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Kosi Deluge: The Worst is Yet to Come

Written By mediavigil on Saturday, September 13, 2008 | 10:20 AM

Not only has Delhi got its flood action plan consistently wrong over the years, so has Patna. Consequently, it becomes convenient to transfer the entire blame on Kathmandu that was party to a mistake when it was first conceived in 1954. The Fact Finding Mission was aghast to observe that neither central nor Bihar government `conducts any survey to assess the effect of flood control measures on socio-economic condition of the society'. The same holds true for Nepal as well.

The Fact Finding Mission Report "Kosi Deluge: The Worst is Still to Come", asserts that embankments are the root cause of the present crises. It seeks firm policy decisions to remedy the situation. Though considered unlawful, trapped communities have time and again engaged in creating artificial breaches for draining their accumulated water from their surroundings. The general perception favours removal of embankments provided the act of demolishing does not create undesired conditions.

There is a precedence of embankment demolition in India. The embankments created along a length of 32 kilometers on river Damodar in 1854 were demolished in the year 1869. The British had soon realized that far from controlling floods, the embankments were submerging fertile lands for which the colonial rulers were forced to provide compensation. The first-ever compensation of Rs 60,000 on account of submergence due to embankment failure was given to a farmer in 1896 in then Bardwan district.

After their failure to tame rivers Rhine and Meuse, the Dutch hydrocracy has now adopted spatial flood protection measures called `room for the river'. The new approach not only warrants informed public debate but is based on broad political support. It is measures like these that need to be discussed and negotiated with communities in north Bihar, but not before the political stables in Patna (and in Delhi) get cleansed of their misconceptions!

Unless the erring officials and institutions are held accountable, not only will the folly of the past get repeated but fresh approaches and strategies would be hard to implement. It is clear from the origin, functions and constitution of the institutions dealing with water resources. They are all structured for planning, design and implementation of large projects. It is also clear that they do not even intend to be participation oriented or open bodies. These institutions have failed to encompass the needs, resources and priorities of whole river basin. Therefore, a complete overhaul of the existing institutions is a dire necessity.

Any judicial or executive probe that does not fix criminal liability is suspect because the fate such commissions and committees are a foregone conclusion. It is a routine exercise of no consequence. However, since the terms of reference of Justice Rajesh Balia Commission are clearly focused on Kosi High-Level Committee, a multilateral body, it merits some attention. But the biggest limitation of any such Commission is that it does not and cannot question the institutional status quo that is guilty of perpetuating the crisis. Hundreds of such reports prepared by Commissions of all ilk gather dust and are moth eaten. At most they become campaign tools during elections. Thus, one does all the running with all of one's might just to stay where one has always been.

A look at the statements of the Indian Prime Minister, the Nepalese Prime Minister and the Bihar Chief Minister demonstrates how they remain dedicated to the technocentric approaches that caused the calamity in the first place.

After the breach in the embankment at Kusaha in the Kosi region, Bihar Chief Minister requested India's External Affairs Minister on 19 August, 2008 to approach Nepal Government to ensure law and order as per Kosi Agreement in order to repair the breach that took place in Nepal. On 16 August, 2008 an FIR was lodged in Laukahi Police Station in Sunsari district of Nepal against anti-social elements who created such as situation that all the engineers had to run away from their pots.

On 20 August, 2008, Nepal Minister took stock of the post-calamity situation in the Kosi region and said "Koshi agreement was a historic blunder" and "People are suffering due to this agreement". The agreement led to the construction of embankments and proposals for a high dam.

Following an aerial survey of the flood affected areas of Bihar by the Indian Prime Minister on August 28, 2008, termed the flood crisis as "a national calamity" and announced immediate release of Rupees 1000 crores to the Government of Bihar for rescue and relief.

It is noteworthy that National Common Minimum Programme of the Government of India announced in 2004 made a solemn pledge to the people of the country to undertake "Long-pending schemes in specific states that have national significance, like …flood control and drainage in North Bihar (that requires cooperation with Nepal as well)." More than four years have passed since the Indian Prime Minister made the promise and now in August 2008 he has declared, "A high-level team would be set up to coordinate matters with the Government of Nepal." He also promised "necessary material and technical assistance to the State Government to prevent further deterioration in the embankments and protective structures." Such dangling of carrots and providing Band Aid remedies are manifestly insincere and it has been going on for over 60 years.

Earlier, Indian government has provided grant assistance to Nepal for the construction of river embankments and emergent works in Nepal in response to the request made by the Department of Water Induced Disaster Prevention, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of Nepal on 7 July, 2008.

All this clearly demonstrates how although the more things change on the ground, the more they remain the same. While the repairs works are underway and will most likely be completed by March 2009 as an immediate protection measure, the Fact Finding Mission on Kosi that visited the flood affected parts of North Bihar and Nepal demands a white paper on the current deluge and drainage in the Kosi basin in particular and North Bihar & Nepal in general in order to address the drainage congestion crisis that has resulted from current policies. It must diagnose the problem and the adverse consequences of the so-called solutions that have caused huge increase in the flood prone area.

The report argues that while flood control measures like dams, embankments and their repairs can provide temporary respite. It is a phenomenon that needs long term careful micro level study of the factors causing shift in the course of the river. There has to be an acknowledgement that even if one fills the breach in the dam/embankment the problem does not get solved forever. Even when one chooses to ignore changing morphology, the estimated lifespan of a dam and embankment is 25 years and 37 years respectively underlines the transitory nature of technocentric interventions.

Following the eighth breach in th embankments, besides 4 panchayats in Nepal, four North Bihar districts- Saharsa, Supaul, Madhepura and Araria- got worst affected by floods. In addition to these twelve districts -- Purnia, Katihar, Khagaria, Muzaffarpur, West Champaran, Saran, Sheikhpura, Vaishali, Begusarai, Bhagalpur, Patna and Nalanda are affected by the floods as well. An estimated 35 lakh people have suffered due to the flood crisis. As per Bihar government own reports, last year 48 lakh people in 22 districts were in need of assistance due to flood. Clearly, it is not the extent but the unpredictable intensity of the crisis that makes it a catastrophe. The primary function of floodwater is to drain out excess water. It has not been allowed to perform its functions due to engineering interventions. The same fate awaits Bagmati and Mahananda region.

No embankment has yet been built or can be built in future that will not breach. The collapse of the Kosi river embankment and the rationale for proposed high dams was created by the previous Nepalese and Indian governments that did not realize that Kosi cannot be tamed.

Given its distinct geo-morphological features and complicated hydrological characters, the Kosi is one of the Himalayan rivers that has yet to be understood in its entirety. It is high time policy makers gave up their outdated "conquest over nature" paradigm and acknowledge `we shall have to learn to live with floods'.
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