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Bihar Floods: The Inevitable Has Happened

The overflowing Kosi had, as of end-August, wreaked destruction on more than three million people living in north and east Bihar. A field visit reports on the misery of the affected, haphazard rescue efforts and criminal exploitation of the uprooted. The immediate task is to improve relief operations and then provide support to the displaced who will not be able to find work until the 2009 kharif season. A blame game is now in operation, but since the early 1960s whichever the party in power, the people of Bihar have been affected by official apathy towards the embankments on the Kosi. This time it is a clear case of dereliction of duty by the state government in repairing upstream barrages before the monsoon of 2008 that has resulted in devastation.

COMMENTARYseptember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8Bihar Floods: The Inevitable Has HappenedDinesh Kumar MishraAugust 5, 2008. At a meeting organ- ised by a non-governmental organi-sation in Patna, the minister for disaster management of Bihar was enu-merating the steps taken by the govern-ment of Bihar to meet any disaster and the roles that all concerned had to play in the event of a disaster. Little did the minister know that a dis-aster was brewing some 300 km north of the venue of the meeting, on the banks of the Kosi. I got an opportunity to ask the organisers why the minister for water resources was not invited for the discus-sions as most of the disasters faced in Bihar are water-related, whether of scarcity or abundance. Nobody had the answer as the simplistic understanding is that disasters are independent of their surroundings. This may be true of earth-quakes but not of floods or droughts that are water-related and the presence of water resources personnel would have added value to the meeting on disasters. That, however, rarely happens as both the departments of the government of Bihar work independently of each other for reasons unknown.Geography of the Kosi The Kosi, one of the most vibrant rivers of north Bihar, starts its journey at a height of about 7,000 m in the Himalayan range and its upper catchment is located in Nepal and Tibet. The river is also called the Sapta (seven) Kosi in Nepal, because of its seven tributaries (the Indravati, Sun Kosi or Bhot Kosi, Tamba Kosi, Likshu Kosi, Doodh Kosi, Arun Kosi, and the Tamar Kosi). The first five tributaries join to form the Sun Kosi that flows from west to east. The Sun Kosi, Arun Kosi and Tamar Kosi joinatTriveniin Dhankutta district of Nepal and assume the names Sapta Kosi, Maha Kosi or the Kosi. Triveni is located in the hills, about 10 km north of Chatra, where the river descends onto the plains.After entering the plains, the bed of the Kosi widens drastically and it spreads over 6 to 10 km. After traversing a distance of about 50 km in Nepal, the river enters India at Bhimnagar. Hanuman Nagar, located on the west bank of the Kosi, is inNepal while Bhimnagar is on the east bank, in the Bihar district of Supaul. From Bhimnagar the river flows in a south-westerly direction for about 100 km till it reaches Mahishi in Saharsa district. From Mahishi, it turns south-east and after flowing another 33 km, it crosses the Saharsa-Mansi rail line, south of Kopadia railway station, and joins the Ganga near Kursela in Katihar district.The total catchment area of the Kosi is 74,030 sq km, excluding the catchment areas of its two important tributaries, the Kamla (7,232 sq km) and the Bagmati (14,384 sq km). These tributaries of the Kosi are important in themselves and are gener-ally dealt with separately. Out of the total catchment of the Kosi, only 11,410 sq km are located in India and the rest (62,620 sq km) lie in Nepal and Tibet. The river’s catchment area at Triveni in Nepal is 59,550 sq km. The average rainfall in the upper catchment of the Kosi is 1,589 mm while in the lower areas it is 1,323 mm. The average annual silt load of the river is 92,400 acre feet. Due to its high sediment load, the river is known to meander and has shifted course by about 160 km between 1723 and 1948. It was flowing east of Purnea in 1731 and its last course that was embanked in the 1950s was west of Saharsa and east of Darbhanga. Between these two points there is not an inch of land through which the Kosi has not once flowed. It has 15 abandoned channels through which its water used to flow before embanking.After a century long debate against embanking the river during the British period, the Kosi finally fell prey to the embankment builders in the late 1950s. As a result, a barrage in 1963 was constructed at Bhimnagar to regulate the flow of the river to facilitate irrigation of 7,12,000 ha, through the Eastern Kosi Main Canal. Another canal, called the Western Kosi Canal, the foundation stone of which was The overflowing Kosi had, as of end-August, wreaked destruction on more than three million people living in north and east Bihar. A field visit reports on the misery of the affected, haphazard rescue efforts and criminal exploitation of the uprooted. The immediate task is to improve relief operations and then provide support to the displaced who will not be able to find work until the 2009 kharif season. A blame game is now in operation, but since the early 1960s whichever the party in power, the people of Bihar have been affected by official apathy towards the embankments on the Kosi. This time it is a clear case of dereliction of duty by the state government in repairing upstream barrages before the monsoon of 2008 that has resulted in devastation.Dinesh Kumar Mishra ( has been working on water-related issues in Bihar for many years and is the convenor of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan, a civil society organisation working with people living in flood-prone areas in the region.
Regularly Flooded Districts Legend Every district in Bihar has flooded to some degree at one time or another. No district can claim to be flood free
50 0 50 Kilometres
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW september 6, 200811had come up along the road all over. The people were fleeing from their villages via the rail line connecting Raghopur with Forbesgunj. The latecomers had to travel a longer distance on the Simrahi road to even find space to put themselves down on the road. They had to flee from their homes as the water flowing out of the breach in the canal had entered Sursar, Mirchaiya and Belhi channels of the Kosi which it had abandoned long ago. These channels were full of water this year and the exodus of the people was the obvious corollary. At Simrahi Chowk we saw many persons asking for the direction to go to the Raghopur railway station for that was the right place to spend the night and if there was any train available, they wanted to go to a destination where the floods would not follow them.In Kursela, a car of the information department of the government of Bihar was going around making an announce-ment on August 26 that there was danger of water hitting the blocks of Barari, Falka, Sameli and Kursela and advising people to move to safer places. What were the safer places was not the part of the announcement. There was no panic, however, but the blocks are now facing inundation. The worst sight we saw was in Phulkaha block of Araria district. The road con-necting Bathnaha with Phulkaha acts as a wedge in the water and settlements have come up near Phulkaha. A large number of people were looking for their dear ones in the boats that were coming from where the Sursar had breached its embankments. There were only a few boats and this had prompted the admin-istration to rescue only women from the marooned areas. The women coming out complained that this order was followed literally and that the children and infirm elders had been left behind. To cap it all, they also reported that the boatmen and the accompanying policemen asked them for money and even ornaments and threatend to drown them mid-stream if they did not comply. The police and officials had even threatened to molest the women and the situation was quite tense when we were there on August 27. There were, however, two relief camps in Phulkaha and medical facilities were available to the flood victims although the number of persons needing such help was very large.Inaccessibility is the real problem and arrangements are needed to either rescue the people and take them to relief camps or reach relief to them wherever they are. That can be achieved only by increasing the number of boats and helicopters. It is intriguing that the government is shy-ing away from deploying helicopters. It had deployed 13 helicopters during the floods of 1987 and 11 in 2004. There is no reason why they should be content with using only three this time. The number of boats is incredibly small com-pared to the number of persons needing evacuation. No relief operation worth its name is possible unless people are reached. The only good thing is that neighbouring villages that are dry have come to the rescue of the marooned people with whatever food, fodder, clothes, etc, they could carry to the places where people have been stranded. Even these people could not get boats to travel into the flooded areas.Shortage of BoatsThe situation continues to be chaotic as there is nobody to coordinate whatever relief is possible. Boats, at the moment, are the prime need. Other things will follow. With the kharif crop washed away and with little chances of rabi operations being taken up, the employment positionis going to be grim for the entire crop sea-son this year. This will lead to a mass exodus of people in search of work. Also, it will only be after the water recedes that one would come to know of how much agricultural land has been sand cast and how much has been lost to waterlogging for which the only remedy is either evaporation or seepage of the water into the ground. Blame GameThere is another drama, so common in such incidents, that is being enacted to escape responsibility for the disaster. After blaming Nepal and the Nepali peo-ple of non-cooperation, the engineers and their political masters in Bihar have started saying that the river has changed its course and it now wants to move to east. If that is true, why on earth were embankments constructed along the river? Were they not meant to prevent the river from moving either east or west? How did the departmentofwater resources know that the river wanted to change its course? Why did it help the river in accomplishing its objectives? Did the engineers and politicians not say earlier that the river was trying to move to west in case of breaches at Dalwa, Jamalpur and Joginia? Who will be responsible for the damage to life and property that has been caused by the negligence of a few? Every leader worth his salt and his party has blamed the gov-ernment of Bihar for the disaster which they call is the worst ever tragedy. History of BreachesBut does anyone remember that this is the eighth incident of its kind and that the first breach in the embankment had occurred in 1963 near Dalwa in Nepal, much before the Kosi project was completed. Binodanand Jha of Congress was the chief minister then and the responsibility of the breach was at that time placed on the ratsand foxes that had dug holes in the body of the embankments through which water had seeped and they had breached! The second incident took place in 1968 near Jamalpur in Darbhanga when five breaches occurred in October. Engineer P N Kumra of CWC had conducted an inquiry and had once again identified the rats and foxes as the culprits. The state was then under president’s rule. The third incident occurred at Bhatania in 1971 when the approach bundh collapsed between the 10th and 19th km below Bhimnagar, and many villages were washed away but the eastern embank-ment had not breached. Since only eight villages were affected, the incident did not get wide publicity. The next incident occurred in 1980 near Bahuarawa in Salkhua block of Saharsa district near the 121 km mark below Bhimnagar. The river eroded the embankment but just afterthebreach, it receded very quickly and the water did not spill on to the countryside. The state was at the time ruled by Jagannath Mishra of the Congress Party. In 1984, a tragedy as terrible as
COMMENTARYseptember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly12Inflation and Public Policy: Contemporary DilemmasSugata MarjitSugata Marjit ( is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.There has been much comment by the media and criticism by business that the policy of hiking interest rates to combat inflation will hurt investment and growth. But what has India’s experience been on the relationship between the real interest rate and the inflation rate?Economic problems, particularly those which rise to the status of social criticality, draw self-confident comments, policy suggestions, numerical assertions and predictions from various quarters but possibly despair and frustra-tion from institutional authorities and technical experts engaged in a deeper understanding and resolution of the problem. As important events of today arerendered useless tomorrow by the all-powerful media, we are naturally more interested in quick solutions rather than in an understanding of the problem. The business lobby is angry about an increase in interest rate and they claim, in popular national magazines, that a rising interest rate will shave off 2 percentage points from our 9 per cent GDP growth rate. Even the most erudite economists and poli-cymakers such as the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve or the gover-nor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will think 10 times before committing them-selves to such a numerical figure. But that does not prevent business journalists or business lobbies from publishing a state-ment, which may distort the choice of right set of policies. More recently the govern-ment has also come out with a prediction of a lower growth rate, but not as low as sug-gested in some business quarters.Close on the heels of such assertions, follow demands by a political party to compel theRBI to fix the rupee/$ exchange rate at Rs 39 a dollar. Again an economist will shudder with fear and apprehension if she has to announce a “socially optimal” nominal exchange rate because she is liable to her discipline, years of training and the associated logic. But politicians are not burdened by such baggage. Thus, an instruction to RBI is thought to be a reasonable way-out from inflation. Demands for windfall tax on oil compa-nies are also suggested. But such demands do not need special mention as they are targeted as a “firm specific tax” where the “firm” concerned belongs to the “enemy” of a set of powerful politicians. In this commentary we try to talk about the relationship between the rate of infla-tion, the real interest rate and the GDP growth rate. We are not going to explain such a relationship, but we intend to focus on statistical associations. This will give us some handle on what to expect of our growth rate if theRBI keeps on raising the nominal interest rate in the face of a sus-tained rise in prices. This will also indi-cate, however loosely, the association between inflation and growth, a proxy for a version of the Indian Phillips curve, given the well known pollutants in official Jamalpur struck the eastern embankment near Hempur village in the Navhatta block of Saharsa district, 75 km below the Bhimnagar barrage. The floods uprooted half a million people and engulfed 96 villages in Saharsa and Supaul districts. People could go back to their villages only after the Holi festival of 1985 when the breach was plugged. Bindeshwari Dubey of the Congress was the chief minister that year. In 1991, there was a breach in the western embankment near Joginia in Nepal that led to a political crisis in Bihar and the minister of water resources had to resign his post. This resignation was never accepted by Lalu Prasad Yadav who was the chief minister at the time. This was a repeat of the Bahuarawa breach where the river had receded after eroding the embankment. The Kusaha breach took place in the regime of Nitish Kumar and it will take about a year to get the complete story. Thus, virtually no ruling party (including the administration under presi-dent’s rule) can claim that it was not involved in such an accident. Yet, the blame game and mud-slinging continues unabated. There is no history of these breaches being plugged before March of the following year. As far as the flood victims are con-cerned, they bear the brunt of the disas-ter, irrespective of which party is in government. It is also a fact that the breaching of the embankments will con-tinue in future in full view of the political parties, the water resources department, police, and the administration. Given the magnitude of the disaster, in all probabil-ity the flood victims will be left to fend for themselves. All these debates notwithstanding, the need now is to reach help to the flood victims in all possible ways and provide them support until the next kharif crop season. [Map 1 has been reproduced from the article ‘Gerrymandering, Poverty and Flooding: A Perennial Story of Flooding’ by J Albert Rorabacher,EPW, February 16, 2008.]

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