With the breach in the Kosi’s embankment on August 17, Nitish Kumar’s extended honeymoon with the people of Bihar ended abruptly. As his NDA government comes close to completing three years in power in November, some very hard questions are being asked over the way the floods were handled. Even if Nitish’s claim that the floods were a pralaya (apocalypse) that no one could have anticipated is conceded, many hard questions remain.
“Why had no unified engineering command set up, combining state and central agencies to maintain the embankments?” asked Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a leading civil engineer. “Why was no high dam built in 50 years, when it was well known since 1953 that this was the only long term precaution?” asked T. Prasad, a hydrological engineer who has worked on the Kosi project.
Others pointed to the bureaucratic red tape and corruption the Kosi command has always been mired in, the way corrupt contractors and engineers colluded to cut embankments and trigger emergencies in past years, so as siphon off flood relief funds.
Water Resources Minister Bijendra Yadav's has claimed that the political chaos in Nepal and the refusal of Nepalese authorities to allow the engineers to work without hindrance in the days prior to the Kosi breach was largely to blame for what followed. But there is hardly any proof to suggest that prior to the August 17 breach, Bihar officials even understood the seriousness of the situation or petitioned the centre to try and make Nepal behave more reasonably.
Neither the Bihar Government nor the Centre was ready for the Kosi floods. It showed up in the poor response — the delay in rescue operations, in setting up camps, in tardy delivery systems, in inducting the army. Though an unprecedented number of people have been housed in relief camps, the rest are being looked after entirely by the local community.
The only people who have gained are the political opposition with Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan sensing an opportunity to corner Nitish. Several relief camps now sport party banners.