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Gerrymandering, Poverty and Flooding: A Perennial Story of Bihar

Bihar's fall from a state with healthy socio-economic indices to now being one of India's least developed states has been drastic. The major failures lie in governance, and in the downfall of the agricultural sector. A study of the perennial story of flooding and relief measures and the consequent failure of agriculture show how disorganised the state of affairs is.


SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 16, 200847policieson quality of life. Table 2 provides human development indices for the states of India in rank order, for the years 1981, 1991 and 2001.Lowest RungBihar has consistently, irrespective of the index used, occupied the lowest rung of the development ladder, year after year. Overall, while there has been some improvement in the state-wise indices between 1981 and 2006, the disparities have not been reduced significantly and the rank order of the states has not changed. Kerala is consist-ently at the top of the list. Bihar at the bottom. The HDI figures seem to indicate that the relative position of Bihar has, in fact, worsened. A recent on-line newspaper article reported that, “The state [of Bihar] ranks at the bottom with respect to Human Develop-ment Indicator (HDI) with the HDI for Bihar being about 20 per cent lower than the national HDI” (The Times of India 2007:1). This would mean that, using the last availableHDI for India, 2006, with a score of 0.611, Bihar has a score of roughly .488. Most importantly, however, is the percentage of the popula-tion below the poverty line (BPL).The national average is 27.5 per cent, but for Bihar the figure is 43.2 per cent. As a corollary to the BPL, Bihar has the highest landless agricultural labourer rate in India – Bihar = 48 per cent, All-India = 26.5 per cent [Census of India 2001].Complex Reasons for PovertyWhile there is little debate about Bihar’s poverty, there is much debate concerning the causes of that poverty. The World Bank rightly characterised Bihar’s poverty as complex [Sundberg and Kaul et al 2005:1]. There is no doubt that much of the state’s poverty stems from its complex social stratification, insufficient infrastructure, lack of investment strategies and incentives, low rates of productivity, especially in agriculture, poor urban-rural differentiation, and weak governance. Agriculture is the foundation of Bihar’s economy, and employs roughly 80 per cent of the state’s workforce, but generates only 40 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Much of the state’s agricultural production is largely subsistence due to productivity levels that are well below the national average. Basically, there is little surplus available for the peoples’ partici-pation in the cash market. Without question, the future of Bihar and its economic resur-rection has to build on its existing foundation – agriculture. It makes no sense to perpetuate or foster the illusion that investors outside the state, or the country for that matter, will arrive as knights in shining armour to save the day by making massive, economy-changing investments.Following the creation of Jharkhand, Bihar was virtually bereft of an industrial sector. It was left with the smallest indus-trial base in the country, contributing only about 12 per cent toward the state’s gross state domestic product (GSDP), and employing less than 10 per cent of its workforce. At the same time, the services sector contributes nearly 50 per cent to the state’s GSDP. However, while the general population of Bihar suffers, according to The Times of India, “Bihar is among the best paymasters...Even ‘developed’ states in the country pay less than what Bihar pays... [The Times of India 2007:1]. If civil servants’ and ministers’ wages were computed, based on the average income of the citizenry, one of two things would happen. First, far fewer people would be working for the state. They could not afford to work for such low salaries. Or, second, they would quickly find ways to increase the average citizen’s income! Presently, government employment is a safe, well-paying way to earn a living. Dependence on AgricultureThe question, then, is how does an economy based on an under-productive agriculture, with no industrial base to speak of, and a services sector that, at best, has underperformed, become the basis for sustained economic development? Since Bihar has virtu-ally no strength upon which to build, maybe it must begin to build on its primary weakness, its agricultural sector. Until the end of second world war, there was little “felt need” to place every bit of cultivable land into production. However, as the populationgrew, a greater demand was placed on the land to produce; there were more mouths to feed. At some point the demands made on the land exceeded its natural fertility.Fora time, agricultural production could be increased by expanding the land area under cultivation. Eventually, however, the increas-ing population exceeded the peoples’ abilitytoexpandcultiva-tion into new lands. In the absence of modern high-yielding agricultural technologies, the only method lefttothecultiva-tors was to intensify their agricultural practices, i e, work the people harder and the land more intensely. It is at this point that Bihar’s economic and agricultural problems became locally, region-allyandnationallyapparent; and Bihar’s economic vitality ebbed. Even the introduction and adoption of high-yielding varieties and associated technologies could not keep pace with the increasing population. Bihar, once recognised as a granary of North India had been reduced to pauper status.There are no quick-fixes for Bihar. Things have unravelled so quickly and so completely that it will take time to mend. Agricultural performance and productivity have been declin-ing since the 1970s and this decline seemed to accelerate in the 1980s and 1990s. Crop productivity rates are well below the All-India averages (Table 3, p 48). This low productivity has been attributed to a plethora of causes; among the primary causes are: (1) A breakdown in governance, (2) the perpetua-tion of a subsistence farming dependency, (3) severe fragmen-tation of landholdings, (4) low investment rates, and (5) lack of water management.Table 2: Human Development Index for India, 1981, 1991 and 2001 HDIHDIHDIRank State 1981 1991 20011 Kerala 0.500.590.642 Punjab 0.410.480.543 TamilNadu 0.340.470.534 Maharashtra 0.360.450.525 Haryana 0.360.440.516 Gujarat 0.360.430.487 Karnataka 0.350.410.488 WestBengal 0.310.400.479 AndhraPradesh0.300.380.4219 Rajasthan 0.263.35 0.4211 Orissa 0.270.350.4012Assam 0.27 0.35 0.3913 MadhyaPradesh0.250.330.3914 UttarPradesh 0.26 0.31 0.3915 Bihar 0.24 0.31 0.37 All-India 0.300.380.47Source: Planning Commission, Government of India, 2002.
Every district in Bihar has flooded to some degree
at one t me or another No d str ct can c a m to
Legend be flood free
Regularly Flooded Districts
50 0 50 Kilometres
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 16, 200849reportable flooding over the last seven years, the worst occurring in 2002 and 2004, with no district claiming to be flood free. However, the 18 northern-most districts (the heart of Mithilia) are regularly flooded. See Map 1 (p 48).The dynamics surrounding these annual floods are quite simple. Most of the rivers of northern Bihar have their headwaters or catch basins in Nepal, and to a lesser degree, Tibet. Therefore, the problems of flooding in Bihar are the result of problems of water management and control in Nepal, not in Bihar. Bihar is the hapless recipient of Nepal’s water abundance.Since independence, India has sought to engage the Nepalese government in a joint venture, where the rivers that pour into Bihar would be dammed and flooding could be controlled, or at least managed, downstream. After 60 years of meetings with the Nepalese government, following a multitude of proposals for studies and investigations, nothing concrete has been negotiated between the governments. To be blunt, the Nepalese government has nothing to gain from the construction of dams or barrages for the purposes of flood abatement in India. The only tangible benefit accruing to Nepal might be the electrical power the proposed dam(s) would generate. They would only inherit a massive maintenance obligation. Every river leaving Nepal carries with it a huge burden in the form of silt, sand, gravel and stones. If a dam were constructed, the burden of the river would collect on the upstreamsideofthe dam, requiring a massive maintenance effort. If this accumulation of waterborne sediment is not routinely disposed of, the functional life span of the dam is reduced markedly. This type of maintenance would be massive, never ending and expensive for either or both governments. Under the circumstances, is it any wonder that neither govern-ment has truly championed the Herculean effort such a dam would entail? For purposes of political economy, however, the politicians on both sides of the border benefit from the appear-ance of concern. In the long run, delay and finger-pointing are their best strategies.The Annual FloodsAs long as population pressure on the land remained in equili-brium with the land’s capacity to produce, the annual floods in north Bihar were welcomed events, even celebrated. As greater and greater demands were made of the land, and no new lands could be brought under cultivation, the only way to increase agricultural production was to work the existing land more intensely. Once no more agricultural productivity could be exacted from the available land, no matter how intensely it was worked, the annual floods were recognised as a hindrance, for they kept the cultivators off the land for months on end. The silt-fertilisation process was forgotten. It was more important to be on the land, working it. At this point, cultivators wanted to be “protected” from the annual flooding. After decades, the voice of the people was heard by the politicians in Patna and the centre, and they set in motion a series of events that were supposed to protect the cultivators of northern Bihar. Their solution was the construction of levees, ‘bandhs’ or ‘bundhs’, along the rivers, which, in effect, channelised the rivers, not permitting them to slowly invade the landscape, as they had done for millennia. Levee/Embankment StrategyThe British had attempted to “tame” the Damodar, beginning in 1854 but by 1869 they had abandoned the idea of embankments completely. Never again would the British attempt to control the flooding of Indian rivers using levees or embankments. In 1954, when the Bihar flood policy was first introduced, Bihar had approximately 160 kms of embankments. These embank-ments were referred to as zamindari and maharaji bandhs and were administered by the department of revenue. At this time, the flood-prone area in the state was estimated to be 2.5 million hectares. Upon the completion of the system of embankments, 3,465 kms of embankments had been constructed and were administered by the Water Resources Department (WRD) [Krishnakumar 1999]. However, the amount of flood-prone land increasedto 6.89 million hectares [Karunakaran 2004:1-2]! All one needs to do is look at a topographic map of Bihar, to see that the flood-prone area is now also the area the government says is already protected!Very quickly, the problems that had plagued the British on the Damodar were plaguing the politicians and engineers responsible for the embankments along the rivers of northern Bihar. The primary problems included: (1) The rapid build-up of silt, sand, gravel and stone in the riverbeds, (2) increased heightof the mean water level of the rivers, (3) increased water-logging, and (4) scouring of the earthen embankments and catastrophic breaches.Prior to the construction of the bandhs, when the rivers were in spate, they would gently sweep across the landscape, depositing their burden of silt. As the rivers were channelised, their velocity increased, thus allowing the waters to carry, in addition to silt, sand and gravel and rocks. Initially, this burden was deposited in the river channels, as defined by the levees. This had two effects. First, the fertility refreshing benefits of the silt were lost, and agricultural production fell. Second, the mean level of the rivers rose, as the original river bed was filled with debris. Soon, the mean levels of the rivers were higher than the original floodplains. In some areas, the river levels increased to heights of three to four metres above their floodplains, requir-ing that the levees be further strengthened and elevated.WaterloggingAlthough the engineers had wisely included sluice gates in their embankments, due to poor design and the increased river levels, run-off was unable to return to the rivers. The run-off was trapped outside the levees. With no possibility of returning to the river, it accumulated, resulting in permanent waterlogging. In some areas, the people, using mobile diesel pump-sets, pumped out the excess water. Where pumping is not practical, the people had to wait, sometimes for more than a year, for the water to evaporate. In some areas, it never evaporates [Krishnakumar 1999:1]!The government of Bihar has repeatedly promised cultivators funding for the reclamation of waterlogged lands. In the absence of discretionary funds, the government has never fulfilled its
SPECIAL ARTICLEfebruary 16, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly50reclamation promises. Finally, realising that it was less expensive to compensate landowners for the loss of their land than reclaim it, the government in Patna sought other avenues for addressing the problem. In 1994, it designated an entire development block – Kusheshwar Asthan – as a waterfowl and bird sanctu-ary,ratherthan perpetuating the myth of reclamation [Karunakaran 2004:3]. Embankments were legitimised, politically and technically, when engineers backtracked on their previous conclusions. Despite evidence to the contrary, the engineers pronounced that increasing the velocity of a river would also increase the eroding or scouring power of the water. This increased ability to scour the river bottom would also prevent the rise of the river’s mean water level according to some engineers and hydrologists. In reality, the data upon which the engineers had based their arguments were found to be inconclusive. In the case of some rivers, scouring did prevent the accumulation of silt. In others, however, it did not. This argument continues to this day but is river specific. There is no one right answer. In the case of the rivers of northern Bihar, the engineers that embraced the silta-tion paradigm have been proven to be more correct. Increasing the velocity of the channelised rivers in northern Bihar did increase the burden-carrying capacity of the rivers but the velocity was not sufficiently high enough to “flush out” the sediment.Instead, it accumulated and filled in the original riverbeds and basins. Before the embankments, the sand, gravel and stone that the rivers carried was released soon after the rivers entered Bihar. Farther downstream, the waters carried only silt. Now, sand, gravel, stone and silt are carried much farther downstream. The sand, gravel and stone, in addition to filling the old river beds, scour the face of the embankments. In time, the scouring action eats away at the embankments and, creates holes or breaches in the levees. The scouring effects of the rivers’ burden would be lessened if the face of the embankments had been lined with stone or concrete riprap, but such was not the case.Catastrophic BreachesThe breaches, in and of themselves, would not be catastrophic but the increased height of the mean river levels causes them to become catastrophic. Instead of simply spreading out over the flood plain, the rivers now cascade/crash down onto the flood-plains below. These cascades carry with them sand, gravel and stone. These are then deposited on the surrounding landscape. In many areas, the accumulation of sand and gravel has made culti-vation impossible. These infertile sand and gravel soils are called ‘patpar’by local cultivators.Between waterlogging and lands lost to sand and gravel depos-its, cultivators have lost well over 8,00,000 hectares of previously cultivable land. At every turn, the land base of the cultivators of Bihar is shrinking, all in the name of flood protection. The loss of land means a loss of agricultural production. The relationship between the levees and the problems associated with flooding, waterlogging, and soil destruction has not been lost on the culti-vators. Some villagers are, in fact, taking matters into their own hands. Where natural breaches has taken place, cultivators have mobilised to prevent the government-hired contractors from effecting repairs. Some cultivators have manually breached the levees, and simultaneously secured agreements with the govern-ment ensuring the breaches will not be repaired. Each year, the state of Bihar’s WRD issues reports on the number of breaches in the embankments. Since 1954, there have been hundreds of breaches of varying sizes. Each year the breaches carry the risk of greater human misery, for each subsequent breach begins at a higher water level than the previous year’s. Natural vs ‘Man-Made’ FloodsSome villagers insist that they are prepared to deal with natural floods. “It was man-made floods that wreaked havoc on them [farmers] all these years” [Karunakaran 2004:3]. The floods that come through the unrepaired breaches rise slowly, not like bulldozers smashing everything in their path, as happened when the levees breach suddenly and without warning.The cost of the embankments is not just an issue of upkeep or maintenance, which amounts to millions of rupees annually. The maintenance of the embankments is big business for engineers, contractors and politicians. Each group has a vested interest in keeping the levees in place. None wants to cut the throat of its own personal cash cow.Added to the annual maintenance costs are the relief costs. Again, contractors and politicians have no reluctance accepting the money or praise their relief efforts engender among those being assisted. Entire humanitarian aid organisations would lose their mandate without the annual floods in northern Bihar. They, too, have no reason to resolve the problems of the people they serve. If the reports are to be believed, government-sponsored relief reaches no more than 10 to 15 per cent of the affected people. Where do all the monies and supplies go? The amounts authorised by both the centre and the govern-ment in Patna are staggering. Based on a government of India situation report, dated June 21, 2004, Rs 818 million was allocatedfor flood relief. Of this amount, Rs 614.5 million was to come from the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) and Rs 203.5 million from the state. In addition, the centre sanctioned ad hoc assist-ance of Rs 550 million to the state from the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) for relief measures. This would mean that the state of Bihar should have had nearly Rs 1.368 billion for relief efforts [GoI 2004:1-2]. It must be admitted, however, that not all these funds, or the consequence of these funds, ever reach the intended recipients. Much of the funding allocated was, in fact, never released by either the centre or the state authorities. Or, due to corruption, misuse, waste or mismanagement, neither the food nor relief supplies and services ever got to the people displaced by the floods. Aircraft were dropping food packets, oftentimes in the water, and these were either unrecoverable or ruined. Helicopters, flying at a cost of Rs 80,000 per hour, are an impressive sight but when food supplies worth Rs 20 million cost Rs 200 million to deliver, someone should have stepped back and asked if this was the best use of the people’smoney. Obviously,noonedid.Onewould think that if the government
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 16, 200851spentlessonhelicopter-assisted relief, many more people might have benefited. Pretence of ReliefFor the politicians and relief contractors, relief efforts are little more than an exercise in public relations. It is better to lookconcerned than take action that would eliminate the need for relief. After each flood season, the construction and repair of damaged roadways, bridges, railways, electric and telephone poles, public and private buildings and embankments begins. Life returns to “normal” for everyone except those that will be displaced again next year and have had to pick up the pieces of their lives after this year’s flood.Following the 1987 floods, the government made two specific promises to the people in the flood-affected areas. Both were simple, inexpensive and potentially life- and cost-saving:The construction of helipads in every block to ensure the speedy de-livery of relief supplies and materials and reducing losses of supplies and lives.The construction of raised platforms in every gram panchayat, where the people could assemble and find food and shelter during times of emergency.To date, neither of these promises has been kept. From the point of view of relief workers, it would make sense to have all the people they served concentrated in one area. The helipads and shelter platforms would make their work much easier. Instead, the people congregate on the embankment, which only serves to disperse them and relief efforts. The cost of the helipads and platforms would be nominal in comparison to the costs of ferrying goods, material, food and people between warehouses and the scattered delivery points. The question, then, is why have these simple facilities not been created?Failure of PoliticiansFrom time to time, the refugees on the embankments are shooed away by the local gendarme. They encroach on the roadways atop the embankments. They despoil the embankments with refuse and human waste. Simultaneously, they contaminate the surrounding water with waste. Admittedly, the embankments are not the best location for refugee and relief camps, but in the absence of alter-natives, where are these people to go? The government, itself, made proposals that would keep many of the refugees off the embankments, only to renege. So, the responsibility for refugees residing on the tops of the embankments lies squarely at the feet of the politicians who failed their constituencies.For years, the people have demanded that the responsibility for the state’s system of embankments be placed in the hands of a single department. As it stands now, it is divided between the revenue department and the WRD. This simple bureaucratic reorganisation has yet to be effected. Since there is no clear-cut delineation between the two systems, wheneverclaimsare made against either department, they tend to be passed back and forth between the departments, until one agencyor the other finally accepts the claim. This is both confusing and time-consuming for the claimants. The situation is made all the more difficult when it comes to reporting in case of emergencies. No one is sure who has jurisdiction or responsibil-ity over any particular segment of the embankment system. This causes delays in reporting and even longer delays in response times.Then, there are the social costs of the embankments. When the embankments were first constructed, approximately 350 villages and 2,00,000 people found themselves between the levees. Each year they scramble ahead of the floods to higher ground, usually onto the levees themselves, and set up temporary living quarters. Here they wait for relief assistance. This routine has turned otherwise capable cultivators into welfare recipients, depleting them of their self-worth and personal assets. Once the floods have receded, they return to their villages to rebuild and begin working the land. Today, their numbers have increased and are estimated to be well over a million.Relief: A Way of Life?Is there little wonder that Bihar, besides being India’s most flood-prone state, with more than 75 per cent of the population livingunder the threat of flood, is also one of the most destitute areas in all of India? Annually, hundreds of villagers lose their lives to the floods; if not from drowning, then from waterborne diseases and threats, and even starvation. For many, relief is a way of life, along with government-paid compensation. The word relief was not a part of the average villager’s vocabulary in the mid-1930s. However, when relief became available for the first time in 1938, things began to change. Initially, many villagers felt that these handouts were degrading and made them feel like beggars. These were a proud people. Many refused theassistance.Thatwasthen. Now, a new generation with a different set of values and a different work ethic occupies the embankment. With the onset of the rainy season, “everybody is busy harvesting the fourth crop of the year: flood relief funds” [Mishra 2004:2].Poverty pervades the new generation’s lives. They lose their homes, most of their belongings, their fields are contaminated or waterlogged, and they lose valuable cultivation time. Every-one is pointing their finger at someone else regarding the sourceof the problems. Year after year, nothing is achieved and nothing changes.Dinesh Kumar Mishra has taken up the banner for the disen-franchised villagers in northern Bihar.3 Initially, his first concerns were for the hundreds of thousands of villagers trapped between the bandhs and, later, he took up the cause for all those suffering from the effects of flooding in northern Bihar – tens of millions of people. He has documented the tragedy and extent of the floods in Bihar in a series of articles, books, and papers. Table 4 (p 52)summarises some of his findings for the floods of 1954, 1974, 1987, 2004, and for part of the 2007 flood season [Mishra. Personal communications 2006-07]. Several important things are evident from Mishra’s findings. First, the scope of flooding in northern Bihar is life altering. Second, it is repetitive, and for many people, it is an annual event. Finally, it is expensive in terms of lives lost, in terms of lives uprooted, and in terms of rupees. Rupees frittered away on unreliable flood control, relief efforts and reconstruction; only
SPECIAL ARTICLEfebruary 16, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly52to have the process begin all over again with the first drops of rain of the monsoon the next year, and the year after that, ad infinitum. Certainly, there is something that can be done to break this chain of misery.What to Do?Even before Mishra and the Barh Mukti Abhiyan (BMA), there were peasants who pined for the “good old days.” Many of the cultivators in the fields have come to recognise that the man-made floods are much worse than those before the embankments. The waters once overwhelmed the people and the land, but it was nowhere as destructive as modern-day floods. The people understood the floods. They knew what to expect. They knew about the depths, duration and extent of the floods; and they would take reasonable precautions. Over time, the people have undergone what might be referred to as “a nomenclature change – from ‘worshippers of floods’ to ‘victims of floods’” [Karunakaran 2004:1]. The owners of the land, the ex-zamindars, have become used to a life of little toil. They had no incentive to invest in the land. They still do not. They could, and can live comfortably on their spoils – rents. The actual tillers of the soil had no real ability or incentive to invest in their lands, the bulk of the benefits of such investments would only accrue to the landlords. As the land became increasingly scarce, more and more tenants defaulted, becoming landless labourers, further consolidating the land in the hands of the landlords and increasing rural impoverishment. Land reforms, while having been enacted, have done little to change the tenancy structures. Only the topmost zamindarswere legally eliminated, and this was in title only. Their social, economic and political powers continue to live on.A Regime of Relief PaymentsThe embankments were supposed to be one way to increase agricultural productiveness. The lands were supposed to be protected from the floods, giving the peasantry more time on the land and increasing production. Instead, the embankments represented a costly boondoggle. The only people to benefit from the levees were the engineers, contractors, politicians and, later, the relief workers. Billions upon billions of rupees were expended in the construction and maintenance and repair of the embank-ments. Still more billions were consumed with the annualised cycle of relief cost, payments, and compensation. It was good money being thrown away after bad judgment calls and decisions at all levels of government. The people had asked for help, not annual compensa-tion and relief payments.Instead of the embankments stopping the floods, they exacerbated them. They resulted in increasing the flood-prone area, increasing waterlogging, eliminat-ing the silt that naturally fertilised the soils, decreased the time cultivators could be on the land because of prolonged flood-ing, increased the depths of the floods, and caused lands to be put out of production due to heavy deposits of sand, gravel, and stone. More land has been lost to embankment-related processes than were ever lost due to over-cultivation. As a consequence, Bihar’s agricultural production fell even further, and farther and farther behind many other states in India. Today, as a result of the socio-eco-nomic and political legacy of the past, coupled with the conse-quences of the state’s embankment policies and endorsements, Bihar has become the least progressive state in the union. This is a sad state of affairs for an area that was once agriculturally, economically and politically viewed to be a national leader.The floods used to come, wash over the land, and go. Due to thoughtless development, by private citizens and the various government agencies, through the aegis of self-serving politi-cians, engineers and contractors, the people of modern-day Bihar have been pushed into an ever enlarging flood trap. A number of organisations have been constituted to combat the continuation of the embankment programme. Foremost among these isBMA. Since the BMA was organised in 1991, it has attempted to reassert the people’s cultural, social, and political ownership of Bihar’s rivers, especially the embankments.Dismantling the EmbankmentsAmong the myriad groups that pledge allegiance to the thinking of the BMA, and other like-minded groups, there are those that advocate the dismantling of the entire embankment system. The battle cry for many of the people living inside and outside the levees is to allow the land and the people go back to their old traditions that allowed their forbearers to live in harmony with the floods. Where breaches have gone unrepaired, and where the land is permitted to flood naturally, the cultivators have been experiencing harvests like they have not seen in generations. The villagers have readapted to the gentle floods that wash over their land now, fertilising it. These bumper crop-yields bode well for the improvement of Bihar’s agriculture. All that need happen now is to keep them coming.Needless to say, theBMA has not found a strong following among those that pad the halls of Bihar’s government buildings, departments and agencies. Each has a vested interest in the maintenance of the existing embankment system. A recent article inScientific American – ‘Down Go the Dams’ – looks at what is happening in the United States, where a number of dams have been torn down and rivers are permitted to return to their former courses [Marks 2007]. Many of the dams that are being decommissioned are being torn down due to age or because Table 4: Flood Losses for Worst Floods, Bihar, 1954-2004 and 2007 Cropped Value of Value of Loss of Total Area Area Cropped Crops Homes Public No of No of No of Population Affected in Affected in Area as % Affected in No of Affected in Property in Human Selected Districts Villages Affected in 1,000s of 1,000s of of Total Billions of Homes Billions of Billions of Lives Year Affected Affected Millions Hectares Hectares Area* Rs Damaged Rs Rs Lost 1954 NA 8,119 7.61 2,460.0 1,596.0 29.7 NA 1,79,451 NA NA 63 1974 18 NA 16.4 3,182.0 1,751.0 32.5 2.69 5,16,353 0.50 0.80 80 1987 30 24,518 28.7 4,668.0 2,510.0 46.7 6.78 16,82,059 2.58 3.73 1,399 2004 20 9,346 21.3 2,772.0 1,399.0 26.0 5.22 9,29,773 7.58 10.30 885 2007 19 7,565 15.1 NA 1,230.0 22.9 NA 1,74,600 NA NA 260 * Total area estimated at 5,380,000 ha. Source: Adapted from Mishra, The Flood That Was, The Flood to Come 2005a), and updated via personal communication with the author throughout 2006 and 2007.Apparently, the state of Bihar is no longer disclosing areas affected due to a prior flaw in their reporting during 2004. All 2007 data are as of 8/16/2007. There are still up to two months of flooding left in the season!
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 16, 200853they have become unsafe and too costly to repair or maintain. The decommissioning of a dam does not automatically mean that a long-abandoned riverine ecosystem will flourish once again. The efficacy of tearing down dams is yet unproven, but initial indications are that there is merit in their elimination. It would probably be safe to say that each dam and each river represents an environmental challenge and testbed. As we learn more, our ability to presage the effects of new ways of thinking will improve.The same could be said for the floodplains of northern Bihar. The elimination, or just the government’s willingness to walk away from its embankment system would be an amazing accom-plishment, but unlikely in light of all the vested interests that spur on interest in the embankments. It would be an exciting test of human faith, to give up a 60-year investment and a 60-year cycle of construction, repairs, maintenance and relief and compensation payments. Can anyone legitimately believe that Bihar’s politicians would or could support such an idea?Would per capita agricultural productivity increase, as touted by some of the cultivators, if the embankments were abandoned? Earlier, it was said of Bihar, if it did not have any specific strength to build its economic future on, why not build that future on the greatest current weakness – its agricultural base? If the embank-ments have caused the havoc as reported every summer for the last 60 years and agricultural productivity has plunged during the same timeline, are we missing something? The World Bank in its 2005 report on Bihar – Bihar: Towards a Development Strategy – suggests ways to foster development in Bihar. Their strategies are predicated on the infusion of investment capital. Could not a percentage of the capital needed to achieve these lofty goals not come from the savings realised by not funding the embankments and their associated relief and compensation costs? Would agricultural production increase if the people do not have to contend with catastrophic flooding, waterlogging and sand and gravel casting? If catastrophic flooding could be reduced to anticipated and planned-for flooding, would not repetitive road, bridge and railway replacement costs decline? Would not rapid relief efforts and costs be reduced significantly? There are lot of questions. Maybe it is time to begin experimenting with entirely new approaches to change in Bihar. The old ways have only led to Bihar’s destruction. Is it not time to change old ways of thinking?Notes 1 Personal communication from the immediate de-scendants of the maharaja.2 See Indo-Asian News Service 2004; Rajalak-shmi 2001; Karan nd; Human Rights Watch nd; Rorabacher 2007 for brief discussions of the land-less issues in Bihar. 3 The author has had the good fortune to be able to communicate with Dinesh Kumar Mishra for the better part of a year, receiving periodic personal communications, updates and answers to the author’s unending queries. Thank you Dinesh.ReferencesAcoustic, Nerve (2007): ‘Maithili Speaking People Demand Separate State’, June 30, (accessed August 21, 2007).Bharti, Deepak (2007): Bihar Faced Severe Floods in 1954, 1974, 1987 and 2004. However, the Year 2007 Can be the Worst Year. What Causes Regular Floods in Bihar?. (accessed August 25, 2007).Census of India (2007): ‘Educational Level’, Census Data Finder – B Series Tables, Economic Tables: Educational Level, (accessed August 28, 2007).Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy (2000):Profiles of Districts, CMIE, Mumbai, October.Human Rights Watch (nd): ‘IV. The Pattern Of Abuse: Rural Violence in Bihar and the State’s Response’, Human Rights Watch, (accessed August 21, 2007).Government of India (2004): India: Floods in Assam and Bihar – Situation Report on Floods 13 July, 2004, July 13, 2004, (accessed August 22, 2007).Indo-Asian News Service (2004): ‘Where Landless Labourers are Treated as Slaves’,Yahoo! IndiaNews, January, html(accessed August 27, 2007).Karan, Anup K (nd): ‘Changing Pattern of Migration from Rural Bihar’, The Times of Bihar, (accessed August 25, 2007).Karunakaran, Naren (2004): ‘Living with Floods’, Counter Currents, September 10, (accessed August 20, 2007).Krishnakumar, R (1999): ‘Flood Management: The Kosi Untamed’, September, (accessed August 21, 2007).Marks, Jane C (2007): ‘Down Go the Dams’, Scientific American, March, 66-71.Mishra, Dinesh (2004): ‘Harvesting Flood Relief’, India Together, August, http://www.indiatogeth-er.orf/2004/aug/opi-floods.htm (accessed August 22, 20-07).Mishra, Dinesh Kumar (2005a): ‘The Flood That Was, The Flood to Come’, August, (accessed August 19, 2007). – (2005b): ‘Fifty Years Journey Through Floods in Bihar’, e-mailed MS Word Document, Barh Mukti Abhiyan, Jamshedpur. News VOA com (2006): ‘Gene Researchers Work on Flood-Resistant Rice’,VOA Special English Agri-culture Report, October 2, cfm?CFID=181196814&CFTOKEN=33323684 (accessed July 11, 2007).Planning Commission, Government of India (2002): National Human Deveopment Report, 2001, National Human Development Report, Govern-ment of India, New Delhi.Prasad, Jagdish (ed) (2000):Export Potential of Indian Agriculture, Special Indian Edition, Mittal Publications, New Delhi.Rajalakshmi, T K (2001): ‘Land Rights and Wrongs in Bihar’,Frontline: The States, November 9, (accessed March 21, 2006).Reuters (2006): ‘Field Trials on for Flood Resistant Rice’, The Sydney Morning Herald, December 22, 2006/12/22/1166290720143.html (accessed July 16, 2007).Rohtak, Ashok Kumar Pankaj (2005): ‘Dream Bihar’, Hard News December, (ac-cessed August 19, 2007).Rorabacher, J Albert (2007): ‘A Case of Socio- economic Divergence in North India: Darbhanga and Ludhiana’, unpublished manuscript submit-ted to Manohar Publishers, Delhi.– (1978): ‘The Diffusion of AgriculturalInnova-tions in Northern India: A Regional Study’, a thesis submitted to the Graduate Schoolofthe University of Minnesota, Geography,Universityof Minnesota, Minneapolis.Sundberg, Mark and Kaul, Mandakini et al (2005): Bihar: Towards a Development Strategy, A World Bank Report, World Bank.The Times of India (2007): ‘Bihar’s ‘First’ Economic Survey Report Tabled’,India Times NEWS, India-times, March 7, .UNDP (2006):Human Development Report 2006, ‘1-Human Development Index: Human Develop-ment Index (HDI) Value’, 2006, (ac-cessed August 19, 2007). 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