Way back in 1953, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru appealed to fellow citizens to contribute generously to the PM National Relief Fund. The reason: the Kosi river, “which has misbehaved so often in the past”, had caused “unprecedented floods” in parts of Bihar. The damage, at the time, was estimated at Rs 21 crore. And the cost of relief and rehabilitation was in excess of Rs 2 crore.
So moved was Nehru at the plight of people in the flood ravaged areas that he had decided to do something to tame the river. The Central Water Commission was asked to carry out a study and come up with a long-term solution. The Commission had suggested building a high dam at an estimated cost of nearly Rs 150 crore.
However, the cost was found to be beyond the affordable limit. The scarce resources available then – India was still emerging from British rule – were to be used judiciously and the case of Bhakra Nangal Dam was found to be stronger. The Kosi dam project, therefore, had to be shelved and Bihar was deprived of its own Bhakra Nangal.
Meanwhile, the fury of Kosi river continues till today. Not so long ago, in 2008 itself, it wreaked havoc in parts of Bihar, causing damages of roughly Rs 20,000 crore.
The bane of Kosi and other rivers in the state could well have become a boon if only politicians had a plan to use Bihar’s water resources. The state is abundant with water resources. But the impression one gets after listening to campaign speeches of important leaders across parties in the run-up to the Assembly elections is that their models of development do not have any blueprint on how to exploit this precious resource.
It is precisely because of this disconnect between what the state has, and what politicians want the state to become, that Bihar has been ravaged by “unprecedented floods” year after year. Of the total of 200 million people affected by floods in the country from 2000 to 2012, as many as 89 million were from Bihar alone. Is any development possible without fixing this problem?
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An expert told me that with some investment, the rivers of Bihar can take care of irrigation needs of the entire region. What is more, if planned well, remote areas of the state can be connected by waterways to Kolkata port. These areas then will become investment worthy, endowed as they are with ample human resources.
And that is the other resource Bihar has that needs to be taken care of: human capital. At 1,106 persons per sq kilometre, the population density of the state is the highest in the country. If trained well, they can run factories, or create many IT hubs. But they are condemned to mostly unskilled jobs in pathetic conditions elsewhere. Will the politicians who want to get votes pledge to do something about this?
The state does not even have a decent university yet. The newly established IIT got a full- fledged campus after operating out of Industrial Training Institute (ITI) for years. There is a not a single institute devoted to scientific research.
The third resource that the state has is fertile land. Even after five decades of the launch of Green Revolution, the average productivity of rice and wheat in Bihar is almost half of Punjab and Haryana. Is it such a problem that it cannot be fixed? Why don’t politicians make this part of their agenda?
Bihar does not need a development agenda that has worked elsewhere. Its development agenda must build on these three key resources – water, human capital and fertile land – that it has in abundance. Ahead of the elections, the people of the state must ask their vote-seeking politicians to get their agenda right.