Flood fury

Floods claim hundreds of lives across India besides causing large-scale destruction, Bihar is the worst-affected

Published: Tuesday 31 August 1999

 Marooned: floods in Bihar hav (Credit:  krishna murari kishan)floods in northern India have claimed more than 321 lives in the past month. The situation is particularly alarming in Bihar where the toll has crossed 193, and property worth crores has been destroyed. The major rivers in the state like the Kosi, Bagmati, Kamala Balan, Punpun and Gandak have eroded their embankments and fresh areas are now being flooded. The kharif crop has been completely damaged as flood waters inundated 3.75 lakh hectares of land over several districts of northern Bihar. According to a report the total loss of the kharif crop is estimated at Rs 5 crore.

The other states which have been affected are Assam, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Ironically, among the first victims in Assam were a baby rhino and a wild boar at the Kaziranga National Park, according to its director Bishen Singh Bonal. Official sources quoted in national dailies say that around 3 lakh people in 10 districts have been affected by the floods in Assam. About 50,000 hectares of crop land are under water.

In Himachal Pradesh, heavy rains caused landslides affecting power and water supplies in many areas. Reports say that the rivers in the state -- the Beas, Sutlej and Ravi -- are flowing above the danger mark while in Gujarat more than 34 people have lost their lives.

Many people in Bihar believe that building of the Koshi river embankments in 1955, which was the first initiative to control floods in the state, was a technical mistake. "Embankments are like shoes that do not fit," says Vijay Kumar of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan, an organisation that oversees flood control. "You cannot control a wayward river like the Koshi. It must be allowed to flow free," he says.

Kumar says that during every monsoon, the 160 km embankment along the river -- 30 km of which falls in Nepal -- traps water creating havoc for the 338 villages that are located near the embankments. "When it rains heavily, thousands of people have to flee every year," he adds. Embankments disrupt the natural drainage of the land and hinder the retreat of flood waters prolonging flooding and water-logging. They also promote water-borne diseases.

While the Bihar government has said that Rs 50,000 would be given to the next of kin and houses built for those displaced under the Indira Awas Yojna, the people are unhappy. Flood control cells remain only on paper. The relief and rehabilitation work in districts like Sitamarhi and Darbhanga is inadequate if not non-existent, says one resident. "Due to corruption, the relief and rehabilitation work is not getting to the affected people," says another resident.

According to experts, recommendations made by the National Flood Commission in 1980 are still to be implemented. Water resources departments in many states are attempting to control floods by constructing embankments and dams. But such measures will only make these areas flood-prone, say experts. And till the time the government comes up with a practical flood control policy, Bihar and the other states will have to live with floods.

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