Bengal's bane

Print edition : August 13, 2004

With the monsoon yet to run its course, north Bengal, where the rivers are already in spate, lives in fear.

THE recent floods in north Bengal, which affected over one lakh people and rendered more than 70,000 homeless, might just be a warning. Incessant rain since the first week of July has caused most of the rivers flowing through Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar districts to overflow their banks and wreak havoc.

To school on a raft in Coochbehar district, West Bengal, on July 14.-RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI

Thousands of people living in Coochbehar district and the Alipurduar subdivision of Jalpaiguri moved to safe ground as the swirling waters started inundating their land. In Alipurduar, more than 15,000 persons were affected as the rivers Liss and Ghis swelled into a flood. Several tea gardens were inundated and over 60 families of estate workers had to be shifted.

The rain also triggered a series of landslides in Kurseong, severely affecting National Highway 55, which had to be closed. The eastern side of the Jaldapara Wildlife sanctuary, famous for its one-horned rhino, was submerged when a river broke its embankments.

The flood situation in Coochbehar has been the worst in recent times. Owing to continuous rain from July 5 to July 10 almost all the rivers in the district, particularly the Torsa, the Dharala, the Mansai, the Raidak, the Sankosh and the Sutunga, were in spate and led to the submergence of eight of the district's 12 blocks. People took shelter in nearby school buildings and on embankments. The district administration was asked to be on high alert, ready with relief materials and rescue equipment. A flood control room was set up for round-the-clock surveillance.

According to District Magistrate Ravi Inder Singh, 1,40,000 people in the district have been affected by the flood and 17,000 have sought shelter in relief camps, and over 1,320 hectares of cultivable land has been submerged. The district administration was ready to face the floods since the start of the monsoon season. "In north Bengal, every time there is excess rain there is flooding. Before the rain started we were ready with relief materials and were taking all precautionary measures," Ravi Inder Singh told Frontline.

As of July 20, the situation in the district had improved; only the Mansai river was still flowing above the danger mark. "Relief materials of wheat, rice and tarpaulin sheets have been given to people of all the affected areas. Medical camps have been set up and all tubewells in the regions have been disinfected," said Ravi Inder Singh. According to him, two areas that are among the worst affected in the district are the Tufanganj I block and Coochbehar II, where the Gadadhar and Raidak-I rivers have been rising continuously.

Leaving behind its indundated home in Rajivnagar village, west of Siliguri, a family walks to safer ground with its meagre possessions.-AFP

Anil Kumar Dey, a retired teacher of the Sarayerpar New Primary School in Tufanganj I block, said: "The situation in my block is very bad. The rivers Taljani, Torsa and Ghargharia united at a point and broke the protective spurs. All the five lives reportedly claimed by floods were from this block. Though immediate relief is given to all those who have been affected, how long will it last? The water level might be coming down now, but the monsoon is not over yet." The State government has sanctioned Rs.12 lakhs to restore the destroyed spur and revitalise other irrigation works that were damaged. It provided immediate relief by releasing 220 quintals of rice, 120 quintals of wheat, 995 pieces of tarpaulin, 0.5 quintal of baby food and 129 quintals of dry food.

Even as the waters started receding in most parts of north Bengal, Malda district continued to be in a precarious situation. Malda, which has for long been a victim of river erosion, had to contend with the fury of the rivers, particularly the Fulohar, which ravaged Ratua, Harishchandrapur and Kharba blocks.

Another reason for the yearly devastation caused by floods in north Bengal is the dolomite extraction taking place in Bhutan. An informed source in the North Bengal Flood Control Commission (NBFCC) told Frontline: "The levels of the rivers are rising because of the rocks that are falling into it. Further, owing to siltation in the plains, the nature and course of the rivers are also altered." Some of the main rivers that are affected by this activity are the Torsa, the Jaldhaka, the Kaljani and the Raidak, which flow through Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar. "Raising the embankments can be a temporary solution, but it is also a dangerous one. With the way the rivers are behaving, if the embankments are breached a disaster of far greater proportion will be at hand. A team of river experts are required to look into the matter," the source said.

Sukumar Bose, the Chairman of NBFCC, recently met officials of the Water Resources Development Ministry to discuss the recurrent flood situation. According to the NBFCC, the average annual rainfall in north Bengal is 3,500 mm. In the first burst of the monsoon this year, it has already reached 2,800 mm. "With the monsoon around until October, the situation can indeed become very grim," the source said.

Following his visit to north Bengal during the floods, Union Water Resources Minister and Member of Parliament from the region Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said that the Centre might announce soon an ambitious flood-control project. In August, when the India-Bhutan Technical Committee is scheduled to meet in Delhi, the setting up of the India-Bhutan Joint River Commission to control floods in north Bengal might also be discussed. Another option that is being looked into is the amalgamation of the NBFCC and the Brahmaputra Flood Control Commission. North Bengal has been included in the Brahmaputra river basin plan, which is entirely funded by the Union government.

In November, a high-level meeting is expected to be held by the Centre to discuss ways of managing floods nationwide. According to reports, the amount needed for managing the floods in West Bengal is around Rs.200 crores.

The enormity and frequency of flooding in north Bengal underscores the need for comprehensive long-term planning. Stop-gap arrangements such as strengthening embankments or installing speedier warning systems can only serve as temporary measures.

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