Havoc by man-made floods
Despite elaborate measures to recover flood hit zones, little is being done to prevent this man-made disaster from striking each year.
By announcing a special grant of Rs. 400 crore to improve the Brahmaputra's water-holding capacity that will, in turn, help flood control in Assam, the prime minister has indirectly echoed West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's concern that the current spate of floods in the country is largely 'man-made' and not enough is being done to maintain the depth of rivers. Mamata was concerned mainly about West Bengal, where 14 of its agriculturally-rich districts were flood-ravaged this time around, killing at least 50 people and rendering lakhs homeless.
A good part of the latest flood havoc in Bengal was caused by massive water discharge by Damodar Valley Corporation, the earliest public sector undertaking set up soon after India's independence. West Bengal witnessed the worst ever floods in 1943 from the Damodar. The river spans over an area of 25,235 sq. km covering Jharkhand and West Bengal. The catastrophe caused by the 1943 floods, led to serious public indignation against the British government, then. Mamata Banerjee pointed out that DVC's discharge was primarily responsible for regular flash floods. DVC has failed to control the growing silt deposits in the riverbed by proper dredging and creating strong embankments to prevent erosion of its banks. DVC has a network of four multi-purpose dams — Tilaiya and Maithon on the Barakar River, Panchet on the Damodar and Konar on the Konar River— and Durgapur barrage on the Damodar. Over the years, a sheer neglect by DVC led to the river's inability to hold the water and prevent floods, especially in south- Bengal districts. The DVC dams were built to store 1,292 mcm of water as 'flood reserve capacity.' This can moderate a peak flood of 18,395 cumecs to a safe carrying capacity of 7,076 cumecs. The Durgapur barrage is supposed to supply irrigation water to the Burdwan, Bankura and Hooghly districts.
While the prime minister's intention to provide the special fund to improve the water holding capacity of the Brahmaputra in Assam is highly laudable, the investment may go completely to waste if the river is not managed properly. In fact, the union government may be required to invest a larger amount of funds to control the mighty Brahmaputra River and its banks during the monsoon. Incidentally, China is building a massive dam on the Brahmaputra River close to its source in Tibet. A large water release from the upper Brahmaputra dam could cause a disaster in Assam and also in parts of Bangladesh. Therefore, a proper Brahmaputra river management on the Indian side becomes of crucial importance. The prime minister's special provision of Rs. 400 crore for this purpose as part of a Rs. 2,700 crore flood relief package announced last week for the north-eastern region thus assumes great significance. Narendra Modi himself went to inspect the flood-ravaged region and held separate review meetings with chief ministers of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland. The floods have claimed nearly 100 lives, mostly in Assam, and displaced over two lakh people. In Arunachal Pradesh, 14 were reportedly killed in landslides, while 20 lost their life in Nagaland floods. Modi also announced the setting up of a committee to study ways to synergise efforts towards finding a long-term solution to the problem of recurrent floods in the region. Initially, Rs 100 crore was earmarked for the purpose that will include studies on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries besides all other major rivers of the region.
In West Bengal, the 'man-made' flood damaged around 59,398 hectares of paddy seedbed out of the 3, 17,675 hectares of cultivated land in the three districts. Overall, the latest flood damaged some 1, 79,000 hectares of paddy seedbeds out of the total of nearly eleven lakh hectares. The state agriculture department will soon start distributing paddy seeds to farmers. Incidentally, the prime minister's own state of Gujarat is probably the worst affected by this year's heavy rains and floods, especially in Banaskantha and Patan districts. Gujarat floods have brought about the largest death toll, over 220. Ironically, the weather department said that the monsoon was normal in most states in the country except for parts of south India. The question is: If the rainfall is normal, what is causing the abnormal floods? To what extent are these floods truly man-made? Few will disagree that flood in urban areas are mostly caused by poor drainage and drain management systems, haphazard and illegal constructions and conversion of water bodies and wetlands into residential blocks. The rural areas are often victims of the neglect of nearby rivers, rivulets and canals. Inter-river linkage, the building of embankments for large rivers, banning riverbed quarrying and riverbank sand mining would have certainly lowered the prospects of floods in most parts of the country.
In this context, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General shows how careless the concerned authorities have been in river and rain water management. The latest CAG report on "schemes for flood control and flood forecasting" tabled in Parliament pointed out that "there were huge delays in completion of river management activities" leading to problems of flooding in Assam, north Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh among others. It said that "there were discrepancies in the execution of works." CAG sampled 206 flood management projects, 38 flood forecasting stations, 49 river management activities and works related to border area projects and 68 large dams in 17 selected states and union territories during 2007-08 to 2015-16. The report also stressed official apathy towards flood control measures. It noted recommendations of the Rashtriya Barh Ayog (National Flood Commission) regarding "identification of areas affected by flood remains unfulfilled." One only hopes that the prime minister's fund provision for Brahmaputra flood control does not get washed away to become a victim of such practices as one witnessed in the management of 69-year-old DVC, originally designed on the lines of the USA's famous Tennessee Valley Authority.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)