As Bihar remains for a second week in the grip of the worst floods the region has seen in 50 years, the poor and the destitute face the brunt — homeless, famished, and hopelessly stranded. The fury of the Kosi, which jumped its banks and changed course after a dam-burst in Nepal where it originates, has hit almost half the State. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it, this is undoubtedly a national calamity. The State and Central governments have sought to reach help to the affected people on a war footing. But the task is clearly enormous and overwhelming and the official machinery seems to be out of its depth: thousands of people are yet to be evacuated and many thousands more await succour in a limited number of relief camps. Although there was ample forewarning of the deluge, aid has been slow in coming — bad weather and strong currents hindered access to remote areas. While the risk of water-borne diseases grows, medical assistance remains elusive or inadequate. The official machinery has to get its act together fast and face the challenge. Rescue and relief operations should get top priority in the short-term. For the recently created National Disaster Management Authority, this may well be the test case.
Experts say the crisis could persist for months, since it will take time for the upstream discharge to cease, the rain to abate, and the water to drain off. So lakhs of families could be expected to remain displaced for an extended span. Camps that can house people on such a scale should be sustained over the period in the 15 affected districts. Meanwhile, the embankments should be shored up, whole villages and towns rebuilt, those rendered homeless rehabilitated, and land rendered arable. The loss of cattle and crop is bound to have long-term effects on livelihoods: a large number of people will need to be aided to find their feet afresh. Restoring the communication links is another task that brooks no delay. Long-term water management measures are needed to curb the fury of rivers such as the Kosi that have wrought havoc frequently. India should discuss the issue with Nepal — the two countries have a treaty concerning the waters of the Kosi — while recognising the fact that Nepal itself has had its share of grief as a consequence of the river’s rampage. Construction of dams that could lead to optimal utilisation of water resources, reforestation of the upper catchment areas of the river, and strengthening of embankments are issues that could be discussed with Kathmandu in a constructive spirit at a time when a new democratic government is in place there.
6 months ago