Kosi fury highlights need for water management: Montek Ahluwalia

By Rajeev Ranjan Roy, IANS,

New Delhi : The Kosi river, which changed its course and washed away the homes and livelihoods of nearly 15 million people in Bihar, has reinforced the need for effective water management on a priority basis, says a top official of India’s Planning Commission.

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“The flood caused by the Kosi in Bihar underlines the need for storing water by building dams or barrages. Since the issue involves Nepal, vigorous diplomatic efforts are needed,” Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, told IANS.

“I do not see any other viable solution. We will have to think and act in terms of storing Kosi water wherever possible and necessary. Let’s hope the government acts fast accordingly,” he added.

Kosi has an age-old sobriquet – ‘Sorrow of Bihar’. The river gathers water from the Himalayas and flows down from Nepal to India before joining the Ganga near Kursaila in Katihar, now an inundated district in north Bihar.

It is also called Sapta Kosi as the river has seven major tributaries – Sun Kosi, Tama Kosi, Dudh Kosi, Indravati, Likhu, Arun and Tamar.

The river carries around 80 million tonnes of silt every year, a possible reason for it changing course from time to time. It has an average discharge of over 55,000 cusecs of water, which goes up sharply during the monsoon.

On April 25, 1954, India and Nepal signed the first Kosi Agreement. By 1963, a barrage was built at Bhimnagar near the Nepal border. A 39-km long embankment from the barrage to Chatra in Nepal was also built.

Spurs – diagonal structures that check the speed of the river’s current – were built to protect the barrage. The jacketing of the Kosi was successful in controlling the river’s direction, but did not address the problem of siltation.

Till this year, Kosi used to flood north Bihar due to breaches in embankments downstream of the barrage. However, the current flood was caused by breaches that developed in the embankment near Kusaha, located upstream in Nepal.

As per the agreement, India was to take care of the embankment lying in the territory of Nepal. Every year, the entire stretch is inspected and repaired by June.

However, Bihar government officials alleged that the breaches could not be repaired this year since Nepalis did not allow the labourers to work on the embankment. The Kosi finally damaged the spurs and caused a 12.8-km lethal breach on Aug 18.

The river took an eastward course and gushed into Bihar. It inundated Supaul and then Araria, Saharsa, Madhepura, Purnea, Katihar and Khagaria districts in just a few days. It spread subsequently to nine other districts, including Bhagalpur, Samastipur and Muzaffarpur.

Locals believe that the river, having shifted around 120 km from east to west in a period of around 250 years, is now returning to its old course.

Since a Bihar district has a population of 2.2 million on an average, there is little doubt that the Kosi flooding has affected nearly 15 million people.

“The number is very high. There is no authentic data available. The loss is unprecedented and certainly calls for a lasting solution,” the central government’s Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh told IANS.

Since a permanent solution involves diplomatic cooperation between India and Nepal, he did not see any reason for the Bihar government to fail in repairing the embankment.

“It was a criminal negligence, and needs to be probed. The responsibility has to be fixed,” said the minister. The central government has declared the Bihar floods a national calamity.

Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has also demanded active bilateral cooperation for building dams to check annual floods, which inundate parts of that state as well.

She visited the flood-affected areas last Friday and told reporters in Patna that Nepal and India had an agreement in 1996 to build dams on the Sharda, Ghagra and Rapti rivers but nothing had moved forward since then.

Locals say floods of such magnitude were first seen in 1954 and subsequently in 1963, 1971, 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1995.

“This is several times worse than the floods in 1991 and 1995,” said Rajiv Ranjan, the former headman of Tatanpura village in Madhepura. With his village under water, he is currently staying at his house in Madhepura, which was hit by floods Aug 27.

With the Kosi having swept away agricultural land, livestock and houses, it will be difficult for the people of Bihar to get back on their feet.

“It is the end of a chapter. A new one has to be started from scratch. Nobody knows when and how,” said Rajiv Ranjan.