IN what must be termed as the worst natural calamity to hit the country in recent memory, the floods in Bihar caused by the shift in the course of the flow of river Kosi, have affected more than two crores of people, rendering more than 20 lakh homeless in 15 of the most densely-populated districts of the state. Worse is the fact that the agony continues and is expected to continue till the waters recede many months later, not before January 2009.
A combination of natural factors like high tectonic activities following powerful earthquakes in May and August in China and huge monsoon flows and manmade factors such as unscientific flood control measures and negligent maintenance of water channel controls have resulted in these unprecedented catastrophic floods. The main culprit, however, is the breach in the embankment of the Kosi river at Kusaha in Nepal. When the river broke the embankment on August 18, the breach was only about 1300 feet long. Today, it is more than a mile! This resulted in the change in the course of the river when waters started flowing on a path that the river occupied nearly three centuries ago. The discharge has inundated a large number of villages in Nepal before continuing its savage flow in Bihar.
After an aerial survey, the prime minister termed this disaster as a national calamity and announced a relief of Rs 1,000 crores and 1.25 lakh metric tonnes of foodgrains to the state. It is precisely to handle such disasters that the UPA government, soon after assuming office in 2004, constituted the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Unfortunately, besotted by bureaucratic wrangling and lack of a direction and a vision, the NDMA has not been able to rise to the occasion. When the floods broke out on August 18, the state government presumed that these were the normal annual floods that wreak havoc every year in northern Bihar. Only a week later did the realisation dawn that the matter was more serious when the breach was discovered. Though the embankment is located in Nepal, its maintenance through a 199-year treaty was vested with India. The central government, in turn, vested this responsibility with the Bihar government and its irrigation department. This arrangement is a classic recipe for a blame game that continues to pass the buck of responsibility. While the Bihar government is blamed, its local engineers claim to have sent letters to Delhi in April, warning of the need to reinforce the embankment. The political uncertainties in Nepal, at that time, are blamed by suggesting that Indian engineers and workers were not allowed to do their work. This cynical blame game should stop immediately and all concerned must act in unison to tackle this catastrophe and provide relief to the people.
This is urgently required because the worse may yet to come. The current discharge in the river is 1.25 lakh cusecs per day. According to records, however, the maximum flow in September is 5 lakh cusecs and in October, the maximum recorded flow is 9 lakh cusecs. This only means that more waters will flow in the days to come compounding the misery of the people. Further, repair work on the breach in the Bhimnagar barrage at Kusaha in Nepal can be effectively undertaken only when the discharge levels drop. This may happen only in January because till then the flood waters will not recede. This means that for the next four to five months, more than 20 lakh people will have to live in relief camps. Even after the waters recede, it will take many months to rebuild the destroyed homes and cultivate the silted lands. A greater challenge, thus, awaits us in the future.
The new prime minister of the Republic of Nepal is paying his first official visit to India this week. This occasion must be utilised to work out more effective water management systems and schemes between India and Nepal to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies in the future.
While the central and the state governments will have to pull up their socks, voluntary contributions for urgent relief must be intensified. The Left Front government in West Bengal, apart from contributing Rs Two crores for relief work, has also contributed materially by sending boats for evacuating people and medical facilities. The CPI(M) has given a countrywide call for donations. All members of parliament are donating a month’s salary and earmarking Rs Ten lakh each from their MP Local Area Development Scheme Funds for relief activities. These efforts must redouble and have to intensify to provide relief and prevent further human tragedies.
The country must rise as one to help our brethren in Bihar to survive and overcome this tragedy.