Patna: The extension of the countrywide lockdown till May 3 to fight the coronavirus pandemic, has put a big question mark on the completion of dozens of projects related to annual flood control measures ahead of the monsoon in Bihar. Most of the projects for embankment repair and maintenance have come to standstill since last month when the sudden 21-day lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24.
For example, the repair and strengthening works of Bagmati river embankments is only half done. Last year’s flash floods had damaged and breached Bagmati river embankments at several places in Bihar.
A senior officer of the Water Resources Department said works on122 projects worth Rs 704 crore for flood control measures came to a halt the day Modi announced the Janata Curfew (March 22) followed by the lockdown.
“The lockdown has badly affected projects related to annual flood control measures because contractors were forced to stop work due to labour crisis. The work may start next month if situation improves”, he said.
Uncertainty over the completion of flood control measures is sure to make flood- prone districts bordering Nepal more vulnerable this year.
Another official of the department said a deadline of May 15 had been fixed for the completion of all these projects, but most of the projects were only half completed when the lockdown was announced.
Bihar Water Resources Minister Sanjay Kumar Jha said even though the flood control measures are labour-intensive, the department was trying to ensure that remaining work is completed on time.
However, going by information provided by some department officials, contrary to what Jha has claimed, repair work of damaged embankments will not be completed ahead of the monsoon. “With the lockdown extended for 20 more days now, there is no chance that work on these projects will be completed on time”, an official said.
Dinesh Prasad, superintendent engineer , flood control planning and monitoring circle, said the department had directed all district magistrates of the districts concerned, ,particularly in Kosi, Mithilanchal and Seemanchal regions, to ensure that work is not halted. But he admitted that the main problem was availability of labour. “There is a serious labour crisis and without labour, work on flood control measures cannot move a step further”.
Mahendra Yadav, convenor of Kosi Navnirman Manch, an organisation working among flood victims of Kosi, said the works were completely stopped after labourers returned to their native villages due to panic over the spread of coronavirus and the lockdown.
Work on flood control projects, including strengthening and repair of embankments along the rivers Kosi, Bagmati and Gandak, were started early this year.
The department is likely to extend the period of completion of these projects by June second week. Officially, the monsoon usually arrives in Bihar after June 15. But in the past few years, monsoons entered the state during June 20-25.
In Nov 2019, the Bihar State Flood Control Board in its meeting cleared all the projects that were supposed to be completed by May 15.
Time and again experts have pointed out to the department the weak and poor maintenance of embankments in Bihar, which run for about 35,199.86 km along different rivers.
Bihar experienced one of the worst floods in five decades when the Kosi river breached its embankment at Kusaha in Nepal’s Sunsari district in August 2008. The subsequent floods killed more than 250 people and displaced nearly three million people in five districts.
However, environmentalists have a different take. Rajeev, a river activist, said for decades, loot of public money in the name of flood control measures was taking place in the state. The government has been investing crores of rupees for flood control measures by repairing and strengthening embankments, which either get washed away or damaged by swollen rivers during monsoon. Which is why, experts have time and again pointed out that focus on embankments in itself will not solve the problem of floods, which affects lakhs every year in Bihar.