Breach of duty

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Wednesday 31 December 2008

-- (Credit: DIVYA) Poor sections to fare worse as Kosi wipes out land boundaries

The Kosi floods in August were followed by a deluge of media attention on the victims. The media might have forgotten them in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, but the tragedy has not gone away. Apart from rendering millions homeless, the floods washed away farmland boundaries as the river changed its course, submerging large tracts of land.

In the absence of proper land records, it would be impossible for the state government to re-allocate land, resulting in large number of litigations, a new independent report on the Bihar floods said. "Marginalized sections will be affected the most as they have no formal land records. Their land has been swept away. But the state government is yet to understand the gravity of the problem," said Manish K Jha, associate professor with the Centre for Community Organization and Development Practice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (tiss), Mumbai.

Three months after the Kosi breached its embankment near Kusaha in southern Nepal, flooding five districts of Bihar, hundreds of families remained stranded without food or drinking water. Not that the relief boats could not reach them. They were ignored because they belonged to the dalit community. In Narpatganj and Pratapganj villages in Supaul, dalits were denied evacuation boats because they had no money. A four-member team from tiss that visited three of the worst affected districts--Saharsa, Supaul and Madhepura --found people from Sukhasan village in Madhepura district staying along the banks of the canal in the open, waiting for relief. The team found the government relief camps, inaugurated by the ministers amid much fanfare, were located far away. To reach the camps, people said, they had to walk for more than a day. Some even alleged that while the boats rescued the more influential first, the promise to come back for the rest never materialized.

The report, titled Disaster in Bihar: A report from the tiss assessment team, which has held the state and the Nepal government responsible for the devastation caused by the floods, has also highlighted several lacunae in the manner in which relief work was carried out."The situation is pathetic. Even after three months, proper relief work is yet to begin," Jha, who co-authored the report with Vijay Raghavan, told Down To Earth over telephone from Saharsa, where he was coordinating relief work. People who are returning to their villages are being given a pittance of Rs 250 and one quintal of grain, he said, adding not everyone received the meagre dole. "The rehabilitation process," according to him, "will take at least one year of serious rehab exercise."

The team found thousands of people living atop the Bhutahi dam embankment near Darbhanga and wanted the state to provide the relief material there. But the government was not eager to do so. Army officials felt the camps should have been set up where people had been offloaded from the boats and not miles away. Lack of coordination between ngos and the local administration resulted in haphazard relief work, Jha pointed out. Even though ngos were ready to cooperate with the government, the state administration asked them not to 'interfere', he added.

The money nexus
Since the Kosi barrage was built, following the India-Nepal Water Management Agreement in 1954, the Indian government has been responsible for the embankment's maintenance in order to protect the people living in downstream Bihar. The Nepal government has been responsible for monitoring the flood waters.

Citing wilful negligence, the report stated: "Discussions with the local people, activists and media persons point towards widespread corruption at every level in the process of awarding and executing the annual maintenance contract by the politician-bureaucrat-engineer-contractor nexus, which has allegedly minted money under the pretext of maintenance work. It is alleged that the contractors and the engineers overlooked the looming threat of breach in Kusaha which finally burst and inundated the area."

While a barrage was built to manage the flow of the river, there was no mechanism to check the heavy silt that the river carries. "During our discussions with the scientific community and the people, it became clear that siltation was a major reason behind the Kosi's changed course. People said they had been complaining against heavy siltation and had expected the Kosi to change its path, but the authorities turned a blind eye," Jha said.

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