Fury of Floods, Farce of Relief

— Dhirendra Jha

Bihar is one of the most flood-affected states of India . According to the report of the National Commission on Floods (1980), 16.5% of the total flood-affected area of the country is located in Bihar . According to recent estimates (i.e., after the heavy floods of 1987), 56.5% of the flood-affected people in the country belong to Bihar . Of this, 76% reside in North Bihar , which has a population of about 40.6 million (1991 census) with a population density of 745 per sq. km.

North Bihar is dominated by a network of small and big rivers. There are nine major river basins, viz., the Ghaghra, the Gandak, the Burhi Gandak, the Bagmati, the Adhwara group of rivers, the Kamla, the Burhi Balan, the Kosi and the Mahananda, which drain their water into the Ganga. Except Burhi Gandak and Mahananda, all the other rivers originate in Nepal . The catchment areas of these rivers are quite large, which provide the basis for floods. This has been a longstanding problem, but half-hearted flood control measures, and haphazard development plans have aggravated the problem.

The first conference on floods was organised as early as 1896-97 in Calcutta . The second conference was held 40 years later at Patna in 1937. Faced with the large investment in projects required to tackle the problem, the colonial government held back its hands. The Flood Control Policy was announced for the first time in independent India in 1954, but unfortunately it restricted itself to the most primary step of building embankments, rather than developing an integral planning framework embracing all the major rivers of the region, evolving measures like dams, check dams, barrages, reservoirs, canals and interlinking of rivers and reopening the old natural links among the rivers. The Government of Bihar constructed 3438 km of embankments on various rivers. Embankments were no doubt necessary, given the unpredictable course of major rivers in North Bihar , and the major displacements of settlements following each flood. The Kosi, for example, has moved westwards by 120 km in the past 250 years, through more than 12 distinct channels. The river that used to flow near Purnea in the 18 th century now flows east of Saharsa. This is the case with other rivers too.

But the business of the construction and maintenance of embankments is linked with the interests of engineers, politicians and contractors. Each year in the name of maintenance of the old embankments and construction of many more unnecessary new embankments, crores of rupees are spent to serve the interests of this nexus. But the permanent resolution of the long-pending problem has never been addressed in its seriousness, either by the Centre or the State government. Every year during the floods, the governments at Patna and Delhi make ritual statements under pressure of the situation, but the concern evaporates as soon as floods are over. After independence, projects like Bhakhra-Nangal, Damodar Valley and Kosi Project were undertaken simultaneously, but the original planning for Kosi was subsequently discarded on the pretext that funds were not available, and that so much electricity was not needed. Projects for Bagmati and Kamla rivers were never taken up seriously. Actually the Indian ruling classes have a vested interest in neglecting the flood-affected areas, since these backward regions ensure a supply of cheap labour. Virtually the entire flood-affected area has become a labour supply zone for the industrial and urban centres as well as relatively developed agricultural states.

For the Laloo-Rabri regime floods are a source of loot during relief operations. Therefore, this administration has altogether stopped maintaining embankments and taking other safety measures, thus inviting the flood's fury. This government has retrenched thousands of seasonal and casual workers in the department responsible for maintenance of embankments. These workers are local inhabitants whose job was to collect information regarding the piping, breaches and erosion on the embankments. Now embankment security has been left to the mercy of god and that is why, this year, breaches occurred at more than 55 points on different embankments. Due to silting, riverbeds have become higher, while the height and strength of embankments remains unchanged. No steps are being taken to overhaul the riverbeds. Such neglect of basic preventive measures are nothing but criminal negligence.

High Tide in Movements against Govt. Apathy to the Flood Problem

This year the flood broke all records of the past 100 years and wreaked havoc throughout North Bihar . Sheohar, Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur and Khagaria have been devastated almost completely. The floods have already taken toll of more than 1,000 lives and if the number of persons who have died of flood related diseases and snakebite is included the death toll crosses 5,000. Cattle have died in thousands and the epidemic has spread among livestock too. More than 5 lakh houses have been destroyed and the number crossed one lakh in Darbhanga alone.

On TV screens in Delhi , Laloo Yadav made quips about how floods benefit the poor, because they bring fish from landlords' ponds into the homes of the poor, conveniently forgetting that lakhs of people have lost their huts! They had to spend more than a week starving on high dunes or straw roofs along with their children. All their earning has been reduced to nothing and they have to struggle to live. The floods have brought in their wake epidemics of diarrhea, malaria, kala azar, T.B. etc. Black-marketing of kerosene has robbed light from the houses of the poor. They have to beg even for a 5-meter polythene sheet. The state government has proclaimed relief till the next harvest, but the relief has in reality been limited to disbursement of 25 kg of wheat just once, and even that will take a whole year to reach the affected families. According to the govt. announcement, each family was to get Rs.250, but the money has been reduced to Rs.200 on the plea that Rs.50 has already been spent on the relief material dropped by the helicopters.

The government which claimed it could not pay for boats for rescue and relief work, on the pretext of lack of resources, spent Rs.18 crores on helicopters to drop relief worth Rs.2 crore! This despite the fact that boats are a better way of making sure relief reaches people, with a minimum of damage. Why? Because the distribution of relief by helicopter allows for unlimited loot, since there can be no account of who got the relief, and how much relief was dropped.

This is a new season for loot, with lobbies of government-backed criminals vying to grab contracts for repairing the broken bridges and culverts, road and embankments. But if loot is at a high, people's anger against the insensitive political class and bureaucracy is also at a peak, and it seems that the high tide of movement will prove more costly to the government than the flood itself. Increasing incidents of looting FCI godowns, godowns of Bazaar Samiti and blocks provide a glimpse of this mass resentment being galvanised into militant action. The Laloo-Rabri government has responded to this movement with bullets and lathis.

Risking their lives, our Party activists started the relief and rescue work right since the outbreak of floods and maintained contact with the marooned people using boats and even by swimming. In this campaign, a senior comrade Saheb Laldev (50 years), member of the block party committee, was drowned and even his body could not be recovered. Many comrades fell sick, still the campaign went on. The Party held a demonstration in front of DM's house on 17 July and demanded one boat for each village to rescue the marooned people, and opening of centres to distribute ‘khichdi' to the flood victims.

In Panchayats led by our Party, the required number of centres were opened to distribute ‘khichdi', while in other panchayats, we struggled against mukhiyas and got such centres opened. AISA teams visited villages and distributed medicine.

On 9 July, a large dharna and demonstration was held before the Collectorate. More than 500 people participated, despite the collapse of transport system. Following this, a ‘Ghera dalo dera dalo' campaign was conducted by the flood affected people from 24 July to 31 July in all the blocks, in which people in hundreds and thousands participated. On 26 July, the flood victims of the city were mobilised in a gherao of the mayor.

In the meantime, a Central Team came to Darbhanga to get an account of the damage due to floods. The Team was gheraoed at NH-57, and people demanded that they visit the flood-affected countryside. A charter of demands was presented to them, demanding that the Central Government must ensure a permanent solution to the problem of floods; peasants be offered interest-free loans; subsidy based house-building loans be provided; one lakh houses be provided under Special Indira Awas Yojana and ‘Food for Work' scheme must be undertaken at war footing under the Employment Guarantee Scheme. The members of the Central Team tried to diffuse the demand for a permanent solution, saying that the communists in Nepal are opposing any such move. But the Party leaders demanded that the Indian government must take initiative to fix a meeting with the Nepali authorities and chalk out a blue print, and make it public.

Thousands of people gheraoed State HRD Minister M A Fatmi when he visited the relief centre in his home block of Bahadurgarh, where our party had played a major role in relief work. The Party demanded that the government should sack the Minister for Irrigation and Water Resources, Jagadanand Singh, notorious for his insensitivity towards flood victims. Incidentally, Jagdanand Singh is the senior-most Minister in the Rabri Cabinet.

Continuing the district wide movement, and providing leadership to the relief and rescue campaign, the Party organised a human chain on 9 August from the Office of the Commissioner to Lohia Chowk. The mobilisation of more than 2,000 people in the Human Chain, braving continuous rain and total disruption of traffic, pointed to the potential of this movement at the regional level. The Human Chain turned into an impressive procession. Significant programmes have been taken on this issue in Samastipur and Muzaffarpur. Our effort is aimed at building a powerful movement in the whole region and in Bihar , pressurising the governments in Delhi and Patna to take initiative for permanent resolution of the flood problem of North Bihar.