Understanding the floods of Bihar - Book review of "Bagmati Ki Sadgati !"

This article presents a review of the book by Dr Dinesh Mishra that describes the origin and changing course of the river Bagmati and the recurrent problems of floods in the region

Bagmati Ki Sadgati! by Dr. Dinesh MishraBagmati Ki Sadgati! by Dr. Dinesh Mishra

Floods of Bihar are not new for us. Every year we read and watch about it, in print as well as in electronic media. The story rolls with aerial images of hundreds of waterlogged villages, pictures of people wading through the deepwater or trapped on trees, followed by news of visit of some minister and announcement of the relief package. This is the whole episode of Bihar floods and it repeats every year without fail. Sometimes twice in a year! And every time our system fails to control the situation and push thousands of victims to live in worst situation.

The story is simple and straightforward. But often we tend to neglect such simple stories saying - what’s new in it? (इसमें नई बात क्या है?). But it has altogether different paradigm which is revealed and put forward by Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra in his book titled - ‘Bagmati Ki Sadgati! ’. It is all about river Bagmati describing its origin and changing course, topography, flood and irrigation problems, relief work, status of rehabilitation, impact of floods on people living alongside, and role of politicians, various divisions of administration, and local community leaders in managing floods. Moreover author has explained everything in great detail citing references and appropriate examples.

River Bagmati originates in Kathmandu valley of Nepal, crosses into India at Dheng (Bihar), flows in northern parts of Bihar and confluences in river Kosi. Before entering into India it covers 195 km in Nepal and drains water from an area of 7884 sq.km. For understanding flood situation in northern Bihar, it is necessary to look into the nature of Bagmati and topography of the region.

Bagmati originates in Himalayas which is a young mountain and made up of soft and friable sedimentary rocks. As a result, like any other Himalayan river, Bagmati carries heavy loads of sediments including silt, sand and boulders. Further, during its course in mountain it has very steep bed slope causes very high velocity and capacity to carry as much as sediments.

As soon as Bagmati enters in Terai region, it gets opportunity to spread all over and moves slowly in plain. In addition, its sediments carrying capacity reduces significantly and big boulders gets settle followed by sand particles. Deposition of fine silt particles occurs in later course of stream. Thus erosion in up hills and deposition in plains is a continuous process. Sediments deposited in channel offer resistance to flow. Over a time period river cuts channel and changes its course to follow a new path with least resistance. Probability of changing course depends on load of sediments. For Himalayan rivers this probability is much higher which makes flood situation worst.


Network of rivers in northern Bihar

Network of rivers in northern Bihar

In addition, after crossing Himalayas, the slope of the Bagmati reduces significantly and river flows through flat topography till it meets Kosi. In Dheng slope of Bagmati river bed is 53 cm/km (i.e. 0.053%) which decreases to 14 cm/km (i.e. 0.014%) in Hayaghat (196 km downstream from Dheng) and further it slashes to just 4 cm/km (i.e. 0.004%). At such low slope water cannot flow, it will just move. In such circumstances even a small hurdle in a flow is capable to push water in upstream by significant length. And thus it is one of the reasons that region remains waterlogged for days after flood.

In addition, sediments deposited in channel reduce Bagmati’s cross section and therefore water carrying capacity. In this situation sudden rise in water flow forces the water to cross its banks and flood the surrounding region. Moreover Bagmati flows through typical topography during its course between Dheng to Hayaghat. In general as river moves, its flow increases because of additional water drained by its tributaries and increase in its catchment area. But Bagmati shows a reverse trend during flood period. In 1975 flood, river flow was less in Hayaghat than Dheng whereas Hayaghat is 196 km downstream to Dheng.

It means majority of water which was supposed to flow through Hayaghat was spread in surrounding region which has topography like a plate. Unless and until plate overflows water cannot move ahead. In this region flood water of Bagmati intrudes in its tributaries and cause flood situation in their catchments. This typical topographic feature put villages located alongside Bagmati between Dheng to Hayaghat into dangerous flood situation. Without flooding the region in between, Bagmati cannot move ahead to Hayaghat. Thus at the end, the author concludes that it is impossible to make northern Bihar free of floods irrespective of whatever statements the irrigation and flood control departments and politicians make. Flood free northern Bihar is just a daydream!

Thus, floods are not new to this region. Since long time people have settled in this territory and have been facing flood problems but then also population density is considerably high in this region. As per the census of 2001, district Sitamandhi, Shivhar, Muzzafarpur, and Darbhanga has population density of 1169, 1165, 1179 and 1446 per sq. km respectively and it is much more than the rest of the Bihar. (If we compare the figures with Maharashtra, except Mumbai, district Thane and Pune are the most populous district of the state with population density of 850 and 462 per sq. km respectively). Then the question arises; why population density is very high irrespective of yearly flood situation?

The reason is sediments! During flood water of Bagmati spreads all around the valley. It deposits silts in fields. In addition flood water maintains ground water level. The silt is highly nutritious and maintains fertility of soil. The valley produces good yield without a pinch of any fertilizers. The region has plenty of water and never faces drought situation. Author reports that this is the one of the regions of our country where we do not get to see woman fetching water from distant sources. Because of availability of water and fertile soil the region is preferred by mankind for settlement since ages. Even today we come across old farmers in this region reporting that in kharif and rabi season they used to go to farm only for harvesting crop after broadcasting seeds. People faces problems during flood but enjoy bumper crop afterwards. If the flood was the major problem of the region, people would have runaway long back. But they have not!

Author reports that the communities living in the floodplains have their own lifestyle and culture to tackle the flood situation. It includes grain storage, fuel and fodder management, identification of secure zone, commuting facilities, alternatives for drinking water during flood period, traditional medicines and health practices and agricultural practices. But now we are losing our traditional knowledge.

Construction of embankments

The easiest way one can think to tackle flood situation is a construction of embankment along the channel. It protects alongside villages by establishing a safe zone. And that is what we are doing since last 50 years under various irrigation and flood control schemes. Total length of Bagmati river is 394 km in Bihar. Till today embankment of around 450 km has been constructed or under construction on both the banks of Bagmati. Still after spending thousands of crores, construction of embankment is a controversial issue. Evan engineers do not have consistent opinions about its utility.

As per the rationale put forward by engineers, after construction of embankment river is forced to flow between embankments. It reduces its cross-section and increases velocity of stream. Increased velocity further enhances erosion capacity of river which in turn erodes the banks and substrate, and increases cross-section of stream. Increased cross-section means more flow which helps in receding flood water faster and saves the surrounding region. But in reality velocity does not increase and thus erosion capacity. Because of embankment water cannot move anywhere and deposits all sediments in channel, thus river substrate moves up which subsequently escalate flood line.

Afterwards it becomes necessary to strengthen the embankment and increase its height to avoid flood. In subsequent years of construction, river substrate moves up due to continuous deposition. But strengthening and heightening of embankment has got its own limitation. And somewhere during flood water overflows causing breaches in embankment. Sometimes embankment cracks because of water pressure. Often it is observed that animals like rats, fox make holes in embankment which gets filled by flood water and forms crack in embankment because of pressure. Breaches in embankment put surrounding villages in disastrous situation.

In addition, embankment has got its own problems. After construction of embankment water from local subsidiary streams cannot enter in main stream. Then either it flows in backward direction or moves parallel to main stream but outside the embankment i.e. through safe zone. In both the situation it submerges surrounding villages. Then option left in hand is to construct a sluice gate where a subsidiary stream meets main stream. But the problem with sluice gate is that it does not function after its construction.

During rainy season it gets jammed because of heavy sediment deposition at the bottom of both sides of the gate. Moreover, during heavy rainfall it is dangerous to open sluice gate because if the water level in main stream is more than the subsidiary stream then water will flow in reverse direction and will flood the safe zone on countryside. Therefore sluice gate functions only after rainy season when water level in main stream is much lower than the subsidiary stream.

Typical Sluice Gate (source internet)

Typical Sluice Gate (source internet)

When sluice gate fails to function the solution exist is to construct embankment on subsidiary stream to protect the safe zone. But the problem does not end here, the water rains between these two embankments has left no way to go, either it will get evaporate or will percolate. If not any of the two, the third option is to pump it back to the main stream but then here author puts big question mark saying, if anyhow we want to remove flood water by pumping then why to construct embankments and sluice gate? If due to any reason embankment of main stream or subsidiary stream breaches the villagers have no option but to get drowned and die.

Sometimes embankment is constructed on either side of the stream because of various local reasons. In such cases flood water puts life of people in risk on other side.

Another major disadvantage of embankment is that it protects farmland from flood water and thus farmland does not get fertile silt and consequently it loses its fertility. In this book author has reported instances where number of villages lost their agricultural productivity after construction of embankment and now the farmers are using chemical fertilizers which further making condition worst than earlier by increasing cost of production. And any how if these embankments breaches then flood water spreads sand all over the fields which in turn damages agricultural productivity of the land.

Irrespective of numerous above mentioned disadvantages administration and politicians promote construction of embankment under various flood control schemes. And these embankments breaches frequently. Technically the issue of utility of embankment is not resolved yet. Experts are on both sides. The decision of embankment construction is sociopolitical and many times engineers have no role to play there. Often engineers gives rational for or against the construction of embankment depending on sociopolitical pressure. Author reports that some engineers put themselves in safe zone by saying that each river and its sediments has different characteristics thus utility of embankment should be decided on case by case basis.

Whatever decision politicians or administration take about embankment, it puts people in trouble. People living outside embankment, in safe zone are never safe. Often it is said that people living inside the embankment are more safe that outside. If embankment breaches then life of people living in safe zone becomes hell. Author writes, people can deal with natural flood but this man-made flood makes their life worst and many times some of them have to lose their life. In such situation all villagers cut embankment to save themselves from waterlogged situation. Then irrigation department call police to deal against such illicit action and files court cases against villagers.

The author has reported numerous such examples in this book. On contrary, author has given an interesting example of village Medanipur (Dist.: Katiyar, Block: Manihari) regarding cutting of embankment. The village is surrounded by three rivers namely Mahananda, Kosi and Ganga. Earlier during flood period water level used to rise in village and it used to drain after lowering water level in any of the three rivers. But after construction of embankments water gets trapped in between and villagers are always in threat of breaches in embankments. In such situation, government officer themselves cut the embankment under their own supervision to save themselves.

Construction of embankment has got its own problem. Before construction department has to acquire hundreds of hectares of land and it has to rehabilitate hundreds of villages. Like any other project, rehabilitation has multiple issues and author has cited them in great detail.

How the 'system' responds to floods

Author has devoted a complete chapter on how system responds to flood i.e. relief. Administration believes that it can only tackle with floods by providing relief instead of finding permanent solutions. NGOs also following similar path. Instead of finding root cause NGOs are busy in managing funds from outside world and doing job of just distributors. Author has provided some of the examples where riots were triggered during relief distribution and firing was done by police. One should read these incidents in detailed in this book to understand how relief causes trouble to local people.

Bagmati flood has also got an edge of international politics. Bagmati flows from Nepal to India. Thus collaborative efforts are required to tackle flood situation effectively. But unfortunately experts from both the countries have not come to common consensus in last fifty years. Still dialogue is going on. Some experts believe that flood can be control by constructing reservoir / barrages in upstream in Nepal. Often some experts, politicians and media hold Nepal government responsible for flood in India and which is not at all true. Whatever flood control majors we take in downstream get affected by the action taken by Nepal government. If Nepal raises the height of embankment in their jurisdiction then we do not left any other option but to raise the height of our embankments.

Apart from this, author has discussed multiple dimensions of Bagmati including Bagmati irrigation project and its failure, pollution and permanent waterlogged situation caused along riverside. At the end author also comments on various other alternatives of flood control including river linking project.

Need for an alternate perspective

Author suggests we need altogether different perspective while dealing with floods in Bihar. As he writes, in Northern Bihar flood was never a disaster but it is a life style. (उत्तर बिहार में बाढ कधी आपदा नही थीं, यह एक जीवनशैली है ।). We should not control the flood as it is necessary to maintain fertility of the region. We need to think of how fast we can drain water after flood to avoid water logging. Author suggests we need to listen to local communities and learn from their experiences and traditional flood management practices. Then only we can manage the Bagmati flood.

While writing this book Dr. Dinesh Mishra has taken lots of efforts. It contains almost everything about Bagmati. In addition, the author has provided references at the end of each chapter. He must have taken massive efforts while collecting information from various government departments. Apart from information available in various reports, Dr. Mishra has personally interviewed various social and political leaders. He must have close dialogue with local community. Author is so humble in preface of his milestone work that he says, I am not telling anything new to the world through this. It is mere a rearrangement of available information which is put together. It is Harfe-Mukarar (हर्फ़े – मुकर्रर) which means 'something which is repeated' in Farsi language.

The book helps us in understanding irrigation and flood problems of Bagmati. After reading this book definitely we can see more which other cannot while reading or watching about Bihar floods. It won’t be mere a dry flood story then and for this we must be thankful to Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra.




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