‘national calamity’ as stressed by the PM. Public sector and private sector industries as well as other State governments should adopt blocks to rehabilitate the residents. I remember how during an earthquake in Armenia in Soviet times, when thousands of houses were ruined, different Republics came forward to rebuild the houses within a few months time. Our State governments should work with such a spirit and set a precedent. This will also encourage the Bihar officers.

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