This is the second in a three-part series. Read the first part here.
Chitrakut, Bundelkhand: While most villages in Bundelkhand have been affected by excessive rain, some villages have also been devastated by very destructive floods. Abhishek Mishra, director of the NGO Arunodya, has travelled extensively in the flood-affected areas of Banda district. He says, “A stretch of 48 villages along the Ken river have been very badly devastated by the floods. Even paddy crops have been badly damaged here. Some fields have been so badly affected that it may be difficult to grow even the next rabi crop here.”
Sanjo Kol, a tribal social activist, has been elected sarpanch of the Girudha panchayat, Chitrakut district, twice. She says, “Elders in our village say that a flood so destructive has come after 46 years. Many people’s houses have collapsed. Crops of arhar, moong, urad, moong, til, jowar and bajra have been ruined. Several animals have been washed away. Many people were rescued by boats. Several people are suffering from illness and fever, including malaria. ’’
Sanjo’s village is in Patha, in the plateau area of Chitrakut district. Bhagwat Prasad is the coordinator of a leading voluntary organisation, the Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan, which has considerable experience working in this area. Prasad says, “This area is not normally affected by floods but this time the rains continued for a very long time and a long stretch of villages, mainly those inhabited by tribals and Dalits, were affected by floods. Disaster relief teams had to be brought in to rescue people.”
Prasad continues, “These people had already suffered a lot under the long drought period. So in any case there was a shortage of food and other basic needs. The efforts of the government to provide subsidised and then also free foodgrain were helpful to some extent but still on the whole people had difficulties and shortages and these could only be removed by a good harvest, but these possibilities have been dashed. In this weather there is also no MNREGA work so the situation just now is very difficult for people.”
All too often, it has been seen that official care for drought-affected people decreases as soon as rains arrive. However, it is common sense that certain areas need special attention until a good harvest comes in. Although efforts should continue to try and salvage the situation, for many villages of Bundelkhand badly affected by floods and excessive rains, these hopes of a good or normal crop are almost gone. The government now needs to extend protective policies and programmes for a longer period.
Many people are surprised by the rapidity with which the drought turned into floods in some parts of the country, Bundelkhand being a particularly notorious example. While there are some factors which are common to several parts of India, there are others which are more specific to a few areas like Bundelkhand, increasing their susceptibility to the phenomenon of drought being followed by floods with indecent haste.
Just like this year, in 2008 too floods had ravaged Bundelkhand soon after a drought. Although this region has been in the news more frequently because of water scarcity, serious floods have also been reported in recent times, not just from villages but even from leading towns of the area like Banda and Orain, and the famous pilgrimage area of Sitapur in the Chitrakut district. Perhaps the most serious flood of recent times in Bundelkhand was seen in and around Banda town in 1992, when villagers told me that a flood wave had risen as high as 15 feet due to massive discharge from the dams above. This year, a serious flood situation has been seen not only in several districts of Bundelkhand like Chitrakut, Banda, Hamirpur, Mahoba and Tikamgarh but also the neighbouring districts of Rewa and Satna.
One factor specific to Bundelkhand is the existence of a large number of plateaus covering a vast area of the region. A study carried out by a local voluntary organisation Vigyan Shiksha Kendra done in collaboration with the Centre for Rural Development at IIT Delhi said, “Such predominance of plateaus is not noticeable anywhere else in the country. Hence, the rain that falls in this region gets drained at super-fast speed, often creating flash floods … during the rains and causing long term water scarcity thereafter.”
There is then an even greater need in Bundelkhand than elsewhere for moderating the torrential rainwater flows and finding appropriating storage places for them. Preservation of good forest cover is most important for the moderation of flood flows. Creating water storage tanks and water harvesting bodies is necessary to ensure that water gets collected for lean season use instead of playing havoc in the form of destructive floods. Unfortunately, in both these contexts the situation has been deteriorating instead of improving.
As the IIT study quoted above says, “The greatest event of far reaching consequences in Bundelkhand was the destruction of forests.” Apart from direct tree felling and commercial exploitation of forests, indiscriminate mining of various kinds including river sand mining is responsible in several ways for the accentuation of the cycle of drought and floods. Tanks have been filled up and encroached upon on a vast scale or else their catchment areas have been ravaged. Although the government has taken some good initiatives, such as ones to clean and protect the well built traditional tanks at Charkhari, many other efforts have been reduced to symbolic beautification instead of taking more durable and effective steps to improve water conservation and storage.
Himanshu Thakkar, Delhi-based water analyst says, “One main reason for the worsening of the cycle of droughts and floods in Bundelkhand is that the most important tasks of protection and creation of water tanks and other traditional storages as well as the protection of forests have either been neglected or else have not been carried forward properly, while at the time vast funds are being committed to highly dubious and costly projects like the Ken-Betwa link project without even completing the essential studies and surveys.’’
This distortion of priorities has been exacerbated by the clogging of drainage to cut costs and to hurriedly show the completion of many construction projects, including roads. Construction for several check dams related works has also been of poor quality. Another serious factor often mentioned in the context of several big floods in the region relates to mismanagement of several big and medium dam projects, leading to huge discharges from dams which unleash very destructive floods.
One example of this is the largely man-made flood which devastated several villages near Banda in 1992. People of Chak Chatkhan village, which lost 18 of its people in this flood, told me at the time that the over 15 feet high flood had never been seen before by any of them, including village elders. This is even more surprising given that this village is inhabited by the kewat community of boatmen, who have traditionally lived on river banks. The flood waves they remember from 1992 submerged a one-storey houses and touched electricity transmission lines in the fields. The flood was later attributed to the unplanned discharge of very huge amounts of water from upstream dams and related allegations of mismanagement.