In the end, it took one mighty nudge from the United Nations to put the news about the critical flood situation in north Bihar, east Uttar Pradesh and Assam back on the national agenda. Described by the UN as the “worst flooding in living memory”, the deluge has killed more than 200 people and displaced nearly 16 million in the three states. However, flooding is not new to these regions; neither are the customary rituals that follow disasters — aerial surveys by politicians, promise of more funds and the blame-game.
The Bihar experience shows how wrong flood-control strategies, unscrupulous politicians, unresponsive bureaucracy and corruption have left thousands displaced and economically ruined. The story in UP and Assam is no different. Like the previous flood-hit years, this time, too, the three states have blamed the breaching of embankments for the disaster. The CMs of Bihar and UP, thanks to their geographical location, have also blamed Nepal for the floods. But these are nothing but lame excuses to divert public attention so that their flawed flood-control policies are not questioned and the culprits can go scot-free.
Since Independence, successive Bihar governments have sold embankments as an answer to floods, despite warnings that these earthen structures only exacerbate the problem. Embankments got a huge push from the state administration after heavy flooding in north Bihar in 1953. In 1954, two senior officials of the Central Water Power Commission (now Central Water Commission) were sent to China to study embankments along the Hwang Ho. The choice was ‘dim-witted’ because the embankments on Hwang Ho had been breached 200 times between 1855 and 1954. The British government had also tried embanking the Damodar in 1854 but was forced to shelve the project after it was found unfeasible and environmentally dangerous.
Embanking a river is a bad idea because it prevents the spreading of water. The silt which would normally spill over a vast area to form the flood plains, is confined to a much smaller area, raising the river bed. With time, the riverbed becomes higher than the surrounding land. Meanwhile, people start living near and on these embankments. All hell breaks loose when a river in spate breaches these embankments. Eklavya Prasad, a development practitioner, puts the crisis in perspective: “In 1952, Bihar had 160 km of embankments and the flood-prone area was only 2.5 million hectares (mh). By 2002, the state had 3,430 km of these structures. But now the flood-prone area has extended up to 6.88 mh,” he says.
The reason behind this pro-embankment policy is easy to understand: it helps perpetuate the well-oiled politician-technocrat-contractor nexus. Cuts and kickbacks are the order of the day. “This year there were 373 breaches. Out of this, the government decided to repair only 173. These were in districts where commissions had already been decided. Even then, the funds never reached the affected areas on time. The result is there for everyone to see,” says B.K. Thakur, a senior leader of the All India Kisan Sabha from Darbhanga. Prasad corroborates: “Governments are always keen to start big projects for obvious reasons. Embankments and sluice gates are not maintained deliberately. Every time they are washed away, it means more money for the contractors, technocrats and politicians.”
Another recurrent ruse has been to blame Nepal for the floods. However, no government would ever tell us why the relief-and-rescue apparatus are never in place when it is but natural that lower riparian states like Bihar and UP always face the threat of floods. “By talking about Nepal, the politicians are shifting the blame. If Nepal did not release water, its Terai region (the country’s food bowl) would have been submerged. The onus was on us to be prepared,” says Prasad. Corruption is rampant in post-flood operations too. “In Darbhanga, the government is officially giving Rs 250 in cash and chura to the victims. Though the vouchers are
being signed for Rs 250, the people are getting Rs 200. Moreover, the relief, as promised by the government is being distributed by the Block Development Officer, instead of the gram panchayats.
Fictitious names are being added to the victims’ list to siphon off funds,” alleges Thakur.
Recently, there has been talk about river inter-linking as a possible measure to control floods. Prasad says it will be yet another monumental folly. “Just because this region is flood-prone, people think there is excess water. But that is not the case. Madhubani, which is one of the worst-affected areas this time, was almost declared drought-hit in 2006,” he says. The only way forward, says Prasad, is to review the flood-control strategies, improve water management and do away with the embankment policy. “Nature is showing us the way by repeatedly breaking the embankments. It’s time we took the cue,” he adds.