Floods: Learning from the locals

Published: August 29, 2017 - 18:32 Updated: August 29, 2017 - 18:33

Residents in flood-prone areas, such as Mithila, have a long history of living with floods. It’s time to listen to them

Dinesh Kumar Mishra Jamshedpur 

In 1905, British engineer Western Fuller said floods occur if people’s daily chores are disrupted by rains and spilling of the streams, suggesting that if daily lives weren’t affected, it was not a flood. This is a view that flood protection measures, if any, should be aimed at.  

Living traditions

Floods, by tradition, are regarded as a rural phenomenon. The image of floodwaters filling in villages, boats plying to move populations to safer places, people and cattle camping at higher places for shelter, and life thrown out of gear temporarily is a horrific sight for a city dweller or someone who lives in a dry area. However, those who have lived by rivers have an altogether different notion of floods.

For example, farmers from the Mithila region of Bihar, one of the most flood-prone areas in India, have traditionally defined various stages of river behavior in their own ways. When the summer is at its peak and snow-melt is rapid in the Himalayas, river waters become turbid. They call this the majarana, highlighting the presence of sediments and their texture, which depends on the soil of the upstream catchment. It is said that learned people could predict the flooding in the coming season upon seeing the color of the waters.

The first rains after the summer were an occasion to celebrate. The farmer would start agricultural operations from sowing to transplantation in the subsequent rains. During this period, rivers used to make a couple of rounds of the fields, a period [ARM1]  the farmers called baarh. The baarh never disrupted daily lives. Villages were generally located on higher ground than fields, and whenever a house collapsed due to floods or excessive rains, the new house was always built on the debris. The plinth of the house was continuously raised to help the owner face future floods. Floodwaters, if they reached the doorsteps of the houses, were known as Boah. Every 25-30 years, floodwaters would enter homes, sometimes to the windows, forcing the cattle to stand in water half their height. This was a time ofhumma. It was said that if a buffalo looked like a small elephant due to it continuously standing in a long time in water,humma was confirmed.

If floodwaters were higher than humma, and reached the roofs or submerged the ground floor of pucca houses, the cattle were let loose to fend for themselves. This was the saah. Very rarely would a person witness two saahs in their lives. The worst was the pralay, or the deluge.

Survival Instinct

In Arthashastra, Kautilya had prescribed boats and bamboos to combat floods, the former to move to safety and the latter for reconstruction. Those living in flood plains never bothered about the water until they were confronted by aboah. Although a humma bothered them, it also assured a good winter crop that would compensate for the crop losses. People living close to the rivers knew their huts would not have cobwebs as the river would consume their huts before cobwebs were formed. They would have to rebuild their huts with bamboo and straw at some other place. Relief by state was a non-issue then, as there was enough work available during the post-flood stage of reconstruction.  

Even paddy had its own varieties depending on the inundation depths. Singra and Dumma Kheraha varieties were suited for inundation up to 3-4 feet, Palia up to 5 feet, while the Parawa Pankh and Harin Kher varieties needed 2-2.5 feet of inundation. The Nanhia variety needed only 1.5 to 2 feet of water, while Kalam Kathi and Bakaul paddies grew in water-logged land. Crops such as barley, horse gram, keshari and flax were commonly grown during the Rabi season as wheat was not cultivated earlier. Green gran and maize was grown before the rains.

The British Intervention    

When the British occupied India in mid-18th century, they studied the water situation in the country with a profit motive. They extended their irrigation practices to flooding areas of India without bothering to learn about living traditions of the people, their understanding being that ‘natives’ did not know how to protect themselves from the floods. They tried to control floods by building embankments along rivers to preventing floodwaters from entering villages. They were clever enough to charge the expenses of building embankments to the ‘natives’. Once the area was ‘flood-free’, it would need irrigation, and that gave them another scope of making money.

Embankments prevented floodwaters from entering habitations but also trapped the sediments that came with the waters. Sediment that rejuvenated the soil earlier was not available now, and its deposition within the embankments continuously raised the bed, forcing embankments to be raised higher and higher. Tributaries joining rivers were terminated at the embankment and flowed back, leading to water logging in the so-called ‘protected countryside’. Sluice gates built on embankments to facilitate tributaries to enter the main river had to be closed during the rainy seasons so that the main river’s water did not enter the tributary.

Sluice gates or no sluice gates, the situation remained the same. Then the British tried to embank the tributaries too, without any outlet for the water trapped between the embankment on the main river and the tributary. Besides, no embankment could be a guarantee against breaching, which meant deluges were more regular. Maintaining these embankments was costly, and engineers were asked to reduce costs wherever possible.

The British failed miserably with the embanking of the Damodar and had to demolish a substantial length of the same in 1869. They, however, never prevented anyone from making embankments with their own resources and at their own peril. That is how many zamindari and Maharaji embankments came into being. That was the end of their embanking spree and the British promised never to touch a road [ARM2] with high sediment load flowing down the Himalayas. They kept this promise till they left India in 1947.      

After Independence          

The British legacy continued till 1953, when embankments on the Kosi were approved for construction by Minister of Planning Gulzari Lal Nanda after the visit of Jawaharlal Nehru in October 1953 to flooded area of Saharsa in Bihar. Prior to this, embankments were termed an ‘outdated technology’, and that the real solution to Bihar’s floods was to construct a dam on the Kosi River in Barahkshetra in Nepal.

This dam was first proposed in 1937, and an announcement to that affect made in 1947. The idea was dropped in 1954 when Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Anugrah Narayan Singh announced in the Bihar Assembly on 22 September that the proposed dam would result in the construction of a 800-feet high dam and a huge reservoir. Any damage to this dam in a highly seismic zone would endanger the safety of the people living in downstream areas of Nepal and India. This was very similar to N.V. Gadgil’s warning in the Lok Sabha on 11 September 1954, when he cited the collapse of a dam in Algiers. ‘Because of the earthquakes, dams have either crashed or collapsed and dams have also completely gone out of existence.’ These assertions swung opinion against the Barahkshetra Dam and the embankments on the Kosi were legitimized.

India’s Flood Control Policy

On 3 September 1954, India’s first flood control policy was announced in the Lok Sabha by Gulzari Lal Nanda. The policy was to be implemented in three stages: 

a) Immediate

The immediate phase was to extend over a period of two years and was devoted to an intensive investigation and collection of data. Comprehensive plans were to be drawn up and designs and estimates prepared for short-term measures of flood protection. Some measures, such as revetments, construction of spurs and even embankments were proposed to be applied immediately in select sites. 

b) Short Term         

During the second phase, which was to start with the second year and would extend to the sixth or the seventh year, flood protection measures such as embankments and channel improvements, were proposed. This protection would be applicable to a major portion of the areas then subject to floods. 

c) Long Term                      

The third phase was related to long-term measures such as construction of storage reservoirs on tributaries of certain rivers and additional embankments whenever necessary. This would take three to five years more.  

The policy envisaged that all the immediate and short-term measures would be completed within seven years. Gadgil retorted, ‘I do not share the optimism of my friend Mr. Nanda, who said he will be able to tackle the flood problems in seven years. I shall certainly congratulate him, if we both live, at the end of fourteen years that we have substantially done it.’ Nanda had hoped to effectively control floods in 14 to 15 years starting 1954. Although that never happened, these events legitimized the construction of embankments for the time being. Embankments remain the major tool against floods even today. 

The Aftermath

According to Central Water Commission of India, at the end of the 11th Five Year Plan (FYP), various state governments had constructed 35,200 km length of embankments, 39,710 km of drainage channels, raised 7,713 villages above the observed highest flood level, protected 2,794 towns against floods and created 65 raised platforms for shelter during floods. 

Despite these impressive figures, the area prone to floods has almost doubled to 49.86 million hectares (mha) by the end of eleventh FYP from the 25 mha before the beginning of the plan period. In Bihar, flood-prone areas have increased from 25 lakh hectares (lha) in the beginning of the plan period to 68.8 lha (1994 figures, when last estimated). Add to this the flood-protected area of 4.153 lha that was submerged following the breach at Kusaha (2008) of the Kosi Project, flood-prone areas in the state currently stand at 73 lha, nearly three times of what it was when virtually nothing was done to protect people from floods. Nearly 80 per cent of the state is flood prone today, while the main income source remains farming. One could even argue that investment in flood control has done more harm than good. 

The way ahead

During the 2007 floods[ARM3] , there were 32 breaches in river embankments, 54 breaches in National and State Highways, and 829 breaches in district and village roads. According to a report of the Disaster Management Department of the State, [ARM4] 1353 breaches were reported on culverts and bridges that year. Floods continued till the month of November. This indicated that drainage lines were choked and the floodwaters couldn’t escape. Showing utter disregard to this problem, the state plugged all the breaches and strengthened and raised embankments under a massive restoration programme in subsequent years. However, the restoration works were tested this year, and many embankments failed to serve the purpose they were raised and strengthened for.

The Government needs to constitute a new Flood Commission to look into the flood problem with special emphasis on drainage. The last Flood Commission was constituted in 1976 and gave its report in 1980. Now is the time to revisit the issue. The government can also appoint a separate Drainage Commission to investigate drainage problems in various areas and ensure that its recommendations are implemented.

In case of Himalayan rivers, the issue demands an altogether different approach. Negotiations with Nepal have continued since 1937 without much advancement. Can the government call on its senior engineers and even foreign consultants to resolve the floods in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin on Indian soil without involving other nations? The government can continue negotiating with Nepal if it feels there is no other alternative, but it needs to have a plan for the interim period. After all, people have been braving floods even before embankments were constructed on the Kosi. If floodwater was the real problem, they would all have migrated to drought-prone areas.