Above: Samastipur Floods 2013 Photo: RailIndia
Background There was an unexpectedly heavy flood during 1953 in Bihar that led the State leaders to think about the flood control measures to be taken seriously. The losses incurred in the State in floods prompted the Government of India to formulate its first Flood Policy and take preventive and corrective steps so that the flood victims are helped in whatever way possible. While the Flood Policy was given the final shape and announced in September, 1954 Bihar was already under a severe spell of floods in 1954. The 1954 flood is still counted as one of the worst floods in the history of Bihar and remembered well by the elderly generation. Following the floods of 1954 and promulgation of the National Flood Policy many embankments were constructed along the Bihar rivers and the Burhi Gandak that passes through the present districts of W & E Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Samastipur, Begusarai and Khagaria and joins the Ganga about 25 km below Khagaria town was one to be embanked in its stretch below Champaran.
These embankments were constructed during 1955-57 and were exposed to threats of erosion by the river in the years that followed. One of the stretches of the embankments in the present Samastipur district (it was a Sub-division of Darbhanga then) was known as Chamarbandha embankment and was under attack from the river Burhi Gandak. It was apprehended that it might breach to the detriment of people and villages living on its bank in 1957 itself but the devastation could be somehow prevented. The people were not so lucky in 1958 and it gave way on the 29th August 1958 between Shibai Singhpur and Ghagha villages in Warisnagar Thana of the then Darbhanga district. There was a sense of complacency among the engineers of the Irrigation Department and the local people too that since a barrier had been created between the river and the villages, they were fully protected against the wrath of the river and that all their hardships concerning floods were over and everybody was caught unaware. The breach victims thought that the embankment breached because of the callous attitude of the engineers who did not take timely action for the protection of the structure.
The Department Defends The Executive Engineer Mr. S. A. Samad, Waterways Division–Rosera Division; Dist. Darbhanga posted at the Chamarbandha site explained the position through a letter to the editor of a Patna daily, Aryawarta on the 12th September, 1958. The letter says:
“There was no dearth of laborers at the site where the embankment had breached. Before the breach had taken place, many responsible persons had inspected the site and none of them had suspected that a breach was imminent.” The visitors, according to him, were Vasishth Narain Singh-ex MLA, Executive Engineer–Waterways–Rosera Division, DM of Darbhanga, SDO (Civil)-Samastipur and Sundar Singh, MLA. None of them had hinted about the suspected breach in the embankment. He writes, “Water started oozing out from the embankment on the 5th mile from the village side on the 29th August, 1958 at about 3.00 pm. As soon as the departmental labourers noticed the seepage they started raising alarm and filling the sand bags to be put on the place where water was coming out from. The overseer was there near the sluice gate site and when he heard that something has gone wrong there, he too rushed to the spot along with all his work-force. When all those assembled realized that the water was coming out of the embankment, they started putting sand-bags and palm leaves to plug the hole. Many people were now involved in saving the situation but suddenly the embankment slumped down in a stretch of about 20 feet and entire flow of the river got diverted to the troubled portion of the embankment and it got breached. The Executive Engineer, who had gone on an inspection tour to Majhaul Sub-division, returned to the site around mid-night but by this time the gap in the embankment had widened to about 400 feet. He tried hard to stop the flow by putting barricades of bamboo but failed…All this happened in such a quick succession that it will be wrong to say that the embankment got breached due to natural causes. It is not possible that a sturdy embankment like this one can breach so quickly because of rat or the fox holes that too when the flow in the river was receding. It is obvious, therefore, that some miscreants might have found an opportunity to breach the embankment because some of them were eyeing to create problem by breaching it. The Civil Authorities were informed of this eventuality.
Mr. Sundar Singh, MLA, Mr. Tamara of Mariana Kothi, Sarpanch of Nathdwar village Mr. Chiranjiv Rai, Mr. Shamsul Huda of Buzurgdwar has also expressed the same view that the embankment did not breach on its own but was cut by some miscreant.
The breach in the embankment has inundated nearly ten thousand acres of land. Some of the affected villages are listed here – Chamarbandha, Hassanpur, Bikrampatti, Teghra, Ranjitpur, Machhua Tola, Maisana, Bhore Jairam, Bachhauli and Nathdwar. The embankment had breached at Gotiyari village prior to this incident and that had led to the inundation of western and north-western portions even earlier. This area was affected also because of the floods in the Bagmati and the Kareh near Sadipur and Hayaghat.”
Press Takes Notice of the Incident Aryawarta-Patna in its editorial of 4th September, 1958 wrote, “The District Magistrate (Darbhanga) has confirmed floods (in Warisnagar Anchal of Darbhanga) but said that the damage to houses is not on that scale as of standing crops of paddy and maize that are completely ruined. Messages received from Samastipur reveal that due to failure of Chamarbandha embankment and also due to floods in the Kareh, a large area in Warisnagar is under a sheet of water. Crops worth Rs. 25 lakhs have been destroyed … and nearly one lakh people are suffering due the floods caused thus.”
Karpoori Thakurs’ Response to Executive Engineers’ Letter Karpoori Thakur, MLA, who twice became the Chief Minister of Bihar later, wrote a rejoinder to Samad’s explanation in the same paper in his letter to the editor on the 5th October, 1958 titled “Chamarbandha Kand Ki Jaanch Ho (Enquiry Should be Held into the Causes of Chamarbandha Breach ”:
“It is widely known that Warisnagar Thana of Darbhanga district has suffered immensely due to the slumping down of some portions of the Chamarbandha embankment, breach in the Ghogharaha embankment, and pending construction of the sluice gate at Trimuhanighat. Crop losses are tremendous and the suffering of the flood-victims facing untold miseries and starvation is beyond imagination. The relief given by the Government to the people has not only been delayed but is insufficient also.”
The question arises here that why the Trimuhani was not plugged, Chamarbandha bundh slumped down and Ghogharaha embankment breached? One can understand the delay at Trimuhani because the Government did not want this to be constructed. As far as Ghogharaha and Chamarbandha breaches are concerned, they breached because the embankment was weak and no efforts were made to repair and strengthen them in time.”
It is difficult to give any opinion about the breach at Chamarbandha. It is obvious that the embankment breached because of the holes (dug by rats and foxes) through the body of the embankment. I have read very carefully the explanation of the Executive Engineer of Rosera Division of Waterways Department published recently in Aryawarta in Letters to Editor Column. I am really pained to read it. The Executive Engineer has tried to make us believe that the said unfortunate incident is caused by some undesirable elements who had cut the embankment and there was no other reason to it.”
He has written in his letter that, ‘As soon as the departmental labourers noticed the seepage they started raising alarm and filling the sand bags to be put on the place where water was coming out from. The overseer was there near the sluice gate site and when he heard that something has gone wrong there, he too rushed to the spot along with all his work-force.’ He has also said that, ‘When all those assembled realized that the water was coming out of the embankment, the started putting sand-bags and palm leaves to plug the hole.’ I beg to differ totally from the version of the Executive Engineer. I had traveled through the flooded area during 3rd and 4th September and had visited the place in the afternoon of 4th September. I have not only talked to the people of that area but also to those who were present at the time the incident took place. According to my information it is not true that many people were engaged in the repair work there when the seepage was set in. According to the eye witnesses, the number of departmental labourers and others at the time of the incident was not more than a dozen. It is also far from truth that after listening to the alarm from the seepage site so many people including the overseer had rushed there. The fact is that the overseer reached the site just when the embankment was sinking and scared by the sight of slumping of the embankment, he left the place. Where did he go, the locals did not know.”
As regards putting the blame of the breach on the miscreants, it is unfair and wrong to say so. It is known to everybody that the embankment had breached at 3 pm in the afternoon of 29th August. Is it possible for someone daring to pierce a hole in the embankment in broad day light? And if some miscreant could do that, why was he not caught? If so many departmental labourers and overseer was around, why did they not notice the miscreants cutting the embankment or piercing hole through it and if they noticed him why he was not caught? There are so many questions that will have to be answered to reach any conclusion.”
Whatever I have heard or seen, it is my firm opinion that the embankment had breached not because of the wrong doing of the miscreants but for some other reason. I did not meet a single person while on tour who could say that the embankment had breached because of cutting it. What the people saw was only this that the seepage had set in and water was oozing out through holes and within half an hour the embankment sank. The hole was so big and the onrush of water was so strong that one of the labourers got swept away from one end to the other.”
The Executive Engineer has also said that Shri Sundar Singh, MLA, the owner of the Maisana Kothi Shri Atmaram Mishra, Sarpanch Chiranjiv Rai had also opined that the embankment was cut and it did not breach. As far as my information goes Shri Sundar Singh, MLA, has never said this. I have not met Shri Atmaram recently but I have read a statement made by his elder son Dataram Mishra recently in The Indian Nation in the ‘Letters to Editor’ column in which he as clearly written that the embankment had breached because of the callous attitude of the local authorities. I had met Chiranjiv Rai personally in Buzurgdwar village in the presence of hundreds of villagers and as far as I remember very well that he had never said that the embankment had breached because of miscreants.”
The Executive Engineer has said that because of this breach the water had spread in 11 villages and impacted about 10,000 acres of land. On this issue I have not only based my inference on my personal knowledge but have talked to many experienced and concerned people of the area and conclude that nearly 30 villages have been hit by floods due to the breach and 30 to 40,000 acres of land is devastated. Thus, he has tried to reduce the damages and has been unjust to the people.”
The executive Engineer has told another very interesting thing. He has said that floods have been caused not only due to a breach at Chamarbandha but also due to another breach at Gotiyari. The information about the Gotiyari embankment is totally false; the embankment is not breached and is totally safe.”
Severe damages caused to the areas of Warisnagar Thana are due to the fact that gaps have been left in the embankments intermittently which have not been plugged, the river mouth at Ghogharaha (of the Shanti Dhar) has been sealed and the breach in Chamarbandha embankment. All this has shaken the confidence of the people of Warisnagar.”
I demand from the Government that a commission of enquiry should be constituted to go into all the aspects of the causes of the breach and restore the confidence of the people. I demand further that the Trimuhani Sluice should be constructed immediately and the mouth of the river that was sealed at Ghogharaha should be plugged again (that had breached this year) and the other end of the river should also be sealed.”
Mukhia of Maisina has also some thing to say There was another letter written by Baikunth Narayan Jha, the Mukhia of Maisina village, published in Aryawarta of 7th October, 1958 which reads as follows:
“Samad Saheb writes that there was no complaint about the sturdiness of the embankment till 28th August. This is true but is it possible for a pedestrian walking over the embankment or a person going on some vehicle over it to sense the minute symptoms of any trouble faced in the embankment that he will observe them and go to inform the engineer?”
Samad Saheb himself says that some miscreants had conspired to cut the embankment and he had already informed the Civil SDO of Samastipur in advance. If this is true, why after so much information about the threat in advance the embankment breaches just 13 chains away from the residence of the overseer at 3.00 pm on the 29th August? After considering all this factors it becomes obvious that the embankment had breached because of the carelessness of the departmental workers and the entire episode cannot be covered up.”
The Engineer Saheb also tells that because of the accumulation of the Kareh and Burhi Gandak waters collected at Sadipur the embankment at Gotiyari got breached and that induced the Chamarbandha breach. But Gotiyari bundh is safe and when nothing had happened to it how can it affect Chamarbandha?…I have talked to Sundar Singh and he had told me that although he had gone towards Chamarbandha four to five times in the recent past, he had never met Samad Saheb. A judicial enquiry must be commissioned to go into the details of the Chamarbandha episode.”
Conclusion I have put together this narrative based on my archival research to give a picture of how the embankments and floods were dealt with in the immediate aftermath of independence by some key players. This is not only educative of the history on these issues but also helps us understand the evolution of these issues and compare with how these issues are dealt with today. Such discussions do not take place these days in public forum. Thanks to climate change that their incidences have come down heavily after 2007. The Governments are happy that they have brought floods under control. The embankments continue to breach, however, though less in number and the departmental denials follow. At best some enquiry is done by the engineers who naturally take side of their fellow professionals and colleagues. When it comes to take any action against anyone, the unions and associations intervene with a threat of strike and so on and ultimately nothing happens. It will be of interest to know how many such enquiries were held and what action has been taken. Unfortunately, the flood victims do not have any union or association to air their hardships and the game goes on and on.
Dinesh Kumar Mishra, Convenor-Barh Mukti Abhiyan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
 This is continuation of the series by Dr Mishra on historical account and analysis of post independence floods in India following his recent research at National Library, Kolkata.