A majority of Indians may not be aware of the fact that the north-eastern State of Assam is ravaged by floods and erosion every year on a scale that devastated the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath and Badrinath recently. However the deluge in Uttarakhand was a rare climatic catastrophe where unfortunately the death toll was heavy because of the presence of lakhs of pilgrims, whereas the floods in Assam are an annual calamity.
Normally every monsoon Assam bears the brunt of more than one wave of floods as the rivers Brahmaputra and Barak along with their tributaries wreak havoc in the State. Fortunately the annual death count is not as high as that in Uttarakhand only because of the peoples’ prolonged experience and preparedness in battling high floods rather than any forewarnings or precautionary measures of the government. It is both shameful and distressing that even after sixty years of planning and spending thousands of crores in the name of flood relief and flood control both the Central and the State governments have failed to find a permanent solution to this annual calamity. On the other hand the common man, mainly the peasantry, has shown admirable courage and resilience in coping with this annual scourge by rebuilding their broken lives to start life anew after every onslaught.
This year has been no exception with the first wave in May/June already causing considerable devastation. Floods and erosion are thus a constant threat to the existence of the State’s people and its land mass. Only the yearly scale of devastation differs depending on the severity. For instance Assam experienced some of the worst floods in its history during 1988 to 2008, India’s period of economic boom. In these floods a total of 1,128 lives were lost and on an average each year 50 lakh people were affected, about 20 lakh hectares of land submerged, 4 lakh hectares of standing crops destroyed, basic infrastructure damaged and thousands of homes, livestock and animals swept away. Even the world famous Kaziranga National Park and Majuli, the biggest river island in Asia and a seat of Vaishnavite culture, are constantly threatened by floods and erosion. According to the National Population Census one third of the State’s over three crore population i.e. nearly 1 crore people are flood displaced. And without proper relief or rehabilitation this must be considered as one of India’s biggest humanitarian crisis and disaster management failures.
This mass displacement has increased the pressure on the State’s habitable land contributing to the recurring ethno-communal and socio-political tensions in the State. Often clashes have occurred with the local communities settled in safer flood free zones or the ethnic tribal population in the reserved forest lands when flood victims have tried to rehabilitate themselves in these areas. It has also given an opportunity to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to infiltrate deeper into the State under the guise of flood victims. Moreover the economic hardship from this constant disruption of life and livelihood particularly in the rural areas, have made them the ideal recruitment grounds for militant cadres. That’s why despite almost all the major insurgent outfits opting for peace talks there is no end to militancy. New outfits keep cropping up or the anti-talk factions keep getting new recruits.
Economically floods and erosion are primarily responsible for Assam’s underdevelopment, causing huge losses and weakening the State’s fragile agro-economy which is its mainstay. The Planning Commission had put the estimated loss during the 9th Plan period at Rs.80,000/-lakh. But an Asian Development Bank report put the annual loss from 1988 to 2008 at Rs.350/- million. While in an analysis in 2006 by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, Delhi, the average annual flood damages in the Brahmaputra basin from 1980-1988 was Rs 1,445.2 million which increased to Rs 7,171.7 million in 1995-2005. In comparison preliminary estimates have put the loss in the Uttarakhand floods at Rs 3,000 crore with a three year set-back to its economy and development. Apparently when the whole country was enjoying an economic boom Assam was battling with floods and suffering huge losses.
However what is disturbing and of serious concern is the growing threat from floods as every year more and more areas are becoming flood prone. The problem is basically man-made caused by environmental degradation and accentuated by the obstruction of the natural flow of river waters by increasing encroachment of wetlands and river banks by human settlements. Experts are now of the opinion that a scientific and holistic approach that focuses more on flood management and not only on flood control is required to tackle the recurring floods. A strategy that will also include the role of ecological and environmental preservation in tackling floods. Along with floods the problem of erosion must also be tackled diligently. In the last fifty years 7 per cent of the State’s land has been lost to erosion which is equivalent to an annual asset loss of $20 million.
Significantly, according to the National Flood Commission, Assam has 9.4 per cent or 31.60 lakh hectares of the country’s total flood prone area of 331.66 lakh hectares. Besides the Brahmaputra is an international river flowing through four countries with many pan-regional tributaries. Any long term policy will have regional and international implications beyond the jurisdiction of the State government. Hence any permanent solution will require a national policy which the Centre is yet to consider.
In the meanwhile successive governments have continued to spend thousands of crores in the name of floods with no accountability. Astronomical sums are involved. Reportedly it is estimated that since 1954 Rs 33,000 crore have been spent for flood control. Last year the Assam Human Rights Commission ordered graft probes against the State Water Resources Department which had received Rs 81,000 lakh from the State and Central governments from 2005-2011 for anti-flood and anti-erosion works. Further the Asian Development Bank had sanctioned $120 million to the State government for flood and river management systems. The Brahmaputra Board’s Master Plan for flood management and integrated development of water resources estimated to cost Rs 32,410 crore has also been approved. This is besides the hundreds of crores allocated from the Central Loan Assistance scheme, Non-lapsable Central pool, North-East Council, etc. Yet there is no respite from floods and erosion.
Instead every year it has become a ritual for the Prime Minister, Chief Minister and other bigwigs to make an aerial survey of the flood hit areas and magnanimously announce huge amounts for flood relief and flood protection. How much they can actually ascertain from such pristine heights about the plight of the lakhs who remain marooned for days at the mercy of the elements hungry, homeless and helpless is open to question. And with no accountability this annual routine has become a vicious cycle patronised by a nexus of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and contractors who are siphoning off the funds at will.
Evidently besides environmental degradation, corruption is the other major factor obstructing the permanent solution of floods. That’s why despite numerous anti-flood and anti-erosion projects floods persist. And unless a foolproof mechanism is put in place to ensure accountability floods will continue to devastate Assam. Therefore like in Uttarakhand the long suffering flood victims of the Uttar-Purb (Northeast) also need national support and attention.