Engineering witchcraft in Bihar

The Bhutahi Balan, a tributary of the Kosi may be a small river but it has caused immense devastation. Dinesh Mishra says that embankments aren't the answer to this problem.
Devastation due to floods Devastation due to floods

It's been years since Bhutahi Balan, a small tributary of the Kosi river in Madhubani, North Bihar, has been causing devastation on both its banks. Dinesh Mishra in his book 'Story of a ghost river and engineering witchcraft' objectively analyses the failure of embankments, which are raised banks to contain the river's flooding.

He combines this analysis with questions of political economy while retaining a moving passion for the lives of people. With sharpness and conviction, Mishra takes a dig at the technical aspects of the embankments. “The engineers instead of routing the river’s sand routed the water”, he says. The article below is based on excerpts from this book.

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Bhutahi Balan, a tributary of the Kosi is a small river of Madhubani, Bihar but the devastation it causes is, in actual fact, disproportionate to its size. The river rightly derives its name from ghosts (bhut). Local people say that the river rises abruptly in the rainy season, its waters enter the houses and communication goes out of gear. Before one can react to the situation, the river disappears leaving a trail of thick sand behind. The river did not have a definite flow path nor did it have any definite bed until recently. 

Change in the course and branching of various streams are the two main problems attached to the river. Most of the streams that have branched off from the river have done so on its right bank. The flow of the river contains excessive sediments, like any other river of north Bihar. This leads to a change in its course, a serpentine flow path, shallow beds, overtopping of the banks and instability of the channel. This causes great inconvenience to the people living on either side of the river. 

Embankments on the Kosi

The problems of the Bhutahi Balan are tagged to that of the Kosi river, which was embanked between 1955 and 1957 as a result of a major initiative to control floods in post-independent India. The western embankments of the Kosi intercepted the flow of most of its tributaries. It takes time to construct sluice gates or bridges and hence gaps were left in the western embankment of the Kosi where the rivers were likely to cross it.

Before the construction of the embankment, the water of the tributaries used to spread to the adjoining land prior to emptying into the Kosi’s mainstream thereby moderating floods. After the construction of the embankment, the tributaries were forced to converge to the gaps left in the embankment, for constructing sluice gates. This led to the building up of the flood levels upstream and brought more areas under the sheet of water, apart from endangering the western embankment of the Kosi. The Bhutahi’s water flowed freely into the Kosi before the embankments were constructed.

Problems caused by the embankment

The construction of the embankment paved the way for raising of the railway track, which impeded flow of many tributaries in the area. The mess of the Bhutahi Balan was created by a mistake, whether willful or otherwise, of building the embankment only on one side of the river. It has pitted people against each other and created a conflicting situation in various hamlets of the same village because of their locations in relation to the river and the embankment. It has created a rift between the Water Resources Department and the people.

It further led to a competition between politicians and the political parties, the sole beneficiaries of this lapse, as they are always on the lookout for issues and the unsettled Bhutahi Balan issue gave them that opportunity. It is the people who have suffered the risk of their livelihood. Because the people did not know the consequences of the western Bhutahi Balan embankment, the resistance to it was not that vocal and the Emergency helped the Government in building the same. The protestors ran the risk of being thrown behind bars.

The Government of Bihar, having constructed the embankment on the western side of the Bhutahi Balan, has tied a snake around the necks of the people in the basin along with that of its own. It would have been better if the Government had evaluated the performance of the existing embankments and taken a decision on the findings of such a study. This study would have revealed the effectiveness of the existing embankments in the backdrop of the claims made in the project report. The claim that there would be a return of Rs. 3.28 against an investment of every rupee should have been verified. A similar assessment is needed of the claim that four times the maximum discharge of the Bhutahi Balan would pass through the Bridge Nos: 133-140 without any difficulty. The Railways should also come out with a clear position in the matter.

The evaluation would have revealed the reasons for straying from the target and fixed the responsibility for the lapses, if any. What were the steps needed to improve the situation? Without knowing all these facts and without planning for rehabilitation for those who are likely to be trapped within the two embankments of the Bhutahi Balan, if the eastern embankment is extended any further, the status quo will be maintained. 

What all has been done so far to tame the river and what is being proposed at the moment, amounts to a witchcraft to tame the river that behaves like a ghost. It is about time that the engineers are reminded that the problem lies not in routing the water but routing the sand. Unless that is done, engineering would be reduced to witchery. Until then, there is no other option than to tolerate the continued hissing of the snake silently. The final verdict, however, will come from the river and one will have to wait for that to happen. 

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