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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 38

Fury of Floods in Bihar

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by Subodh Kumar


The census 2001 and the growth indicators portray Bihar as one of the poorest States in India, with a highly underdeveloped economic structure and the lowest per capita income. What makes its situation unique is that Bihar is the only State in India where poverty has been uniformly at the highest level. This is primarily because the third most populous State in the country with approximately 83 million people suffer from natural calamity. With the onset of the monsoon, rivers come down from the Himalayan hills in Nepal, the river current has enormous force, this leads to rivers like Ghagra, Kamla, Kosi, Bagmati, Gandak, Ganga, Falgu, Karamhasar, Mahanadi rising above the danger level and posing a threat to North Bihar. Young Kosi, “the sorrow of Bihar”, has not yet matured enough to settle on a course, and has changed its course 15 times. There is hardly an inch of land in Mithilanchal through which the untamed river has not passed. Hence, taming young Kosi has so far appeared impossible, mainly because of financial, legal, administrative, political, environmental and construction approach constraints. The Bhimnagar barrage, which falls in Nepal, was constructed by India in 1956. The life-span of the barrage expired in 1986 but till now no concrete step has been taken to restore the safety of the Bhimnagar barrage; as a result Kosi has breached the embankment seven times and the breaking of the barrage side near Kusaha is the eighth instance and a unique one as it has led to a national calamity.

There has been hardly a year when Bihar was not exposed to the vagaries of these natural calamities. The cultural heritage of Bihar (Mithilanchal) is facing one of the most devastating floods of recent times: 20 districts and over 40 lakh population spread over 15 thousand villages of Bihar have been affected by the Kosi changing its course. The estimated death toll might cross 1000. The affected people need humanitarian assistance, and the need of the hour is to bring international, national, technical, economic and administrative power and expertise to combat the devastation caused by floods. Loss of life from floods in other parts of world has been reduced in recent years by a combination of improved forecasting, warning and planned responses. But in Bihar, if we see the past performance of the State Government, we find that, in the name of flood control, negative politics and corruption are involved. The recent flood relief scam in Bihar exposed the involvement of civil servants, contractors and politicians. Hence, hundreds of crores spent on flood relief have been siphoned away. This shows that the mechanism of good governance, which is associated with efficient and effective administration, presence of the rule of law, safeguarding of human life and property, presence of honest and efficient government, accountability and transparency and openness, is absent. Moreover, the Bihar Government’s effort is constrained by the fact that the catchments of most rivers and their tributaries which flood the Bihar plains are located outside Bihar. As the rivers originate from outside the State, their management is beyond the competence of the Government of Bihar. Long-term flood control measures like afforestation, construction of reservoirs on tributaries, groundwater storage through large-capacity artesian wells in the Terai areas, which can be operational in the dry season and allow to recharge during monsoon so on, needs the cooperation of the Nepal Government. Moreover, India must start fresh bilateral diplomacy with Nepal since Nepal has an elected government. This will reduce the suffering of millions of the population living in Mithilanchal, which is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. Attempts must be made to engage multilateral institutions so that Nepal produces 3000 MW of electricity, of which a substantial part can be sold to India to bring improvement in the real income of the Nepalese and meet the energy deficiencies of the eastern region of India.

THE National Commission on Flood identified Bihar as one of the most flood affected States in India. After independence 25 lakh hectares of land were flood prone, but now the figure is 50 lakh hectares. Moreover, Bihar alone faces about 22.8 per cent of devastation caused by floods in India, where the food affected area is only 16.5 per cent. This implies maximum devastation occurs in a small flood affected area. In Uttar Pradesh the flood affected area is 25.1 per cent, but only 14.7 per cent area is devastated. In West Bengal the flood affected area is 11.5 per cent, but only 9.7 per cent land is devastated, whereas in Orissa 6.8 per cent land is flood-affected but only 4.8 per cent of land is destroyed.

In 1928, writing about the floods in Bihar, the Chairman of the Flood Committee, Adams Williams noted that the problem is not how to prevent floods, but how to pass them as quickly as possible to the sea. And the solution lies in removing all the obstacles which militate against this result. Moreover, flooding is ecologically necessary for sustainable development. Human activity should be made compatible with flooding, so that floods do not cause great distress and losses. In the 1992 Rio Summit there was a realisation that floods are important dimensions of the sustainability of the communities. The Ganga Flood Control Commission reports can serve as an useful aid to the government for flood relief. In Bihar, faulty land use, which results in blocking the drainage of rivers or its large tributaries, has caused severe damage.

After independence, embankments were one of the important means to control floods. The embankments fundamentally undermine natural drainage by interfering with its flow circuits. It also prevents water from draining back into the rivers. In a nutshell, embankments either end up making the rivers more volatile or transfer the fury of the flood to non-embanked areas.

Another way of controlling floods is to opt for rainwater harvesting. Attempts should be made to create water bodies which would store the water, either under the ground or in talaavs. During the Bangladesh floods, one US presidential committee under Harvard’s Roger Reveille calculated that millions of feet of water could be stored under the ground during floods. Though dams are important, there should be a better understanding of the frequency of water that floods the plains. The classic case is the Mekong River Agreement which provides for the minimum reverse flow of water in the monsoon into the Tonle Sap, a lake in Cambodia. In the same way, after the floods of 1998 China built the three Gorges Water Conservancy Project in Hubei province. The project consists of a water conservancy project, a reservoir construction and resettlement project, and a power transmission and transforming project. It is a massive project, millions of people have been rehabilitated before 2008, the year of the Olympics.

In 2007 and at the time of 60 years of independence devastating floods came and threatened the life of 20 per cent of the total population spread over 22 districts. The official death toll was 1200, the Government of Bihar appointed N. Sanyal to head the Committee on Bihar Floods. The report recommended that the possibility of procuring the equipment Hungary uses be explored as Hungary has embankments along the Danube. The report was submitted to the government early this year. The government is yet to go through its recommendations.

Thus, the time has come to analyse the various reports of the National Commission on Floods and analyse the success of flood control measures in other countries so that a long-term strategy can be drawn to control floods. This calls for a massive investment which Bihar cannot afford by itself. If the National Commission on Floods considers these problems and formulates policy, then with their human resources, Bihar will start growing to become one of the ideal States for all time to come and the politics of social justice will transform into the politics of the market.


1. Barker, Sophie, Caste at Home in Hindu India, Jonathan Cape, London, 1990.

2. Prasad, K.N., Dimensions of Development; Analysis of an Underdeveloped State, Vol.1, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1998.

3. Alagh, K. Yogender, “With Floods Comes the Gravy Train”, Indian Express, Delhi, June 2005.

4. Hindustan, Patna, July 3, 2003.

5. Krishna Gopal, Living with the Politics of Floods, The Indus Telegraph, April 30, 2005.

6. Mishra, Dinesh Kumar, Above the Danger Mark, World Commission on Dam, 1999, Vol.12 No.(I), January 1999.

7. Varma, Subodh, “Bihar Devastating Katrina”, The Times of India, August 26, 2008.

8. Shaibal, Gupta, Conversation (Discussion), Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna, Bihar.

Dr Subodh Kumar is a Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi.

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