The tears of Assam

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Every year the Brahmaputra and its tributaries bring death and destruction to Assam. Yet, there is no long-term plan to tackle floods in the State.

in Guwahati

AS 50-year-old Madan Kalita, was trying to reach a safe place on a small country boat with his wife and son through the surging floodwaters of the Brahmaputra which had submerged his house and paddyfield, childhood memories of similar devastation came alive. Nearly 40 years ago, as a child Madan had helped his father ferry his mother to safety through raging floodwaters. Like Madan Kalita, for generations, Assamese people have been fighting a losing battle against the Brahmaputra and its 55 tributaries.

The flood, one of the worst to hit the State in recent times, has had 26 of its 27 districts in its grip for more than a month now. At least 82 lives were lost until July 20, and 88.75 lakh people have been affected. The floodwaters have submerged 8,238 villages and forced 16.44 lakh people to take shelter in 1,681 relief camps across the State. Altogether 109 major breaches of embankments have occurred during this period, 77 of them occurred in just 12 days from July 6 to July 18 causing massive damage to houses, public buildings, bridges, roads and railway tracks.

Road links between Assam and the rest of the country were snapped as the national highways on the north and south banks of the river in Lower Assam were inundated. Road communication along National Highway 31 could not be restored until July 20 as a bridge was washed away. The floodwaters damaged an 80 km-stretch of National Highway-31, connecting Changsari in Kamrup district to Abhayapuri in Bongaigaon district. A 20-metre stretch of the highway between Nalbari and Barpeta was breached and the movement of trucks carrying essential commodities from outside the State and other vehicles continues to remain suspended.

In Morigaon district, the National Highway 37 was submerged on July 19, and road communication between Lower and Upper Assam and to the neighbouring States of Nagaland and Manipur got snapped. Similarly, a 1-km-stretch on NH 37 in Tinsukia district was damaged while NH 52 in Dhemaji was partially damaged by floodwaters. The condition of roads constructed by the State Public Works Department is even worse. The roads were badly affected by landslides too. NH-44, connecting Assam and Tripura, was cut off at Sonapur in Meghalaya. Similarly, NH 39 connecting Guwahati and Imphal, remained cut off for days because of landslides at three places.

All trains to Guwahati had to be diverted through an alternative route along the southern bank because the railway track on the northern bank was submerged at several locations. Railway communication from Rangia in Kamrup district to Dhemaji district (340 km) remained cut off for more than 15 days. Train services in the Lumding-Badarpur hill section had to be suspended for nearly two weeks owing to landslides. Trains in the Rangia-North Lakhimpur-Tezpur section also did not run. The world's largest riverine island, Majuli, remained cut off for more than a week as floodwaters submerged it. More than 1.5 lakh people were affected.

Given the magnitude of the calamity, thousands of marooned people had to be rescued with the help of personnel of the Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF), who worked round the clock and pressed into service MI-helicopters and rubber boats.

In Kamrup district, at Rangia, 281 marooned schoolchildren of a Navodaya Vidyalaya would have met a watery end on July 10, if the pilots of two IAF helicopters did not take the risk of landing on the waterlogged playground of the school, which was inundated following a breach in the Pagladia river. Braving inclement weather, the pilots located the school but could not find a place to land as the entire area was waterlogged. Displaying great courage, they landed the aircraft on the playground and rescued the children, aged between eight and 14 years.

Lt.Gen. A.S. Jamwal, General Officer Commanding, 4 Corps of the Army based at Tezpur, said that 30 columns of the Army were deployed for relief and rescue operations. The troops rescued more than 4,500 marooned people and distributed 72 tonnes of rations. For rescue and relief operations, 100 Army boats and 86 motorboats were pressed into service in different parts of the State, he added.

The devastation caused by the floods, which Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi described as "unprecedented", brought to the fore the question of declaring the calamity as a national problem. Such a measure would require the Central government to shoulder the responsibility of flood management in the State.

In tune with the long-pending demand of different political parties and student bodies such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Gogoi urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during the latter's visit to the State on July 20, to treat the flood and erosion problem as a national priority and find a permanent solution within a fixed timeframe. Gogoi urged the Prime Minister to release Central funds for taking up urgent repair work of all breached embankments, most of which were constructed in the early 1960s, and initiating anti-erosion measures.

The Prime Minister announced the constitution of a task force to look into the problem of recurring floods in Assam and its neighbouring States. The task force will suggest short-term and long-term measures, sources of funding, and institutional arrangements to tackle the problem. He said that the task force would submit its report within six months so that action initiated on it can be reflected in the next Budget. The Prime Minister also stressed the need to adopt a holistic approach in order to work out solutions for the short term and the long term.

The State government sought Rs.1,200 crores as interim relief although the damage is estimated to be over Rs.3,000 crores. So far the Centre has released Rs.181 crores and promised more, once the assessment is done by the inter-ministerial team.

The flood in Assam assumed an international dimension as the devastation, particularly in the Lower Assam districts of Nalbari, Barpeta, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, was attributed to the bursting of an artificial lake in Bhutan and the subsequent release of water from the reservoir of the Kurichu hydel project in the Himalayan Kingdom, which flowed into the two tributaries of the Brahmaputra - the Manas and the Beki. The flood in the State is also attributed to the melting of snow in the upper ridges in China. Gogoi urged the Centre to take the initiative for coordination between India, China and Bhutan for joint management of floods so that the damage can be minimised. Moreover, heavy deforestation in the catchment areas in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh over the years and the unstable rock composition of the hills have resulted in the carrying of huge quantities of red soil down the tributaries into the Brahmaputra, causing heavy siltation of the river and its tributaries.

According to hydrological experts, 45 per cent of Assam's total area is prone to flooding by the Brahmaputra, the country's longest river. It originates in Tibet in the north and flows into the Bay of Bengal in the south, covering a distance of 918 km in India, of which 720 km lies in Assam. The river Barak, originating from Nagaland and Manipur, traverses for a length of 532 km in India and empties into the Bay of Bengal after flowing through Bangladesh.

The Brahmaputra Board was set up by the Central government in 1982 to undertake survey and investigation and to prepare a master plan to control the two major rivers and their tributaries, check bank erosion and improve drainage congestion, irrigation and navigation, harness hydropower, and so on. However, so far the Board has taken up only four anti-erosion schemes at an estimated cost of Rs.62.68 crores; it drew up a master plan for the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, the implementation of which would require more than Rs.50,000 crores. The State government demanded that the Board should be made an executing authority so that it can contribute meaningfully towards finding long-term solutions to the problem of floods and erosion. The Prime Minister also agreed that the Board should be revamped and assured of action in that direction.

Union Minister for Water Resources Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, after an aerial inspection of the flood-affected areas of lower Assam, announced that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would make the Brahmaputra Board a professional executing authority by delegating both financial and executive powers to it. He pointed out that over the years the role of the Board had remained confined to the preparation of the master plan.

Dasmunshi's announcement has revived hopes of allowing the Board an important role in finding a long-term solution to the problem. But both the Central and State governments will have to take Arunachal Pradesh and other northeastern States into confidence in view of their reservations over the construction of multipurpose dams on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra that originate in their territories, as proposed in the master plan.

The fact remains that until a long-term solution is found, floodwaters will continue to wreak devastation. And every year the State government will have to find funds for relief and rehabilitation.

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