Arrested development

Bihar's flood-drought oscillation still has little recognition

Published: Sunday 15 January 2006

-- In all the drama over the November 2005 legislative assembly elections in Bihar, the drought afflicting a large part of the state got short shrift. Though all political parties made promises to deal with drought, it scarcely became an election issue. This was new to Bihar's political cauldron -- election promises usually revolve around flood control. During the 2004 monsoon, at least 700 people died in floods that hit 20 of the state's 38 districts; more than 21 million were affected in 9,300 villages.

What also went unnoticed was the Congress party's about-turn on the issue of building dams in Nepal. During the February 2005 elections, the party had shown signs of acknowledging past mistakes and not indulging in what has become an election ritual for political parties -- calling for dams in Nepal to prevent floods in Bihar (see 'Green Bihar?', Down To Earth, February 28, 2005). The rethink has been compromised at the altar of political necessity.

Flood-drought cycle This year's drought has hit the flood-prone areas north of the river Ganga as well as those in Magadh region of southern Bihar. This alternating between drought and flood is the culmination of years of water mismanagement in the state since independence. Programmes continue to be implemented with little thought or recognition of past follies.

The first priority in flood control programmes, as laid down by the State Flood Control Council, is protection of embankments, which, ironically, are responsible for increasing the flood-prone area. The second priority is large industrial units, national and state highways, large cities, and heavily populated areas. Agriculture, which supports a majority of the people, finds mention as the third priority. But here, it is stated that no work will be undertaken to protect agriculture along the riverbanks. The decision of not protecting the agricultural land is deliberate.

Who needs farmers? The cultivation pattern followed by farmers requires irrigation from mid-September to mid-October, when the kharif paddy crop is standing. Annual reports for the years 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 from the department of water resources show that the rice crop is being destroyed every three years due to poor rains. The records also show that during this time, the embankments of the river Kosi deny water to surrounding areas. And irrigation projects, including canals from the eastern Kosi, Kamala and Gandhak rivers, are being used only to a 40 per cent capacity due to extensive breakage and silting of the canals. These require urgent maintenance efforts from the department of irrigation. But there is no sign of any from the government.

The 2004 floods had shown how rainfall, even when only slightly above the average, could wreak havoc. Only one of the eight rivers in northern Bihar, Bhagmati, had received more than average rain in its basin. Yet 20 districts were flooded -- the worst flood of the century in the state. Farmers in northern Bihar had sown paddy after the rains in the months of June and July. Some areas saw the strange phenomenon of flood control measures protecting the standing crop from floods, and then the crop getting destroyed when the rains failed in September and October.

Flood control programmes have changed the water dynamics -- very unfavourably for the farmers. Rainwater accumulating in the fields doesn't reach the river, leading to waterlogging. And when it gets drained, this happens so rapidly that there is little left, creating an agricultural drought. The dependence on groundwater has increased manifold. Apart from the fact that this is an expensive option, several places have unacceptably high levels of arsenic and fluoride in the groundwater.

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