Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Perennial Misery

How can Bihar end the flood disaster that visits its people year after year?

Submerged railway tracks near Madhepura, 250 km from Patna. (Photo courtesy PTI)

The breaching of embankments in the upstream areas of the Kosi river, in Kusaha village in Nepal, has resulted in yet another round of floods in north Bihar, in the districts of Supaul, Saharsa, Araria, Madhepura, Katihar and Purnia.

The disaster this time is much larger than usual. More than three million people have been affected and a million have been forced to seek higher ground.

The tragedy of floods ravaging this populous area is that the phenomenon is a regular occurrence. This time though, there is now enough information that the Kosi floods could have been avoided if there was coordinated action to prevent the breaching of the embankments. Yet this was not to be.

The Kosi is known to be a dynamic river that carries heavy sediment loads along with its flow. The river has therefore undergone several course changes in its history. The upstream management of embankments in the Kusaha area of Nepal was India’s responsibility (that of the government of Bihar to be specific). If the heavy silt load in the river and its meandering flow gnawing at the embankments had been monitored and acted upon, it would have been possible to prevent the breach that finally took place. Once the embankments were breached, then the Nepal police, fearing a greater inundation of living areas, cut a chasm in the path of the river to redirect the surging waters away from villages in the area. The result was that the Kosi began to flow through older stream-ways that it used to take in the past and this ended up in a flooding of vast tracts in and around north Bihar.

Negligence, lack of coordination between the government of India and Nepal, and sheer laxity of the state government in handling a perennial problem were the proximate causes of the Kosi catastrophe, which has been exacerbated by heavy rain in the region. Hundreds of thousands remain marooned in the area. The loss of property in the 16 affected districts includes destruction of 3,00,000 homes and of a swathe of crop area. Flooding by the Kosi is, at the time of writing (September 5), still under way and there is a danger of an epidemic of water-borne diseases. Quick evacuation, deployment of a larger number of boats for movement to higher ground, provision of relief (including medical supplies and food) and construction of facilities such as temporary homes are priority concerns for a state government that is struggling to cope with the enormity of the disaster. The National Disaster Management Authority should help to expedite relief efforts and coordinate work of the relief agencies along with the army. Yet, considering that the flood situation has been described as a national calamity by prime minister Manmohan Singh, relief efforts by the central and state agencies remain woefully inadequate.

Relief and rehabilitation after a disaster of this magnitude do pose a major challenge to state and society, but what of the future for the Kosi basin and other flood-prone areas of Bihar? The recurrence of the problem suggests that the strategy of controlling the flow of water through artificially constructed embankments and bunds is problematic, simply because their maintenance is too difficult a job to carry out with certainty. Frequent breaches have only made flooding even more disastrous than what the natural process of flooding would have entailed.

Much of the misery that visits the people of north Bihar every year could be mitigated if the strategy of dealing with floods was not merely reliant upon the “hold or break” approach of managing rivers. One school of thought feels it is necessary for the water resources ministry and the disaster management authorities in both the central and state governments to study the issue from a newer perspective that places much more emphasis on strategies such as proper flood plain zoning, retaining the natural drains of the river in its course-ways, constructing flood-proof facilities in the very vulnerable areas and disseminating information about flood management, sanitation, and water usage. In a nutshell, the prescription is for reducing the dependence upon culverts, embankments and other artificial structures to regulate the flow of the rivers through the region and to manage the natural outflows of the water, including by temporary cultivation on the flood plains.

Another school of thought suggests that flood avoidance is incumbent upon building high dams in Nepal to check the flow of the rivers in Bihar. But this remains a difficult task to undertake, for it would mean that Nepal would have to manage large volumes of water in reservoirs which would also be subjected to rapid silting. However, Nepal would be able to receive considerable income if the water in the reservoirs could be used to generate hydropower. The presence of a newly elected democratic government in Nepal should make it much easier for the governments of the two countries to negotiate a solution to the flooding problem.

In the end, disasters such as the floods in Bihar should not be considered as one-off incidents that are forgotten after the floods subside. A comprehensive change in perspective in viewing flood management is necessary to prevent recurrence of this tragedy that the people of Bihar have been experiencing for decades.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

A proud father and a husband...

A new chapter of my life begins. That of being a father. Am I the most elated person in the world? My wife doesnt' quite agree :).

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Cauldron of Communal Violence

Image courtesy The Hindu
State inaction against communal elements has exacerbated an already polarised region in Orissa.

Communal violence is becoming a regular feature of Orissa society, differing from much of the rest of the country only in that it is the Christian minorities rather than Muslims who are at the receiving end. The violence against Christians and the community-run institutions in Kandhamal district following the murder of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activist Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four others comes less than a year after a string of attacks in Kandhamal district by the Sangh parivar on Christians on Christmas eve of 2007. At that time the conflagration was a culmination of various factors: the issue of conversion and re-conversion, demands for scheduled tribe (ST) status by some groups, and, of course, the underlying poor socio-economic status of the people in the mostly tribal area in an already communally affected Orissa.

Investigations are still under way to identify the murderers of Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Despite rumours and “beliefs” that the attack was conducted by Maoists, no concrete proof has emerged. The subsequent rioting and burning of Christian missions, schools and households and deaths of around 10 people at the time of writing reveal that the Sangh parivar has few qualms in directing violence at the poor of other communities.

Kandhamal district has, over the years, emerged as a cauldron for rival communal groups who are engaged in proselytism and “re-conversion”. Lakshmanananda Saraswati was a VHP activist who was based in the region for close to four decades. A lynchpin of the Sangh parivar’s efforts to forge a presence in the tribal areas of Orissa, he was involved in activities such as “re-conversion” of non-Hindus back to the “Hindu fold”, apart from running institutions for Hindutva groups. Much like in December 2007. Saraswati’s murder produced a predictable reaction in the communally fragile region. In these sensitive tracts, action such as the targeting of religious symbols by communal organisations on both sides has time and again resulted in violent reprisals by the other side.

The communally charged atmosphere has turned all the more tense because of certain caste issues. As in some of the states in the south, many in the dalit community who have become Christians have not been able to claim scheduled caste (SC) status to achieve social mobility through employment in the government apparatus because the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 prevents them from availing of reservations. Those among the dalit Christians in Orissa who speak the Kui language are instead demanding ST status, since tribal groups irrespective of their religion can utilise reservations. The antagonism between the Christian dalits and others has only increased because the kandh tribals who have been accorded ST status feel threatened by the demand from the dailt groups for a similar position. These antagonisms have become exaggerated in a region mired in poverty, state inaction, poor governance and where social provisions and functions such as education and health are hegemonised by communal groups. This is not to mention the fallout of political rivalry between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress who have been openly allying with communal groups to build up electoral support.

It goes without saying that the state government has to reassert its presence, punish those responsible for communalising the situation and bring back normalcy to this violence-prone region. The presence of the BJP as a partner in the Navin Patnaik-led coalition has tied the government’s hands, if indeed it wanted to respond to the situation. That the government has been lax in punishing those engaged in communal violence even as the death of Lakshmanananda Saraswati has given the BJP an opportunity to further whip up communal sentiments is there for all to see.

The State has to reclaim the space where it has a major part to play in development and in the provision of social services. The government has been hitherto more concerned with promoting a model of development in which commercial interests are given free rein over the resources traditionally under the control of the tribals. The communal forces have used the vacuum left by the state to “win over” tribals in the name of their upliftment and have used this to establish themselves in the region to further their narrow and divisive agenda.

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly