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Drainage Crisis of Kosi

Written By mediavigil on Wednesday, December 31, 2008 | 4:53 AM

Abstract: Kosi is an international river and all interventions must show utmost sensitivity that does not bring a bad name to our country. The onus is the central government to avoid a situation, which makes North Bihar a case study for mismanagement of rivers. It has emerged from the field study undertaken by a Fact Finding Team that a list of "what not to do in Kosi basin" must be prepared before relying on the suggestions of retired or serving officials. Why Kosi has been flowing at a level higher than its adjoining mainland is a statement on the poverty of common sense. The reduced cross-section of the river due to embankments was expected to facilitate the dredging of its bed. Instead, the Kosi offloaded silt into the river and raised the level of its bed. That the Kosi is among one of the highest silt-laden rivers in the country makes matters worse. Had the river been free to meander, it would have deposited fertile silt, collected from the slopes of Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga, across the plains of north Bihar. But that was not to be, as most of the silt carried over the years lies trapped between river banks, reducing the stream flow on the one hand and making the embankments vulnerable to breach on the other. People of Kosi basin are victims of development and the arrogance of governmental knowledge that are used to scare common people into silence and submission by their declarations such as "I Know the facts". All proponents of "solution" must be made to solve the drainage crisis and adopt Ganga basin approach before undertaking any further intervention.

Kosi is one of the major tributaries of Ganga synonymous with the history, culture of not only Mithila but whole of the Indian sub-continent. One cannot think of the Indian sub-continent without thinking about Ramayana (Sita) and Mahabharata (Karna). Ramayana and Mahabharata cannot be even imagined in the absence of Mithila. The structural solutions have already distorted the landscape of the Kosi-Mithila region, structural solutions like Kosi High Dam would turn out to be a monument of foolishness for generations to come. Like the villains of embankment proposal, all the kosi high dam proponents must be identified and dealt with by something like a Kosi Parliament.

Nearly 33.55 lakh people in five districts of north Bihar were affected by the devastation caused by the Kosi deluge due to the breach in the embankment at Kusaha in Nepal on August 18.

After Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, Bihar too is initiating the misplaced project of linking rivers even as it is being predicted that "Ganga would soon become a seasonal river-flooded in monsoons and dry in the summers." Out of the 30 links in the controversial National Interlinking of Rivers project that includes 14 links in the Himalayan component, 6 river-link canals are directly related to Bihar. It is noteworthy that quite like Tamil Nadu, Bihar too is proposing its linking of rivers projects as independent of the national project. Unmindful of the global ecological changes and river basin approach Uttar Pradesh has already launched Ganga Expressway Project in 2007 to construct a 1047 km access controlled eight-laned expressway running along the Ganga river to provide connectivity and as a flood control measure although the catastrophe brought about by such measures is quite evident.

Continuing the same trend, Bijendra Prasad Yadav, Bihar's Water Resources Development Minister informed the Bihar Legislative Council on 4, December, 2008 that inter-linking of rivers could rid the state of perennial problems of flood and drought. Replying to a special debate on drought like situation prevailing in many districts of south Bihar, Yadav said "unless and until rivers are inter-linked the twin problems can not be solved." Yadav said the inter-linking of Bihar rivers would cost more than Rs 4,000 crore. Stating that 26 percent area of the state are drought-hit, Yadav informed the Vidhan Parishad that the state did not have any reservoir which was crucial for irrigation. It was either in Nepal or in Uttar Pradesh. Replying to a debate on perennial problem of flood in the state he referred to the devastation caused by the Kosi deluge and the probe by judicial commission underway.

The Centre has constituted a high level committee, consisting of three representatives of the Centre, two from Nepal and five from Bihar government, for the repair and maintenance of the embankment.

In the aftermath of Kosi deluge, such ecologically disastrous engineering projects have been dismissed as a "solution". Most recently, even 'development' advocates like Suman K Bery, Director General of New Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research advised the governments to forgo its mega public private partnership projects and concentrate on strengthening the existing infrastructures in the light of the crash of US and the European markets as a response to the upheavals in the world economy.

Sterile Discourses
At a talk and a day long Panel Discussion in Patna on "Kusaha Breach and Thereafter", heated exchanges between pro-"Kosi high dam" engineers and proponents of "living with floods" ended with an apparent conclusion that high dams & embankments are less of an engineering interventions and more of a political intervention. On 17 October, on the eve of two months of the Kosi breach, the talk was delivered by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a well known voice of sanity with regard to Kosi crisis. Failure of dams as flood control structures has been demonstrated in Orissa, Gujarat, Maharasthra and Jharkhand.

A white paper was demanded, while sharing the Hindi version of the Fact Finding Report on Kosi "Kosi "Pralay": Bhayaavah Aapada Abhi Baaki Hai" sought accountability of Kosi High Level Committee (KHLC) and provide a remedy for the drainage crisis in North Bihar as was promised by the UPA government's Common Minimum Programme. All the activities of KHLC should be put in suspension till the time their liability is fixed and Justice Rajesh Balia Judicial Commission of inquiry set up on September 9, 2008 is completed. The commission's recommendations must not meet the fate of several dozens of committees and it must recommend criminal charges against acts of omission and commission.

It is noteworthy that Union Water Resources Department Secretary, in a letter to the Bihar Irrigation Secretary on September 24, 2008 has questioned the locus standi of the judicial commission. The letter read: "The Kosi agreement is a bilateral agreement between two sovereign states, India and Nepal, and Bihar is not a party to either 1954 or the 1966 agreement. "Water and Power Consultation Services, a central government's public sector undertaking has provided technical inputs to the Bihar government on possible ways to plug the breach at Kusaha in Nepal.

Participants included victims of embankments who expressed their anguish at the Delhi, Kathmandu and Patna centric deliberations and decision making. They called for a movement against Kosi High Dam, embankments and changing the current course of Kosi.

Amid news reports that Kosi's course will be restored by December 15 and the breach would be plugged by March 31, 2009 citing Kosi Breach Closure Advisory Technical Committee chairman Nilendu Sanyal and Ganga Flood Control Commission chairman R C Jha on 14 October, 2008 to finalise modalities on plugging the breach, some participants were opposed to the repair of the breach in Kusaha. Government must hear the views of these people before undertaking repair works.

Meanwhile, central government has sanctioned Rs 40 crore for the project and Bihar Cabinet has sanctioned Rs 197 crore. Bihar Water Resources Minister Bijendra Yadav has said tenders for the breach closure have been invited and bidding will take place after October 21.

Proposed "Sapta Kosi Multi Purpose Project" claims to irrigate 68,450 hectares in Nepal and provide remedy for drought-prone areas measuring 1,520,000 hectares in India. It is claimed that alongwith irrigation and flood control, about 3,500 MW of electrical power would also be generated from water stored in the 269-meter-high reservoir. According to a preliminary impact study, the proposed high dam will displace 75,000 people from about 79 Village Development Committees (VDCs) in nine districts of Nepal alone. About 111 settlements in the 79 VDCs, sprawling over the banks of the Sun Kosi, Tamor, and Arun rivers, will be totally submerged, while 47 settlements will face partial submergence, and 138 will become fractionally submerged.

Opinions available in public domain say, "If the dam is going to cause such upheaval, can the crops produced from the 68,450 hectares of irrigated land in Nepal compensate for this huge loss?" argued the bimonthly magazine, Pro Public/Good Governance, in its report. Estimated losses in the North Bihar are yet to be ascertained. Earlier, the meeting of the Indo-Nepal Joint Committee on Water Resources in Kathmandu on October 2, 2008 agreed to expedite work on preparation of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) on Saptkosi High Dam on the Kosi. Both sides reiterated their commitment to expediting the work on preparation of the DPR of Saptkosi High Dam project during the meeting which concluded on Wednesday in Kathmandu. Nepal assured full administrative support and security to Indian engineers.

After the breach, on August 18-19, 2008 Nepal government had said that Kosi treaty is a "historic blunder" but Nepal government's inconsistent and ambiguous position now on the Kosi High Dam proposal based on the same treaty must be exposed in the Nepali parliament and media.

The Worst is Still to Come
In order to save Kosi region from an ecological and human disaster, Nepali and Indian legislators must take a categorical position based on a referendum on Kosi.

On August 19, 2008, the chairman of the Expert Committee on the Implementation of recommendations of Rashtriya Barh Ayog, R Rangachari said, "It is my impression that not much has been done to implement the suggestions made by the committee's report." Rangachari was on the Prime Minister's Task Force on Flood Control in 2004.

The National Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the Government of India made a solemn pledge to the people of the country in 2004 to undertake "Long-pending schemes in specific states that have national significance, like flood control and drainage in North Bihar." Despite acknowledging the problem, it is shocking that neither the Central nor Bihar Government conducts any survey to assess the effect of flood control measures on the socio-economic conditions of society.

On August 20, 2008, after the breach in the embankment at Kusaha in the Kosi region, Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal `Prachanda', took stock of the post-calamity situation in the Kosi region and said "Kosi agreement was a historic blunder. The people are suffering due to this". The agreement had led to the construction of embankments and proposals for a high dam.

Following an aerial survey of the flood affected areas of Bihar, the Indian Prime Minister on August 28, 2008, termed the flood crisis as "a national calamity". More than four years have passed since the Indian Prime Minister made the promise in the CMP. Now, in August 2008 he declared, "A high-level team would be set up to coordinate matters with the Government of Nepal." He also promised protective structures and technical assistance to state government to prevent further deterioration in the embankments. Such dangling of carrots and
providing band-aid remedies are horribly insincere and it has been going on for over 60 years.

Bihar's floods in August 2008 caused the eighth breach in the embankments. According to the Bihar Government's own reports, last year 48 lakh people in 22 districts were in need of assistance due to floods. 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.

Hundreds of reports prepared by Commissions of all ilks are gathering dust. At most, they become election campaign tools. The Commission should recommend fixing charges of criminal neglect against the members of the Kosi High-Level Committee, who waited for the calamity despite having information that could have led to timely evacuation of the people.

The drainage problem has failed to alter the policy regime of the country that favours structural solutions regardless of the natural drainage it may impede. Proposals like a high dam on the Kosi are as good as jumping from the frying pan into the fire, if the experience with embankments is anything to go by. Even when one chooses to ignore the changing morphology of the river, the estimated lifespan of a dam and embankment being 25 and 37 years respectively, underlines the transitory nature of the technocentric interventions. The Union Ministry of Water Resources misled the Rajya Sabha on March 11, 2008 claiming, "Government has taken various steps in the direction of water management to stop the flood in north Bihar coming from the rivers of Nepal." There has been no significant shift in the way the Kosi issue was perceived in the 1950s and in 2008.

The issue of the Kosi High Dam, first raised in 1948, has been sold to the victims as one of the 'permanent' solutions to recurring floods. Ironically, embankments as temporary solutions have become reasonably permanent whereas the 'permanent' solution has remained elusive. What is 'permanent' and how permanent is 'permanence'? It must be acknowledged now that there is a condemnable insincerity in proposing multi-purpose high dams for flood control, because the dams are proposed to tap the hydropower potential. Is it not clear that when the multipurpose — flood control, irrigation and power — dam is talked about, the real motive of the proposal in question is ignored? Clearly, political parties hold a stake in such power projects that make them little concernend with the masses struggling to remain afloat. A few days ago, Nepalese Prime Minister, Prachanda, conveyed his affirmation for the hydel power project in a meeting with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

There is a compelling logic behind seeking immediate review of the Indo- Nepal Kosi Treaty that created the rationale for embankments and dams. Continuing with it would amount to flogging a dead horse. The congestion in North Bihar and Nepal is a problem of permanent water-logging that has remained overlooked for several decades. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis cannot be controlled. But the catastrophe they cause can be predicted, anticipated and
prevented. Drainage of the river must remain sacrosanct, besides timely evacuation of human and animal population and the establishment of robust public health systems.

Given its distinct geo-morphological features and complicated hydrological characters, the Kosi is one of the Himalayan rivers that is yet to be understood in its entirety. It is high time that policy makers gave up their outdated 'conquest over nature' paradigm. We have to learn to live with the floods, only this time, in far more readiness.

Ecological and futuristic vision based state interventions must treat natural flow of rivers as sacrosanct and natural habitats must not be tampered with, which we must maintain if we want life to exist on Earth. Instead of a gigantic dam, what is needed is a gigantic network of very small scale water management schemes, including a vast network of small dams in Himalayas.

The author is a member of the Fact Finding Mission on Kosi.
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