Breach of trust

This is not a story about floods in Bihar. This is a story about how an entire society has been corrupted by money meant to build embankments for flood control. A lesson that poor environmental management, especially one which emphasises construction, leads to corruption which may be difficult to get rid of. More so if it gets intertwined with the political culture. The bogey of floods was, and still is, being used to generate kickbacks for a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, engineers and contractors in the state. Kilometres of embankments have been built but the flood prone area in the state has only increased and so has the misery of the people. A report by Manish Tiwari

 
By Manish Tewari
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Breach of trust

-- The birth of chaos

Measures to control floods have backfired in Bihar. Flood related damages and flood prone areas have only increased since independence, and so has corruption. The two are closely related

I n many ways the state of Bihar is unique. It is resource rich, but the people are very poor. It is a state of scams where officials and politicians have allegedly amassed great personal wealth but the state exchequer is virtually depleted. Laloo Prasad Yadav, the husband of its chief minister Rabri Devi, is a virtual demigod, even though he is allegedly involved in a multi-crore rupee fodder scam. During the recent Lok Sabha elections, as he waded through Madhepura district in search of votes, Yadav saw his vote bank eroding. The people knew that even their demigod had failed to deliver.

Today, Bihar is a household name for a state where erosion of moral values and rampant corruption have eroded the environment. But few know that corruption in the management of the environment has corrupted the society. Bihar was once fertile and prosperous, the centre of many ancient Indian dynasties and the seat of culture and learning. But today all we see is discord and despair. At the root of some of the problems - poverty and corruption - that plague Bihar, lie the floods that visit it annually and a policy to see that things remain unchanged.

In 1954, the state embarked upon a spree of building embankments along its major rivers. But this policy has backfired miserably. The floods that were once the harbingers of prosperity today bring disaster in their wake. A silent, suffering majority has been trapped between the embankments built by the government and the bureaucrat who is supposed to govern. The embankments have failed those who reposed trust in them as incidents of rivers breaching their embankments are reported from all over the state. Perhaps, the bureaucrat and the engineer have failed as well. The Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, 1997, blames the state government squarely for this by stating that monitoring of flood protection works is inadequate. This year was no exception. It seemed almost as if everyone was waiting for a breach or disaster to take place before taking any action.

And, as if to oblige them, a disaster did take place. At 11 pm on September 4, 1999, the river Kosi devoured the e -2 spur of a retired eastern embankment in Paharpur basti in Saharsa district, rendering 20 families homeless out of the 1,800 living on the embankment. The spur was a part of an older embankment, which was retired after the river had breached it in 1984. However, when the embankment had been built initially the people living near it had been relocated. When the new embankment was built after 1984 the villagers were trapped between the embankment and the river. Perforce, they sought shelter on the higher reaches of the retired bund to escape the fury of the floods. Soon they were taking shelter on the eastern embankment that had been constructed where the breach had occurred. It will not be long before they are homeless again.

Lal Mohammad, the 72-year-old head of the Paharpur basti, had campaigned for the building of the embankment in his youth. Today, he blames government inaction for the disaster. "The executive engineer asked us to pray to God for help," he says. There was no money for the maintenance of a retired embankment, officials informed them.

He was surprised when the officials swung into action the day following the breach. "We have already spent Rs 15 lakh on repair work," says Ashwini Kumar Sinha, executive engineer, Eastern Embankment Division, Birpur. "We will finalise a plan of action by November," he adds.

Some people, however, are not surprised. Bhagwanji Pathak of Kosi Consortium, an umbrella organisation set up to fight for the flood victims living along the banks of Kosi in Saharsa, says it is a big sham. "They had been waiting for this to happen, now there is tremendous scope for further corruption. They will make a big project and divert funds from it," he adds. It seems this, is one of the methods that engineers and contractors use to create projects. The rest is juggling with figures in a manner that would leave even a seasoned accountant bewildered. But figures, too, can tell tales, says D K Mishra of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan (bma) .

According to the bma, an organisation fighting for flood victims in Bihar , between 1952 and 1998 the state government spent around Rs 801 crore on flood control - most of which was spent on construction of embankments. This does not include establishment costs. The length of embankments also increased almost 22 times, from 160 kilometres (km) in 1952 to 3,465 km in 1999, no doubt a laudable effort, but the flood prone area shot up almost three times from 2.5 million hectare (mha) to 6.88 mha. The embankments were failing to deliver.

Out of the Rs 801 crore, the government had spent nearly Rs 530 crore by 1989-90 on construction and maintenance of embankments. After 1990-91, the government only constructed 11 km of embankments between 1990-91 and 1998-99, but it spent around Rs 270 crore on the maintenance of the embankments alone, says Mishra ( see table: The bottomless pit ).

The 1999 report of the eleventh finance commission of Bihar states that flood-related damage, estimated at Rs 9.49 crore in 1989-90 rose to Rs 514.78 crore in 1998-99 - more than 54 times. Despite the failure of the embankment strategy to control floods, governments have continued to build them because of the opportunities they offer to deplete the state exchequer.

One such case of a notable failure is an embankment on the river Gandak. The Pipara Piprasi embankment, as it is known, has suffered a breach again this year. Built during the 1750s the embankment has been damaged almost every year after Independence, claim people. Krishna Kumar Mahato, the district magistrate of West Champaran, who has his headquarters in Bettiah town, has just finished conducting an inquiry in the latest breach. He does not rule out the possibility of the episode being engineered by someone within the government. It might not be an isolated case. In the last 50 years, hundreds of embankments have suffered breaches all over Bihar due to poor maintenance or perhaps because funds meant for their maintenance never reached them (see box: Failing measure ).

D K Mishra is one individual who believes that construction and maintenance of embankments was and is being used as an excuse to divert funds into the pockets of the corrupt. An engineer and consultant by profession, he has laun-ched the bma in Andhra Thari in Madhubani district. He relentlessly tours villages along the Kosi in Madhubani, Saharsa and Darbhanga districts trying to mobilise the people so that they can be given a fair hearing by the government. He has a very strong case.

"In 1998 there were 125 incidents of embankment failures," he says, " but the government insists that the figure is only 16. It claims that most of them were zamindari embankments, built by landlords before Independence, and it is not responsible for their maintenance."

Nevertheless, government officials agree that the situation has been alarming for several years. According to Radha Singh, secretary, water resources department ( wrd ), Bihar, nearly 166 people have already died in this year's floods that engulfed 21 districts and affected more than six million people in 3,550 villages. "In 1987, flood-related damages alone were to the tune of Rs 1,698.50 crore, almost equal to the annual plan outlay of the state," adds S N Jha, former engineer-in-chief, wrd , Bihar.

The embankments have led to drainage congestion and imparted - in some cases - a false sense of security. Due to this people have encroached upon the flood plains. Their fields and homes are now in the area the river once flooded. When a breach takes place, a tidal wave of water is unleashed. Then the waterlogging begins. Floodwaters that normally receded after a few days now stay for weeks. The embankments now add to the misery of the people by preventing the waters from retreating (see box: Embankments ).

"Earlier the floodwater used to spread over a larger area. It brought fertile silt and the people would reap a bumper crop. But now the silt is confined between embankments and when a breach occurs devastation follows. The water enters human settlements with great force," says T Prasad, director, Centre for Water Resources Studies in Patna University. Condemning the policy of having built embankments in such a reckless manner, Shradhanand, a journalist from Nauhatta in Saharsa, a district impoverished by prolonged waterlogging, very simply tries to explain how the nature of the floods has changed.

"The flood was earlier akin to a cat in its behaviour," he says, "it would come and go stealthily and swiftly, melting back into the river. Now it behaves like a tiger, coming with a roar, destroying at will and staying for much longer periods" (see graph: Galloping losses).

There was a time when engineers were not keen to push such projects. Before Independence, in November 1937, G F Hall, the then chief engineer of Bihar, had sounded a warning against construction projects: "As my knowledge of flood conditions increased, I began to doubt the efficacy of bunds and gradually came to the conclusion that not only was flood prevention undesirable but that bunds are the primary cause of excessive flooding. North Bihar needs floods, not flood prevention." Hall also feared that the way bunds were being constructed engineers were "storing up a disaster for the future," though they may not be around to witness its climax.

By now it is well known that embankments exacerbate the intensity of floods. However, the multiplying costs of construction and repair have built up a politician-engineer-contractor nexus. These people share a strong vested interest in "development" projects, particularly since embankments can get washed away in the floods. In this scenario it is impossible to even hope that alternative flood control policies will be seriously discussed. There is so much money in what is happening now.

The bottomless pit
Expenditute on actual construction and repair work on flood control measures

     Year             (Rs crore)

1980-81            23.56
1981-82           27.31
1982-83           25.10
1983-84           20.62
1984-85             22.00
1985-86            39.41
1986-87            47.34
1987-88             47.34
1988-89            51.96
1989-90             64.49
1990-91            15.06
1991-92             37.14
1992-93             41.10
1993-94             24.69
1994-95              18.98
1995-96             22.03
1996-97            26.82
1997-98            32.93
      1998-99   5.50(allocated)

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