Even as floods devastate the lives and livelihoods of millions every year in India, political leaders offer little in the way of lasting solutions to an increasingly dire situation
Every year when the India Meteorological Department (IMD) releases its long-range forecast (LRF) for South-West monsoon season (June-September) rainfall in mid-April, it's the farmers who worship IMD projections like a 'rain god' when the national forecaster predicts above-normal monsoon while government agencies like departments of road construction, water resources, health, civic bodies, etc get on alert mode to chalk out 'on-paper strategies' for dealing with the impending problems, particularly floods, that come along with the monsoon rainfall.
The mesmerising scenes of paddy sowing bring a hope of farmers' prosperity, which get devastated soon after paddy fields get washed away in the floods. With floods becoming a permanent annual event, farmers and residents of flood-prone areas of Bihar have learnt to live with it as the government's lacklustre attitude in resolving the issue has left them hopeless.
As floods ravage the livelihoods of millions of people, they act as a life-boat for capsizing political leaders in the states of Bihar and Assam. Since the Assembly Election in Bihar is due in November, the State Government led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is leaving no stone unturned in assuring the flood-hit families that all possible help is being provided for them by the State Government.
Besides Kumar, other political leaders such as RJD's Tejashwi Yadav, Jan Adhikar Party president and former MP Pappu Yadav, leaders of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) are also camping in flood-hit areas by walking in knee-deep floodwaters to meet affected families.
With assembly elections around the corner, every political party is making all extra efforts to prove themselves as a 'real well-wisher' in the time of crisis to influence voters. The worrying fact is that no political party has ever bothered to find a permanent flood management solution for the problem.
Furthermore, leaders take advantage of the crisis in attacking their rivals. In the latest, former MP Pappu Yadav has dubbed Bihar floods as "illegitimate children" of politicians. "The real reason behind the havoc created by the floods every year is the corruption of politicians and officials. Every year floods have become a milking cow for leaders and officials of the irrigation department," Yadav said.
Floods are not a new occurrence for the country. Almost every state has the misfortune of dealing with flood havoc whenever there is incessant rainfall or when they fail to prepare themselves in advance to handle the excessive rainfall water. Some states have moved ahead with a permanent solution by establishing better drainage systems for urban local bodies and constriction of dams, barrages to 'control' the flow of water as required.
However, for states like Bihar and Assam, floods are a new normal, while states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala and Maharashtra witness flood-like situations in selected parts of the state and for a limited period.
Bihar, which is surrounded by Nepal in the north, West Bengal in the east, Uttar Pradesh in the west and Jharkhand towards the south, has several rivers like Ganga, Sone, Punpun, Falgu, Karmanasa, Durgavati, Kosi, Gandak and the Ghaghara run through the State. Given that about 85 per cent of the State's land is under cultivation, rainfall is the major source of water for Kharif crop sowing season. The state receives heavy rainfall all through June to October.
The State has been facing floods from decades and causes of the flood remain the same such as no proper de-silting of rivers and non-establishment of permanent embankments, etc. Even though Bihar accounts for almost half of India's average annual flood losses, the State Government has not yet done enough to minimise the losses.
Highlighting the plight of flood-affected families, local residents have opined that they consider it as part of their destiny. Hence, instead of putting the onus on the State Government, they have adjusted themselves to living with the reality of the floods, much in the same way as people have started living with the deadly Coronavirus.
"There are several well-off families in flood-prone areas of Bihar who have mentally and logistically prepared themselves to move in makeshift tents soon after its being predicted that there would be heavy rainfall. They prepare their own tents having all basic facilities like fans, mattresses, television sets, cooking utensils, etc," said Ashok Singh, a professor at Kunwar Singh College in Darbhanga.
"No doubt floods cause havoc for poor people of the State, but it's also an opportunity for the officials and people associated with them. That's why only cosmetic changes are being made in flood-affected areas," Singh said, adding that 16 districts out of 38 are badly affected and there
are above 80 lakh people who have been displaced due to floods in the State.
Supporting the river interlinking idea of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he said, "If the State Government interlinks some of the main rivers, most of the flood-prone districts would get benefits from it and to a larger extent the problem of floods can be solved."
In Darbhanga, eight blocks, as well as low-lying areas of the town, are affected by flooding of rivers. Marooned people of Kusheshwar Asthan, Kiratpur, Gaura Bauram, Tardish, Ghanshyampur and Hayaghat blocks have taken shelter on NH-57, state highway, embankments and other higher ground places. District administration is running several community kitchens for feeding the flooded and displaced people.
Expressing her displeasure over the lack of appropriate help from the State Government, Anjana Devi from a flood-hit family of Muzaffarpur district's Dharfari village, said, "Gandak river has destroyed the village and we are now living in huts outside the village. There is no milk or medicines for the children. No help is forthcoming from any quarter. All politicians ask for votes but no leader has visited us yet."
Another flood-affected farmer Rameshwar who lost most of his crops said, "Half of the crops in the fields have been destroyed and people are putting their lives at risk to save the remaining crops."
According to Bihar Government's disaster management department, the 16 affected districts in Bihar include Sitamarhi, Sheohar, Supaul, Kishanganj, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur, Gopalganj, West Champaran, East Champaran, Khagaria, Saran, Samastipur, Siwan, Madhubani, Madhepura and Saharsa
A total of 5,46,613 lakh people have been evacuated from the deluge-hit areas so far during joint rescue operations conducted by 20 teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and 13 teams of the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF). In Bihar, 25 people and 75 animals have died due to the floods.
A total of 12,670 people have been shifted to relief camps, while 5.85 lakh people were fed at 723 community kitchens in the affected areas. According to a report released by the Union Home Ministry, as many as 869 people across 11 states in India have died due to floods between May and August 12.
West Bengal reported the maximum deaths at 245, followed by Assam (136), Kerala (101), Gujarat (98), Karnataka (86), Madhya Pradesh (77), Uttarakhand (46), Tamil Nadu (24), Bihar (24), Arunachal Pradesh (17) and Uttar Pradesh (14), the MHA report stated.
Additionally, according to a study paper published in International Journal of Advanced Research, which was authored by IIT Roorkee professor ML Kansal and two officials of Bihar's Water Resource Department, Bihar flood affects about 6.880 million hectares of land out of about 9.416 million hectares, which is about 73.06 per cent of the total landmass.
"It not only affects the infrastructure but also the socio-economic life in the state. So, there is a need to minimise negative consequences and ill effects of flooding utilising flood management," the IIT- Roorkee professor had said in his paper.
"In Bihar, most of the time, the decision-makers go for structural measures like construction of embankments, flood retention walls, flood levees and channel improvements, etc. However, it is felt that structural measures itself are not sufficient to reduce the adverse impacts of floods in the State," he said, adding that non-structural measures like floodplain management policy, building by-laws, flow and silt management policy are also required.
River Ganga, which is the main drainage system of the State, flows in the eastward direction in a stretch of 432 km across Bihar and divides the State into two unequal halves. The plains in the north of the River Ganga are drained by two major rivers — the Kosi river and the Gandak
In addition to this, there are several smaller rivers such as the Adhwara, Bagmati, Bhutahi Balan, Burhi Gandak, Ghaghara, Kamala and Mahananda. All these rivers mainly originate in Nepal from the Himalayas whereas Kosi river also includes its catchment in Tibet. Thus, the rivers of north Bihar mostly share basins outside the country in Nepal and Tibet and the water carried from the part of catchment lying in Tibet also passes through Nepal.
To fulfil the requirement of fuel for domestic purposes and reclamation of area for occupational needs, there is increasing deforestation in Nepal which further causes degradation in vegetative cover in the catchment areas. Due to this practice, the soil has been increasingly getting eroded from these areas. So the rivers carry significant sediment load from the upper part of catchments.
These sediments in addition to the inadequate carrying capability of the rivers cause congestion in natural drainage leading to inundation and floods. So, floods are a state of hydrological extremes of high water levels in stream channels or on banks that results in inundation of land that isn't ordinarily submerged.
Commenting on the plight of flood-affected families, social worker Vikash Mani said that assisting displaced families is another challenge as there is no road to use for transportation. "Our volunteers are risking their lives to reach out to affected families and provide food items like biscuits, bread, milk, medicines, mosquito nets, etc. We have distributed about 900 tonnes of flood-relief material among displaced families," said Mani, who is a trustee of Yug Sanskriti Nyas.
Given all these facts, flood management may look like a challenging task but it's doable with the help of technology. A flood forecasting model developed by Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi professor AK Gosain is proving a great help for states who have started using it.
Explaining its functioning, Gosain told MillenniumPost that the model works on the seven-day rain forecast data of the IMD. "The model we are using is based on the rainfall data of IMD. The model calculates the timing of the flow of water in any river. The amount of rainfall and water flow to any corresponding river is calculated by the model on a real-time basis to assess the overflow of water in any particular river.
"We put the IMD's rainfall forecast data in the model and calculate the probabilities of flood-like situations in any basin. Its open portal and anybody can see the expected flow of water as per their interest point. The model came in operation last year. It's first of its kind model as no such model is there in any part of the word."
"We have worked with the Odisha government for the Mahanadi river. If other flood-prone states like Bihar, Assam would like to take our help, we are ready to offer the services," he said.
MAJOR CAUSES OF FLOODS
The prime reason behind floods in Bihar and Assam are increased conversion of forests to agricultural and pastoral land in the middle hills of Nepal. Another reason for the flood damage is that people have been increasingly occupying the flood plains and have been assuming that the river volume has increased to a great extent.
The state government has built over 3,000 km of embankments, but the flow of the river has grown 2.5 times resulting in the failure of embankments during every flood.
It is time now for flood prevention to become more than a simple political talking point to gather votes and explore all possible avenues to address the yearly devastation caused by unchecked floods.
AFFECTED STATES AT A GLANCE
30 districts have been affected and 158 people lost their lives due to landslides triggered by floods. The floods have also caused large scale damage to physical infrastructures like roads, bridges and culverts, inundated vast tracts of agricultural land and drowned several animals at the Kaziranga National Park.
At least 12 districts have been affected by floods and rains since August 1. 19 people have lost their lives so far, while two are missing. 53 animals have died so far in the floods. While 185 houses have been completely damaged, 4,380 have suffered partial damage. 55,993 hectares of agricultural crops and over 49,007 hectares of horticultural have also been affected.
13 teams of NDRF have been deployed as widespread rainfall inundated several parts of the state. As of August 15, 2 people have died and 1,750 have been evacuated. At least 225 roads, including 12 state highways, were closed due to a heavy spell of rains in many parts of the state.