Floods And Role Of The People -Perspective Of West Bengal

Floods And Role Of The People -Perspective Of West Bengal

Chandan Ray


West Bengal, a part of Bengal Delta, has a long recorded history of flood. It is because the landmass of the State was formed by the Ganga-Padma system of rivers through the delta building process of which flood is an adjunct being the main carrier of sediments, the bulk of fluvial deposit, in huge volumes.

At present 42.3% of total area of the State is susceptible to flood spread over 110 blocks in 18 districts. The highest affected area of flood as recorded in 1978 is about 30,607sq.km. About 23,970 sq.kms of area were devastated by flood in 2000.


In the State only five years could be identified as flood free years between 1960 to 2000, when only less than 500 sq.kms of area were inundated. After last 1978 major flood, the State suffered consecutively in 1998, 1999 and 2000. In terms of loss of life and property the 2000 flood was almost comparable to 1978 flood. It had another grim feature not recorded in our living memory. Seventy two hours of continuous and concentrated rainfall over the western river basin areas of the Bhagirathi viz. from the Pagla-Bansloi to the Ajoy, generated so huge flood volume that all embankments on the eastern side of the Bhagirathi were almost washed away and the whole of Nadia and larger partofMurshidabad~ndnorthern~areas~:{)f-North 24-Pargailas were -“- flooded and remained underwater for a long period. In this transbasin transfer of flood people were caught unaware and all sorts of speculative ideas were propagated. We delved into past records to know whether any such incidents in the past occurred.

Some of the historically important events of flood were recorded by L.S.S. O’Malley in the Bengal District Gazetteers for the districts of Murshidabad and Birbhum. For the district of Birbhum, O’Malley has noted “in 1787 there was a high flood which it is said, in some places swept off villages, inhabitants and cattle, the crops on the ground, with everything that was moveable.” O’Malley also recorded that “in 1806 the Mor (Mayurakshi) and Ajai had a sudden extraordinary rise and floods washed away whole villages.” This flood occurred between 28th to 30thof September. In September 1902, because of heavy rains in the preceding 24hrs the Bramhani and the Mor rose rapidly overflowing their banks and inundated the surrounding country in some places to the depth of 12 to 20 ft. That flood breached the railway lines, as it could not pass through the narrow opening between Nalhati and Muraroi. All these incidents were recorded by O’Malley in the District Gazetteer ofBirbhum.

On Murshidabad flood situation, O’Malley states that the earliest recorded flood in Calcutta Gazette was on 29th September 1785. Serious floods have occurred in the years of 1823 18341838 1848 1856 and 1866. There were heavy floods in 1885 and 1890. According to him in 1885, the embankment breached (Bhagirathi Embankment at Lalitakuri) on 23m August and water passed through it until end of September. On 11th September, 1885 the Jalangi rose nearly 29ft above the lowest hot water level. The above history recorded here is comparable to flood 2000 of this region and dispels doubts raised by recent propaganda about causes of flood 2000 particularly in the districts of Murshidabd, Birbhum and Nadia.



Before independence, embankment construction was only available structural measure of flood control. O’Malley, in his Gazetteer has recorded that there was 57 km of flood embankment Murshidabad district on the left bank of the Bhagirathi starting from Bhagabangola to Palassey. But during early British Raj days it was not a liability of the State to protect all of the flood prone areas. The zamindars mainly to protect their crops used to construct earthen bundhs based on local knowledge and requirement and many of them very often failed to serve the purpose in long run. This situation most probably was becoming worse with time affecting the revenue earning of the State. So O’Malley has also recorded that some of the private embankments were not efficient and breached easily and subsequently were taken over by the government (1910).

During British rule the vast resource base of the Damodar valley in terms of minerals, forests, water and others was duly explored. While mineral and forest resources were exploited, huge untapped water resource of the valley, at that time, was a matter of woe particularly for lower basin areas which were the granary and also relatively populous. The Damodar, with its cal funnel shaped basin of wide periphery spread over the Jharkhand (erstwhile Bihar) plateau (about 78% of basin area), carries its total over land flow down the narrow tubular strip of its in starting near Durgapur town and spread up to the Hooghly, its out fall. The distressed  condition of these lower basin areas because of repeated occurrence of devastating floods even red the British Rulers and they were compelled to chalk out some long and short-term measures to combat the menace. This is evident because as far back as in 1920 Mr. E. M. Glass, Executive Engineer, whose Services were requisitioned by the Bengal Govt. on deputation to prepare a scheme to harness the Damodar, submitted the first Project Report on the Damodar valley Flood Control. After the catastrophic flood of 1943 when Kolkata, the hub of Eastern India business, remained cut off for a long time from rest of India the urgency to harness the Damodar was felt and implementation of the reservoir schemes took a concrete shape. After independence in 1947 by a Central-Act, the DVC was formed. Four reservoirs were created with, construction of four dams and these were declared to be multipurpose with flood control as one of its objectives. What was to be the prime objective, the flood control, was relegated to the third in order of priority as noted in the declared objective of the DVC act of 1948. However these DVC dams were some of the earliest important structural measure of flood control in India.

The Massanjore dam was commissioned in 1956. The Kangsabati dam was put into operation in 1965. While the Kangsabati dam had some flood cushion, the Massanjore dam located at Dumka in the State of Jharkhand (erstwhile Bihar) was not allowed to have any flood reserve. Simultaneously with construction of dams the State Govt in 1956, selectively took over flood control embankments till now maintained by Zamindars / Local Bodies. Till date the department maintains about 10,000km of embankment.

Because of tidal effect a large area suffers from drainage congestion. Quite a number of inage schemes have been executed by the State. The department now maintains about 7000 .length of drainage channel.


After independence in July 1957 there was a firm declaration in the Parliament that country will do all that is possible to curb and confine floods more and more. Massive programme of structural measures with the construction of dams and reservoirs were taken up with flood control as one of the major objectives. With the adoption of this latest technology the superiority of science over nature was supposed to have been established. But because of predictable pattern of rainfall, the flood moderation through reservoir detention and its releases failed to achieve the desired level of objective. The limitation of structural intervention was compounded by another important social factor. The dichotomy of interest between people affected by submergence of lands due to reservoirs and that of people of the benefited area came to surface. This conflict has come up sharply into focus in recent times. With these factors new tension was added in the parlance of flood -‘the reservoir release, a cause of flood’. The different reservoir releases during monsoon months suddenly came to the forefront as a dominant issue of flood and at times even replacing the extreme adverse natural causes. All these relevant factors and recent experiences of other countries induced changes at policy decision level. The stress given to control flood just after independence gradually took a turn towards an achievable pragrnatic approach of flood management and the following important recommendation on the issue was made by National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development, 1999.

The country has to shift Its strategy towards efficient management of flood plains, flood proofing, flood forecasting, disaster preparedness and response planning. flood fighting and flood insurance, as-there are no solutions for complete protection against flood.


If we analyze this recently declared policy decision of National Commission for :grated Water Resources Development, 1999, for the first time it was officially admitted that d has to be tackled in a participatory mode. All the items of flood management as identified he Commission in the aforesaid para will have to be implemented in people’s mode otherwise ill also be an exercise in futility in the long run.

Flood though a natural disaster is at times accentuated by some of the human activities. While defining the human role in flood mitigation efforts this vital point is always to be remembered as other wise the solution will be lopsided. We shall now discuss the status of some important flood management issues of the State.


The National Commission on Flood (Rastriya Bar Ayog), 1980 in its recommendation made a suggestion that there has to be a legislation delineating the areas likely to be flooded according to its likely chances of occurrence (return period) and its measurable intensity i.e. the depth of water that is likely to be accumulated over the marked area. Based on this data a list of developmental activities will be identified as restricted and not to be taken up in that area because of flood proneness. On this issue, Government of India, long back suggested a model bill. Till date no progress could be achieved on the same. The only plausible reason for non-adoption of  the Act is absence of involvement of people in any form. In West Bengal scenario the task is all the more difficult because of high density of population and existence of large flood prone areas. But in spite of the possibility of being resisted by a section of people it has now become, imperative to stop encroachment of river beds/ drainage channels there by obstructing the natural path of the river/ drainage artery. West Bengal flood 2000 has very emphatically underlined this point. A larger section of people through their sufferings found out how a handful of greedy persons for their personal gain almost completely choked the only drainage artery, the Ichamati river. With co-operation of all it was possible for the administration to remove all encroachments length of about 45km. Here all relevant departmental officials acted under the umbrella of lchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). Just a month back (Sept.01) it was possible to remove encroachers from one of the old and important drainage arteries of the City (Tolly’s Nala). These facts only strengthens the argument that if for a right cause we put forward our solutions before public and convince them then with their co-operation many difficult decisions can be Implemented. In West Bengal the PRIs render great help in such occasions.

In the perspective that the State has about 42% of its geographical area marked as flood prone it is not humanely possible to relocate structures and developmental activities and any Legislation will remain unimplemented. So the idea of preparing the flood zoning maps are to be accepted and all future developmental activities are to be guided by this map. Relocation of already completed activities can be attempted in some specific cases if that is absolutely necessary in greater interest. In such cases the role of pros are vital. Very recently in West Bengal, District Planning Committees have been formed. These Committees can playa very vital role in flood management and other related aspects particularly formulating proper policies. This will be a participatory mode.


Basically flood proofing is an action plan of innovative emergency measures being a combination of structural and non-structural methods so that people can stay in the area during flood without evacuation. It is also linked with flood preparedness and can form a part of disaster management plan for the locality. To appreciate this point I will site the example of settlements that have come up in riverbeds, which are seasonal in nature.

Dr. Kum Kum Bhattacharyya, in her Ph.D. dissertation titled “Applied Geomorphological Study in a Controlled Tropical River -the case of the Damodar between Panchet Reservoir and FaIta”, has made a very elaborate study of settlements that has come up over the year in post dam condition in the lower Damodar river i.e. below Durgapur Barrage to Rhondia. In that study she has drawn some interesting conclusions. One such conclusion is about land use planning in riverbed -the Bara Mana sandbar. Bara Mana, according to her, is the largest alluvial sand bar sited belowDurgapur barrage. Settlements are sited on the highest elevation and individual houses as usual have been constructed on higher plinth above usual inundation level. According to Dr. Bhattacharyya, the people living here follow the announcements of release from barrage and can calculate which part will be inundated and which will remain above it so they have organized their space accordingly. She has noted that the settlers have in their own way fortified the fragile tract to reduce vulnerability of these sand bars from inundation natural or artificial. She also gathered that previously the refugees did not have legal rights on these lands but recently they have been given “Patta” or legal rights. They have taken the riverbeds as their own. She has concluded by observing that ‘the Damodar river is in the state of anthropogenic degradation.

I have cited this example to stress two points – (1) people living in flood plains particularly of tropical rivers are aware of the risks and dangers and they have a definite plan of action which they adopt at the time of need and (2) the tropical river beds are gradually being legally encroached.

This problem of encroachment of riverbed is common in third world countries and for any future flood management planning the same will have to be addressed urgently.


At present the State has a system of issuing flood warning by the I & W Department. The system was developed to serve mainly the administration. It was an accepted norm that the administration will be the ultimate authority to take appropriate measures if there be any likely disaster/ calamity. But this concept is now undergoing thorough change. The Irrigation Department, West Bengal, now considers that any information about rainfall and river stages is to be disseminated to as many organizations/institutions /persons as possible. To achieve this objective the department is setting up its own website where daily all such data will be made available. But it is also necessary to translate this data to action plan. For this it is required that data that is made available to public a physical appreciation of the same in a simple form devoid of any technical jargon will have to given. The department is at present working on the same. In the mean time we are also initiating steps to make available these information to the people who will be the real user.

On disaster preparedness and response planning the strong Panchayat Raj Institutions of the State are involved at all levels to reach the likely affected people. Some important NGOs of the State are also now working in flood prone areas on the subject of awareness and also to evolve a quick response strategy based on local knowledge incorporating departmental data. In this to have a wireless communication system is very vital. Based on IT attempt is now being made to establish an all weather trouble free communication line to reach far flung flood prone areas.


Managing flood in any tropical and developing country is difficult for any single agency/organization. Flood has a multidisciplinary dimension where society plays a vital role. With limitation in prediction of rainfall, flood forecasting also cannot be very accurate. If we can involve local people and use their knowledge for devising a disaster management plan where all available scientific data are also taken as input then surely we can over come some of the indeterminate factors of disaster management.

y Chandan Ray is the Chief Engineer, Irrigation and Water Department, Government of West Bengal, India.