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Calming Kosi

What happens at this spot in Nepal over the next six months will decide who is homeless in large parts of Bihar, who is going hungry and who is migrating in desperation to Mumbai. Neelesh Misra reports. HT helps you reach out to victimsTragedy in numbers

india Updated: Sep 06, 2008 01:24 IST
Neelesh Misra

What happens at this spot in Nepal over the next six months will decide who is homeless in large parts of Bihar, who is going hungry and who is migrating in desperation to Mumbai.

This is where the Kosi river, like an angry goddess, smashed through the embankment at one in the afternoon on August 18, wiping away a kilometre and a half of concrete and hurtling down on its lethal journey towards the Indian plain.

No one heard a thing in this Nepal village that afternoon — until the screams began and people started to flee homes. The river had suddenly become sprawling ocean. It would soon submerge more than one lakh acres of land in India and affect more than 25 million people in the worst flooding in modern Indian history.

Indian officials are now rushing to repair the damage, and engineering nightmare that involves doing the opposite of what the river did. Over the next several months, they will try to change the course of the river all over again.

Farmer Abdul Rehman was sitting restless after lunch that day not too far from the embankment built to guide the path of the river, known for its wayward snake-like movement.

“We had all noticed the crack that morning — we went looking for the Indian officials all over but could not find them,” said Rehman. “But what could we have done that day after all? They hadn’t repaired the embankment for seven years. This had to happen.”

Rehman owned two bighas of land by the river. "I was a land owner; I am now a labourer repairing the same bridge that killed my life," he said. Behind him, the gushing river, 1.8 kilometres wide at that point, flowed with the speed of cars in an average New Delhi traffic. It has wiped away entire villages.

Dozens of other Indian and Nepali local residents echoed Rehman's view. Under a 1963 treaty between India and Nepal, the Bihar state government is responsible for the maintenance of the Kosi dam, an arm-like spurs, one of which broke and set off the disaster.

Devi Rajat, the engineer-in-chief for north Bihar, shrugged off the allegation -- though he admitted that no inquiry had yet been carried out into the breach 19 days ago.

"It is not as if repairs have not been carried out," he said. "There is an Indo-Nepal Kosi high level committee that inspects the dam and suggests repairs which are then done every year," Rajat said.

Before the end of every financial year, boulders used to be kept in giant wire meshes to reinforce the concrete and protect it from the frequent lashing of the river. "For 7-8 years, I have seen that no repairs were done. Earlier, they were done every year," said Surya Prasad Yadav, 41, a local Nepali Congress leader who lives nearby.

On Friday, trucks packed with large boulders drove in on the narrow embankment leading to the river. Labourers worked like clockwork, handing each other boulders that were then wrapped up in wire and placed by the swift current. The water is too strong; hundreds of rocks have been swept away and a motorboat with engineers just could not fight the current Friday on a reconnaissance and turned back.

Engineers will now cut through the silted bank of the river, where it flowed until last month, to create a 10-metre wide, 3-litre deep alternate channel for the river. The river is then expected to widen that with its own force over one month, bringing down the force of water in its current path. When 60 per cent of the river is diverted, engineers will begin an equally tough task, rebuilding the embankment. The entire process is expected to take six months. "We are fighting a battle against the current," said KP Sharma, a project engineer at the site. "But we cannot predict the mind of the river."

(With inputs from Amitabh Jha in Purnia)