Reflections on the Origin of the Kosi Project

Guest blog by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra[i] (dkmishra108@gmail.com)

I was recently trying to look into the flood history of Bihar’s post-independence period and came across this interesting article by Hari Nath Mishra written in 1950 but published on September 3, 1967 in The Searchlight – Patna. Hari Nath Mishra later became the Speaker of the Bihar Legislative Assembly, Health Minister in Bihar and also was the Central Deputy Minister of Irrigation and Power later when Dr. K.L. Rao was the Irrigation Minister at the Centre. I was lucky to have met him in 1986 when he talked about the problems ailing the Kosi Project and that the ambitions of the people were not met as the embankments constructed along the river did not serve the purpose that they were expected to. Irrigation from the project was far below the targets fixed by the Project Engineers, power production was abysmally poor and the rehabilitation of the embankment victims was in deplorable state. I quote the article verbatim here and try to give some more to it during subsequent period.

How Anxious Was Nehru for Solution of Kosi Problem?

Hari Nath Mishra

This account prepared shortly after the deputation had waited on Panditji, was shown to Prajapati Mishra, President BPCC. Shri Mishra liked the account immensely and but opined that Panditji’s consent would be necessary before it was published. Due to some reasons, however, which I am unable to recollect clearly at this distant day, I did not write to Panditji for his consent and, for all practical purposes the matter rested there and I forgot about the deputation.

On August 10, 1967, I shifted to16-Water Tower (near High Court Patna) from 10-Circular Road which I had been occupying for the past five years. The shifting naturally meant a great deal of topsy-turvy and reshuffling and rearranging of old books and papers. This article also as few other papers, about which I had more or less clearly forgotten, suddenly leapt up before my eyes and I thought, belated though, I should make the account public. It is true, of course, that Panditji is no more with us; Shri Prajapati Mishra died long ago. I do not know whether Shri Gokhale is still alive. Again, much water has flown since February 1950, and the Kosi Problem, as it used to be, has ceased to exist and baffle solutions. The connected multi-purpose River Valley Project, after undergoing so many transformations, had already been partially executed. And yet, I have a feeling that the story will be read with interest by the people in general.

If I were to write the account today, doubtless I would put the whole thing in a different way, in different language; but after some consideration I have decided to leave it as it is except for some very minor changes.

Aug 2008 Kosi Floods Photo: Times of India
Aug 2008 Kosi Floods Photo: Times of India


An unofficial deputation of the Kosi Sufferers waited on Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru waited on February 20, 1950. Virtually there was no preparation for the discussion by the deputationists or the pleading of their case nor was there the usual ‘sympathetic and patient hearing by Panditji.’ As I listened to the discussion, my overall impression was that the occasion provided only a jerk and stimulus to Panditji’s mental processes with regard to the execution of the River Valley Project – one out of scores he has been dreaming of any planning in various belts and the States, for the development and prosperity of the whole country. People interested in the early execution of the Kosi Project are naturally impatient to what happened at Delhi and some of them are making anxious enquiries as to the reaction of Panditji to the whole problem. I have, therefore, decided to give to the public a faithful account of actually transpired and my own impression about it.

 The Memorandum Shortly after we had taken our seats round a conference table, Shri Prajapati Mishra, President BPCC and leader of the deputation, handed over a small memorandum, a page and half foolscap to Panditji. It made a passing reference to Lord Wavell’s visit to some of the affected areas towards the end of 1945 and subsequent investigations and to the proposed Kosi Project. Towards the end of it, it stated: “The first stage of this scheme, which can be taken up independently and in advance of the construction of the dam, will give an annual irrigation of 6.38 lakh acres of (2.14 lakh acres in Nepal and 4.24 lakh acres in India) and generate 30,000 KW of hydro-electric power and some measure of flood moderation at a cost of Rs. 18 crores. Besides providing irrigation facility and power the first stage will provide necessary preliminaries for the construction of the dam. The irrigation facilities will give an annual increase in 20,000 tons in Jute and 57,000 in food-grains.

‘It is understood that the investigations for the first stage are complete and work can start within a few months of the sanction being accorded. Very clearly the sanction for the first stage is requested.’

Panditji went through the memorandum, rather hurriedly, and turning to the gentleman on his right asked ‘with regard to the first stage, what is the present stage Gokhale?’ Mr. Gokhale who is a Bihar civilian and at present happens to be the Secretary of the Ministry of Works, Mines and Power, Government of India, told Panditji that it was true that the investigations about the first stage were complete and that the actual construction can be started with a few months’ notice. But the ‘over-riding difficulty was where to find this 18 crores of rupees?’ Panditji suggested ‘Loan’. Pointing out the difficulty here also, Mr. Gokhale observed, ‘unfortunately for us, the first stage is going to prove a liability and not an asset. Taking that loans are to be raise at 3 ½ per cent per annum interest, Government will have to meet a recurring deficit of 18 lakhs of rupees for the return on the interest could not be expected to account for more than 2 ½ per cent. Panditji wanted to know when the return would be adequate and the project self-sufficient. Replying Mr. Gokhale said that that would be the case with the completion of the second stage which involved an additional expenditure of 14 crores of rupees. Panditji became thoughtful listening to Mr. Gokhale. Presumably the deteriorating relation with Pakistan and ever increasing budget provision it necessitated for defence preparations, to the exclusions of the provisions of many necessary and urgent nation building programs occupied his mind. After a little reflection he asked, “This 18 crores of rupees will surely have to be spent over a number of years. What is the period?”

“Three to four years.”

“What will be the expenditure during first year?”

“Rupees two to three crores.”

“It appears you have no exact idea. Surely, there is a difference between two and three.”

Mr. Gokhale explained that orders for machineries would have to be placed with companies in foreign countries. Now some of these machineries might be available, others might not. Hence it is too early to say what amount exactly would be spent in first year.

‘Supposing we decided to start the work this year, by what month shall we be able to begin the construction?’

“By October, Sir.”

“Well I am afraid; you wouldn’t be able to spend even rupees two crores from October 1950 to March 1951. I think you may begin the work with 1,50,00,000 this year.”

Nepal’s Contribution A member of the deputation wanted to know whether Nepal would also be contributing to the fund. Panditji took up the suggestion and inquired from Mr. Gokhale how and to what extent Nepal had come into the picture? Mr. Gokhale explained that out of 6.38 lakh acres of land, to which irrigation facilities could be extended, with the completion of the first stage, 2.14 lakh acres lay in Nepal and 4.24 lakh acres in Bihar. Out of 30,000 KW of hydro-electric power, Nepal would be ready to consume 10,000 KW.

“So then the benefits that are likely to accrue to Bihar and Nepal are in the ratio of 2:1; the expenditure also has to be shared more or less in the same proportion.”

“Sir before we are in a position to put 9 crores of rupees or some such amount, how can we possibly ask Nepal Government to put in their quota so that the work might be started.”

“May be they will be ready to contribute their share and to start and do the construction during the first two years with, of course, the understanding that we shall contribute our share during the remaining period to complete the project.”

Panditji sent for his Private Secretary and wanted him to fix up some time on the following day at which he could discuss the matter with ‘Nepal People.’ Gokhale pointed that Mr. Khosla (Chairman, CWINC) was not available and in his absence it was not possible to supply the exact data which might be required in the discussion. He suggested 23rd or 24th February for the meeting, for, Khosla was to come back on the 23rd February after tour.

‘But the Maharaja and others will be leaving on the 24th morning. All I wanted to do in the first meeting was to set their minds in motion. I want to attend it. The second meeting may take place on the 23rd after the return of Khosla. There will of course, have to take place a series of meetings, – at least three to settle finally and take decisions.”

“Sir we will have to tell them that the first stage will be a liability on them, also involving, as it does an annual recurring loss of 18 lakhs of rupees.”

“By all means tell them; but tell them also that with the execution of the second stage the project will be self sufficient.”

Panditji glanced through the memorandum again and enquired Mr. Gokhale if all the 6 lakhs and odd thousand acres would be irrigated and the additional yield IN Jute and the foodstuffs and the hydro-electric power that would be produced had been taken into the account in computing the return. Gokhale replied in affirmative and went on to say that the difficulty with regard to the large block of electricity was how and where to consume? Although Nepal was ready to consume 10,000 KW of electricity he had doubts if they would be able to actually consume the same. Similar were the difficulties in North Bihar, for, hardly were there industries worth the name, to consume large block of power.

“How far is Darjeeling from the Dam site?”

“Darjeeling is far off Sir. Besides, it has its own small plant to meet its requirements.”

Pointing towards North Bihar in the map Panditji said: ‘I am not acquainted with the area sufficiently well; but then, I think the whole North Bihar has to be developed.”

“That is true Sir but the area is predominantly agricultural area.”

“What are the industries you have or can have?”

“Sugar cane, Jute.”

“But the land is fertile and I think, you can produce different kind of raw materials to set up and run industries.”

Kosi Dam Mr. Gokhale agreed but pointed out that difficulty again was that of finance in setting up industries. Proceeding he observed that if and when the proposed Kosi Dam would be constructed at a cost of 200 crores of rupees, and in about 20 years time, it will result in all the power stations of North-east India, including the ones in Damodar Valley, being closed down. For, the power from the Kosi would be cheapest of all. The American experts, however, maintain that in order to utilize the huge block of hydro-electric power and to get the full benefit out of the proposed multi-purpose project, another 200 crore rupees would have to be invested in setting up and running industries. So the problem was one of developing cheap power and industries, to consume the power, side by side. Panditji remarked that he knew of Manchuria where, during thirteen years, they were able to develop power and industries side by side and the whole country was now developed and flourishing. Why can’t we do so here?”

A comparison and contrast between the approaches of Gokhale and Panditji to the issues forces itself rather irresistibly.  Both of them considered the execution of the Kosi Project in an all India context; both of them realized the financial stringency through which the country was passing. Gokhale was faithful to his master when he, even with the risk of being misunderstood, pointed out repeatedly the unfavourable and debit aspects of the project; obviously, his mind moved within four corners of the  Central Secretariat and budgetary provision and whether the investment would bring adequate monetary return was his guiding principle. Panditji’s mind worked otherwise and his guiding principles were different; if the project could bring relief and solace to the sufferers and light up a hitherto dark and dismal corner of the country, no obstacle financial or otherwise, was to stand in the way. For the people’s man people’s welfare was supreme consideration, and all other considerations were narrow and artificial. I had occasions to see Mr. Gokhale earlier and discuss the matter with him. His mind moved like a gramophone record, playing the set tune and giving out a prepared version. There was no receptivity to new ideas. He thought more of the difficulties, more of the debit-side, but there was no vigorous search for solutions. In short, the anxiety for finding the solution was absent. With Panditji, everything was transparent. You could see him think and feel for his uneasiness and journey with him in discovery of solutions.

Towards the close of our discussion, the leader of the deputation requested Panditji to pay a visit to the Kosi area in near future.  Nehruji examined his diary for his engagements and replied that he wouldn’t be able to do so in course of the coming months. The leader insisted again and Panditji, somewhat resenting, replied, “Is it essential to see the sufferings for believing?”

Kosi Problem As we rose to bid good bye, I tried to present a copy of my brochure “The Kosi Problem” to him. Looking at it from his seat and a distance of two to three yards he said he had read it already and the brochure was now old. I wondered, and I wonder still how a brochure written by an obscure worker, in an obscure corner, happened to reach his hands and how he had time to go through it.

Mr. Meghnad Saha discussing the wonderful achievement of the USSR in the developments of its rivers (My Experience in Soviet Russia Pp 56-57) says, “When the Russians wanted to develop their rivers, they opened no less than 5200 stations to observe the discharge of the rivers at different places and make an analysis of the rainfall and run off of these rivers. I am quite certain that nothing of this kind has been attended in this country and, unless the preliminary data are collected and analyzed, no proper plans for harnessing the rivers can be developed. But who is going to do all this? When in 1921, amidst civil wars fomented by bourgeois countries and the miseries left by last war, Lenin was contemplating his great plans of the electrification of the whole country, of collective use of land and water (or what we call the multi-purpose use of rivers), the English writer H.G. Wells paid a visit to him in the Kremlin. Lenin discussed with him his great plans. To Pandit Wells, the grandiose plans in a ruined and starving country appeared so absurd that on return to England he referred to Lenin as ‘dreamer in the Kremlin.’ But though the dreamer passed away shortly afterwards, his mantle fell on his worthy successors who called in a whole hosts of scientists and engineers to assist them in giving a practical shape to these dreams. Now they are no longer dreams but refreshing realities.  End of the Article


Aug 2008 flood disaster due to breach in Kosi Embankment
Aug 2008 flood disaster due to breach in Kosi Embankment

Attempts to Drop Barahkshetra Scheme – Constitution of Majumdar Committee This scheme of a dam at Barahkshetra was so widely covered in the media from 1946 to 1951 that it appeared that the work on it would commence any day but was always kept postponed for various reasons like rains, scarcity of funds and need for further investigations etc and at one stage the Bihar Government was even made to make a choice between the Gandak and the Kosi Projects and, in the mean while, the project cost shot to Rs. 177 Crores in 1951, from Rs. 100 Crores in 1946. The suspense came to an end when, on the 5th June 1951, a committee was constituted under the chairmanship of S.C.Majumdar, Advisor Engineer, Government of West Bengal with four members on its panel, to give its opinion on the Barahkshetra Dam Project. The other members of the committee were M.P.Matharani, Chief Engineer-Gandak Valley-Bihar, N.P.Gurjar and G.Sunderam, Chief Engineer-Electrical-Madras. The terms of reference of this committee were:

  1. Whether the project planning is sound?
  2. Whether the sequence of the execution plan is alright and the design is correct?
  3. Whether the estimates for the command area for irrigation & power production are correct?
  4. Whether the sequence of the power production is alright?
  5. Whether the works executed in the first 4 phases will get adversely affected by the floods during its implementation?

The committee generally approved the proposed plan and it had no other option because the scheme was prepared by the best available experts in the world but was of the view that,

  1. A sum of Rs. 48 Crores will be spent on the first four phases of the project but the flood control will be achieved effectively during the fifth phase only.
  2. In the seventh phase of the project implementation 1800 Megawatts of electricity will be produced at an input investment of Rs. 60 Crores.

It was said that, in 1952, altogether 1750 Megawatts of electricity was being produced in the country from all sources. From all the power houses in the country, the maximum demand for power was estimated at 1100 Megawatts and the rate of increase in demand of power annually was put at 50 megawatts between 1940 & 1950.

The demand was said to increase marginally in years to come. The new power houses that were being built that time were further likely to produce an additional power of 1000 Megawatts. Thus, the committee came to the conclusion that a huge block of power will remain unutilized for a long time to come and ‘a large capital will be blocked unproductively in the name of power production’. Also, the committee felt that the benefits of flood control will be available quite late in the plan and it recommended that the proposal of Barahkshetra be dropped.

Gokhale had already hinted about these drawbacks when Hari Nath Mishra and his team under the leadership of Prajapati Mishra had met Panditji on the February 20, 1950. It seems the constitution of Majumdar Committee was just eyewash and intended to repeat the things which Gokhale had told Panditji. Also, Majumdar was an engineer and his words carried more weight than Gokhale on technical matters.

The fact, however, was that the Government of India had no money to spare for the dam at Barahkshetra on the Kosi in Nepal and it was looking for excuses which were advanced by Majumdar Committee.

If we look at the power position in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal these days, the hollowness of these recommendations become obvious. The immediate outcome of the recommendations of this committee was that curtain was drawn on a scheme which was in the headlines for the previous six years.

Hari Nath Mishra was active since 1945 or, may be, even earlier and this was told to me by another politician, Khushi Lal Kamat in 2004 and here is what he told me.

KHUSHI LAL KAMAT: He does not want to listen to cock and bull story, he wants facts and figures.

Khushi Lal Kamat (83), (Now Late), Former Vice-Chairman of Darbhanga District Board

Vill. & PO Sarauti, Dist Madhubani

“The Kosi had not started flowing in this area till the beginning of 1940s. I had contested an election for a seat in the Darbhanga District Board in 1943 and won it and became the Deputy Chairman of the Board later. Madhubani was our Sub-division. There was a sudden flood in 1943 and the Kosi had started knocking at our doorsteps. I put in some personal and some money from the Government to run a modest relief programme. We had heard horrifying stories of the Kosi floods and wanted some solution to that problem. 

Hari Nath Mishra used to represent our constituency in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha. I went to Patna once and told him that something must be done for the Kosi. It was resolved that Hari Nath Mishra will go to Delhi to meet Jawahar Lal Nehru with a request that he does something for the Kosi. This was around 1946 and before Hari Nath Mishra could go to Delhi, it was already 1947. He had no application or any report with him when he met Nehru. Nehru was too angry with him and told him that he did not want to hear cock and bull story, he wanted facts and figures and asked him to leave. After his return from Delhi, Hari Nath Mishra told us about the treatment meted out to him in Delhi.

We, however, did not lose hope. Both of us went to Brij Nandan ‘Azad’ who was then the Editor of the Indian Nation and told him the entire story. Azad said that he would provide us with the facts and figures but the report would have to be written by us. We agreed. He knew me as I used to write for his paper occasionally. He also agreed to accompany us to Nirmali and took a photographer along with him. Being a representative of the Relief Commissioner, Nirmali and Mahadeomath fell in my jurisdiction. I requisitioned a motor boat from the collector and took the Press team around the area. It was resolved that we must make the report too touching lest the purpose of drafting it will be defeated. We got some cattle tied with pegs in knee deep water and asked some people to climb the roofs of their huts with utensils and other articles. We caught hold of a cat and put it on the roof. We went into the court yard of the houses in boat and photographed women cooking food sitting over the chowkis.  This scene was real.

Then we proceeded to Mahadeomath. There was a road bridge near Rauahi Narendrapur where some cowboys were grazing their cattle. I gave a tip of one rupee to one of them and asked him to get into the river below along with his buffalo and push it out of the water. We took photographs with half the buffalo inside water and half outside it. The editor was happy. The photographs were now available and he had the facts and figures. We left the boat near Nirmali and returned to Patna to write the report. Azad helped us a lot. The report was ready and Hari Nath Mishra went to Delhi, once again, with the report, full of facts and figures. This time, Nehru was highly impressed with Hari Nath Mishra’s professional work and promised him that he would do something. Hari Nath Mishra told us the story after his return from Delhi. What was the impact of this report on Nehru is not known but when the Congress list was being finalized in the next election, it contained the name of Hari Nath Mishra also. When it was put before Nehru he saw his name in the list and asked if he was the boy from the ‘Kosi’? He put the tick mark against his name when told in affirmative.”

What Ultimately Followed Majumdar Committee had dropped the Barahkshetra dam and proposed an earthen dam, 80 feet high, at Belka to provide flood protection and produce 68 MW of hydro-electricity which was justified according to Gokhale or Majumdar and the cost was also only 55 crores of rupees (1952). The Government, however, did not have even this much of money and was looking for some still cheaper option. The floods in the basin in 1953 provided that opportunity when embankments on the both sides were approved for construction as an immediate response to the miseries faced by the flood victims. The events that followed are recorded in my book titled “Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters-The Story of Kosi River” and I do not need to repeat it here.

The dam at Barahkshetra is still far from ready for implementation. With the knowledge and experience gained over a century about the adverse impacts of the dams and other structural measures to contain floods, whether it will be advisable to resort to construct a dam to meet the requirements of flood control is a question that should be answered. Besides, the resistance in Nepal about the proposed dam is another hitch that should be sorted out. A large catchment area of the river being located downstream of the Barahkshetra site is also a big question mark before the objectives of the dam. The fact that the dam was first proposed in 1937 and nothing is seen on ground so far suggests that there are many facets of the dam are yet to be attended to. The debate goes on and on.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra, Convenor – Barh Mukti Abhiyan

Kosi flood disaster of Aug 2008
Kosi flood disaster of Aug 2008


[i] This is sixth part of a series of articles Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra has written for SANDRP based on his month long research at the National Library, Kolkata recently.

[ii] To read further about Dr D K Mishra’s writing on Kosi issue, please read his book (copies are available with SANDRP as SANDRP is a co-publisher): “TRAPPED: Between the Devil and Deep Waters” by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra, 2008, pp 208+ xii; published by Peoples’ Science Institute and SANDRP, Delhi

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