The Sorrow of Bihar (October 19, 2008)

The Kosi floods - the worst in India's history - have made lakhs of people homeless and destroyed their source of livelihood, writes Maryam Yasmeen.

Causing a breach in the Kosi and Bhimnagar barrage on August 18 near Kushaha village in Nepal, which adjoins Bihar's Supaul district, the turbulent river jumped eastward dangerously. The unexpected event created havoc in Madhepura, Saharsa, Araria, Purnia and Supaul districts. The Kosi has a history of massive flooding year after year. The annual floods are taken as a matter of course. However this year it left in its wake an awesome trail of death and destruction in Bihar's northern plains.

According to reports, over 800 villages went completely under water and 29 lakh people were displaced from their homes. Another 11 districts in northeast Bihar were partially inundated.

It is becoming increasingly clear that mismanagement of Kosi and its known danger both by state and central agencies is what led to the calamity. Another dimension is poor handling of river management issues with Nepal. The desilting of the Kosi near Kausaha barrage is carried out annually. But this year work has been delayed because of unknown reasons. When desilting finally got underway in the first week of August, it was already too little, too late. It is important to note that the barrage built in 1950 was declared unsafe 20 years ago.

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared the flood a national disaster after his visit to Bihar flood hit areas on August 18. Still conditions remain grim. Now the number of people estimated to be affected is 29 lakh and the number of villages uprooted stands at 866. That includes five major districts, and the official death toll is 18. However, it could actually be in hundreds.
The fact remains that the aftermath of the calamity can be even more devastating and difficult to manage.

First is the problem of the spread of epidemics. Though there are no figures available, a lot of people - nursing mothers and babies, young and old - are suffering from different ailments. The most common complaints reported are gastro intestinal disorders, high fever, undifferentiated coughs and colds, and assorted complaints. Diarrhoea, measles, conjunctivitis and malaria are some of the diseases which are likely to spread.

Another major problem of the aftermath of floods is that much of the farming land is still under water. Marginal and small farmers are the worst sufferers. The landless peasant is worse off as there will be no farming till October end. Even after the water recedes, large areas of the affected region might be rendered permanently infertile because of the deposit of gravel and pebbles the Kosi waters are likely to leave behind.

The only option left for farmers is migration. Then the vicious cycle would start again. It would be time to take loans from shylocks to rebuild their huts, leaving their families to their fate and going away in search of work outside the state.


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