The first state visit of Nepal’s new prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda comes in the backdrop of the monumental Kosi tragedy, the grim fallout of which affects both countries. Instead of trying to apportion blame as to who is responsible for the massive flooding as the river changed course, his visit should provide both sides an opportunity for a much-delayed review of the Indo-Nepal water-sharing treaty. The quantum of destruction, loss of life and displacement now makes it imperative that both sides work out a more permanent solution to the unpredictability of the Kosi that has earned it the sobriquet ‘river of sorrow’.
The Kosi’s barrage has now lasted beyond three times its life, its poorly-maintained embankments gave way all too easily under the pressure of the river. These must be looked into. Though India being a lower riparian state is more profoundly affected by the Kosi’s course, some districts of Nepal, too, are not immune to the temperamental river. To give India credit, it has raised this issue several times at various Indo-Nepal commissions but to no avail. When multilateral agencies like the World Bank have raised the problem, New Delhi has bristled. In the end, it has turned out to be a lose-lose situation for both countries. The crisis will affect labour migration patterns from Nepal to Bihar, bringing with it greater economic hardship for a country trying to find its feet after the regime change.
While talks on this must begin without delay, the government has a lot of explaining to do about its lethargic response to a tragedy that has now affected 25 million people. It beggars belief that it took ten days and millions displaced for the Prime Minister to sanction the release of foodgrain. The Bihar administration fiddled even as engineers from Kosi warned of danger ahead. And now we see the great Indian bureaucracy in inaction as people try to defy the angry river and return to their submerged homes. Sending them a few tonnes of Maggi noodles is a cruel joke as is the spectacle of a team of six experts airdashing there to assess the health requirements. All steps to be taken in such a crisis situation have been laid out in the national disaster management policy. But where are they when we need them most?