It was gracious of the PM to declare Kosi floods a “national calamity” after an aerial survey of the vast area reeling under the fury of Kosi. Since it suddenly changed its course after breaching its embankment in Nepal on August 18, Kosi has moved 120 km eastward, inundating huge tracks of low land in hundreds of villages across a large number of districts in east Bihar. The Central government has also pledged an immediate assistance of Rs 1,000 crore as well as1.25 lakh tonnes of foodgrain to the Bihar government in order to tackle the calamity in right earnest.
Going back a few decades in the history, can one imagine that the Central government in 1956 had conceived of a plan to construct a dam on the Kosi at Barahkshetra in Nepal at an estimated cost of Rs 100 crore? Apart from controlling the flood, the dam was expected to irrigate 1.25 million hectares of land and produce 3,300 MW of electricity. The project was eventually shelved, apparently due to cost factor.
Bihar has the distinction of being the most flood-affected state of the country, accounting for about 17 per cent of the flood-prone area of the country. Even if we discount the loss of infrastructure and crops costing thousands of crores of rupees, the tragedy affecting the lives of people and cattle can not and should not be discounted. It is not only the loss of lives, but the uprooting, the separation from near and dear ones, the trauma and uncertainties faced by children and the washing away of the lifelong earnings of poor families, which constitute the tragedy. If there is an agreement on this aspect of tragedy, we should analyse whether, if a solution is available, the government should have tried that, whatever the cost? Especially if people know that the disaster affecting them could have been averted if timely measures were taken.
Embankment is only a temporary solution, especially for a river that brings in a lot of silt. Scientists and hydrologists all over the world agree that flood can be controlled only if there is control of discharge. Embankments can at best prevent water from spreading. However, if there is heavy silting (as is the case with Kosi), it puts pressure on the river’s spurs and embankments. The breach of embankment at Kusaha is no disaster. If the breach which is growing by over 200 meters a day, reaches the Bhimnagar barrage which is only 12 km away, and the barrage which crossed its estimated life span of 30 years some 22 years back gives in, it will be a real calamity. Paradoxically, when the idea of dam construction was dropped, construction of Kosi Barrage, also called Bhimnagar barrage (following an agreement between India and Nepal), with embankments below and above the barrage was taken up as a temporary measure. The effort could not take off beyond construction and repair of embankments year after year for several reasons. One main reason was a lack of agreement between the governments of Nepal and India. It need s to be appreciated that there is no international convention regulating water-sharing between upper and lower riparian states and therefore a bilateral agreement between two countries, where the upper riparian country has obviously an upper hand, needs to be reached with lot of groundwork. Somehow, this could never happen. It is estimated that in 1954, when the state had 160 km of embankment, the flood prone area was only 2.5 million hectares. In 2002, the embankment is 3,430 kms and the flood prone area has gone up to 6.88 million hectares.
It is believed that when the case of prioritisation of projects was being considered by Pandit Nehru due to fund constraints, Pratap Singh Kairon turned out to be more convincing than Srikrishna Singh, and therefore Bhakra Nagal Project was taken up in preference to Barahkshetra. Bihar lost its race to Punjab in becoming the granary of the country. The long term consequence of that one decision is more telling — from being among the top three states of the country in terms of per capita income and administration in the early ‘50s, Bihar has languished at the bottom of the ladder for decades. We need to understand why a serious effort has not been made to address the issues. The financial losses caused due to recurring devastation, coupled with the hundreds of crores of rupees spent on embankments year after year, would easily set aside the financial problem theory. Even though the immediate cause of the present disaster is the negative approach of the Nepal government, in that it allowed (or encouraged?) local resistance to the repair work that was being attempted by Bihar engineers to plug the breach at Kusaha in Nepal, relations have been sufficiently cordial, so as not to frustrate a project that would benefit both countries.
Of the Himalayan component of the National Perspective Plan prepared by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), 6 river links are directly related to Bihar. These are Kosi-Mechi, Kosi-Ghagra, Chunar-Sone Barrage, Sone Dam — Southern tributaries of Ganga, Gandak-Ganga and the Brahmaputra-Ganga (Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga) link canal. As part of the project, a multi-purpose high dam across river Kosi is proposed near the village Barahkshetra in Nepal. Besides the high dam, a barrage across Kosi river is also planned near village Chatra, 10-12 km below the dam, to transfer water to Mechi river through the Kosi-Mechi link canal. The Barahkshetra dam, the Chatra barrage and the Kosi-Mechi link will not only control the danger of recurrent floods, they will also bring in much needed prosperity to Nepal and plains of east Bihar through irrigation and hydro-power supply.
Let the present devastation catalyse the decision to undertake the projects which have been deferred for decades, especially because there is a potential to turn the state around in one go. The sympathy factor stemming from human tragedy and the backlash generated against Nepal can be leveraged to expedite these projects.
The writer is joint secretary, CSIR