A tragedy foretold

The hapless people of the Kosi flood plain in northern Bihar were told that the Kosi embankment project would usher in a new era of prosperity and hope for them. These areas are submerged under water for many months each year. Suresh Nautiyal reviews DK Mishra's book, which traces the history of this engineered tragedy

Even as the relief contributions continued to pour in from the various quarters for the victims of the Kosi floods in the northern districts of Bihar, the spate of horror stories about the plight of the poor, marginalised, deprived and oppressed did not seem to abate. Clearly, the Kosi tragedy has been larger in scale and more prolonged in duration than is assumed to be the case from reports of seasonal calamity that appear in the press from time to time. The tragedy of the Kosi is not the waters that inundate the flood plain at regular intervals, but the embankments that were meant to control the floods.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra's book—Trapped Between the Devil and Deep Waters—narrates the making of this tragedy on the insistence of higher authorities and against the will of local people who have to live permanently with the consequences of mega-engineering solutions.
The author, who has spent a quarter of a century studying the Kosi, has also been actively involved in the movement to secure justice for the people affected by the embankment. Given his deep personal knowledge of the area, the author is well-placed to provide a detailed narrative of what was done to the river to tame its tendency to migrate within a certain geographical range. Over 250 years, till the time the river was confined to its present course by embanking it, the Kosi that has migrated over a distance of 120 kms. Satellite images show 12 distinct channels of how the river has moved.
The reason the Kosi moves about so much is because it has its origins in the high Himalaya, a geologically active region which sends down enormous quantities of water-borne sediment. When the Kosi reaches the plains, downstream of Chatra in southern Nepal, the sediments begin to settle on the river bed. This raises the level of the bed and impedes the water which then searches out new channels to flow through. This is what causes the migration of the river.

Dr Mishra—who is a civil engineering graduate from the IIT-Kharagpur and who has published a number of articles, academic papers, monographs and books on the subject—points out that during the construction of embankments, it was claimed that the Kosi Project would usher in a new era of prosperity in Purnia and Saharsa districts and that there would be bumper crops in both the districts. Later, this 'feat' of civil engineering was extended to the districts of Darbhanga and Madhubani in the form of the Western Kosi Canal. And, the people were told that the river would be tamed and the problem of floods would be eradicated once and for all!

India and Nepal had signed the Kosi Agreement in 1954. The foundation stone of the Kosi Project was laid on January 14, 1955 by Dr Shrikrishna Sinha, the then chief minister of Bihar, amidst fanfare and jubilation near Bhutaha village close to Nirmali, in Saharsa (now Supaul) district with the chanting of mantras and shouting of slogans like Aadhi Roti Khayengein, Kosi Bandh Banaayenge (We will build the Kosi embankments, even if we have to get by on half a roti). But, a majority of people lost the other half of the roti too on August 18, 2008 when the Kosi embankment breached that day.

The most disastrous consequence of flood control is such that the masses in the 'protected' areas live in constant fear of being flushed out during the rainy season, while the hapless people who live between the embankments pray for breaches in the embankments so that they can escape the fury of rising river levels. This prayer has been answered six times so far, according to Mishra. It is this strange and tragic plight of the beneficiaries of flood control that Mishra's book narrates.

The river, the engineering and political establishment that tamed it and the people who live on its reengineered flood plains are the central motifs of this book. The Kosi river begins its journey at a height of about 7000 metres in the Himalayan range in Nepal and Tibet. The Everest and Kanchenjunga ranges form a part of the Kosi's watershed. The river is called the Sapta (seven) Kosi in Nepal because of its seven tributaries—Indravati, Sun Kosi or Bhot Kosi, Tamba Kosi, Likshu Kosi, Doodh Kosi, Arun Kosi, and Tamar Kosi. The first five rivers join to form the Sun Kosi that flows from west to east. These rivers descend from the Gauri Shankar and the Makalu ranges. The sixth stream is called the Arun Kosi and Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) is located in its catchment. The seventh stream, Tamar Kosi, flows from east to west and brings the Kanchenjunga waters with its flow. The Sun Kosi, Arun Kosi, and Tamar Kosi join at Tribeni in Dhankutta district of Nepal and have the names Sapta Kosi, Maha Kosi or Kosi. Tribeni is located within the hills, about 10 km north of Chatra, where the river descends into the plains. After entering the plains, the bed of the Kosi widens drastically and it spreads over six to 10 km. After traversing a distance of about 50 km in Nepal, it enters Indian territory at Bhim Nagar. Hanuman Nagar located on the west bank of the Kosi, is in Nepal while on the east bank, Bhim Nagar lies in the Indian district of Supaul. From Bhim Nagar the river flows in a southwesterly direction for about 100 km till it reaches Mahishi in Saharsa district of Bihar. From Mahishi, it turns southeast and after flowing another 33 km, it crosses the Saharsa-Mansi rail line, south of Kopadia railway station, and joins the Ganga near Kursela in Katihar district.

The total catchment area of the Kosi is 74,030 sq km, not including the catchment areas of its two important tributaries, the Kamla (7,232 sq km) and the Bagmati (14,384 sq km). Out of the total catchment of the Kosi, only 11,410 sq km is located in India while the remaining 62,620 sq km is in Nepal or Tibet. Its catchment area at Tribeni is 59,550 sq km. The average rainfall in the upper catchment of the Kosi is 1589mm while in the lower areas it is 1323mm.
Geologically, the Himalayan ranges at a nascent stage of their formation and many of them are only heaps of loose soil that will take millions of years to become hard rock. The mountains are tectonically active and earthquakes are very common in these ranges, leading to landslides, and avalanches. As rain falls on the loose soil, the running water easily erodes it and because of the steep mountain slopes the soil quickly reaches the plains where the land and the slopes flatten out. This reduces the velocity of the flowing water and permits the sediments to settle. The soil deposited in the plains sometimes impedes the smooth flow of the river leading to changes in its course. The process of land building is further accelerated by geological activities in the mountains. The sediment load of the Kosi is quite high and is an unalterable part of its fluvial regime.

The floods of the Kosi are unique. Since the river changed its course regularly, the areas which formed the bed of the Kosi and were directly covered by its floods not only faced the onslaught of the floods but also had to face erosion of the land, sand casting, water-logging, scarcity of drinking water, total collapse of health services, disruption of the road and communication systems, engulfing of villages, diseases, and mass-scale deaths of livestock for want of fodder, etc. The problems faced by the people in the Kosi basin led the Indian government to gave formal approval to the Kosi project in 1953, which led to construction of the 125 km long embankments on the eastern bank of the Kosi—from Birpur to Kopadia and the 126 km long embankment from Bhardah in Nepal to Ghonghepur in Saharsa on the western bank. This work was completed by 1959. The embankments were supposed to protect 214,000ha of land from the recurring floods of the Kosi.

Mishra discusses the history of the flood control system, including the debate on embankments that began in British times. The opinion that embankments were not effective was ignored in favour of a solution that has created a living hell for the residents of the flood plain. The author emphasises the fact that when a heavily silt laden river is embanked, the sediment gets trapped within the embankments, lifting the bed level successively upwards and necessitating the raising of the embankments. There is a practical limit to which the embankments can be raised and maintained. The river water seeps through these embankments and causes water logging in the countryside. Inevitably the solution failed. As Mishra points out, "The terror that they unleashed at the time of their construction had hardly subsided when they started breaching, keeping the population in the so-called protected area on their toe." The river began attacking the embankment even before the construction work on the first phase could be completed.

Despite this failure the embankment-based flood control model continued to expand in scope. According to the original plan of the Kosi Project, canals with up to five cusecs flow were to be constructed. It was expected that the farmers would make the smaller channels on their own initiative and take the water to their fields. Very soon the government realised that this was not a viable proposition and it decided to construct channels up to one-cusec capacity. The problem, however, did not end there. Resources and expertise were needed to extend the channels below one-cusec capacity and the farmers possessed neither. Soon everybody realised that it was not possible to level land and therefore the canals would have to be made taking into account the contours of the undulating land profile. The difficulties notwithstanding the project then undertook the Western Kosi Canal. There was no mention of the Western Kosi canal in the original 1953 Kosi Project proposal. However, near Birpur in the late 1950s, the headwork of the Western Kosi Canal was also constructed in case a canal was to be constructed on the right bank in the future. Not surprisingly, the construction work on the Western Kosi Canal, that was scheduled to have been completed in 1980, is still in progress.

This complex construction activity commenced with free labour. It was proposed to hand over such jobs to the panchayats and cooperatives for execution, thereby totally eliminating contractors. In 1952, through the efforts of national leaders, leading social workers, and concerned citizens, the Bharat Sevak Samaj (BSS) was established to run government supported community welfare programmes for the masses based on voluntary labour. The BSS set an example by taking up the Kosi Project assignment. Another form of enlisting public cooperation was the award of contracts to the gram panchayats and labour cooperatives. The role of BSS was to contact such groups, encourage them to enlist for working on the project and keep a vigilant eye on the work, once a contract was awarded. Promoting human labour and jobs was the basic concept behind the BSS but it later started making roads, bridges, houses, and canals where labour involvement was lower and capital costs were higher.

These were the institutional arrangements through which the Kosi Project was constructed. Mishra dubs it a technological quick-fix arising from the government's political compulsion. And while the project was an unmitigated disaster, the government's response to the perils facing the unsuspecting villages was callous. An estimated 800,000 face the onslaughts of floods on an annual basis. The people who sacrificed their interests for the common good of the society have only received neglect in return and no one seems to have the time to look into their grievances. Mishra points out that politicians under oath to serve the people did not hesitate to give false assurances to them. Then, there were engineers who should have been guided by the ethics of their profession. But unfortunately, the politicians have the excuse that they do not understand the basics of engineering and technical matters and only followed the advice of engineers while the engineers have the excuse that they are not free to take decisions independently of the political establishment. But that is little consolation for the people who live within and in the vicinity of the embankments, whose miserable conditions are not ameliorated by the excuses offered by people in authority who should have known better and who still pay scant attention to any problem other than that of an engineering nature.

Mishra concludes the book with a discussion of the solution and locates this within the context of the nuances of Nepal-India relations vis-à-vis the Kosi river and the sentiment in Nepal that all the benefits of the Kosi and the Gandak projects have accrued to India. This aspect needs the attention of the Indian government. The author also laments that the public is not aware of the realities of the water-related structures and pins its hopes on the illusion that dams in Nepal will solve their problems. Unless this mist is cleared, a viable people's initiative will not take shape. According to him, the concept of living with floods is yet to develop in the changed circumstances and no serious work seems to have been done so far in modern societies except to talk about flood plain zoning. The author argues that all efforts should be focused on making floods bearable and attempts should be made to convert the water, which has become a liability, into an asset. In essence, this book argues that people still have the option of settling for a better life in harmony with the river.

In a nutshell, India needs to take the difficult but inevitable path of relying on the ecological sciences, instead of taking the unscientific mega-engineering escape route of describing extreme but predictable ecological processes as 'natural disasters'. Opting for expensive and risk-prone large dams without any open scientific assessment is not advisable given the fact that the comprehensive assessment of dams around the world has produced pessimistic forecasts. The important thing is to understand the ecological complexity of the Kosi, its hydrology and geomorphology. For how long will we remain unprepared and unequipped to handle natural cycles?