Assams sorrow

Print edition : October 10, 2008

The State goes through another annual deluge, which leaves a trail of intense misery.

in Guwahati

Flood victims on NH-31, at Kendukona village in Kamrup district on September 1.-

THREE waves of floods caused by the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers and their tributaries have devastated the lives of over 20 lakh people in Assam over a period of four months. In 21 of the States 27 districts, crops on 2.12 lakh hectares of land have been destroyed and lakhs of families that live on subsistence farming have been pushed into penury. Rains also caused heavy destruction of infrastructure, including roads and bridges. The recorded death toll until September 12 was 35.

Majuli, Assams cultural capital and one of the largest river islands in the world, was among the worst hit, with virtually the entire island going under water. As of September 12, normal life on the island had remained disrupted for 48 days owing to the floods. The Kamalabari-Auniati road in the island was breached at six places by the flood waters of the Brahmputra. Residents of many villages were marooned for days together. Other badly affected areas included Rangiya, Dhemaji, Lakhmipur, Dhakuakhana, Morigaon, Dhubri and Barpeta. Traffic on National Highway 31 remained disrupted following the roads submergence at Kendukona in Rangiya subdivision of lower Assams Kamrup district. The breaches in the embankments of the Puthimari river at four places on account of a change in the course of the river had caused floodwaters to enter the highway.

Last years flood had affected 6,70,957 ha of cropped area and farmers planted paddy saplings in October, after the floods receded.

With a sack of foodgrain, on the flooded NH-31 in Kendukona.-PICTURES: RITU RAJ KONWAR

As regards relief and rehabilitation, opposition parties and organisations such as the Assam State Kisan Sabha (ASKS) alleged that relief materials provided were inadequate. Many flood-hit areas witnessed demonstrations over this. The ASKS called for a State-wide farmers agitation on September 16. It plans to project a 10-point charter of demands, including declaration of Assams flood and erosion problem as a national problem, relief distribution to the flood-hit until the next harvest, free and timely distribution of seeds for rabi crops, and finding a permanent solution to the problem of flooding.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs two-day visit to Assam on August 25-26 sparked off a protest because of the non-inclusion of Majuli in his itinerary. Protests grew into anger when the Prime Minister rushed to Bihar on August 28 to witness the havoc caused by floods there, declared Bihars flood a national calamity, and announced a special assistance of Rs.1,000 crore for rescue and relief work. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and the State units of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) accused the Prime Minister of discrimination. The AGP demanded that the Prime Minister, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam, resign over this act of negligence.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi quickly countered this by saying that the State government had funds to the tune of Rs.700 crore for relief and rehabilitation. He accused the opposition parties of trying to gain political mileage and cover up their own failure. It must be acknowledged by one and all that the Bihar floods were much higher in terms of magnitude than the current Assam floods. But the manner in which the AGP and the BJP are trying to make an issue out of it just to gain political mileage exposes their narrowness and insensitivity towards untold human hardship and sufferings. This is not in conformity with the rich cultural heritage of the Assamese people, Gogoi said in a statement.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi inspecting flood-affected areas in Majuli, situated in the middle of the Brahmaputra river, in Jorhat district of central Assam on September 3.-

The National Disaster Management website, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, reports that the overall extent of damage in Assam and Bihar in terms of loss of lives, cropped area, and population affected were much larger last year.

The Brahmaputra is one of the largest river systems of the world and its basin is also among the most flood-prone. In the past six decades, Assam faced major floods in 1954, 1962, 1972, 1977, 1984, 1988, 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2007. Almost every year three or four waves of floods ravage the State. According to the Rashtriya Barh Ayog (National Flood Commission), Assam has a flood-prone area of 31.05 lakh ha.

Flood control structures in Assam include 4,446 km of embankments (about 3,750 km along the Brahmaputra and 700 km along the Barak), 854.19 km of drainage channels, 86 sluices and about 694 anti-erosion structures. The embankments are meant to protect the plains. Most of them were built prior to 1970 and are at present in a dilapidated condition; they are prone to breaches for want of regular maintenance and strengthening. Questions have been raised time and again about the effectiveness of the embankments in controlling floods.

The breached embankment in the Puthimari area.-

The opposition to these embankments stem from the belief that they increase the flood level because of the confinement of the rivers natural flow and the reduction in natural drainage. There are allegations that the funds meant for plugging the breaches and strengthening the embankments are often siphoned off by some contractors with the help of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

The erosion of river banks has become a major impediment in effective flood management. Most of the embankments were constructed very near the river bank line with a view to protecting as large an area as possible. However, over the years owing to changes in the winding pattern of the rivers, erosion along the natural banks has become serious and the embankments at many places have been exposed to this erosion. Last year, 91 embankments were breached, and 2,421 roads and 194 wooden bridges were damaged by flood waters. Before they could be permanently repaired, the floods came again damaging most of them. Over the past three years, 43,043 families have been rendered homeless because of the erosion; as of April this year, only 225 of these families had been rehabilitated. Such destruction points towards rising social costs.

In the safety of higher ground near NH-31, with her belongings.-

Ever since the adoption of a National Flood Policy in 1954, nearly 4 lakh ha of land has eroded away, rendering about 90,000 families homeless.

On September 11, the Chief Minister announced that he had asked all departments to assess the damage in this years floods. He said he would ask the Centre for additional funds for restoration, repair and rehabilitation in the flood-ravaged areas.

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