Dinesh Kumar Mishra
Fellow Since 1999
Barh Mukti Abhiyan
This profile was prepared when Dinesh Kumar Mishra was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
Dinesh Kumar Mishra is organizing communities in flood-prone areas of India to remember local, decentralized ways of coping with floods. Through country-wide education programs on traditional flood management systems, Mishra has launched a movement that empowers citizen groups to re-establish their cultural ownership over rivers and create a new paradigm of flood control ---- non-confrontational tools that respect the natural cycle of floods and respond with minimum technological interference.
The New Idea
Dinesh Kumar Mishra is mounting a grassroots movement that challenges the current, top-heavy flood control policy. Instead of relying on dams and embankments, which have become silt-laden time bombs sending tidal waves of water that routinely destroy whole villages, Dinesh opens doors to local leaders and gives them tools for managing and coping with floods. Dinesh's flood education programs are designed to help communities in river plains recapture their cultural and political ownership over rivers. The program gives them the technical, social, and historical information they need to assert local alternatives to government flood control policies. His education courses draw on pre-embankment historical records as well as traditional knowledge, and provide communities with sophisticated technical and social engineering skills. Entire communities learn of their pre-embankment identities. They study and reengineer flood control structures in their regions, reintegrate villages divided by embankments, and organize flood management strategies. Since 1992 Dinesh has been working in the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins in Bihar state, India's most flood-prone region, where he has created an umbrella network, the Barh Mukti Andolan (BMA), of over 700 rural groups of "flood historians." Dinesh plans to develop a national platform for grassroots flood campaigners, who will maintain histories of their river basins and design region-specific responses to official flood control methods in their states.
Bihar is India's most flood-prone state: according to recent estimates, 56.5 percent of flood-affected Indians live there. North Bihar alone is drained by eight major rivers. Since 1952, successive governments have confined rivers and their tributaries in a maze of embankments-expensive, weak structures that often breach, divide communities, and cause permanent waterlogging in broader catchments. These government projects have tripled the flooded areas of Bihar. Last year, floods rendered more than 30 million homeless in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The economic toll in the states of Bihar, Bengal, and Gujarat was as high as Rs. 5 billion (US $125 million). The construction of embankments also creates serious social and political problems. By absolving villages of collective responsibility for assisting each other during floods, it ruptures traditional social security networks. Aggressive state control over flood management has disenfranchised communities and led to divisive political decisions about where to construct embankments. Violent clashes occur among villages caught between an embankment and the river (who usually oppose the embankment) and those outside (whom it will guarantee security from floods). Residents of communities farther from the direct fury of rivers approach the construction of embankments as significant employment opportunities. Neither the government nor the citizen sector has made an organized effort to advocate alternative, citizen-based solutions. The government does not view floods as social and psychological crises. Rather, it focuses on technological solutions and ignores land reform, soil conservation, and responsible irrigation. Bureaucrats and politicians regard flood control projects as a huge money pot. Recommendations of progressive Flood Commissions have been squelched, and all information since 1952 has been sanitized. In the absence of a strong information base, floods have yet to feature in the national map of environmental crises. Local anti-embankment movements in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basins have been crushed.
Dinesh operates in India's most dramatic flood theater, Bihar. Owing to its history of tragic floods, ineffective government solutions, and extreme poverty, Bihar offers an ideal ground for implementing his idea. Dinesh's strategy involves organizing citizen groups to remember and record local knowledge about floods and then generate information that creates awareness among communities and becomes the basis for a larger social movement. Through personal research and continuous dialogues with communities, Dinesh has traced the hidden, alternative history of flood management in Bihar since ancient times. He is using this exhaustive knowledge bank to package and disseminate information to grassroots communities through print, the electronic media, public hearings, press conferences, and village meetings. From his vast information bank Dinesh has created short courses about "how to be an informed flood activist." The course material contains chapters on the history of flood control and irrigation in Bihar, embankment technology and its criticisms, consequences of flood-control methods, and corrective measures such as compensation. The course also carries important elements of social communication, such as negotiating public demands with the government, creating wider local involvement, engaging in conflict resolution among communities divided along embankment lines, and designing educational campaigns. Dinesh's courses and public dialogues have created the framework for a statewide movement under the aegis of BMA. Established in 1992, BMA has galvanized 700 local groups of flood activists who interact across river basins through study-exchange tours. Every group mounts its own annual village flood campaigns, which include awareness generation through padyatra (walkathons), reporting breaches of embankments, organizing peaceful demonstrations immediately after floods, and even cutting embankments before floods to shield their village from poor engineering designs. These "public cuts" of embankments have been accepted by a silent bureaucracy. The core task force of the BMA consists of representatives from every river basin of Bihar and maintains the continuous process of information activism in each locale. The core group organizes annual public meetings and meetings with local administrators, and supports the programs of member groups. As an extension of this network, groups of activists from Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, and Orissa have joined to launch similar movements in their states. Dinesh recognizes that flood and water disputes between state and citizen groups are reactions to regional and even international policies on water sharing. India, Nepal, and Bangladesh share crucial flood-prone rivers; many of those that run through North Bihar, for example, originate in Nepal. Dinesh has extended his efforts to the entire region, and his "flood diplomacy" has involved collaborations with environmental journalists and activists in Bangladesh and Nepal. An important result of this liaison has been the planned publication of the first inter-regional report on the floods of 1998. Dinesh has created an information clearing house on flood issues, and his writings are constantly solicited by citizen organizations and the media. The author of several pioneering books and reports on floods in India, he is translating his works into the dialects spoken in Bihar and other languages such as Oriya and Bengali. Dinesh's biggest challenge is creating an active second line of leadership that will link the gains of local movements with results at the level of policy and systemic reform. He wants this second line to reenact BMA's success in other parts of the country.
A graduate of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Dinesh Kumar Mishra was a successful engineer in 1984 when his friend Vikas Pandey asked him to prepare a report on the devastating floods that rocked Bihar that year. In Saharsha in North Bihar, Dinesh had his first brush with floods. Traveling for several days by boat, he witnessed an "unbelievable human trauma" that converted him to the cause of preventing floods. The embankment on the Kosi River had breached and more than 450,000 people were stranded on 81 square kilometers of land. The district collector refused to offer information and assistance, and a minister who had been elected from that area knew nothing about the flood. Dinesh temporarily suspended his private practice to study the history of flood control. "There were too many questions in my mind and no answers," he says. Since there was no organized information about the history of floods in India, he "literally lived in the National Library of Calcutta for a year" and studied forty years of issues of Bihar's newspapers, the Searchlight and The Indian Nation. He traced the history of every debate, every player, every commission, every controversy on flood and river management in Bihar. Armed with this information, he traveled across Bihar in search of original documents on Flood Commission reports and the players involved. It was tedious research and access to documents was often difficult, but he compiled the information in his first book, Barh Se Grast (Those Afflicted by Flood). Strong public response to the book led him to shelve his career as a professional engineer and work full time in this field. In 1987, Dinesh began traveling as an individual activist to flooded and waterlogged areas of North Bihar. He documented local flood movements, studied the character of flood-caused clashes in villages, and worked with anti-embankment activists. Most importantly, he documented and disseminated traditional knowledge and systems of coping with floods, such as the schools on stilts in Assam and floating markets in the Northeast. In 1990, Dinesh organized public debates in more than 500 villages in the most flooded parts of North Bihar. By this time he had co-opted several government engineers, politicians, and policymakers as silent supporters for his movement.