1948 Floods in Bihar-1 – Inaugural flood after Independence – View from Press Gallery

Guest blog by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra (dkmishra108@gmail.com)

Background Bihar is long known for its floods. The British had left India but their legacy of looking at rivers and their floods was still continuing in 1948[1]. They always favored ‘leaving the rivers to their own devices’ and did precious little to tame the rivers. The zamindars used to put temporary and not so temporary embankments along the rivers to provide some flood protection to their ‘ryots’ which used to breach quite often to the detriment of the people living in the flood plains of the river. The repairs of such breaches were the responsibility of the zamindars but if they did not repair the same, the British establishment used to repair it and realize the cost of it from the zamindars. There were only 160 kilometers of ‘well designed and equally well constructed’ embankments on Bihar Rivers then. Zamindars had got a hint from the Government of India that their days were numbered and had little interest in maintaining the embankments in order. It was under these circumstances that the Government of Bihar (GoB) was expected to face the floods for the first time in independent India.

It Starts with the Kosi The Kosi initiated the proceedings in the month of June itself and that raised the demand for relief which was reinforced when the Kosi struck once again on the 2nd July. The other rivers followed the suit and the Kamla along with most of its tributaries like Balan and Jiwachh inundated most of Madhubani Sub-division of Darbhanga district. Soon the rail services connecting Darbhanga to Madhubani and Nirmali below the Indo-Nepal borders were snapped. It was water everywhere and the Government got caught napping. The Kosi was making a big news because over a year ago a Dam at Barahkshetra in Nepal was proposed by central Minister C.H. Bhabha in a conference at Nirmali, then in North Bhagalpur and now in Supaul district, on the 6th April, 1947 and the people living in the basin were hopeful that the new Government of India will do something to provide succor to them but that was never to be. Lt. Col. Balwant Singh Nag, a senior engineer working with Central Water and Power Commission (CWPC – the organisation that led to current Central Water Commission via several incarnations) lamented at Patna that nothing has happened to tame the Kosi even after ten years of its pronouncement.  The Searchlight Patna newspaper in its editorial of 21st July, 1948 edition wrote, “It is difficult to understand why the pangs and sufferings of the tormented humanity in living in the Kosi belt have not still forced the Government of India to treat the Kosi Project at par with the Damodar. Has not the realization dawned that the Kosi Problem will never be solved unless the dam is built? Here it is not a mere question of generating power but it is a question of saving the lives of human beings who are every year the silent victims of the flood scourge. Mute suffering never pays and here is an example.” (This dam, first proposed in 1937 continues to be in proposal stage today and the rising environmental consciousness about the dams which was not there in 1948 together with international politics, lack of resources, competing demands of flood control and power generation and the lessons learnt by the negatively impacted population by dams over decades has kept this in abeyance. It is also debatable now whether such dam can reduce the floods at all as nearly 14,000 sq.km. of catchment area of the river which is almost equal to the catchment area of the Bagmati and twice as much of the Kamla  will still be located below the dam. Those who have seen these rivers during flood time can very easily realize what it means.) Kosi, however, remains at the center of all flood discussions.

Map showing how the Kosi RIver has been changing course over the years - Source: Internet

Map showing how the Kosi RIver has been changing course over the years – Source: Internet

The Ganga and the Gandak Join the Race Let us leave the Kosi here and talk about the alarming rise of the Ganga in 1948. Ganga crossed the Danger Level at four places between Varanasi and Patna by the end of August. It inundated vast areas in Chhapra and apart from inconveniencing the people living in the diyara areas, it devastated the Bhadai crops like autumn paddy, maize, ragi, millets etc. This continued in east till southern portions of Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga and North Monghyr.   Situation at Raghopur, an island between the Gandak and the Ganga located just east of the present Gandhi Bridge that connects Patna and Hajipur, turned out to be precarious as both the rivers were attacking this thana from both sides and front. Some villages of this thana like Sukhpur, Jahangirpur, Mirpur, Muzaffarabad, Paroha and Fatehpur were badly hit by floods. Revenue Minister KB Sahay had to take an intensive tour of the flood affected area. Large scale devastation due to floods had taken place on the Barauni-Hajipur section of the Oudh-Tirhut Railway. At one stage Hajipur town itself was threatened with inundation but timely action taken by the District Board saved the town but large number of villages of the Mahnar and Raghopur thana suffered very badly.

 Burhi Gandak not Left Behind   Nearly 3,000 people had to be accommodated in relief camps and in Khagaria over 500 houses were reported to have collapsed. In Monghyr, over two lakhs maunds[2] of food grains including 5,000 maunds of Government stock were discovered helplessly trapped in flood water. In some godowns as many as six layers of bags were literally under water. An interesting story of flood pirates was received at Monghyr. On the early morning of 21st September, a fleet of 100 boats touched the water logged godown and the miscreants began to pull out the bags and loaded them on their boats. The SDO apprised the hard-pressed police, who dashed out and gave a good beating to the looters and arrested some of them.

In Begusarai the flood level of the Ganga exceeded the highest known flood level of 128.8 feet so far recorded in 1923 and stood at 130.5 ft on the 23rd September. About 4,000 houses in affected villages had crumbled down. Standing crop in about a lakh of bighas[3] was completely washed away and huge quantities of stored food-grains in the villages were spoiled. More than 25,000 persons and an equal number of cattle had to take shelter on the sides of the bundhs, where available, and on the railway lines.

Back to the Ganga and the Gandak A relief officer at Hajipur and his peon was attacked the same day while on relief duty in village Karnauti, p.s. Mahnar. The Deputy Magistrate was supervising the cutting of a bundh which was obstructing the free flow of flood water and thus causing grievous damage to the people living on the other side of the bundh. A large mob from the other side came and attacked the Deputy Magistrate and his party. The peon received serious injuries. The Deputy Magistrate could save his life by jumping into the flood water. He kept on swimming for five hours and could be saved only after a rescue team arrived at the scene and fired a few shots from a revolver. The SDO Hajipur rushed to the spot with armed force. The Engineers took over the bundh cutting.

Sonepur Police Station and Post Office had to be temporarily shifted to the railway platform on the 21st September while Offices of the District Traffic Superintendent and Control were submerged under water.  Sub-registry office, High School and Congress Party Office were under water for a long time. Flood water reached the villages that were never flooded in history but they were completely submerged this time. The floods not only took away the future crops but have washed away the last grain in store for the poor peasantry from their houses. All the officers of the State were sent to the flood areas to look after the flood victims and relief operations.

By the end of September (1948), Chhapra town was almost cleared of flood water but regularly water logged areas like Sonepur, Dighwara, Parmanandpur, Nayagaon, Karinga and Bada Gopal were still under water. People there were still camping on the roofs of the pucca houses and were virtually starving. The situation south of the Ghaghra was very bad and there was no fodder for the cattle too.

The Ghaghra sends JP’s Village to Uttar Pradesh Sitab Diyara, the village of Jay Prakash Narayan located on the other side of the Ghaghra and north of the Ganga, technically was a part of Uttar Pradesh then as the Ghaghra had moved closer to Bihar in the east leaving Sitab Diyara on the UP side on the 23rd September. The flood victims were evacuated from the village with a population of 7,000 and there was no loss of human life. Of the 22 hamlets of the village five of them namely Loha Tola, Asharfi Tola, Jan Tola, Nawaji Tola, and Bartola were washed away and there was no trace of single mud or thatched house there. Entire population of these hamlets was rescued and brought to the Government Relief Camp. Other four, Lali Tola, Rameshwar Singh Tola, Suphal Singh Tola and Baiju Tola lost 60 per cent of their houses. Devastation caused by this flood in Saran District was worse than the earthquake of 1934.

And now Comes Relief Dip Narayan Singh, Minister for Irrigation of Bihar toured the flood ravaged areas of the Gandak basin on the 5th October, 1948 and after talking to the flood victims came out with a 13-point assistance program to them. It included:

  1. An officer of the rank of SDO will look after their welfare.
  2. Seeds for the Rabi crop will be collected by the Government immediately for distribution.
  3. Loans for seeds will be given to the flood victims on collective responsibility to include the landless labors too.
  4. Cheap grains shop will be opened shortly in the affected areas.
  5. Employment for labor.
  6. Disinfection of wells.
  7. Sanitation drive to prevent spread of cholera.
  8. Tackling diseases of cattle.
  9. Reclamation of a large area for Rabi cultivation.
  10. Arrangement for fodder.
  11. House Building
  12. Earthen Tubs for the cattle and
  13. Reviving Cottage Industries.
Map of CWC Flood Forecasting sites in Bihar - SANDRP MAP

Map of CWC Flood Forecasting sites in Bihar – SANDRP MAP

The Burhi Gandak Overtops its Bank While the minister was making plans for future, the flood protection bundh to save the Khagaria town gave way on the 8th October and all the efforts of the District Board engineers failed to prevent the over-topping of the bundh and entering the town. The District Board staff had declared that the bundh was higher by two feet than the highest flood recorded in 1901. After fifty years the people of Khagaria realized that the existing bundh was far below the safety requirements of the town. Ninety per cent of the houses lying south and north of the railway line passing through the town and the thanas of Khagaria and Gogri had collapsed and the remaining damaged badly. Some of the villages lost their appearance and looked like a heap of earth. So long  as Khagaria remained under water, the goondas were active. Police of Khagaria stood discredited. The SDO himself was on boats with his office persons and volunteers of Seva Dal & guarded the town during the night so long as the town remained under water…the police constabulary of Khagaria did not move at all from the police station and they were feasting when the town was under deluge.

The floods in 1948 continued in Bihar till November at different places and many portions of Darbhanga remained under water. The irony was that once the flood was over the drought took over the scene as the late October rains that are vital for the ripening of paddy crop were absent.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra, Convenor-Barh Mukti Abhiyan (dkmishra108@gmail.com)

END NOTES:

[1] This is first part of a series of articles Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra has written for SANDRP based on his month long research at the National Library, Kolkata recently. For Part 2 of this series, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/1948-floods-in-bihar-2-inaugural-flood-after-independence-official-version-of-floods-and-its-aftermath/

Part 3: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/1948-floods-in-bihar-3-inaugural-flood-in-bihar-after-independence-assembly-debate/

[2] The unit for mass used in British India, 1 maund = 37.32 kg

[3] In Bihar, 1.6 bighas = 1 acre

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