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On the Kosi - with love and anguish

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

The river that Dinesh Kumar Mishra writes about in this unusual book is not the river that we are all familiar with — an angry torrent that wreaks havoc in Bihar and Nepal almost every year, sweeping away villages, people and animals as it makes its turbulent way down from the Himalayas.

To Mishra the Sanskrit scholar, the Kosi is a young thing, wild and wilful, whose history can be traced from the myths and epics of India, a girl whose temperament can be gauged from the folklore surrounding her. But Mishra is also a hydraulic engineer — he is an alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur — and he deplores the means and methods that have been used in a vain effort to tame her.

The Story of Bihar’s Kosi River, as the book is subtitled, is an ode to this most volatile of rivers as Mishra analyses the many decades of political and administrative mismanagement that has left Bihar worse off than it was in the 1950s. Mishra has been studying the Kosi since 1984 when he was called to help with rehabilitation after one of its worst floods. Then an engineer with the Uttar Pradesh government, Mishra was so appalled by what he saw and heard — the inevitable blame game by the politicians, the vice-like grip of contractors over the establishment and the utter helplessness of the people of north Bihar — that he decided to devote himself to the Kosi.

The result has been a stream of monographs, academic papers and based on his technical assessment of the projects undertaken to control the river and his closeness to the people who live along the Kosi. Trapped! is the latest and the most comprehensive.

Trapped! tracks the history of the river specially after embankments were built on it starting in the 1960s despite the most strenuous opposition from the people in the flood-affected area. Despite evidence that these earthen walls which were intended to prevent the river waters from flooding the countryside were a disaster, the politics of flood control has ensured that embankments keep growing in size and cost. From a few hundred km of embankments in the early 1950s, embankments have grown to a monstrous length of 3,430 km while, ironically, the flood-prone areas have gone up four times to 6.8 million hectares.

The promise of safety and prosperity that the embankments were supposed to provide has proved more mythical than the origins of the river. While increasing stretches of Bihar have become permanently waterlogged, there is no official explanation for the failure of the canals built on the rivers. Mishra points out that the Western Kosi Canal has cost Rs 1,009 crore so far but has not met even 10 per cent of its irrigation target. The story is similar for the eastern canal.

The book provides a detailed account of the major breaches in these embankments since 1963, the very year that the first stretch was completed, and the havoc these have caused. It is a sharp indictment of politicians, bureaucrats and engineers, specially in revealing the sordid nexus of the political parties with the contractors.

In this compilation, no government, either in Bihar or at the Centre, is free from blame for failing to find lasting solutions to the problem of the Kosi. Yet, they unfailingly go through the ritual of blame-fixing after each disaster in a hollow exercise that only helps those find rich pickings in disasters of this nature. Mishra does not hold out any magic solutions either but he does offer some commonsense prescriptions to mitigate the scale of the problem.

The large format of the book is just right for the kind of material that Mishra has compiled. It allows the author to highlight the 18 or so interviews that speckle the work apart from a goodly number of maps and charts to bolster his arguments. The interviews with local officials, volunteers, politicians and mostly victims of the Kosi are truly revealing of the ways of officialdom and their insensitivity to human suffering.

Even if you think floods are a wet issue, read the book for its exposé on government functioning. It might tempt you to take to arms.



Dinesh Kumar Mishra
People’s Science Institute/SANDRP
Pages: 208; Price: Rs 595

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First Published: Fri, September 19 2008. 00:00 IST