While inaugurating a seminar on floods in 1937, Bihar Governor Maurice Hallett said that, looking back over engineering records from the previous six decades of the floods that had taken place, ‘22 percent are sub-normal, 55 percent are normal, 22 percent are abnormal and only two percent are extremely abnormal. In other words, the dwellers in India can expect to be flooded rather badly once every five years, on the average, and to have a really dreadful flood once every fifty years or so.’ Those were the good old days, when rainwater did not have many obstructions to its free flow. Today, to the contrary, Bihar has nearly 3600 km of embankments, and its area considered flood-prone has nearly tripled from 250,000 hectares in 1952 to more than 688,000 hectares (in 1994). Add to this the 368,000 ha of so-called ‘flood-protected land’ that was flooded in the 2008 breach of the Kosi River, the flood-prone area in the state actually comes to some 724,800 ha.
Waterway: Kishun Devi Yadav looks at the inundated section that was once the East West Highway, in the Nepal Tarai, October 2008. She had been forced to make the arduous crossing the previous month in order to deliver her baby in Biratnagar. Now, she waits to make the same perilous journey in order to bring her 10-day-old baby back home to Kanchapur in Saptari.
Photo: Edwin Koo
The British were against building embankments on all of these rivers. They worried that doing so on a sediment-laden flow would lead to a rise of the riverbed; obstructing drainage would result in water-logging of the surrounding ‘protected’ countryside; and seepage through the embankments would only add to problems that their technical knowhow could never completely guarantee against. For the British, this constituted the bald economics of flood control: If an embankment were to breach, the expenses of relief, rehabilitation and repairs would offset the benefits of flood control accrued over years, and hence embanking such rivers was a drain on the exchequer. Instead, the British were in favour of ‘leaving the rivers to their own devices’, and improving the drainage of the country as far as practicable.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)