There has been a lot of furore about Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s departure for Mauritius on 26 July this year when his state was reeling under devastating floods. He was able to make an aerial survey of the flood-affected areas only on 3 August after his return to Bihar. Flood water had entered Patna, Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi and Motihari on 25 July and even the CM’s village had not been spared.

A record of indifference

But why such a hue and cry about a CM’s absence in the face of a natural calamity? This incidence is not without precedence. In 1968, there had been heavy rainfall in West Bengal, Orissa and Assam along with Bihar and UP, resulting in huge loss to life and property. That year is a landmark in the flood history of Bihar as the Kosi river's record discharge of 9,13,000 cusecs is yet to be bettered. It was also recorded as one of the worst floods in West Bengal. After visiting some of the flood ravaged areas in Bihar and West Bengal, Dr K L Rao, the then minister of irrigation at the centre, left for the USA to attend a seminar. At that time, H N Mukherji, MP, had expressed his anger at the insensitivity in official, administrative and political circles by lashing out in the Lok Sabha (18 November 1968), "…About the other levels, my hon. friend, the minister Dr K L Rao, an engineer himself, he left for the United States, immediately after the deluge for attending a seminar. I am sorry to have to say that knowledge acquired at this time of life is not going to be of much assistance to the cause of my country."

For years, the flood victims have expressed that the embankments along the rivers in Bihar have done more damage than good.

Why is there so much of enthusiasm within the state machinery when the people do not want these structures?

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One of the worst floods witnessed by Bihar in recent times was in 1998. It affected 13.47 million people (almost as much as in 2007, which till date is 14.45 million), according to the state government own's numbers. The 1998 floods killed 380 persons spread over 28 districts. At that time, the ruling party in Bihar was busy organising the Ekjuta (Solidarity) Rally in Patna to fight communalism. This could have very easily been postponed to a later date as there was no emergency on the communal front. (In the 2007 floods, 257 people have lost their lives until mid-August, inclusive of boat tragedies.)

Ranjit Sinha wrote in the Deccan Herald on 28 August 1998, "Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav chose not to visit flood hit areas because probably that would have shifted the focus to the natural calamity which, in turn, could have resulted in lesser number of persons turning out for the Patna Rally. Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav had appealed to the 'brave' people of Bihar not to get upset by these little inconveniences as the country was faced with greater and more serious problems like communalism and price rise." Lalu Prasad had also advised the flood victims to enjoy fishes that had come with the floodwaters in 2004, according to another newspaper report.

Despite the state government claiming its 'preparedness', matters were no better for the common man during the 2003 floods in Bihar. That year, the army was deployed in Danapur sub-division of Patna district for relief and rescue operations. The state government failed to provide diesel for the army boats in time and the trucks carrying the food packets to Danapur from Patna did their job leisurely and only half the supplies could be reached to the take-off points for the IAF helicopters. In the floods of 2004, Lalu Prasad had claimed that he had deployed 11 helicopters for airdropping of food packets (one of these helicopters had crashed). He went a step ahead to claim that never before in the history of Bihar had so many helicopters been deployed for such work. He probably was not aware that in the worst ever flood of the last century which occurred in 1987, the state had pressed 13 helicopters into service.

This year, in 2007, four helicopters had been pressed into service and they too suffered frequent breakdowns.

State and Centre funding football

The responsibility of providing relief in the wake of natural calamities including floods primarily rests with the concerned state governments. The government of India supplements the efforts of the state governments where necessary by providing logistic and financial support. For this purpose, the state governments are allocated Calamity Relief Fund (CRF), which is contributed by government of India and the state government in the ratio of 3:1. Additional assistance is also provided to the state government in the event of a calamity of severe nature from the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) after following the laid down procedure.

In August 2003, a corpus fund of Rs.108.97 crores was available with the Bihar government in the CRF, as per the government's own reports. Out of this money, only Rs.19 crores were released from the fund for carrying out relief operations in the state till August that year. Yet, the Rabri Devi Government in Bihar repeatedly flayed the central government for not helping the state with the requisite money.

Anirban Roy wrote in The Hindustan Times (13 September 2003), "The state government is yet to get the central assistance of Rs.112 crores allotted in 2002-03 under special package for relief distribution in the flood affected districts. The central government has not released the money as it has taken the stand that the state government should first spend the CRF money before it seeks the release of more central funds." Obviously, the state government was not in a position to provide the utilisation certificates for the funds sanctioned to it earlier and wanted the flood victims to believe that the central government was responsible for it. That was the time when the RJD was in power in Bihar and the NDA was ruling in Delhi.

It is now 2007, and the scenario has reversed. The two governments have exchanged positions. Lalu Prasad Yadav at the Centre suggests that the state government has not made any demands to the Centre, and that the Centre on its own initiative sent relief money to Bihar although the state had not submitted the expenditure accounts for the previous year. The NDA Government of Bihar says that whatever assistance comes from the Centre is provided for under the regulations of the 12th Finance Commission and is not at the behest of any one minister at the Centre. Even so, according to a press report, Sushil Kumar Modi, the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar said in early August that the state had not received any money from the Centre.

Water Resources Department – adding its own share of misery

Into this backdrop comes the apathy of the Water Resources Department of the state, which has only added more misery. This year, the state government began with assurances that all the works of repairs and maintenance of the embankments would be completed in time, cautioning engineers that that they would be reprimanded in case of any failure of the embankments. Bureaucrats had been alerted to do whatever needed to provide succour to the people during floods. Disaster management departments had been told to prepare people to face floods, leaves of concerned officials had been cancelled, the public had informed of official phone numbers to be contacted in emergencies.

But when the floods struck, all the measures collapsed like a house of cards, which again is not a new phenomenon.

For years, the flood victims have expressed that the embankments along the rivers in Bihar have done more damage than good to the flood scenario. They have asked for the embankments to be removed, but instead of paying heed to these demands, the state government has plans of massive construction of embankments along the rivers. It is already working on a Rs.792 crores plan to embank the middle portion of the Bagmati. Construction of about 10 kilometres length was already done this summer. But in July this year, the entire newly constructed embankment was smashed to smithereens in the very first rain in the Sitamarhi district. The government has further plans in the form of a proposal worth Rs. 845 crores to embank the Mahananda tributaries and then to spend Rs.3,000 crores to jacket the other rivers in the state.

Why is there so much of enthusiasm within the state machinery when the people do not want these structures? The reasons are not difficult to assess. The government has yet to take up an evaluation of the performance of the embankments despite the fact that the flood prone area of the state has increased from 25 lakh hectares in 1952 to 68.8 lakh hectares in 1994 (the year of last assessment). It has mostly constructed embankments during this period along the Bihar rivers -- 160 kilometres in 1952 and these have gone up to 3440 kilometres in 2007 (this includes the 10 kilometres that were constructed this year and subsequently washed away). A sum of nearly Rs.1800 crores was spent on such construction during the plan period.

There is widespread resentment over relief distribution, trading of charges between various political outfits for inefficiency, dereliction of duties, corruption and opportunism. Also, governments regularly float suggestions of approaching Nepal for facilitating the construction of dams in the hills there, for better flood control. This has been going on for the past seventy years. These dams were first proposed in 1937 and negotiations are on with Nepal ever since! The carrots of these dams have been dangled before the people since independence and the Bihar blames the Centre for not facilitating the process with Nepal. The irony is that a combination of almost all the political parties has been at the Centre and in Bihar. Yet this issue with Nepal has still not been resolved.

All these tussles are annual rituals and once the floods recede, everything is forgotten till the next year. The game goes on and on and most of the flood victims are left to fend for themselves.