Battling Bihar

Print edition : August 13, 2004

As northern Bihar reels under heavy floods, the worst in a decade, the State government struggles hard to take relief to the people.

THE flood that ravaged the northern districts of Bihar in July is arguably the worst in the past decade. According to unconfirmed reports, around 150 people lost their lives and more than one crore persons, in over 751 panchayats across 16 districts, have been severely affected. Most of the rivers in northern Bihar were in spate owing to incessant rain in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. Nepal's discharge of water into the rivers added to the devastation. Reports say that rivers like the Bagmati and the Kamla Balan exceeded their previous highest flood levels.

A man being lifted aboard an Indian Air Force helicopter in the flood-ravaged Dharbhanga district.-

Some of the worst affected districts are Sitamarhi, Saharsa, Sheohar, Dharbhanga, Supaul, East and West Champaran, Samastipur, Khagaria, Araria, Krishanganj, Muzaffarpur, Madhepura, Bhagalpur, Katihar and Madhubani. In Saharsa alone more than three lakh people across 35 panchayats were affected. The situation was equally bad in Dharbhanga district and worse in Sitamarhi district where the toll is presumed to be the highest in the State.

A large number of deaths occurred when boats overloaded with people trying to reach dry ground capsized in many places. In Muzaffarpur district, at least 30 people died when a boat carrying around 50 people capsized in the Bagmati river.

Train and road services came to a halt in a large section of northern Bihar. Owing to the inundation of railway tracks, the East Central Railway diverted a number of trains. Many parts of northern and eastern Bihar were plunged into darkness either because of technical faults or because of shutdowns in cases where the lines went under flood waters.

The damage to agricultural land is considered to be enormous, and the extent of it can be ascertained only when the waters recede. After undertaking an aerial survey of the affected districts, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief and Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav promised the people free foodgrains until the next cropping season. Chief Minister Rabri Devi, who also undertook an aerial survey, urged the authorities to step up relief work. By July 10, the Army and the Indian Air Force were deployed to carry out rescue and relief operations. In Dharbhanga district, around 500 students marooned in their school building for more than five days, were rescued with the help of Army helicopters. In areas where rescue work either by air or by road had been rendered impossible, Army motorboats were put to use. The governments of Gujarat, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh sent aid to the flood victims.

The only ones whom the flood brought cheer were 34 prisoners who managed to escape from the Dharbhanga Divisional Jail. Given the shortage of food and the chaotic situation precipitated by the floods, the residents of Dharbhanga and East Champaran took the law into their own hands and went on a looting spree. In East Champaran, villagers reportedly exchanged fire on more than one occasion over the question of cutting an embankment to release water.

In Dharbhanga, mobs broke into government godowns and looted foodgrains, edible oil, salt and other commodities. Goods worth Rs.80 lakhs are reported to have been looted in this manner. As the floodwaters surged, even the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police and the District Judge and their families had to take shelter in a government building.

Rabri Devi urged the Centre to declare the flood situation as a national calamity. She said the flood situation needed to be discussed at the Central level as most of the rivers in spate originated in Nepal. The State government requested the Centre to release 50 million tonnes each of rice and wheat and 10 lakh polythene sheets as immediate relief. According to the State Irrigation Department, the flood situation in Bihar is the worst to have occurred in the past 10 years. The State government has reportedly demanded a grant of Rs.1,000 crores from the Centre to rehabilitate those who have lost their homes and to repair and strengthen embankments. More than 2.38 lakh houses have been destroyed. The State government has requested for satellite phones to enable it to establish contact with the affected areas.

Considering the grim situation, the Centre released Rs.30.525 crores from the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) to the Bihar government on July 12. For the current fiscal the State has been allocated Rs.81.8 crores in CRF, but a bureaucratic hurdle delayed the release of the first instalment, as the State government had not furnished the utilisation report for the previous year (2003-2004). An inter-ministerial team at the Centre has been constituted to assess the flood situation once the waters recede.

Floods have been a recurrent feature in the Indo-Gangetic basin for many years. The long-term solution requires extensive planning, determined effort, and a huge outlay of funds, because it has to include ways to tackle deforestation, especially in the Himalayas, train farmers in soil conservation, and introduce appropriate cropping patterns. In addition, major flood control, irrigation and hydel projects need to be taken up in right earnest and those yet to be completed have to be expedited. Even though all these might not be able to prevent floods, their impact can be mitigated.

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the renowned agricultural scientist, had introduced a `model code' in the 1970s to improve disaster preparedness in flood-prone regions. Many State governments still circulate this code among district officials before the monsoon, but only as a formality. If the measures mentioned in the code, such as installation of early warning systems; dissemination of flood warning by the quickest means among the rural population; shifting of settlements from flood-prone areas to safer locations; and keep in readiness a stockpile of essential medicines, bleaching powder, tents and tarpaulin at strategic points are taken, the impact of floods can be reduced considerably.

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