Unnatural Calamity


For years, politicians, left and right alike, practised relief politics, trying to influence voters, even by pushing divisive social issues at the time of natural calamity. They could not do anything else last month when floods ravaged West Bengal and parts of North Bihar, rather real Bihar, after the creation of Jharkhand. While flash floods devastated Bengal and Bihar and to some extent Assam, a bit earlier drought made Rajasthan a dangerous place to live in. After all India is a land of extremes. And it cannot be otherwise for years to come. Besides staggering death toll with contradicting figures, conservative estimates of crop damage in West Bengal indicate a loss of over Rs 1400 crore of paddy, vegetables, betel leaf and horticulture. Around 10 lakh hectares of land have been inundated by water released from the reservoirs and the overflowing rivers. They have been debating for quite some time over how to describe the calamity. The ruling marxists were too eager to get a national calamity certificate from the Centre but the Opposition refused to justify the claims. Both sides argued and counter-argued for reasons other than calamity. No doubt political parties traded charges over paucity of relief materials and administrative lapses but they did it with an eye to the next assembly election. Politics of relief is a permanent feature of Indian polity. These days floods are in most cases man-made. There is every reason to believe that the lackadaisical authorities in Bengal virtually transformed a natural calamity into an unnatural one. They aggravated the situation by their inept and inefficient handling of the crisis and later blamed it on imaginary foes.


In the name of flood control over the years they have perfected a system that produces more floods. Ever since the commissioning of the Damodar Valley multipurpose projects in the fifties lower Domodar flood plains have been a tragic theatre of recurring floods. As traditional methods of adjustiment with rivers and natural dredging are lost, people have no option but to face dam-induced vagaries every year. Most rivers in the great Bengal basin, not excluding Bangladesh are dying, if some major ones are already not dead, with river beds in almost all

cases silted beyond ‘repair’. This year floods in Bengal were not due to excessive rains; sudden discharge from the barrages and dams caused the havoc.


How to cope with seasonal floods, particularly in the gangetic delta region has been a point of contention among academics and government authorities since the days of the Raj. Wayback in the 1920s while investigating the causes of floods in the then northern division of undivided Bengal, P C Mahalanobis suggested among other things not to interfere with the natural flow and urged the people to adjust their agricultural practices and economic activities without disturbing the natural courses. Prof Mahalanobis made his observation after studying extensively the Bengal rivers and floods between 1870 and 1922 Also, brilliant lectures by SC Majumdar on ‘Bengal Rivers’, later compiled in a book, dealing with the deteriorating river system and way out to the dying rivers desere serious attention. All sincere experts having patrioritic passion and national self-respect, opined against damming rivers and suggested instead to take action plan equipped with traditional knowledge. But all the successive governments at the Centre as also in the states, have so far pursued a disastrous policy of World Bank funded and controlled river projects, evicting millions of people from their homes and destroying millions of acres of fertile land. Marxists are no exception; in a way Indian Communists are the worst enemies of environment because their marxism fails to differentiate between environmental degradation and capitalistic production. One Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) and, that too by non-partisan social activists, is not enough to thwart the destructive ideology of the elite.


Unless there emerges a sustained public campaign, the positibility of which seems bleak at the moment to say ‘no’ to any World Bank ‘assistance’ to any river project, India, not to speak of Bengal, have no escape from  recurring floods and droughts. What is more, geological and geographical peculiarities do not obey political boundaries. The Gangetic deltaic plain including Bangladesh needs an integrated river management culture entirely dependent on local initiatives and traditional technologies for better utilisation of floods and excess rain water.