Background documents on the Bagmati embankment breach: Article and presentation

1) A presentation from the Central Water Commission of the Government of India studying the flood problem on the Bagmati and making some recommendations:


2) An article by Sri Dinesh Kumar Mishra who has spent decades studying and writing on the north Bihar Floods. Here he discusses recent attempts to erect more embankments on the Bagmati.

The return of embankments on the Bagmati - Dinesh Kumar Mishra

Bagmati is an important River of Bihar, which descends down the Himalayas and enters India in the Sitamarhi district of Bihar. The capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, is located on its bank. Its basin is among the most fertile regions of the world, which is mainly attributed to the silt that the river brings along with its flows. The river joins the Kosi near Badla Ghat in Khagaria district of Bihar. It has a total catchment area of 13,279 sq. km. Of which 6,246 is located in India and the rest lies in Nepal. The ground slope through which the river passes in the Indian portion is almost flat and ranges from 0.87 meters per kilometer near Indo-Nepal border and in lower reaches; it gets flattened to about 0.07 meters per kilometer. Heavy silt load and flat gradient of land causes meandering of the river in the Indian plains which results in seasonal hardship to the people living in its basin.

The river has got three distinct reaches in the Indian territory of about 85-90 kilometers each. The lower reaches, although prone to spilling, are said to be relatively stable and hence embanked in mid 1950s on the plea that such embanking would solve the flood problems of that sector. The upper third reach of the river was left unattended then saying that it was not wise to embank the unstable portion of the river. When this conclusion was drawn, one of the most unstable rivers of the country, the Kosi, was being embanked in the eastern neighborhood and the people of that basin were rejoicing the festivity of embanking of that river. On the west of the Bagmati, an ambitious irrigation project on the Gandak was being launched at the initiative of India’s first president Dr Rajendra Prasad. Sandwiched between huge projects coming up on either side, the leaders of the Bagmati basin had nothing to boast of. Being branded inactive by the construction lobby, they were under compulsion to demand a project (embankments) on the Bagmati. The farmers of the basin, however, were opposed to any such move as the soil as it would not get the enriching silt once the river was embanked. These farmers claimed that the amount of sweet potato that they could grow over an acre of land was enough to finance purchase of an elephant and that they welcomed floods as it never lasted for more than two and a half days at a stretch. They even proposed to the Government that if any money was to be spent on the embanking of the river, the same would find a better use in the National Defence Fund to counter the Chinese aggression.

But such protests in the favor of leaving the river to its own devices fell on the deaf years and serious official efforts were started in 1965 to tame the river in that reach also. It was proposed to embank the river in the upper reaches at an estimated cost of Rs. 3.17 Crores then. These estimates were subsequently revised in 1969,1973,1974,1976, 1980, and 1981 at Rs. 6.54 Crores, Rs. 22.55 Crores, Rs. 26.72 Crores, Rs. 36.20 Crores, Rs. 51.88 Crores and Rs. 60.48 Crores respectively. Amidst various revisions and resistance from the local people, these embankments were constructed during the emergency (1975-77) from Dheng near the Indo-Nepal border to Runni Saidpur in a stretch of 85 Kilometers. This included the garland embankments around Bairgania Block of the Sitamarhi district that is located between the doab of Lal Bakeya and the Bagmati River.

The middle 90 kilometer reach of the river, between Runni Saidpur and Hayaghat, was rated all time unstable and was left open for free spilling of the river even while the lower and upper reaches of the river were embanked in 1950s and 1970s respectively. As a result, the middle un-embanked reach of the river that passes through the blocks of Aurai, Katra and Gai Ghat faces immense damage to life and property because of the onslaughts of the emanating floodwaters of the Bagmati. The breaches in the embankment in upper reaches further contribute to the chaos as no one knows which side the floodwater and the accompanying sediments would enter from.

It is this middle portion of the river that the embankments are now being proposed at a cost of Rs. 792 Crores along with strengthening and raising of the existing embankments in the entire stretch of the river in Bihar. Government of Bihar GoB has sent a proposal to central government (November 2006) with a hope that once this embankment is constructed, most of the remaining flood problems of the basin would be solved.

This proposal raises many questions that should be answered before the work on the embankment starts. Firstly, it was argued all the times that the stream between the middle reach is unstable and is unfit for embanking. Has the stream become stable and fit for embanking in the past 30 years? As far as our information goes, fixation of a river stream is a hydro-geological process and it takes thousands of years to get a river stabilized.

Secondly, will the raising/strengthening of the existing and constructing newer embankments anyway help checking the quantity of sediments coming into the stream? Will it prevent deposition of silt within the embankments and the subsequent raising of the river bed or seepage through the body of the embankments into the protected countryside? Thirdly, the raised / strengthened embankments would be more effective in preventing the rainwater from entering the river thereby worsening the water logging conditions on the countryside of the embankments. Such conditions already exist in the lower and upper reaches of the Bagmati where embankments are in place. The actual problem of the area is not the floodwater but the sediments that accompany the floodwaters and the embankments have no role in routing the silt. It will be of interest to know how the water resources department of Bihar proposes to solve this problem.

Fourthly, when a free flowing river encroaches its embankments during the rainy season, only the top layer water of the river, rich in micro-nutrients, spills into the country countryside. Breaches in the embanked river cause spreading of coarse sand in the countryside as the bottom layer river water is also led to the countryside rendering the area into a desert. Nobody takes the responsibility of such desertification and subsequent loss of livelihood of the farmers. Can raising / strengthening of the embankments reverse these conditions and can the WRD give an assurance that the embankments would not breach?

Lastly, the WRD of GoB thus far has maintained that the final solution to the flood problem of the basin lay in construction of a dam at Nunthar on the River in Nepal and it had been postponing any intervention on the river in that hope. Is the WRD of GoB finally disillusioned with the construction of that dam? An expert committee report of the GoB (May 2006) clearly suggests that neither there is any likelihood of the construction of the dam at Nunthar nor is it likely to hold any flood, if ever constructed. The expert committee has expressed similar doubts about the proposed dam at Chisapani on the Kamla and the Kosi High Dam at Barahkshetra in Nepal. That being so, aren’t the promises made to the people of Bihar fake that once these dams are constructed, all their flood problems would be solved? Will much hyped interlinking of rivers come to the rescue of the people of the middle Bagmati basin then? In a recent meeting in Delhi (15th January 2007), a chief engineer of National Water Development Agency NWDA had categorically asserted that flood control in Interlinking of Rivers was only incidental and that the scheme is meant primarily for augmenting irrigation in the country. That being the case, there is an urgent need for reviewing the proposal of the GoB in embanking the middle reach of the Bagmati as something else needs to be done instead of constructing embankments or waiting for a dam on the river or interlinking..

Further, will the Government compensate the farmers whose land would get waterlogged or sand cast because of the construction of these embankments? The proposed embankments would involuntarily displace many families and the WRD has not disclosed any plans to rehabilitate such families and look after their well being. As per the information available, there was no provision of any rehabilitation or compensation of the families displaced due to the construction of the Bagmati embankments in lower reaches (1955) and only those farmers whose land fell in the embankment alignment were paid the cost of that land. Situation improved a bit while second phase embankments were put up in the upper reaches (1975) when the farmers were also given shifting allowances ranging from Rs 200/- to Rs 750/- per family depending on whether their house was a kachcha or a pucca construction. Most of this money was spent in getting the claims. Those displaced were also given a block of land for habitation but the plot boundaries were not marked in most cases resulting in a major chunk of the rehabilitation land falling into the hands of the local toughs and a vast majority of displaced persons were left in lurch because of inept handling of the rehabilitation issue by inexperienced engineers. No grant was given for constructing new house nor was any land allotted to those whose agricultural land was trapped within the embankments. Many of the displaced families are, thus, living on the embankments amidst risk of eviction any time. No assurance has been given that such incidents would not be repeated and even if such assurances are given, no one knows the intention of their implementation.

According to a notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (14th September 2006) GoI, any project that is likely to affect environment adversely must get a clearance of the Ministry before any construction activity starts. This notification ensures that people likely to be hit by the project are given prior information about the possible impacts of a project and that their concerns and suggestions are recorded through public hearings and their compliance ensured. No such move has started in the concerned region.

The proposed amount to be spent is a big sum and should not be wasted on projects with uncertain results. The last RJD led Government in Bihar had not taken up any work on flood control except maintaining (?) the embankments, sometimes, on the plea of ideology and most of the times blaming a non-friendly center for resource crunch. If the GoB is proposing embankments now, it points to a major shift in the official policy towards taming the rivers. This shift should be for the common good of the people with their active participation so that it does not harm any section of the society.

Post By: iwp