Published: Monday 15 May 2000

Crisis, not corruption

I read the cover story 'A flood of money' ( Down To Earth , No 8 Vol 13, November 30, 1999). Me and my colleagues feel that the writer has merely sensationalised a serious issue with half-truths and alleged corruption. It is a superficial analysis of the flood related problems of a state that annually bears the brunt of severe floods and inundation, impacting the lives of 46 million people residing in 28 flood prone districts. In the beginning of the story, the writer terms the recurring problems as a 'bogey'. This is no bogey. Floods are a recurring reality for the state where a large population of people brace to meet the wrath and excess of nature, with resilience and fortitude and through measures that are nationally prescribed as being the only possible short and medium term solution.

In the story, most of the people interviewed sadly represent only one aspect of the picture which skits the central issue of flood and environment and instead blows up unconnected aspects of corruption and money making. The writer should have attempted to first understand the multifaceted issues of the subject before embarking to write on it. He has misquoted the minister and secretary of the Bihar water resources department and denigrated the entire engineering community of the State.

Moreover, the story does not clearly state why and when the Kosi and other embankments were constructed and what "a without embankment scenario" means for the state. The writer does not seem to be aware as to what was the gravity of the situation without the Kosi embankment. Soon after Independence it became the prime duty of the Union and the state government to provide some relief to the hapless population of the district along the Kosi river better known as the "river of sorrow". Diseases like malaria and Kala-azar were rampant. Today, due to the embanking of the river these districts are free from such diseases and the local economy has risen to a point where agriculture and horticulture products are equated with the plantations of Kerala and its greenery. Unfortunately, the writer overlooks these developments. Instead he quotes police officers in an essential hydrological/hydraulic project. This only brings out the frivolity of the article-and its effort to mislead the readers....

Stating some facts

The cover story 'A flood of money' ( Down To Earth , No 8 Vol 13, November 30, 1999) has made a deliberate yet futile attempt to prove that the construction of embankment along major rivers, as measures to control flood, have backfired in Bihar. It does also mention that flood related damages and flood prone areas have only increased since Independence -- and so has corruption. Besides, the author has attempted to question the integrity of the engineers associated with the planning and construction of embankments, in particular and the state of Bihar in general.

In this context, it is necessary to highlight some technical as will as factual points, relating construction of embankment. Almost all rivers in North Bihar originate from the northern Himalayan range in Nepal. Before entering the Bihar plain, these rivers pass through the hilly terrain of Nepal (where the country slope is quite steep). The North Bihar plain has a much flatter slope. Due to this, the rivers entering Bihar experience a sudden fall in velocity causes siltation in the riverbed. Moreover, due to alluvium soil, both the edges of a river are subject to erosion and as a result the river spills over and enters the countryside causing huge devastation. To combat the calamity, the concept of constructing embankments along the river course was developed.

In the river basins of north Bihar such as Kosi, Gandak and Bagmati, the necessity of constructing river embankments for flood control and infrastructure for irrigation cannot be dealt in isolation. So long as the area of the river basin is not protected from flood water, any infrastructure for irrigation cannot be thought of. The magnitude of the flood prone areas is around 50 million hectares covering 28 districts of North Bihar. It is imperative, therefore, to adopt any measure that provides succour and relief to the inhabiting population. The topography would not permit any other option and the state can not wait indefinitely for storages to be constructed in areas upstream, which are beyond the boundaries of the country.

The author has rightly said: "These rivers charge down steep, narrow gorges in the mountains, carrying enormous loads of silt. Over the years, they have built up the entire Indo-Gangetic plain. When the rivers enter the plains of Bihar, their course suddenly flattens out, forcing them to shed their silt. Overtime this causes riverbeds to rise, resulting in rivers changing their course. Between 1736 and 1936, the Kosi has migrated 120 km westward of Purnea." In view of the fact that the Kosi River used to migrate throughout its basin, a decision was taken to to construct an embankment along the river's course in order to protect maximum possible area from flood. It was also decided that a barrage would be constructed along with a network of canals for irrigation purposes. These measures have brought prosperity to the area although it cannot be denied that some areas lying in between the two embankments as well as others lying outside them suffer from water logging. But this is negligible in comparison to the protection provided to the much larger area of land. The necessary usefulness of the flood prevention measures and irrigation system can be assessed by studying the predicament of those living in the Bagmatic River basin, which does not have these measures.

As for the engineers fighting against nature and natural calamity, the problems faced while protecting the constructed embankment are really struggles against nature. There is no foolproof or everlasting solution to the problems. We are compelled to protect the embankment in the larger interest of the population. The other measures to be thought of include the construction of check dam in the upper reaches in order to stop the flow of silt down stream as well as to control the water release. Besides this, some other measures have to be adopted such as dredging of the river course, pa.

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