Sep 13, 2008

India - A dubious river sutra

Floods bring out the worst in us. They might occur elsewhere in Asia, Africa and even in Europe, but when they happen here, as they invariably do every year, floods turn into the quintessential Indian phenomenon: a blame game involving (angry) politicians across regions and parties, (defensive) bureaucrats, (largely absent) engineers and somewhat self-righteous civil society organisations with disparate agendas. Then there is talk of building high dams in neighbouring countries to contain turbulent rivers, however impractical or ecologically unsound the proposals might be. And, finally, the spectre of a decades-old project to link India’s rivers rises once again to complete the circle of helplessness and hopelessness.
India’s river sutra for dealing with floods is a wily mixture of politics, commerce and barely disguised ignorance of matters technical combined with a remarkable indifference to the sufferings of the victims. The millions displaced by the swirling waters — close to five million in Bihar and Assam this year — provide but spectacle and a fleeting focus for the excuses and allegations that are churned up every time our volatile rivers burst their embankments and devastate increasingly larger swathes of the country.
Although natural calamities are occurring more frequently and striking with greater force thanks to climate change, there is a remarkable consistency in the way officialdom responds to disasters. Each time a flood touches the political danger mark, prime ministers, chief ministers and party leaders hop into planes for aerial surveys of the affected areas. Ask anyone who is familiar with rivers and they will tell you that there is nothing much you can glean from this height. Even in normal times, a river is nothing but a sheet of water which hides all that has gone before it.
Part of the politics of flood management is the dole from Delhi, the largesse depending entirely on the political calculations of the ruling party at the Centre. Figures of the people and livestock affected along with those relating to the area of submergence, both of which have a bearing on final tally of losses, have nothing to do with the amount of relief that is announced since most statistics appear to be a matter of guesswork. In 2004, the Central Water Commission had claimed the land submerged in north Bihar was more than the total area of these districts! It was a discrepancy that neither the Ministry of Water Resources nor the PMO spotted when the state government used the same figures to seek relief.
This time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been unusually quick to grant a Rs 1,000-crore package for Bihar although this has triggered a political sideshow in his “home state” of Assam — Singh is a Rajya Sabha member from Dispur — which believes its misery is being belittled. Stoking the controversy is the call to MPs by Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari to contribute Rs 10 lakh each from their Local Area Development Scheme funds for reconstruction projects in Bihar. Should Assam have been left out?
Relief, timely or not, has tended to dominate the discourse on floods in times of crisis but even at other times the core issue of river management through long-term measures has seldom been a priority. The standard response so far has been to set up a committee or task force to study the problem although there are enough reports with the government to erect a substantial barrage across the Kosi. In 2004, Manmohan Singh, who is chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, announced a task force to look into the problem of recurrent floods of the past 50 years. “We need to find an abiding solution to this problem — of upstream solutions in the catchment areas and downstream solutions in the form of flood control measure,” Singh declared in July 2004, when the state was in the grip of another of its “worst-ever” floods. The task force was to submit its report in six months. No one has seen its recommendations yet.
Abiding solutions may prove elusive specially since we share rivers with neighbours. Take the Brahmaputra. At 2,906 km, it is one of Asia’s longest rivers, traversing China’s Tibet region, India and Bangladesh before joining the Ganga. Every year, the river washes away countless villages and submerges vast tracts of farmlands besides causing considerable loss of human and animal life. Traditional approaches to “taming” the river do not work and policy-makers have to understand the ground realities before coming up with solutions.
Or look at the Kosi, undoubtedly one of the world’s most volatile rivers. Before embankments were taken up in earnest and became a tool of political patronage, the flood-prone area of Bihar was just 2.5 million hectares. By 1974, the Kosi had 2,192 km of embankments while the area vulnerable to floods has shot up to 4.3 million hectares. Today, the state has embankments stretching for 3,430 km and a sharp rise in the flood-prone area to 6.88 million hectares. Since embankments are obviously not the solution, another task force has been appointed to look at Bihar’s woes. That, however, will not stop much money and sand flowing down the Kosi as embankments are repaired periodically.
Meanwhile, a proposal made in 1937 to dam the Kosi at Barahkshetra in Nepal and revived periodically since then is being taken out of mothballs. This promises to take its own time even for talks to be initiated with Nepal. For the millions trapped by flood waters, there is no lifeline in sight.