Down to the waterHailing from Madhubani, I have seen how floods have made farming and forestry unviable livelihood options.
Among the most enduring and inalienable factors of India-Nepal relations is the perennial flood that causes ‘rainy days’ and haunts the people beyond the borders. Be it the incessant monsoonal rains or the accumulation and compaction of Himalayan snow, the people of the Tarai in Nepal and north Bihar in India find themselves at the receiving end, and face an existential crisis without a miss.
Surprisingly, Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, known for making statements laced with the political overtones, has no views on this disaster. Here, he has no China angle to explore, and he is certainly not someone who will believe in the history of cooperation between India and Nepal for embankments in the 1950s. When work on the Koshi embankments started in January 1955, as per eyewitnesses, a group of retired Nepali soldiers came voluntarily to work on the embankments along with Indian volunteers. This was started with a government-citizen interface, however, since then, we have indeed come a long way. Sadly, over the decades, the water cooperation between the two countries for a common cause has waned, and not much has happened that could have cured the ailing water management system for averting disasters and using the precious water resources for productive purposes, including hydroelectricity, in Nepal’s Tarai and India’s north Bihar.
Dinesh Mishra, an eminent water resource expert and convener of Barh Mukti Abhiyan, is quite forthcoming on the lapses in India-Nepal water cooperation. ‘We now blame Nepal for releasing water from her rivers that cause floods on the Indian side without ever realising that they don’t, and our Nepali friends blame us for taking all the benefits from all the projects that were taken up in the past, leaving them in the lurch. Somewhere something has gone wrong that the common cause that was shown in the 1950s is missing now. Unfortunately, this mistrust has percolated down to the level of the public and needs to be addressed properly. Efforts are being made after the Rio Summit (1992), but that has not touched even the fringe of the problem. Sincere efforts to dilute mutual mistrust among the people is the answer, but this cannot be achieved by time-bound projects. It is a continuous long-term need that should be addressed without any prejudice among the people on either side. Unfortunately, such initiatives are yet to come out of the project mode’.
The floods in the Tarai and north Bihar districts, especially Madhubani, Darbhanga, Sitamarhi, Sheohar, Saharsa, Supaul, Purnea, Araria, Madhepura, Katihar, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, Bettiah, Motihari and Begusarai, have become a ‘curse’ over the decades. Making infrastructural interventions by building embankments and re-routing the water streams at places have disturbed the conventional pattern of slow water flow. Once, without so many artificial barriers, the flow of water used to be helpful for farming in the region. Hailing from Madhubani, I have seen how floods have made farming and forestry unviable livelihood options. Over a period of time, the chronic effects of devastation have deeply affected local self-employment prospects and fuelled outbound migration to the peril of migrating youth and the local economy.
About an existential challenge like this, the governments in India and Nepal have appeared unwary. Many a time, the people in the catchment areas don’t receive any intimation or warning about the floods, and of course, bureaucratic incompetence and lack of will impede timely communication between the two governments. Noticeably, even the Koshi Treaty of 1954, under which the embankments in Nepal were established and maintained, made no obvious provisions for dealing with breach of mutually agreed action points. It was too simplistic the way early policymakers thought that the embankments would never fail. There has been a painful history of breaches and grave humanitarian crises in both countries when it comes to finding a solution for deposition of stones, sand, silt and sediment that leads the river bed to rise, change course and cause unimaginable losses.
Reportedly, between the mid-18th and mid-20th centuries, the River Koshi shifted over 100 kilometres westward, resulting in a series of human displacements and serious miseries to even people who once had a sound material fortune. Out of focus and continuing with the government’s apathy, it is not very well known that many thriving villages in the Koshi region submerged with the river, and now they only exist in the fond memories of people who lost their world in the crisis.
The transition from the traditional method of flood control to the embankment-based British system gained momentum as early as 1937 when it was thought out to construct a high dam that could control floodwaters at Barahakshetra in Nepal.
After nearly two decades, feasibility approval and the required budget could be managed, and finally, the dam was built after the devastating Koshi flood in 1953. Showing great sensitivity, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the flood-affected areas in 1953 and announced a Koshi scheme for the safe resettlement of the affected people. Lalit Narayan Mishra, a high-profile Union Cabinet Minister in Nehru’s government, was the first and last political leader from the Mithila region who tried improving the infrastructural capabilities with the Koshi Project and other initiatives to control the flood. Not much happened after his untimely demise, Bihar’s leadership didn’t do enough to resolve the persisting problem with water management in its own territory or sensitise the central ministry to take up the matter with Nepal.
Neglected in the mainstream political frameworks of both India and Nepal, the issue of floods is getting worse in the concerned region. With the climatic imbalance and deep disregard for sustainable development, the same flood-affected region is also facing the condition of drought and lowered water table. This is something ironical. Most often down to the water, the region is seriously in need of constructive dialogue at the top decision-making level between the governments of India and Nepal for ending the expected crisis every year. Any further delay will make the condition worse.
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