Over the past several weeks, the Ganges and other rivers which form the Indo-Gangetic basin—beginning in Nepal, flowing south through India and emptying through Bangladesh into the Indian Ocean—have flooded. In the northern Indian state of Bihar, at least 3,600 villages have been inundated and hundreds have died. Millions of people have lost their homes, agricultural lands are inundated and disease is running rampant.
True to form, politicians in Bihar and abroad have blamed the tragedy on a series of bogeymen. Indian officials say that Nepal is to blame; Nepalese officials blame India. Others, such as John Holmes, the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, have invoked “global warming” as the cause. Such pronouncements only serve to excuse state authorities from any moral blame for a problem they have clearly caused.
Bihar is naturally inclined to suffer flooding. The state is very flat, with several major rivers flowing down from Himalayan mountains to the north, making Bihar and the surrounding region especially vulnerable. That’s partly why Bihar has suffered such disasters on a regular basis—as recently as 2004, 2003 and 2000, and in previous decades, too.
But the real blame lies not with mother nature, but with government. Bihar’s flood control policies are governed by state bureaucracies rather than local communities. Given the state’s general lawlessness, this has meant that cronyism and corruption have prevailed. For instance, in 2005, 11 government and bank officials—including Gautam Goswami, the former district magistrate of Patna—and a private contractor, were charged with embezzling about $2.5 million of state funds designated for flood relief efforts.
Those problems have been compounded by decades of federal and state policies which built thousands of kilometres of embankments along rivers, including those in Bihar. Although these structures do work elsewhere, they are inappropriate for Bihar’s geography and weather conditions. The embankments have raised river levels by preventing the spreading of silt over a larger area, and massively increased the amount of flood-prone areas.
Bihar’s poverty and corruption don’t help, either. Bihar is the poorest state in India, with an annual per capita income of only $150. It’s well known that the average citizen must pay bribes simply to receive government services such as policing. The state ranked an unimpressive “worst” of all Indian states in Transparency International’s 2005 India Corruption Study. Its population of 90 million people is predominately rural and agrarian; only 10% live in urban areas. The state’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, electricity, water and sanitation, communications networks, schools and medical facilities—leaves much to be desired.
The rural poor live in shoddy dwellings comprised of mud, sticks and thatch, rather than in stable, robust structures able to withstand flood waters. They remain illiterate, dependent on manual labour and the land, and vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. Insurance is non-existent as the vast majority of the poor don’t own the property upon which they build their homes.
This summer’s floods serve as yet another symbol of Bihar’s well-earned reputation for corruption and political apathy. Bihar’s policymakers owe it to their populace to empower local communities with respect to flood control and economic development more generally. Anything less means that the next flood will wreak similar damage.
Edited excerpts from The Wall Street Journal. Kendra Okonski is editor of The Water Revolution (International Policy Press, 2006) and environment programme director of the International Policy Network in London. Comment at email@example.com