Walk The Line

The man who told the Kosi sutra

Posted on: September 17, 2008

Dinesh Mishra

Dinesh Mishra

Dinesh Kumar Mishra is a busy man these days. He has been following the twists and turns of the Kosi river for more than 20 years. Now he has published <Kosi: Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters> and journalists are making a beeline to scribble down as much information on the floods raging in north Bihar from Mishra as possible. “It is a coincidence that the book was released at a time when there’s so much focus on Kosi and the devastation,” says Mishra, an IIT Kharagpur alumni.
So is he going back to Ground Zero soon? “Yes. But this upheaval is hardly new. It’s a yearly tragedy. It’s the national media that has suddenly developed some interest in this,” he says, quickly adding that he hopes that this spotlight will ignite a debate on what he has been saying for decades now: embankments along Kosi have repeatedly led to such crises and no dam at Barahkshetra in Nepal will solve this recurring problem. About 380 villages in Bihar are trapped between the two embankments of Kosi and around a million people are subject to its onslaughts every year. This time, it just happens that we sat up and noticed.

“A dam will not solve the problem because it won’t control the silt-laden waters. Moreover, there’s a catchment below this proposed dam that gets good showers and the water of this area will threaten downstream areas of Kosi,” argues Mishra, popularly known as ‘Guruji’. Incidentally, the first proposal to build a dam at Barahkshetra was made in 1937. Offices in Nepal, however, were opened only in 2004 for feasibility studies.

But despite such devastation wrought by the river every year, Mishra is against calling Kosi Bihar’s ‘River of Sorrow’. “The British called it so because when the river was in spate, revenue collection used to be a problem. But even they never thought of jacketing it. The local people continue to adore Kosi,” he points out. British administrator Charles Elliot, he says, once said that if there is anything that could be said about the behaviour of Kosi, it is uncertainty. “But our engineers sought a quick-fix solution initiated by their political masters,” he laments.
Many would think that Mishra comes from Bihar and that recurrent floods compelled him to take up ‘the cause’. He laughs heartily at that notion. Mishra points out that he’s from the “Abu Salem town”, Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. It was just a coincidence that got him interested in the Kosi. “A close friend of mine, Vikas, once asked me to go to flood-hit Saharsa to compile a report. Reluctantly, I agreed. I reached the place and was completely taken aback by the amount of water I saw. I sent Vikas a telegram asking for relief material. I was sent again after six months to do a larger report on rivers of north Bihar. To do that, I had to go to the Calcutta National Library and read newspapers from the 1940s. And soon I discovered that everything that we had been told about the floods were lies, lies, lies. After that, there was no turning back,” he recalls. His repetition of the word ‘lies’ leave one’s ears ringing.
So how effective has the state government’s disaster management plans been? “I met the Bihar Disaster Management Minister Nitish Mishra on August 5 when Kosi had started cutting the spurs,” says Dinesh. “Mishra was enumerating all that the state government had done. But the present situation tells a different story. In fact, even his own village house has been flooded.” He points out how the government has changed the name of departments. “‘Irrigation’ has become ‘Water Resources’, ‘Relief and Rehab’ has become ‘Disaster Management’. But the character of these departments has remained the same.”
His years of ground-level experience and intensive research are captured in the book in a clear-headad manner. Starting from the scriptures, it includes legends of Kosi, folklores, history of attempts to tackle floods in India, the efforts and 100-year-old debates to tame the river, the decision-making and construction process, scams and their outcomes and aftermath. It is also littered with voices of people — living and dead — who have been affected by the Kosi and by administrative attempts to ‘fix’ the Kosi problem.
A nugget: “The Kosi is regarded as a virgin river because it is carefree, it does not bother about bondages and carves a new path for itself whenever it likes….. As the legend goes women fed up with the vagaries of the river put vermillion powder in the river to threaten it with marriage and it is said that the river runs away from the scene.” One of the most disturbing parts of the book is the testimonies of people who are at the receiving end of our flood protection measures and irrigation schemes. “The recurring floods have led to huge migration. The kharif is gone and the rabi will go too. The next employment in Bihar will be March 2009. There will be mass and huge migration; earlier it used to be seasonal but now the scope and push will be much higher,” he says.
“The living conditions within the embankments, where the residents are deprived of all the civic amenities that are treated as basic civic amenities are a slur on any civilised society,” he writes in the book. Can this loss be reversed? “The biggest loss is that the river has lost its basic character,” he writes. “It is supposed to drain its catchment. But in this case the Kosi is spreading the waters back into its catchment, leaving large areas almost permanently waterlogged. ….This loss is irreversible and cannot be translated into money value.”
Things will probably only change when floods become an election issue. But in Bihar, unfortunately — and surprisingly — that has not happened yet. “In Bihar, it is caste and party that rule the manifestos,” he adds ruefully.

Before the meeting, one expected to meet someone angry and agitated at the turn of the events brought about by callous and faulty planning. But Mishra, unlike his muse, the Kosi, turns out to be calm, collected and logical – something that is reflected amply in the book he has written.


1 Response to "The man who told the Kosi sutra"

Hi All,

Kosi (Kaushiki) furry reminds old saying “tying knot in the snakehead”. Hydropower, irrigation and flood management are conflicting objectives. Government sees $ value where as local people expects flood management. Irrigation is nowhere close to expectation. Let’s discuss lasting solution for Kosi.

Please welcome to discuss Kosi, Water, Flood, & its policy.


Kosi Dicussion Group has been motivated from Dinesh Mishra (Barh Mukti Abhiyan)

Ram Manohar

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  • None
  • Ram Manohar Sah: Hi All, Kosi (Kaushiki) furry reminds old saying "tying knot in the snakehead". Hydropower, irrigation and flood management are conflicting objecti
  • Alex: Your blog is interesting! Keep up the good work!
  • Nandan Jha: M has done wonders with here Dalit-Brahmin pitch (Sarva Samaj). Even though it was mostly to Mishraji's brilliant plan but if you look now, she could
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