A Bend In The River

September 11, 2008 at 12:26 pm Leave a comment

A Bend In The River

– N K SINGH

The floods in north Bihar are back. Each year, Bihar faces a cycle of destruction, involuntary displacement, migration and large-scale loss of human life, cattle, crops and infrastructure. Even within this recurrent theme of annual misery, the Kosi river breaching its embankment has been catastrophic – a disaster unprecedented in living memory.

The Kosi, emanating in the Himalayas, is a part of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna riverine system, which carries within its fold a population of 1.3 billion people spread across five countries, including China, and is home to some of the world’s poorest. The Kosi is one of the tributaries of the Ganges and travels through the upper mountainous regions in Nepal before entering the plains of Bihar and merging with the Gangesseveral hundred kilometres downstream. Given the crystalline nature of the rock and its young morphology, it carries in its path large quantities of silt and other matter which are not alluvial and of infertile nature. This silt is deposited in the plains of Bihar. The trouble is further compounded by the steep gradient from which the river emerges and enters the Bihar plains. Its large deposits of silt and gradient force the river to meander along unpredictable paths thus earning for itself the name of ‘river of sorrow’.

The first credible attempt to tame the river began in 1956 after the devastating floods of 1954. Jawaharlal Nehru directed the Central Water Commission to prepare a feasibility project to suggest a long-term solution. The mandarins of the Central Water Commission did a hydrological survey and prepared a report of that region. The commission suggested the construc-tion of a high dam (239 metre) at Barakshetra about 50 km within Nepal to be backed by a barrage downstream. For several reasons, including cost, a focus on to the Bhakra Nangal project and the complexities in the construction of multiple structures, this option was shelved.

As an interim arrangement, the government settled on a barrage at Hanuman Nagar, Birpur. Thus, the first credible attempt to tame the river began in 1956 with an eastern and a western embankment of 105 and 106 km respectively of which about 32 km of the eastern embankment is in Nepal. These embankments were completed in 1959. Thebarrage at Birpur to regulate water flow wasfinished in 1964. The Indo-Nepalese agreement between the two countries, which facilitated this project, brought benefits to both India and Nepal. The Nepalese side, however, continued to question the benefits from the project. Nepal had all along wanted a barrage system further upstream which they believed would have yielded more optimum returns.

It was understood that, apart from a limited life of 25 years for the barrage, the arrangement was at best a temporary one which needed to be complemented by more durable measures.The core question is: Why did the permanent arrangements fail to take off despite the incalculable multiplier effects both for the economy of India and Nepal? There are several reasons for this. First, while the Nepalese were more friendly with India in the 1950s and 60s and even till the completion of the barrage, subsequently Indo-Nepalese relations became much more uncertain. The two neighbours began to view each other with suspicion. Repeated attempts by New Delhi to settle this issue during the several Indo-Nepalese commission discussions and other forums did not evoke much response.

Second, attempts to engage multilateral institutions like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank did not cut ice with the ministry of external affairs, which felt that this would unnecessarily internationalise an issue which lay in the bilateral domain of India and Nepal. Thus, while bilateral diplomacy remained stalled for various reasons, multilateral institutions, which were keen to help a project that would benefit several countries including India and Nepal, remained mired in misplaced geopolitical sensitivities. This was unpardonable considering the issue was anatural resource like water.

Third, environmental lobbies gathered momentum during the early 1990s and building high dams lost favour. Initiatives of multilateral insti-tutions could not overcome growing environmental concern and civil society resistance. Finally, the simple fact that apart from the multiplierbenefits to agriculture, flood protection and livelihood patterns to both people of India and Nepal, a substantial part of the hydro-electricity of 3,000 MW could be sold by Nepal to India tobring about huge improvement in real income of Nepalese and meet the energy deficiencies of the eastern region failed to carry conviction.

Will the current catastrophe, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appropriately called a “calamity of national proportion”, lead to a rethink? Will the stalled efforts of five decades gather new momentum? This problem, which has a massive human dimension, needs to transcend contemporary political compulsions. Downstream riparian countries, which face ecological disaster, need international support to supplement bilateral efforts. We need to transcend the limited approach of departmental jurisdiction and deeply embedded suspicions of the past.

The need of the hour is an aggressive and fresh initiative to tame India’s ‘river of sorrow’.

The writer is deputy chairman, Planning Commission, Bihar.

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