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'Tsunami of Bihar' could have been avoided
Sheela Bhatt
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August 29, 2008 20:53 IST
Last Updated: August 30, 2008 14:43 IST

"These are not floods. This is worse than Tsunami [Images]," says Janta Dal-United President Sharad Yadav while talking to media persons about the devastation caused by the Kosi river, which flows from Nepal into India.

He has just returned to New Delhi [Images] from a tour of the flood-affected areas like Madhepura, the constituency he once represented, and Supaul.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] has described the floods in Bihar as a 'national calamity'. On Thursday, he announced an immediate assistance of Rs 1,000 crore to the state for rescue and relief operations and 1.25 lakh tonnes of foodgrains.

People, who have visited the affected areas, are amazed by the flooding in the most unexpected areas.

"Normally, residents of northern Bihar are prepared for Kosi's fury. Boats are available in villages. When rains come, people keep few assets in houses. But this time, after some 125 years, Kosi entered new areas. Nobody was expecting Kosi to maroon them," says Sanjay Jha, resident of Patna.

Yadav said: "We never expected floods in these areas. Right now, lakhs of people have shifted to terraces of their buildings or to safer places within villages."

Floods have come in one part of the area traditionally called 'mithilanchal' where most people speak only 'Maithili', one of the highly refined languages of India.

Floods have engulfed highways and villages, farms and centuries-old habitats.

Yadav says, "People are still not ready to vacate the houses because they don't want to leave their belongings behind. They have gone on higher floors or terraces."

These people don't have enough food to eat nor do they have potable water.

Preventive measures not taken

It is shocking story of chalta hai (take it easy) attitude of the state and central government that has caused such misery to the people of Bihar.

By all accounts, Kosi has not fully flooded yet, says a source in Kathmandu who has visited the area. If more rains hit the area in September then, the situation will be more dangerous than it is now.

Right now, the flooding is due to a break in some part of the embankment on the Nepal side that has rushed in waters into India and displaced 50,000 Nepalis and more than 2 million Biharis.

"There seems to be slackness on both sides. It seems that even the mandatory repair work was not done," says Yubraj Ghimire, senior journalist, from Kathmandu.

According to a high-level source in Indian Embassy in Nepal, on August 10 when Kosi started swelling the threat to the embankment over Kosi on the Nepal side increased.

A team of engineers from Bihar did visit the Sunsari district of Nepal, which falls in Kosi region. 

An Indian source in Kathmandu told, "The team of engineers from Bihar found that villagers of the surrounding areas were sitting on an embankment to save their own lives and refused to move out or allow the Indian team to conduct repair work. The embankment is the only bridge over Kosi. So they refused to move out."

This embankment has lived its life and the breach is not surprising.

India has been trying to tame the Kosi since 1956, after the devastating floods of 1954.

India and Nepal signed two treaties in the 1950s -- The Kosi Treaty of 1954 and the Gandak Treaty of 1959. Both treaties have been always political issues in elections in Nepal.

In 1956, the construction of eastern and western embankment of 105 and 106 km respectively, began. India's plan was to build the big dam at Barakshetra inside Nepal, but somehow the latter has always been, expectedly, ultra-sensitive on issue of taming their rivers, which flow down to India.

Within 24 hours of becoming prime minister, Prachanda said the Kosi treaty was a historic blunder. Around 32 km of the eastern embankment located in Nepal suffered massive damage on August 17. 

"Actually, the engineers never expected that such a big damage will follow soon," says a source in Kathmandu.

The management of embankments on Kosi is India's responsibility. The Bihar government maintains an office in Nepal for river management.

When Indian engineers visited Sunsari district, they recorded that river waters were almost 3 meters above on one side of the embankment. The truck carrying materials was not allowed to move near the weak part by the local people. Also, a tussle took place with local contractor over materials.

Nepal is passing through political transition. So higher authorities could not help when the local collector and home secretary were contacted, says a source in Kathmandu.

Local population comprises Tharu and Yadavs, who refuse to vacate the location.

"If the government of Bihar had conducted regular repair work in the dry season, this calamity could have been averted," says Indian source in Kathmandu.

Kosi's catchment area is massive and the river carries one of the highest amounts of slit in the world. As a result, Nepal is unable to benefit as expected in power generation.

"Nepali government should have been more helpful in helping repairs before August 18," says an Indian officer in Kathmandu.
Unfortunately, Bihar government officials associated with the project informed the Indian embassy in Kathmandu only on August 18 of the difficulties faced by them. By that time it was too late and Kosi had changed its course to wreck entire the north-east part of 'Mithilanchal'.

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