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Millennium Post

Governance in time of ecological revolt

It might be dubbed the ‘sorrow of Bihar’, but Kosi’s fear and foreboding calls for a drastically overhauled idea of governance: one which is in step with the rhythm of its land and water. Posing a massive flood risk that threatens to uproot over 5 lakh people settled along at least 293-km of its 730-km-long stretch, raised water level in Kosi is not an isolated phenomenon at all.

As recently as in 2008, the mighty Himalayan river, with its origin in the 7,000-metre high glaciers of Nepal, had burst its bank, killing over 500 and drowning more than 2,000 densely populated villages in the Indo-Gangetic plain, particularly in North Bihar. This year the renewed risk is a danger to not only the villages in Bihar, it is a symptom of a much deeper malaise, precipitated by an unholy mix of global warming, climate change, reckless deforestation and unchecked mining in northern and central swathes of the Indian subcontinent.

The frequency at which potentially catastrophic landslides are occurring in the South Asian region, particularly in the lower stretches of the Himalayas that are in turn resulting in serious ecological crises in the alluvial plains of northern India, lays bare the enormity of the problem facing not just the government of India, but also the governments of neighbouring countries. Melting glaciers, irregular and unpredictable rains, cloud bursts have raised and lowered water levels in mega river systems, resulting in either floods or droughts, impacting not only agricultural production, food prices and associated paraphernalia, but also massive displacement, loss of life and livelihood of people associated with farming or agro industries.

After last year’s Uttarakhand disaster, we expected the central and state governments to learn their lessons and bolster the regimen of green norms while undertaking development projects.

Unfortunately, hardly any heed has been paid to ecological regulations or sustainability concerns. In fact, if anything, hundreds of pending projects have been cleared in a matter of days by the new environment ministry. As Nepal is likely to release about 15 lakh cusecs of water into Kosi river by blowing up the debris blocking the river’s natural flow route, and as water from thawing ice of the receding glaciers make their way into the river and its seven tributaries, the water level is expected to rise by almost 10-15 metres.

That is not just a staggeringly dangerous level, it is also an equally catastrophic cause of worry since the regular course might be altered permanently, throwing huge swathes of the northern riverine basin in Bihar out of gear. While silt and sand on the river bed will be carried to populated swathes of the plain, actual fertile plains will face heavy soil erosion. At least 400 villages between the eastern and western embankments are likely to be heavily affected, creating a steady stream of displaced individuals, in turn adding to the already high strain on urban centres. Moreover, several districts in north Bihar might get permanently submerged, causing an agricultural and humanitarian disaster of
exponential proportions.

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