The shifting sands

  • 29/11/1999

How and why did the rivers curse Bihar? It all began with a group of young politicians in the 1950s. To them goes the credit for pushing the idea of building embankments. This was done in the name of trying to tame the rivers of the state. In the 200 years between 1736 and 1936, the Kosi migrated almost 120 km westward of Purnea to meet Lalit Narain Mishra, a young politician, near his village, Balua. The plains of North Bihar are drained by an extensive network of 13 rivers that, like the Kosi, meander through the plains they have helped create over millions of years (see box: The roaming rivers ).

However, with Lalit Narain Mishra it was different. He took flood control measures to be his mission in life. Perhaps he hoped that he would manage to rid the state of floods. Some people in Bihar insist, he did it in the hope of making money. Mishra was a very successful politician. He would later hold several cabinet posts. His last portfolio was that of Union railways minister. In 1953, when the floods came, a hasty two-day whirlwind tour of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was put together from August 12, on the insistence of Lalit Narain Mishra, Hari Nath Mishra and S N Agarwal of the Congress. A case for embanking the Kosi was pushed and lobbied for with great vehemence, says D K Mishra. The Union government set up a team of experts comprising K L Rao, an engineer who later became the Union irrigation minister, and Kanwar Sain, vice-chairperson of the Central Water and Power Commission. The team was sent to China in May 1954 to study the flood control works carried out on the Yellow river or Hwang Ho. It was recommended that the Kosi be embanked to control floods.

At this point it was forgotten that the Yellow river had frequently broken its embankments. There were terrible floods in China in 1933, which had led to 50 breaches affecting 3.6 million people and inundating 11,000 sq km. In the 100 years between 1855 and 1955, the embankments had failed on more than 200 occasions. It is not surprising today that there is not a single embankment on the Kosi that has not suffered a breach.

Questions have always been raised regarding the soundness of this decision. "The decision to embank the Kosi was a political one necessitated by extra-technical considerations. The entire debate on flood control techniques, which was going on since the construction and subsequent demolition of the Damodar embankments in the 1850s, was thrown to the winds,' says Mishra (see box: The Damodar blunder) .

"What is also amazing is that the plan to embank the Kosi was approved even before the experts' committee was set up. Since the Kosi embankment plan was approved by the Union government in December 1953 and the experts sent to China in May 1954, they already knew what they had to recommend,' he adds.

Resistance came in the form of a people's movement and from official quarters. Rai Bahadur A C Chatterjee, the then chief engineer of Bettiah Raj (West Champaran), at a meeting held on November 20, 1954 under the chairpersonship of Sri Krishna Sinha, the then chief minister of Bihar, opposed the proposal. Parmeshwar Kunwar, a freedom fighter, was arrested and sent to jail in October 1954 for protesting in front of the president of India, Rajendra Prasad, during a public meeting. Later Kunwar became so popular that he was elected four times to the legislative assembly (1957-77) from Mahisi constituency in Saharsa district.

Even elsewhere people were up in arms. A plan to raise embankments along the river Kamla was opposed under the leadership of Ram Parikshan Pandey of village Pirhi, in the Babu Barhi block of Madhubani district. The people feared that the embankments would impede drainage, create waterlogging and deprive the area of the fertile silt. The movement succeeded in keeping 13 km of the Kamla unfettered by embankments.

But all this did not deter politicians. An organisation known as Bharat Sevak Samaj ( bss ), had already been set up in 1952 by national leaders, social workers and many eminent persons. Names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Gulzari Lal Nanda and Abul Kalam Azad could be found on its national committee.

When the plan to build embankments received the green signal, L N Mishra decided to use the bss to do this work. It was agreed upon that the embankment would be built using shramdan (voluntary labour). Bihar's chief minister Sri Krishna Sinha laid the foundation of the embankment on the Kosi river on January 14, 1955, in Nirmali, Saharsa district. According to Ramchandra Khan, inspector general of police (prosecution), Patna: "Senior politicians used this opportunity to award projects to their close relatives, one of the contractors was Shyam Mishra alias Ladoo Babu, a relative of L NMishra.'

" Aur dekhte hi dekhte Balua, balu ke paise se ban gaya (Within no time Balua, Mishra's village became rich, its riches coming from money raised through the shifting of sand),' says Pathak of Kosi Consortium.

Initially, the bss was passing on the work to gram panchayats and involving local people in shramdan . Contractors eager to bag earthwork projects found they were unable to compete with it as it was undertaking the work at very low rates. The contractors required to save more money (sometimes around 30 per cent of the cost of the projects) in order to give commissions to engineers, bureaucrats and politicians.

Huge tempting sums of money were changing hands just to shift sand from one place to another. There was immense scope for corruption in such projects. Soon engineers started delaying bss work, says Hemant, a senior journalist with Hindustan, a Patna-based newspaper.

The day came when bss had to admit that it couldn't function anymore in such adverse circumstances. Even as the bss pulled out, there was a sudden increase in the allocation of funds for embankment construction. Soon the budgetary allocation for embankments increased by 60-70 per cent and in some cases even went up by 100 per cent, adds Hemant.

"Later, senior government officials invited the bss to take up more projects. But by then charges of corruption were being levelled against the bss workers,' writes Hemant in his book Jab Nadi Bandhi . "One of the charges levelled against them was that they were exploiting people in the name of voluntary work. Soon it also became apparent that almost all the contractors being awarded work by the bss were relatives of politicians,' alleges Kunwar.

"Gradually, the bss began to be run by Congress party workers. With this, the organisation set up to fight corruption became a source of corruption. In fact, funding for the Congress started coming from this organisation,' adds Kunwar.

As a result of the charges of misappropriating funds against the bss , the then chief minister of Bihar, Binodanand Jha, was forced to write a letter (number 2753) on November 3, 1961 to the convenor of the bss , Swami Harinarayananand, requesting him to open bss 's accounts to public scrutiny. However, the Swami rejected this and sent a reply (letter no bss 4468/61 dated November 6, 1961) saying the " bss was a non-political and non-governmental organisation whose sole motive is to build the nation and work for social justice. The bss is already getting its funds audited by an independent agency and thus there was no need to get its accounts audited by a government agency.' A copy of Jha's letter was also sent to L N Mishra. He replied on November 9, 1961 saying,"it is wrong to think that the bss ' fund is a government fund by any means. bss is solely responsible for earning this money.'

Finally, a committee was constituted under a retired judge of the Supreme Court, J L Kapoor on February 27, 1968. Five years later in 1973 it published its report but failed to reach a conclusion, as it could not get hold of documents relating to expenses incurred by bss .

In between, when Karpoori Thakur became the chief minister his government constituted another committee under K K Dutta, a retired Judge of the Patna High Court on May 26, 1971. However, the committee was scrapped on July 14, 1971, when a Congress government came to power under the chief ministership of Kedar Pandey. This was done on the excuse that the Prime Minister's permission was not sought before setting up an inquiry against a cabinet minister (L N Mishra) involved in the scam, as required by the "code of conduct'. D K Mishra writes in his book Barh se trasta, sichai se pasta, uttar Bihar ki vyatha katha, "according to the code of conduct 1964, regarding cabinet ministers, a state government must have prior permission from the prime minister before constituting any inquiry against a cabinet minister.' L N Mishra was a cabinet minister even when the notice for constituting the Dutta committee was issued on May 26, 1971. Even at that stage the permission had not been sought.

In his book Jab nadi bandhi, Hemant of Hindustan, writes: "Embezzling money to the tune of Rs 2.10 lakh in 1959-60 from the bss 's funds was one of the charges levelled at Mishra. Even when charges of corruption against bss started appearing in the media, L N Mishra did not make the accounts public.' Hemant also alleges that 109 of bss team leaders did not execute their work even after taking money in advance from the government. About 389 team leaders did not return the money they received in excess, he adds.

The Public Accounts Committee of the third Bihar Assembly (1962-67) reported in its 10th report that a chief engineer of Kosi Project was found indulging in apparent mismanagement. In his defence, he is said to have stated that he had the prior consent of the prime minister for his actions. This was later found to be incorrect.

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