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Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Bihar Water Resources Minister: These are not ordinary times, even for flood work

Bihar Water Resources Minister and national general secretary of JD(U) Sanjay Kumar Jha speaks to The Indian Express on efforts to deal with the pandemic as well as the flood situation, and the upcoming Assembly elections.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Updated: August 1, 2020 7:56:52 am
bihar floods, Sanjay Kumar Jha, bihar elections 2020 Sanjay Kumar Jha

What is the flood situation in Bihar?

As of July 31, 108 blocks in 14 districts are affected. According to our estimates, that means over 39 lakh people are affected. One of the main issues is two to three breaches on the Gandak and a couple on Budhi Gandak river. About 72 hours before heavy rain, we send an alert to the district. In Bihar, people live inside embankments too. So if there is an alert, our engineers are made aware, and people are asked to move from the embankments. Following the July 9-11 heavy rainfall, and again on July 19-21, there was a heavy rain alert in the Gandak catchment of Nepal, and the concentration of rain was above 200 mm at several gauge stations. In hundreds of places, our engineers have continued working on seepage and piping day and night.

What is the forecast for the near future and what are your preparations?

In the last 24 hours, while Gandak has been stabilising; Budhi Gandak and Adhwara group rivers have received a lot of discharge from Nepal and levels show a rising trend. In two to three days we expect rain to subside in the Gandak, Budhi Gandak, and at Baghmati, Adhwara and Mahananda catchments. Water levels of Gandak, Budhi Gandak, Adhwara group rivers and Mahananda have set new records this July… breaking those set in the 1987. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been especially concerned about ensuring that people living inside embankments move out in time. In his daily stocktaking briefings, he seeks to know not only about rainfall, river trends, forecasts and flood-fighting efforts, but also the relief and rescue efforts.

Bihar’s floods are almost an annual ritual. How has Covid-19 affected operations this year?

We had a lockdown from March 24, and that was the peak time for the department to do anti-erosion work. No trucks could come. No labour or engineer could go to the site. After April 10 or 12, the CM exempted this work from the lockdown. But that was not enough. We made a cell that contractors could contact if they had issues with material, so we could contact the factory outside the state, or the district collector concerned, and get the truck moving. Only then were we able to finish 393 critical anti-erosion work, which was difficult. Engineers also tested positive. We are sending people from headquarters, but they are not familiar with the terrain. These are not ordinary times, even for flood work.

A month ago you said there were issues with maintenance work on the Gandak barrage on the Nepal side. What is the status on that?

This becomes a country-to-country thing. MEA deals with them. Our representative also sits in Kathmandu. There have been some issues relating to work this time. Here, it is our government, and we did the work accordingly. But we do flood fighting and anti-erosion work in Nepal side also. There was a lockdown there, and we had no access. So we requested the MEA. I said that even if we fix everything, what will happen if things go wrong upstream. But they stopped our engineers. They said they would let them go only after thermal screening. Later, they agreed they could go. I don’t want to speak on India-Nepal relations, but things were not as smooth this year.

Read| LJP asks EC to not hold Bihar elections in Oct-Nov, says polls in pandemic will endanger lives

The opposition says that amid flood and Covid, CM Nitish Kumar is not stepping out and is focused only on elections. What is your response?

From day one Nitish Kumar has been monitoring, reviewing every day. The number of migrants who came was not small, 30-40 lakh. I think he managed it well. Quarantine centres were opened. I travelled with him in June by road to Darbhanga and Madhubani, to review work on the India-Nepal border. He has seen other points of the flood situation. It is true that if the CM moves too much, the administration of different regions gets affected. As far as elections is concerned, it is for the Election Commission to decide. As far as my party is concerned, JDU is for the election. Why people are running away from elections, I don’t know. Because they have seen the Lok Sabha results and they were wiped out. They have seen their future.

But if the Covid curve is high, or amid floods, how will an election happen without say rallies, or people coming to vote?

We have time. Let’s see how things unfold in August. EC has come out with details like increasing booths, etc. Let them take a call. We hope things improve in Bihar. Death rates are minimal, recovery rates are more than national average. Things are not as bad as projected. This is a global problem.

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