Despite advance warning, floods again catch Bihar unaware

Bihar has not learnt lessons from previous floods and has once again been caught napping. Officials perhaps prefer to spend more on relief and rehabilitation than prevention and cure

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

Ashlin Mathew

This year, exclaims Dinesh Mishra, there was sufficient warning given well in advance about the impending flood situation in Bihar but the state government does not appear prepared to deal with it.

PTI Photo
PTI Photo
Flood-affected people, sheltering along a road, wait for food in Motihari district of Bihar on Thursday 

“If the government wants to follow flood relief as a policy, then what can one say? Instead of warning people, saving homes and lives, they indulge in flood relief,” adds Mishra, an IIT civil engineer, who has devoted a lifetime studying the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins, in exasperation.

While Mishra does not say this, the implication is obvious. The state government and officials are not interested in flood-prevention or in taking preventive and relief measures in advance. They would rather wait for floods to wreak havoc, then calculate losses and announce colossal sums of money for flood relief, emergency operations, buying boats, food and medicine.

“As soon as the flood relief is announced, all the other important issues are relegated to the background. The question then moves from prevention of floods to the amount announced. It turns people into beggars,” says Mishra.

PTI Photo
PTI Photo
An Air Force personnel dropping flood relief packets for the flood-affected people in West Champaran district of Bihar on Friday 

Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People believes the worst is yet to come. “The level at the flood forecasting sites have already crossed the highest levels recorded in 1968 and 1987. At Dhengraghat, the level is 11 cms above the Highest Flood Level (HFL) and at Jhawa, 53 cms. The rate at which the water level rose is unprecedented. It was never this fast. There was sufficient warning, yet nothing was done.”

“No major flood has happened in Bihar after 2007. As many as 2.5 crore people were affected then. That was the worst flood. Last year there was a medium flood because of the Farakka barrage. This year 98 lakh people have already been displaced,”says Mishra.

“In 1948, when floods happened, people were looking for boats,” recalls Mishra with anger in his voice, Now, after 70 years, people are still looking for boats to escape. This shouldn’t be happening.”

“When people get some money and a quintal of rice, they forget and get complacent. They keep quiet. How much food can be transported on a helicopter. And if a neta gets on that helicopter, even less food can be air-lifted. But this is not the time to debate. This is when relief should reach those in need, emphasises Mishra.

The government is meant to protect people from floods and to do that the government constructs embankments. “Every year these embankments are breached, yet the government keeps on constructing embankments without any study. Rivers keep meandering and wherever the river meets the embankments, the chances of breaching are higher,” reminded Mishra.

The Kosi embankment had been breached in Kusaha in Nepal leading to a major flood in 2008. “This water spread to 4.153 lakh hectares and the area protected by the embankment was 2.4 lakh hectares. This shows that the area flooded was twice as much as the area protected by embankments,” said Mishra.

The Kosi project had cost ₹37.31 crore in 1955 and if the project had been completed in 2008, it would have cost ₹960 crore. “Bihar Government had estimated the total loss in 2008 to be ₹14,800 crore. Will someone calculate the cost benefit ratio of the project,” asks Mishra.

In 2016, the Bihar government had announced ₹315 crore for flood relief measures. In 2013-14, the government had pegged the loss to the exchequer due to floods to ₹14,000 lakh and in 2012-13 to ₹621 lakh. It is based on these losses that each year flood relief is computed.

During the 2007 flood, when 22 districts had been affected, there were 32 breaches in different embankments and 52 breaches in state and national highways.

“The flood then continued for almost three months. Drains were blocked due to sedimentation. Common sense suggests that a massive drainage clearance programme should have been undertaken by the government; instead they plugged the breaches, raised the embankments, strengthened them and massive road reconstruction programmes were undertaken. The flood waters wanted an exit but they were blocked extensively,” explains Mishra. So, the devastation caused by the flood is both natural and man-made, it would seem.

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Published: 19 Aug 2017, 12:50 PM