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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43

Fighting the Flood Ravages of Kosi

Friday 17 October 2008, by Shree Shankar Sharan


A brave fight is on against the flood ravages of the Kosi in the Kosi division spread over Saharsa, Madhepura and Supaul districts which had been flood free for 50 years after the building of the Kosi Barrage and embankments because of a breach in the eastern embankment at Kusaha one km long and 12 km upstream in Nepal. The breach had been preceded by erosion and blame has been thrown respectively for failure for timely repairs on the State Government, the Central Government and the Government of Nepal which is both under a Central and a State judicial inquiry. I have tried to summarise below only the ongoing relief operations covering nearly 25 lakhs of the affected population.

My report is based on on my four day-tour of the division from the September 22 to 25. I had gone on behalf of the Bihar Relief Committee as its Working President, the Club of 55, and in my personal capa-city as a former Commissioner of Kosi Division way back in 1974 (as I had done for the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat and the Ahmedabad riots).

My tour and visits to relief camps extended to Bhimnagar, Raghopur, Bhaisi,Tribeniganj in Supaul district, Singheshwar, Madhepura, the Deenapatti camp, a self-made camp of the refugees by the canal before the major breach on the road and the rail link to Muraliganj (then Purnea) the Sadar hospital in Madhepura diastrict, Baijnathpur and Mega camps in Baijnathpur, Patelnagar, Stadium, the Sail camp and Sadar hospital at Saharsa. Besides I had extensive discussions with the DMs of Mahepura and Saharsa and finally with the Commissioner, Kosi Division at Saharsa. In the absence of the DM at Supaul I met junior officers followed by a telephonic talk with the DM, Supaul.

Voluntary Relief Work

BESIDES, I interacted with a large number of NGOs who had come to Saharsa with a massive quantity of relief material with their own workers. Prominent among them were the Sarv Sewa Sangh, Sarvoday Mandal, Ghoghardiha Vikas Samiti, Kosi Chunauti, Sajha Prayas,the Ekta Parishad etc.

besides the more major agencies, for example, Oxfam, Helpage India, Patna Saheb Langar, camps of the Jagran, Hindustan etc. Medical teams had come voluntarily from AIMS, Mumbai, Gujarat, Mathura, Kanpur etc. The interaction was made easy by my choice of residence at the guest house of Khadi Bhandar in preference to the Circuit House. Eighty volunteers from all over the country were parked there with some of whom I had the opportunity to interact.

This was the important aspect of the fight against the flood ravages. It was being fought by people from all over the country which reflected the unity of the country and the bond that each part felt for the other though the main brunt fell on the government.

One of the most heartwarming sights was the continuous stream of trucks that were reaching Saharsa and elsewhere loaded with relief material. in token of the concern of the country for the victims of Saharsa.

Rescue Work of the Stranded Flood Victims

RESCUE was done almost entirely by the Army of which there were 25-30 columns .Each column had rescued on an average 3000 people. Besides volunteers from neighboring districts led by activists or victims’ relatives had also done a heroic job in rescuing or providing relief to victims traumatised by the first flush in private hired boats Private boats also rescued those who could afford at exorbitant prices. The government or government hired boats did not exist with the visit of the first floods but were arranged later though the famine code provisions about a roster of boats that can summon, and scheduled fares should be followed in the Kosi Division, whether floods come or not..

Distribution of GR

EQUALLY heartwarming was the sight of a stream of tractor trailers loaded with government grains to be issued as gratuitous relief to the victims at selected distribution points.

I visited several distribution points at Tribeniganj, near Bhimnagar in Supaul, and a few in Madhepura. Large crowds, both from the BPL and APL had come to receive grains and cash relief and stood in an orderly fashion to receive 50 kg each of rice and wheat (total 100 kgs) and Rs 2250 in cash. I sat and saw the distribution for a time at each centre but found no deficit in grain quantity or cash. As the flood had hit both the BPL and the APL it was wise to disdtribute GR to both.

GR at this scale and speed was unprecedented in Bihar. The distribution was made by the mukhiya or panchayat staff in the presence of a block staff. The Commissioner told me that he had selected the election box collection centres as distribution points. The only advice I gave him was to take a macro view and so plan things that the entire operation was completed in one month’s time. Since the grains were issued in bags some bags should be random checked to ensure correct quantities. If a particular grain was not available a note was made in the coupon issued to claim it on a fixed date. I hope the time table will be maintained.

Relief in Cut off Areas

ONE of our major worries was how to reach relief and GR in the inaccessible blocks of the division cut off by the new Kosi channel, though some had been penetratred by NGOs by boat with the Army’s help regardless of risk to life and the brave armymen had also taken a hand in distributing dry relef besides rescue. The DM, Madhepura with the SP had also visited by boat Murliganj which he described as a ghost city and Behariganj still flourishing as only one side had been affected. A solution that I suggested was to reach these areas by tagging them with neighboring districts of the Kosi Division on the other side which could access them. I was told that this had already been done or was about to be done. Thus Chatapur has been tagged with Araria, and Murliganj and Behariganj with Purnea.

One of the voluntary medical teams from Kanpur informed me how they had in a day treated 700 patients in one such area and also with the Army’s help distributed dry relief. Relief had also been sent to more distant areas by three-wheelers in Behariganj.

Fighting the Outbreak of Disease

IN Singheswar the medical officer from Jharkhand reported 40-50 cases of diarrhea every day. There was a shortage of pedriatic drugs. On an emergency basis, drugs were sent from the Sadar hospital after we intervened with the DM and the civil surgeon.

Sadar hospital, Saharsa claimed no shortage of drugs but a huge increase in outdoor patents to about 700- 800 a day. Medicines were issued free to whoever needed it, including attendants of patients or anybody who claimed to be a victim. In effect it was free medicine for all. From their death register it appeared that deaths had jumped from 45 to 93 in a month, and were apparently flood related. An IAS officer from Haryana on a relief mission had a heart attack and was referred to Patna. There seemed occasional hold-ups in referring serious patents to Patna for lack of suitable transport arrangements which should be instutionalised.

The diseases were generally diarrhea, gastro enteritis and anemia and occasionally kalazar. There were suitable isolation wards. There were 25 doctors and occasionally volunteer doctors. Since this was a referral hospital to the camps the number of doctors should be reviewed and more doctors deputed. The beds were old and the OT in poor shape. They should be remodelled and replaced.

In the mega camps I saw excellent ambulances sent by Gujerat distributed over the division. Also one sent by the Delhi Government of mediocre quality with some skeleton staff of the disaster management authority. Futher demands can be made on them. The relief measures have surely stemmed the outbreak of epidemic which is creditable but more cases are pouring from the inaccessible areas.

There is a shortage of specialists who should be sent from the medical college hospitals on two week deputations in batches. Since gynae cases and child birth abound more gyneocologists should be deputed.

Relief Camps

ONE of the major consolations of the Kosi tragedy is the high quality of the relief camps and even more of the mega camps. Inmates range from afew hundred to 2600-4000 in mega camps The latter are lined with rows of tents and shamianas .Food is served twice. It consists of rice, dal and vegetables, unlike the uniform and drab khichari of the past relief operations. Milk is served to children every morning. At some places choora is also served as breakfast. There is a legitimate demand for supplementary afternoon meal to children like biscuits .The Commissioner has agreed to it as also to tea.

There are altogether 214,955 people in about 250 relief camps, both government and non-government. Now that GR is being issued both in grain and cash for a month distress is bound to abate. In the new arrangement no area will be inaccessible. We were impressed with how well they were being looked after.

There was a demand for clothes and roti in one of the meals and both are being arranged.

There is an attempt to teach children to be literate, teach women and men new craft skills as candle making, and incense candles and use female inmates to make chapattis for which there is a growing demand. Under NREGA victims will be used to desilt, build platforms for future flood shelters and dig ponds. I would strongly suggest khadi and village industries should be added to the training courses as a means of future self-employment.

Some of the classes I saw were heartwarming. The camps and those who conceived them are turning a tragedy into an opportunity, to elevate cultural standards. They deserve the society’s eternal debt. They also help to make the dull and lonely life in camps meaningful, enjoyable and productive for which payments are also under consideration.

There is a string of improvised huts of victims along the Deenapatti canal right upto Kattaya set up by themselves and aided by private agencies and many now coopted by the government in their camps though they continue to reside in their own jhuggis.

There is only one dark cloud in the figure given out of deaths which will qualify the families for compensation under the Disaster Management Act. This matter should not be dealt with in a cavalier way as the government figures depart sharply from people’s estimates and do not reconcile with the nature of the tragedy with a 10 ft wall of water hitting the front villages of the district after Nepal without a warning and sweeping away the old, children and women. We heard plenty of reports of floating dead bodies that were pushed back to the water after they were stuck. The Commissioner said the list of missing persons will soon be compiled after the water recedes following which the estimates of deaths can be more accura-tely prepared. Till then it will be wiser not to give a figure.

Whatever may have been the faults in instant response to the floods and there are reports of the government machinery abandoning their post to save themselves, and the time taken to organise them they now present a good model of relief seldom reached before.

Nitish Kumar, whose political will and vision has made it possible, has proved himself to be some (no ordinary) Chief Minister. The compliment does not stop there. We have some (no ordinary) Commissioner in the Kosi Division in the innovative and creative Sirohi and hard working, energetic and responsible district officers in Saharsa in Lakshmanan, Supaul in Shravan Kumaran and Madhepura in Jitendra Kumar. Similarly all officers at the State headquarters, the Chief Secretary, the Development Commissioner and the Disaster Management Commissioner, who have had a hand in shaping the relief operations, should also be similarly praised.

But so far only Half the Job has been Done

THE future will call for massive efforts for rehabilitation, relocation, aiding the resumption of agricultural operations by arranging seeds and inputs by providing NC and Taccavi loans on joint bonds and possibly consumption loans to the middle class who will shy of HML schemes. All old loans of banks or land improvement loans for the year will have to be written off and rescheduled

The State will be put to harder test in the coming months

The restoration of the Kosi project is not the same as plugging the gap at Kusaha. It can be viable only by regulating the Kosi upstream by a high level dam or smaller dams in its seven tributaries.. A high level dam is also potentially risky in a seismic zone in the unstable Himalayas. Smaller and several dams at several points may be more viable.

Till this happens the flow of Kosi being forced through a single channel to push silt more effectively has not been empirically proved. The government should consult experts on a second barrage in the east and the eastern and western barrages being linked by a canal to take care of the whims of the meandering river.

But all this after the Kusaha breach has been plugged to which the State Government must direct its energies. To drain water logged areas faster more outlets should be provided during road repair which has started and should pick up speed. The repair of the railway line to Purnea should be pressed with the Railways who have engaged in many negative comments on the State Government. More outlets for water flow should be enjoined both on Railways and NH authorities than are now in existence.

The Bihar Relief Committee hopes to open its own camps in the more difficult areas which will include winter gear after it has arranged funds it has asked for from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund.

The author, a retired IAS officer, is the Working President of the Bihar Relief Committee and Bihar’s representative in the Club of 55.

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