With the prospect of another flood looming from the Kosi six years after it had ravaged nine districts, a wary Bihar government has made its alertness clear, especially when the impending crisis coincides with criticism for the way it handled the 2008 flood.
The report of the Justice Rajesh Balia committee, which examined the flood and the government effort, was tabled in the assembly and legislative council last week. It has pointed at a “lackadaisical attitude of engineers and officials”.
The fresh crisis comes with Nepal having released water from the Bhote Kosi following landslides in Sindhupalchowk. This time, the Bihar government has flown in experts to the Kosi barrage at Birpur, opened all floodgates to prepare it for a gush, and ordered forced evacuation of people living in the space between the river and its embankments.
The 2008 floods caused 217 deaths and affected 8.5 lakh people. The eastern embankment in Nepal’s Kushaha, adjoining Supaul in Bihar, had breached on August 18, 2008.
The Justice Balia committee report blames the breach on “poor maintenance work”. It has found that anti-erosion and flood protection work, and wireless messages had been “ignored by senior officials”, and that the then engineer-in-chief and chief engineer had failed to provide leadership during the crisis.
“Pressure on spur at 12.10 km of the Kushaha embankment from July 31 was not tackled seriously,” the report says. For two days, flood-fighting work was suspended because of firing practice by Royal Nepal Army and a fight between locals and workers, it says.
The Bihar water resources department, the committee says, had failed to coordinate with field officers. “The panel of Ganga Flood Control Commission and Kosi High Level Committee did not have coordination,” it says, adding that the money sanctioned for flood control works was less than needed.
The committee has also found that the state government had failed to “carry out a morphological survey of Kosi river”. The river had been flowing along the left (eastern) bank for years, putting pressure on that bank, which was eventually breached in 2008, the report says. It observes that a massive de-silting exercise should have been taken up to clear the silt on the western side and allow the river closer to the middle. Following the report, the government has now set up two committees to look into erosion of the embankment and remedial measures.
The report says flood control measures were “substandard” and there could be differences between money allotted and work actually done. Of 86 panchayats affected in the nine districts, the worst-hit were in Saharsa, Madhepura and Saharsa with 247 villages and 7,50,156 people affected, and crops on 50,769 lakh hectares partially or fully damaged. Out of a target of rehabilitating 25,958 families, the government could rehabilitate only 5,088.
The committee has recommended that the government probe flood control measures taken between 2003 and 2008 and also why a smaller amount (than allotted) of flood control materials were taken to the spots. The committee has recommended the government examine the authenticity of work utility certificates.
It has asked the government to fix accountability on then chief engineer Satyanarayan and engineer-in-chief Devi Rajak, and recommended that a high-level committee be put in place to appoint the chief engineer and other senior officials, and that the government identify and appoint on the spot an official who can take decisions in an emergency.
Among other recommendations are flood monitoring cells, a special investigation team to inspect certain areas from time to time to help prepare flood control initiatives, and timely dispatch of flood control materials.