Assam: Taken by the Flood

MORE than a month after the second wave of floods hit Assam on June 24, life is yet to return to normal gear in the state. Of the more than 1.5 crore people whose houses were wholly or partially submerged in the flood waters of the Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries, about 15 lakh are yet to return home — largely because there are no houses to return to.

According to official estimates, nearly two lakh houses have been fully destroyed, while land belonging to at least 3,000 families has been eaten away by the rivers. ‘‘These are the worst-ever floods in six decades,’’ says Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

What he doesn’t say, though, is that this is a disaster whose impact could have been minimised. Timely steps and a comprehensive disaster preparedness programme could have tackled floods that are as predictable as the monsoons are not.

For the Assam floods are not — as in Gujarat or Bihar — a product of incessant rainfall; the state received rain well within normal limits. They are due to the annual flooding of the Brahmaputra. For aeons now, the people of the region have been constructing earthen embankments to protect habitation, a practice that continues till date.

‘‘But most of the 2,000-km embankment network along the Brahmaputra and its 100-odd tributaries have already outlived their prescribed lifestyle of 30 years,’’ says an official of the state water resources department. Gogoi, too, admits that 70 per cent of the embankments have lost their flood-prevention capacity.

The result: More than 3,000 km of roads have been badly damaged. At least 450 bridges have been washed away. More than 200 people have died in the floods, another 200 have been killed by flood-related diseases. And there’s no guarantee the story won’t be repeated next year.

Ageing embankments are not the the only reason for the disaster repeats in Assam. While heavy rain in the catchment areas adds to the riverload, ‘‘the situation is further complicated by largescale tree-felling in Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan, which loosens the soil and causes the river-beds to rise,’’ says Gogoi.

According to well-known environmentalist and Gauhati University professor Dulal Chandra Goswami, ‘‘Although floods are an age-old phenomenon in this region, the extent of damage has increased significantly in recent years, especially after the great Assam earthquake of 1950.’’

The unique environmental setting of the basin vis-a-vis the eastern Himalayas, the highly potent monsoon regime, the weak geological formations, active seismicity, accelerated rates of erosion, rapid channel aggradations, massive deforestation, intense land-use pressure and high population growth —especially in the floodplains — and ad hoc, temporary flood-control measures are the other dominant factors that cause and/or intensify floods in Assam, says Goswami.

Political expediency is another. Governments — especially Congress governments — would rather ignore the population pressure on the embankments, simply because the settlers, of Bangladeshi or East Pakistani origins, constitute the bulk of ruling party’s vote-bank.

As recently as Tuesday, the Assam government said in the state assembly that there were more than 24.90 lakh people living in the 2,251 temporary islands in the Brahmaputra; few of them are indigenous to Assam.

Engineers in the state flood control department (now renamed water resources department) and the Brahmaputra Board have time and again suggested clearing the flood plains and drainage systems of the Brahmaputra Valley to reduce the impact of floods. The first such suggestion goes back to 1984; it fell on deaf ears for obvious reasons.

The impact on the economy is crippling. Listed among the prosperous states of the country at the time of Independence — the per capita income in 1950-51 was 4 per cent above the national average — Assam began to slip subsequently, and today is 41 per cent below the all-India average in per capita income.

‘‘Yet another aspect that has been overlooked is the absence of a disaster-preparedness programme,’’ points out P K Pincha, regional director of ActionAid India, a leading NGO. ‘‘While Bangladesh has been able to mitigate the effects of flood, Assam is yet to formulate any such plan.”++0++

By Samudra Gupta Kashyap in The Indian Express, Sunday, August 8, 2004.