Natural disaster

Assam’s sorrow

Print edition : August 18, 2017

The flooded Katoguri village in Morigaon district of Assam. Photo: THE HINDU

Flood victims in a makeshift relief camp in Morigaon district. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

A woman caught in the floods, with her child, at Khanamukh village. Photo: PTI

A herd of Indian hog deer swimming through the floodwaters in the Kaziranga National Park, about 250 kilometres east of Guwahati. Photo: BIJU BORO/AFP

Indian one-horned rhinoceros take shelter from the floodwaters on higher ground at the Kaziranga National Park. Photo: BIJU BORO/AFP

Flood-affected villagers being taken to safety in Morigaon district. Photo: PTI

Unprecedented floods cause devastation to life and property in 29 districts of the State, reviving the opposition to a mega dam project in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh.

TWO waves of floods in July left a trail of devastation in Assam. The State government’s statistics show that the floods claimed 60 lives and affected 25 lakh people across 29 districts. The administration set up 1,098 relief camps and relief distribution centres in the affected districts. The flood damage across the State prompted political parties and student and youth organisations to reiterate their demand for the floods and erosion in Assam to be declared a national problem.

Opposition parties alleged that flood-hit Assam did not get the desired attention of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre and that the BJP-led coalition government in the State failed to respond to the situation by ensuring quick and adequate distribution of relief materials. They also criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not visiting the State to assess the situation.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal told journalists in New Delhi on July 19 that Modi had been constantly monitoring the flood situation and that the State government had received Central assistance to manage it. He also reiterated that relief-and-rescue operations were going on without any hiccup and that there was no shortage of funds as all necessary steps had been initiated to overcome the situation.

Sonowal called on the Prime Minister at Parliament House in New Delhi and requested him to launch the “Prime Minister’s Special Programme for Flood and Erosion Control” to develop road-cum-embankments stretching across 5,000 kilometres. An official release stated that Sonowal drew Modi’s attention to the fact that most of the existing embankments, constructed in the 1950s, were vulnerable to breach owing to the perennial flood situation and the resultant riverbank erosion.

“If the embankments are developed as road-cum-embankments, their regular maintenance and sustainability can be ensured,” he said. He, however, mentioned that the State lacked the resources to develop road-cum-embankments and pleaded for an exclusive programme under the Prime Minister’s supervision to prevent the damage from floods and erosion.

Sonowal also impressed upon Modi the need to constitute a high-level inter-ministerial team headed by a Cabinet Minister to study the impact of floods and erosion and suggest permanent measures to mitigate the problem. He also submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister requesting him to direct the Ministry of Water Resources for early release of the Central share amounting to Rs.1,138 crore for completion of schemes undertaken under the Flood Management Programme (FMP) in the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans. The State government took up 141 FMP schemes in the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans and also released its share but has been waiting for the Central share, the release added. He met Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on July 19 and sought his intervention in releasing the amount.

The State government’s memorandum stated that with the embankments vulnerable to breach, a flood situation that could be worse than the two waves in July loomed large. It also revealed that the State lacked the required resources to strengthen the embankments on its own. Reiterating its helplessness in addressing flood vulnerability without the Centre’s assistance, Assam is likely to bolster its demand for declaration of the twin problems of floods and erosion as a national problem. It could also demand that the Centre shoulder the responsibility of preventing recurrence of such disasters and mitigate the woes of the flood-affected people.

Against mega dams

The two waves of floods, which were described by the Assam government as “unprecedented”, also brought the issue of the construction of mega dams in Arunachal Pradesh on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra to the centre stage of the discourse on the floods and revived the agitation against construction of mega dams for power generation in the neighbouring State. There have been angry outbursts against the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) for the release of water stored in the reservoir of the 405-megawatt Ranganadi Hydro Electric Project at Yazali in the Ranganadi basin in Lower Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh.

Flood-hit people of Lakhimpur district alleged that water released from the Ranganadi dam caused massive destruction of properties and inundated paddy fields apart from disrupting road communications. The project site is 95 km off Lakhimpur town.

NEEPCO authorities, however, maintained that the floods in Lakhimpur district could not be attributed to the release of excess water from Ranganadi. According to media reports, NEEPCO authorities had claimed that the hydroelectric plant had in fact mitigated the flood situation to a certain extent by controlling the flow of water.

However, official releases of the Centre and the Assam government punched holes in NEEPCO’s claim. A Press Information Bureau release on the visit of Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju to Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts on July 13 states: “Shri Rijiju, accompanied by the State Ministers and district officials, then inspected the breached Ranganadi embankment, which was washed away due to the release of excess water by NEEPCO, and interacted with the displaced people of Changmai village to take stock of their plight.” It further states that the Lakhimpur district administration pointed out that the release of large volumes of water from the NEEPCO dam in Yazali caused the flood crisis in Lakhimpur. Kiren Rijiju promised that the NEEPCO official in charge of the dam project would be directed to hold talks with the Deputy Commissioner, Lakhimpur, to solve the issue of excess release of water from the dam and the resultant flooding of riverine areas of Lakhimpur.

An official release of the Assam government states that Sonowal raised the issue of the “recent release of water by NEEPCO, Ranganadi project, which created havoc in Lakhimpur district causing devastating flood and taking a heavy toll on life and property” during his meeting with Jitendra Singh, the Union Minister for Development of North-Eastern Region, at Assam Bhawan in New Delhi on July 18. Sonowal requested the Minister to take up the issue with the Union Power Minister on a priority basis to prevent such incidents. “Dr Singh acknowledged the hardship faced by the people and conceded that his Ministry would engage in a meaningful dialogue with the Power Ministry for solving the vexed problem,” the release added.

The All Assam Students’ Union demanded decommissioning of the Ranganadi dam to prevent recurrence of devastation in the downstream areas in Lakhimpur district and joined other organisations in demanding that NEEPCO authorities provide compensation to the affected people and for the damage caused to public properties.

Organisations in Assam that have been opposing the construction of the 2,000-MW Subansiri Lower hydroelectric project of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) at Gerukamukh along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border have asked the Centre and the Assam and Arunachal Pradesh governments to draw lessons from the Ranganadi experience and abandon the plan to construct mega dams in Arunachal Pradesh. They argued that the Ranganadi experience showed that the Subansiri Lower project would create a similar catastrophe of sudden release of excess water from the proposed 116-m high mega dam.

The dam construction has been stalled since December 2011 following stiff opposition in Assam. The BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad made the opposition to the mega dam a major issue in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Rajnath Singh, the then BJP national president and current Union Home Minister, joined in the protest against the mega dam project while the Congress pushed for it. But, the BJP made a volte-face after coming to power in Delhi. The Modi government has been pushing for the speedy completion of the project, with the BJP governments in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh promising their cooperation to expedite it. The National Green Tribunal is currently hearing a petition challenging the construction of the Subansiri Lower project.

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