When it comes to reporting the news on the Kosi river, one wonders why Indian journalists commit the same kind of error year after year after year. What is all the more striking is that one gets to see more news on the Kosi barrage under the control and operation by Government of Bihar emerging from Nepal-based media houses rather than in the Indian media. Even after a major deluge that we witnessed following the breach in the embankment upstream of the Kosi barrage, the Indian media has learnt no lessons.
So even as we would be told that how the union budget disappointed Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and the BJP by not making a fund allocation for the rehabilitation of the victims of the Kosi flood or how the Water Resources minister of Bihar state has allocated Rs 705 crores towards the reconstruction of the Kosi canal system damaged during last year, we wouldn't be told about what is the actual picture on the Kosi barrage front. 10
It is indeed an irony that taking the cover of the Kosi flood havoc last year, more structural interventions are envisaged by Pranab Babu who increased the budget allocation for flood control by 44.48 percent [Rs 210.75 crore compared to last year's allocation of Rs 145.90 crore], little realizing that the tragedy last year was unfolded due to the very embankments that he as well as Bihar's Water Resource minister is pushing for as a panacea. 11
On May 5th, in a one column news The Times of India reported on the conclusions arrived at a two day meeting of Indo Nepal Joint Committee on Kosi-Gandak project viz to protect the barrages of Gandak and Kosi with proper upkeep and use. A fortnight later one would witness conflicting reports in the Indian media. Varunkumar Mishra of Hindustan reported in a news story titled Fir Tabaahi Machaa Sakti Hei Kosi alluding to statements by a team of UNESCO engineers that the river is cutting embankment near Prakashpur, Rajbasa and Pugthogeida near Chhatra fast. This author was amused to read it as in March last week when he travelled to Prakashpur the spurs there were already in dilapidated state and the only intervention by the Bihar water resources department was to pile a stock of boulders there in case of an eventuality. After a week-long trip across the Kosi river along with the activists of Barh Mukti Andolan headed by noted researcher Dinesh Mishra, the team consisting of other journalists did tell the media in Patna about the state of embankment at Prakashpur. However, what is all the more amusing is that a day after Hindustan reported this news on May 21st, The Times of India reported stating a claim by Bihar Water Resources Department that there was no fresh flood threat in the Kosi region. The story quoted WRD spokesman S C Jha claiming that 'water discharge in Kosi was as low as 28,108 cusecs and it can't erode embankments'.
Within a week thereafter, we witnessed the news trickling in from Nepal-based papers that the river got increased flow following four days of incessant rains in the catchment and started gnawing up a coffer dam that was built to channelize the river flow in order to carry out the repairs of the breached embankment at Kusaha. We witnessed Rediff doing a sensational headline Kosi changes its course while quoting news from Nepal News. The CNN-IBN reporter Prabhakar Kumar covered the story a couple of days later with bytes from the Bihar minister, Nepal official and a villager but the spin therein was that Maoists in Nepal are hampering last minute repair work at Kusaha. Earlier in the same week, NDTV and The Hindu had reported quoting Bihar water resources secretary, Ajay Nayak who sought to blame the inordinate delay in denotification of a three kms long bird sanctuary hindering the pace of breach repair works. Again on May 30th, a news release by PTI as well as two news stories filed by The Times of India correspondent Abhay Singh dutifully reported what Bihar's Water resources minister and dept told at press conference in Patna.
Even as the month of June passed by and one witnessed more and more coverage of vulnerable portions of embankments along river in Nepal, floodgates in bad shape at barrage and the flood level rising at barrage, the Indian media appeared so much in love with press statements emerging from Patna that it hardly bothered to see on the other side of the Kosi barrage.
On June 29th Abadhesh Kumar Jha, Sunsari based correspondent of Kantipur quoted Raju Bhagat, a control room employee at barrage stating 'Earlier, with the increase in water level, we used to press a switch at the control room to open the gates, these days we cannot operate even a single gate that way'. Within days after that Kantipur reported on the river beginning to breach a spur in Madhuwan region and emergency announced at Kosi barrage as the water flow crossed 1.84 lakh cusecs by Friday morning. On July 3rd Ajit Tiwari reported in Republica about raging Kosi river breaching one of the gates.
However, compare these with the news stories that appeared in Indian media around the same dates. On July 1st, a story filed by Sudhir Kumar of Samay Live stated that several villages in Saraigarh and Kiranpur blocks witnessed flood like situation on Tuesday night as Nepal released 1.64 lakh cusecs water. What is more disturbing is the fact that even the Flood Situation Report filed by Sphere India - URS on Relief Web portal uses misleading phrases such as, 'water discharged by Nepal resulted in flood water increase in North Bihar villages'. The Times of India reported with July 3rd as dateline from Kathmandu that rising waters of Kosi gave Nepal jitters as the river recorded flow of 1,64,000 cusecs on Thursday. It also states that Sunsari administration has asked the Government of Bihar - which own and operates the barrage - to open more sluices, as currently just 15 out of 56 sluices have been opened. The Times of India correspondent from Patna added that Bihar minister of Water Resources denied having received any communications from Nepal for opening more sluice gates at Kosi barrage. Yadav also quoted flow data at 1.32 lakh cusecs on Thursday as per his department records.
On July 3rd, 2009 a news release by IANS does mention that an embankment of Bagmati river in Aurai block was breached resulting in inundation of several villages on Thursday. However, on Kosi it just reported what came to it from the honourable minister. But if you compare what Nepal based news paper say on Kosi, you get to see that they have repeatedly mentioned about a barrage gate getting washed away.
More recently on July 5th, Kantipur reported that Indian technicians led by K N Lal, senior mechanical engineer Bihar state visited the Kosi barrage and stated that people from Joseph and Company Ltd, the firm that constructed the gates in 1962, have been called to undertake much needed repair work of all 56 sluice gates, one of which was ravaged by high waters recently.
So will the hydrocracy of Bihar ever tell us or Patna journalists the truth of what is going on at Kosi barrage and embankment front?
The author works with Environics Trust, New Delhi.