Spate of neglect

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Spate of neglect

Down to Earth  
Fluctuations in water level hampered rescue. At times it dropped too low for boats to ply, at times boats were trapped by submerged trees  
The authorities knew of the impending disaster

The Kosi breach was not something the Bihar and Union governments were unaware of. Official sources reveal that both governments may have known about the weak point in embankment in Kusaha, as early as August 5.

Every year before the onset of monsoons, engineers of the state Water Resources Department carry out anti-erosion work, where weak spots in the embankments are identified and repaired. Once the monsoon sets in, the engineers have to monitor the embankment and see if any fresh area is getting eroded, explains an official of the department.

Anti-erosion work this year was completed by June 12 in accordance with the Kosi High Level Committee's recommendations made on October 27 last year. The committee, a multilateral body with members from India and Nepal, had recommended repair of spurs at nine places on the eastern embankment, including the 12.10 km and 12.90 km marks. Bihar government sent a project completion report to the Union government in the second week of June. About Rs 1.90 lakh was provided for the repair of the 12.10 km point, which is less, said the official.

In the third week of June the department reviewed the anti-erosion work and knew that 12.10 km point was the weakest link in the embankment. Officially, the flood protection work on the embankment started on August 5. On observing an erosion at the point, chief engineer of the Kosi project--that monitors the barrage, embankments and canals--E Satyanarayanan, who was stationed in Birpur, Supaul, sent a message to Kosi Liaision Officer Arun Kumar Singh in Kathmandu, on August 5. Singh was on leave.

Satyanarayanan claimed that between August 9 and August 17, a day before the breaching of the embankment, he had sent four more emergency messages to the state government over the possibility of breach at location 12.10. First letter was faxed on August 9, second on August 14, third on August 15, and when he got no response, he sent a telegram. The fax connection at Kumar's office was disconnected due to non-payment of bills. Even the isd connection at the Birpur office was withdrawn because phone bills were not cleared. So it seems the chief engineer's missives were not received.

Yet the Bihar government probably knew of the erosion, for the state Water Resources Department sent the chief engineer of Birpur, along with a former engineer of the department, Brijnandan Prasad, to asses the situation and take necessary measures on August 16, according to a source in the department. The department was also in touch with the Indian embassy in Nepal for providing security to the contractor who was repairing the breach. Finally, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar called up External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to persuade the Nepalese government to help repair the damaged embankment.

Official documents in possession of dte reveal that the Bihar government was receiving conflicting reports about the weakening of the eastern embankment. The Central Flood Control Room in its bulletins on August 16 and 17 said, "All the embankments under the Water Resources Department are safe". In fact, the state department prepared an interim report on August 16, which said the flood situation was under control.

On September 7, Nitish Kumar said he was not aware of the gravity of the situation as his Water Resources Department had told him that the flood was of a regular kind. However, a senior official of the department said the chief minister was aware of the situation by August 17.
Down to Earth  
Repair work at the breach site in Kusaha is going on at a slow pace despite the fact that the Kosi floods again in mid-October  
When the external affairs ministry and the Indian embassy in Nepal failed to persuade the Nepalese administration to provide security, Kumar called a political friend who was present at the swearing-in ceremony of Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Parchanda). He requested his friend to apprise Parchanda of the situation, according to the official. After the ceremony Parchanda gave the orders to give security to the Bihar engineers.

Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, however, claimed that the chief minister had written to Mukherjee on August 19, and that the centre was informed of weak embankment on August 5. "We requested the centre to hold talks with Nepal but were told that since there was no government there it would be difficult to communicate," Modi said.

The centre accused the state of neglect. Jai Prakash Yadav, minister of state for water resources, told dte, "The maintenance and repair work of the Kosi barrage was to be completed by April 15. The state government was in deep slumber till June to prepare an estimate of cost of maintenance work."

Whoever may have been responsible, the embankment gave way. On August 18, the Central Flood Control Room in a letter informed the state government that spurs protecting embankments had been breaching at 12.10 and 12.90 km for the past few days. "The regional engineer was trying to mend the damage. On the night of August 17, unsocial elements whisked away labourers and officials of the department, resulting in the breach. Flood control material that was rushed could not reach the breach site because of stampede created by Nepalese locals. It has resulted in the leaking of water towards Birpur," stated the letter.

According to a former chief engineer posted at Birpur, the relationship between the engineer and the Nepalese contractors and labourers is difficult to manage. "Kosi Barrage is the only development project in that area, so there is a lot of pressure from both local contractors and labourers," he said. A source at the barrage said the Bihar government had not paid about 2,000 labourers. Durgananda Jha, a contractor based in Hanuman Nagar, the barrage site, said he was not paid any money for a work on embankment in 1998.

Many officials, however, suspect the security threat was a last-minute excuse rustled up by the state Water Resources Department to escape blame. The Bihar government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the breach, which will have to submit its report in six months. At present, the bigger worry is when will the breach get repaired? Swollen by the retreating monsoon, the Kosi floods again in mid-October.

And irregularities continue
According to officials manning the Kosi barrage, the repair work was shoddy. All this while the breach was expanding. The 400 m breach at 12.10 km point extended up to 1.7 km by August 28.

The state government set up the Kosi Breach Closure Advisory Team of engineers on August 28, which found massive irregularities during its visit to the breach site on August 31. In its report, the team mentioned that the progress of armouring cut ends (the eroding end) was unsatisfactory and adequate boulders were not dropped at the site to control the breach. "Only two truckloads of boulders were unloaded. We were apprised that 20 truckloads have been dropped," the report stated.

The report also revealed absence of high-capacity boats on the site to deliver crates and sandbags to the northern side of the embankment. "Low power boats cannot move in the high spate of the river," it mentioned. The report recommended that the state government should initiate work on war-footing and urgently procure equipment. The team also called for completing the repair work before October.

On September 3, when dte visited the breach site, work was on at a snail's pace. Site engineer Roshan Sharma of Hindustan Steel Construction Company, entrusted with repair of the breach, informed that they had started work on August 30. He said almost 50 trucks had delivered nylon crates to the site. A crate contains close to 25 nylon bags containing sand, which are put in a nylon mesh and dropped to protect the cut ends. The crates are covered with boulders to arrest erosion. However, the site had far fewer than 125,000 bags as the engineer had claimed.

Will the people again pay the price for governments' apathy or will governments learn lessons from the tragedy, only time will tell.

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