Dialogue  July-September  2008, Volume 10  No. 1

Kosi, Deluge and the Human Suffering

B.B. Kumar*

  Kosi: Breaching the Embankments

  Ultimately Kosi has done it. It has breached its eastern embankment at Kusaha in Nepal 12 kms above the Bhimnagar barrage; abandoned its curving course and straightened itself to follow the course followed some 200 years ago.. Repeated warnings were ignored. What has happened is exactly what a retired Chief Engineer of the Kosi Project predicted ten years ago. The second time: a major civil work was needed, and asked for since 2004, when the river flow started hitting at the embankment at that point. It was not conceded. The danger signals, clearly indicated in satellite images were ignored by the expert bodies from the Centre and the de-silting project asked for in 2007 was also not accepted. As came out from the correspondence between Centre and the State, the Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India sanctioned only Rs.1.25 lakhs for the repair work during the year after a lot of correspondence between the said ministry and the Irrigation Department of Bihar. On the other hand, 118 officials of the Ministry incurred total expenditure of Rs. 1,51,18,953 for traveling 18,86,876 kms and spending 1,530 days at foreign destinations. Prime Minister promised a thousand crores but only after the disaster and the loss of life and immense human suffering.

      Though Centre is responsible for overall upkeep of the barrage and embankments, the state should have done the needful as they tried to do at the last moment, a couple of days before the disaster. The people were not warned before hand and thousand perished. It is time proper mechanism is evolved to punish the erring irresponsible officials and not simply transferring them. The same should be done in the case of the political elite of the country.


The Deluge and the Human Suffering           


     The deluge has brought unprecedented suffering for the millions; thousands have perished in the flood; hundreds have lost their near and dear ones. Dinesh Shah (39), a labourer of Jirwa village of Saharsa district, suddenly found in dead of night his children – daughters aged 14, 12, and 2, and sons aged 9 and 5  —floating in the flood water and the thatched roof crashing; he panicked and swam across, leaving them and his wife, parents, two sisters (one of them pregnant) and their families behind. He, in vain and with vacant look, is searching them in a relief camp in Saharsa. He is looking for the known faces with the hope that some information about them may be had. But he is not the only such troubled man. There are many such Shahs who were able to save themselves and are destined to live in misery with the realization that death was a better option than life. Relief could not reach even to those who somehow survived somewhere. It was late and highly inadequate. Vasu Devi, after suffering for 15 days on the bank of a canal from hunger, blazing sun and rain, made boat of plantain trunk; her daughters, aged five and one, slipped and were washed away in the speeding current of flood water. There were cases of boats upturning resulting into death of the occupants.  The dead bodies of a mother and her two babies tied with her sari on her back with their school bags, that of a couple clasped with each other, enumerable floating dead bodies of the humans and animals provided few examples of the human suffering. Overall scenario is pathetic making one immensely unhappy.

    As reported, the flood affected 1600 villages and 30 lakh people. Three lakh houses were destroyed making 20 lakh homeless. The standing crops of 150 crores worth were destroyed; 1.25 lakh hectares of the land is inundated. As per the government provided data, 106 persons have died due to the floods, but the real death figure runs into thousands, atleast not less than ten thousand; many villages have simply been washed away. The economy of the Kosi region mainly depends on agriculture and animal husbandry. The flood has destroyed both/ Kosi has turned a large tract of fertile agricultural land into silt-filled barren land; approximately 9.18 lakh cattle have been affected. The flood came so suddenly that a large number of the people even could not untie and free their cattle. The entire population of the villages – Balua Bajar, Thataha, Matiyari, Vishnupur, Binapur, Bhawanipur – has been wiped out.  Thus the flood has almost ruined the economy of Madhepura district and parts of Supaul, Saharsa, Araria and Purnea districts. The roads and all the good development work done by the present government in the last couple of years in the flood-ravaged area have been ruined. 


The River 


      Kosi, in many respects, differs from any river, not only of India , but the world. The special features of the river make it most turbulent river of the world. Nevertheless, Kosi was not responsible for the present tragedy. It was a government-made tragedy, which has exposed the weaknesses of our politico-bureaucratic culture, the shamelessness and incompetence of our self-seeking politicians, immunity of our irresponsible bureaucrats towards the suffering of the masses and the nexus between our politicians, officials and the contractors. It has also exposed the country’s failure in managing the relationship with her neighbours and the weaknesses of our development strategy.     

       Kosi rises in the Himalayas; it drains the hilly area east of Kathmandu in Nepal . covering two highest peaks of the world – Everest and Kanchanjungha. Three main streams – Sun Koshi, Arun and Tamur Kosi – join at Triveni. Of the three, Arun rises in Tibet , cuts through a deep gorge in the Himalyan range and joins the river system. It is called Phingchu in Tibet . The other streams are Bhotia/Indrawati Kosi, Tama/Tamra Kosi, Likhu Kosi, Dudh Kosi. The main river is Son Kosi, which flows from west to east and the other branches join it to form, what is generally known in the initial stage as Sapt-Kosi. Here, it needs mention that the word ‘Kosi’ is a synonym of river in the Kiranti/Limbu language of Eastern Nepal and Sikkim . From Barah Kshetra, the river, now known as Kosi, leaves the lower hills of the mountain by three stages in violent cataracts and rapids, passing through a narrow gorge for a length of slightly more than nine kilometers, and then enters the plain lands in Nepal Tarai near Chatra. In its southwards movement in sandy alluvial plains of Nepal Tarai and Bihar, the river exhibits all the features of a deltaic stream with numerous bifurcations and interlacing as it falls in the Ganga . It enters India from eastern Nepal on the extreme north-east of Supaul district of Bihar, covers about 130 kms before joining Ganga . The river used to bring a vast amount sand and kankar (sand-stone) with it and spread it on both sides of its banks making the area most unfertile. The river inundates vast area in the plains as the river beds are usually very high and the banks rather low. The river during floods takes the shape of a moving sea Kosi, in ancient period, the Kaushiki of Vishwamitra, was a noble and sacred river. It became turbulent, violent and the ‘sorrow of Bihar’, compared to Hwangho, yellow river of China , in its capacity of relentless destruction causing immense human suffering. The river, in course of only hundred years, shifted more than a hundred kilometers to the west; has the record of shifting about twenty kilometers in a year. Kosi, during its westerly movement, has been swinging about a pivotal point opposite Belka Hill nose in Nepal with its outfall in Ganga near Kursela remaining almost on the same point. It once flowed just west of Forbesganj, Purnea and Katihar; now it flows just near Nirmali. During the course of its movement, Kosi has devastated thousand of square kilometers of fertile land making them barren.

    Total catchment of the river at Chatra is 23,000 sq. miles of which 22,00 sq miles is above snow-lines covering the two highest peaks of the world, Everest and Kanchanjungha; the catchment below Chatra is about 10,000 sq miles (50% by Baghmati; rest by other tributaries – Trijuga, Bhati Balan, Sugarway, Jangar, Balan and Kamla). Kosi is not able to transport all its sediment load received at Chatra down to the Ganges due to progressive flattening of the slope. Boulders, pebbles, shingles get deposited for a distance of about 32 kilometers below Chatra; river starts throwing down its sediment load from Balka nose onwards, where gradient decreases to 3.2 ft per mile upto Hanumannagar; this deposition of silt is responsible for braded pattern of the river in this reach/gradient varies from five feet per mile near Chatra to about half feet.

     The river carries an annual average of 95,000 acre feet of sediment load, which may be sufficient to cover about 150 sq. miles of land to a depth of one foot. This abnormally high rate of silt yield, higher than any other major river of the world, is responsible for the deluge and havoc caused by the river. In reality, Kosi carries five times as much silt as any other known river of the world.

    The average amount of run off in the Sapt-Kosi is about 406 lakh acre feet, eighty percent of which runs off during five monsoon months. It is maximum during August and minimum during February. The average peak discharge of the river during July-August, the highest due to monsoon rains and melting of the snows, is 2 to 2.5 lakh cusecs; the maximum recorded on 24 August 1954 was 8.55 lakh cusecs.

      Proposals for taming this river were made from time to time. In 1896-97, conference held at Calcutta under chairmanship of the Secretary, Government of India considered the proposal of building extensive embankment to be of doubtful efficacy. The subject was also discussed in Patna Flood Conference in 1937. it was of the view that embankments do more harm than good and merely transferred trouble from one area to another.

    The rapidity of the stream, high gradient and the geological factors make the river turbulent. The gradient is high as the river covers maximum height in shorter distance. The Himalayas in the Upper Kosi Catchment is highly compressed; the rocks are relatively young in formation. There is a wide area between Triveni and Chatra on both side of Sapta-Kosi, which is a thrust zone. As a result of folding, faulting and mountain building activity, the older rock strata slides over and covers much younger rocks, it generates excessive stress and results into shattering of the rocks. Frequent seismic disturbances do the rest. Moreover, the narrow, deep and steep sides of the Koshi valley leave no scope, as wider basins do, to spill off and spread over the coarse sediment load, the quantity of which considerably increase due to slips and land slides.             

    The problems created by the river was appreciated in as early as in 1891 and the bund construction in Nepal territory was proposed (vide Foreign Department Proceedings Ext. A June, 1891, nos. 34-38 in the national Archives, New Delhi) Prime Minister of Nepal agreed to the proposal and accordingly a telegram was sent from the Resident dated the 26th May 1891 convening acceptance of the Nepal Government for bund construction. But the project was not implemented. After that the first scheme of construction of dam for flood control and irrigation and a barrage at Chatra was prepared by A.N. Khosla, Chairman, CWPC after air survey of the 1945 floods by Lord Wavell, the then Vice-Roy and Governor-General. But, the real work started only after the air survey of the 1951 floods by Pt. Nehru. The scheme, anyway was not a successful one. 20 lakh suffer due to floods today; 80 lakhs suffer due to water-logging outside embankments. Flood effected area increased three times.


Why the breach           


     The upkeep and maintenance of the river was neglected for almost 15 years. Earlier the silt was removed from the deep river-bed. This practice was discontinued. Later on they started doing it from the water level, as the official were ignorant about nature of the river As a result, the river-bed used to be 3-4 metres higher than the land outside the embankment. At the same time, the upkeep of the spurs and the embankments was neglected. The situation was so bad that it was not possible for the engineers and the labourers to reach the breaching spot without cutting the trees and shrubs. The situation was so bad that the embankment could not withstand the flow of a meagre one lakh 77 thousand cusecs, whereas the dam could withstand the flow of 7 lakh cusecs during 1985 and sometimes even the flow of nine lakh cusecs. It needs mention that Bindeshwari Prasad Singh, Retired Chief Engineer vide his note dated29.9.1998 to the Irrigation department of Bihar predicted what has happened now. He wrote that in coming five to ten years there will be breach in either the eastern or western embankment above the barrage. As a result hundreds of villages of the nearby districts shall be inundated; thousands of men and cattle shall perish; there shall be huge destruction of property. He also mentioned that the river bed at that time was on average about three metres higher than that of the villages. As a result, the water shall flow from the height of atleast six metres after the breach. As a result of the flow of six metre high river water the village after village and atleast one storeyed houses shall be submerged in the flood and the course of the river may change permanently in that direction. The prediction has proved cent per cent true.

      The flood situation became serious due to following three reasons:

i.              The Kosi canals were not repaired for years; their water carrying capacity was reduced almost to one-third. Thus the canal hardly served as outlets of the flood water 

ii.             While the natural direction of the flow of the river water is from north-west to south-east, the railways and the roads running to the east-west direction, having few sluice-gates, obstruct natural flow of water and thereby cause prolonged flooding and water-logging. This is also the case of faulty planning.

iii.            All the gates of the barrage were not opened even after the breach of the embankment . 

     It may be mentioned that there were breaches –seven times –earlier also in the Koshi embankments, but the the flow of the river was usually very high. The seventh breach at Joginia in Nepal on July 18, 1991 was during Lalu Prasad Yadava’s regime. Obstruction by contractors of Nepal and Balua Bajar and local anti-socials instigated by them was also a factor responsible for the same. This time, the youth wing of the Maoist outfit of the Prime Minister Prachand was responsible for preventing the work at the last moment. Protection by the Nepal government was not given during both times.


Who are responsible for the disaster?


      Rather question should be asked that who is not responsible for the disaster In reality all the Governments at the Centre and the State of the last fifteen years, the Central Water Resource Ministry and the Ministry dealing with our relationship with Nepal , Irrigation department of Bihar and the expert groups share the blame. The repair should have been done atleast by 20th April of the year. The repair was attempted hardly a day or two before the breach. 


People were kept in Dark


       Kosi, as we have discussed, is a difficult river. But the river can not be blamed for the present disaster. The repair and upkeep of the dam was neglected for ten to 15 years. Even when the disaster was eminent, Kosi gave ample time, atleast two weeks, to the Government to warn people of the eminent danger to enable them to vacate and go to the safer places and the governments, both, state and the central, to facilitate the same. The government failed to inform people and the latter suffered. The river mounted pressure on the spurs at Kusaha on August 5; The Chief Engineer stationed at Birpur alerted the State’s Kosi Project Liaison Officer in Kathamandu on the same day; the officer was on leave, his phone cut off due to non-payment and there was no action from his end. He sent telegrams to eleven senior officials associated with flood water management in Patna between 9 to 16 August warning them against the imminent danger. Despite the severe erosion, which resulted into breach of the dam next day, the bulletin of the State’s irrigation and flood control department claimed that the embankments were safe. The Chief Minister was informed about the breach only the next day on August 19. During all these days, State Irrigation Minister took only the routine steps, there were no sand bags, five lakh cubic feet of boulders remained unused in the stock and Centre was not alerted even on 19th August while the breach was rapidly widening. It needs mention here that the contractor responsible for repair work was the close relative of the minister. The callous irresponsible District Magistrate was only transferred as if transfer is a punishment.                                

    After the initial difficulty, the relief operation run by the Government of Bihar as well as the voluntary agencies picked up and is running satisfactorily. But the people outside the relief camps continue to suffer. Only two lakh food packets were dropped for the marooned people, whereas there was need for twenty lakhs. There was considerable delay in calling the Army and the National disaster Management Personnel. As a result, the people suffered. There was need of 5,000 boats for saving the people and reaching them to safer places, but only 1391 boats were available.  

    Kosi flood has exposed both positive and negative aspect of our society. The response of the people towards their suffering brothers and sisters was spontaneous and quick. The business community and the people in general came out to help even before the relief operation by the government started. On the other hand, there were cases of ill-behaviour towards women and snatching of the ornaments, charging Rs.200 to 6000 for reaching the individuals to safer places; taking one domestic animal for saving the other and trafficking of orphan children. Cases of highly irresponsible inhuman behaviour of the government officials also came to light. Sunita Devi, whose two children had already been washed away in the floods, had trouble during child-birth. The baby’s hand out, she had immense pain. Her husband continuously paraded from hospital to hospital for two days. None helped; both mother and the baby died.  

Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati