Major General(rtd) Mrinal Suman
Major General(retd.) Mrinal Suman, a highly decorated Indian Army Officer, gives a first-hand account of his experience explaining the economics and politics of floods in Bihar.
Unprecedented Bihar floods of the year 2008 reminded me of my own experience. The year was 1971. I was a young Captain in an Engineer regiment. We were participating in a war exercise in the deserts of Rajasthan to hone our battle procedures and battle drills. War with Pakistan looked imminent and the armed forces were gearing up for it. It was the month of August when in response to an urgent call for military’s aid in flood relief, I was asked to take a column of 120 troops and move post-haste to Barauni in Bihar for flood relief operations. Driving throughout the night, the column reached Lucknow early in the morning and collected boats, outboard motors (OBM), life jackets and other stores. The column was on its way to Barauni by the evening. Foreseeing need for emergent rescue of stranded people, we wanted to reach Barauni without any loss of time.
By the time the column reached Barauni the next day, it was already dark. Without wasting any time, I set out to meet the local SDO who was to coordinate the relief effort. I was amazed to see him sitting comfortably in a well starched ‘pajama-kurta’ in the local Inspection Bungalow, enjoying his evening drink. He was apparently happy to see me and asked me to settle down for the night. Noticing my confusion, he added “Captain Saheb, nobody is dying. Sleep peacefully and we shall meet in the morning.”
Early next morning, we checked our boats, tested OBMs and mustered all other stores to be ready to plunge into the flood waters at short notice. I was in for a bigger surprise when I met the SDO later in the day. His opening question was whether my column was carrying personal weapons and wireless sets. I replied in the affirmative and informed him that troops always move with their authorized warlike stores. “Great, that will make the task much easier,” he exclaimed.
He took out a map of Barauni area, laid it on the table and commenced, “First of all, no area is under flood waters and there are no marooned people. We have requisitioned your help under the garb of flood relief to help us protect the Barauni Industrial Complex. The complex consists of an oil refinery, a thermal power plant and a fertilizer factory. It is protected from the river waters by 36 km long Gupta-Lakhminia Bund. The bund faces threat not from the river waters but from the local population.”
“I can see that you are surprised, but it is the truth. Locals want flood waters in their villages as they get aid, exemption from taxes and writing off of loans. Additionally, flood waters bring rich fresh soil which gives them a bumper crop,” he added. “What about damage to their property?” I queried. “Their sole possession is a buffalo. Cattle are moved to higher ground in advance. Yes, their shacks do get washed away but that loss is insignificant,” was his frank reply.
He further explained that my column was expected to patrol the complete length of the bund with weapons and wireless sets, both by day and night, to prevent any breach by the locals. No boats or other flood relief stores were required. I was totally perplexed – my column had been requisitioned under disaster relief but was being asked to perform duties relating to maintenance of law and order. Instead of protecting people from the flood waters, I was being asked to protect a bund from the people. I sought time to contact my superiors for instructions.
The SDO reported my reluctance to the District Magistrate (DM), who visited Barauni the next day and sent for me. He tried to invoke my sense of duty to the nation by highlighting the threat to Barauni Industrial Complex in case the villagers succeeded in breaching the bund. He also explained that the local police was incapable of facing the locals. Unable to contact my unit deployed in the Rajasthan desert, I agreed to do their bidding in the interim. I divided the bund into platoon sub-sectors and established required control rooms. Round the clock patrolling of the bund was organised.
One day, an MLA of a neighbouring constituency visited me and asked me to send a party with a few boats to his area. On query he replied that there were no floods in his area, yet he wanted Army’s presence. “Your visit will help me on two counts. One, I will be able to show my concern for my voters and secondly, getting the Army will prove my clout. I can claim that for my voters’ sake I could even get the Army,” he said. I could not decline such an honest request and sent a small party for a few hours. The MLA was personally there to receive my party and drew full publicity mileage out of the visit.
After a fortnight, flood waters started receding and threat to the industrial complex abated. I requested the SDO to derequisition my column as we wanted to prepare for the impending war. The SDO agreed but the DM vacillated. We stayed on for weeks without doing any worthwhile task. On repeated querying, the SDO revealed that the DM was not agreeable. “By keeping you here the DM is ensuring his own safety. In case nothing untoward happens, he will get credit for timely requisitioning of the Army and thus averting disaster. In case things take a turn for the worse, he can always seek protection under the plea that even the Army could not prevent a calamity,” he confided. I was aghast and approached Army’s Sub-Area Commander at Patna. It was his intervention with the state government that facilitated our move back to the unit.
While taking leave of the SDO, I thanked him for his assistance. As we had developed some sort of rapport over the weeks, his parting words were, “Hope to see you next year. Floods here have become an industry. All wait for them every year. The villagers want them, the politicians want them and even the administration wants them. Floods help generate funds for the politicians to fight elections. Bureaucracy regularizes all losses and deficiencies by showing them against floods. The whole economy is dependent on floods. Management and garnering of the central aid and flood relief funds is a highly lucrative business. For most, a flood-free year is a non-remunerative year, akin to a drought.”
“If the administration wants it can make pucca bunds like the ones made by Holland. But that will eliminate floods and nobody wants to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” he added.
I rejoined the unit just in time for moving to the war zone. In the heat of battle, memories of Barauni flood relief faded into the background. In the beginning of 1973, I was awarded Chief of the Army Staff’s commendation for my “exceptional devotion to duty in protecting the Gupta-Lakhminia Bund from breaching by the flood waters of the river Ganga and thereby saving the industrial complex at Barauni”. Thus, true nature of the threat faced by the bund (from locals and not the river) never found any mention in official records. I wonder if the story is getting repeated even now as the Army is regularly called for flood relief duties every year.
(The writer is a decorated officer from Indian Army. The views expressed are personal)