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Disaster

Silchar submerged: How illegal cutting of embankment led to floods

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Silchar submerged: How illegal cutting of embankment led to floods

A man in Bethukandi area of Silchar shows the height to which water rose in his house in this photograph taken on June 30.

A man in Bethukandi area of Silchar shows the height to which water rose in his house in this photograph taken on June 30. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The illegal cutting of an embankment on the Barak river resulted in a month-long flood.

In June, Assam’s Silchar town was submerged for 11 days by floodwaters from the Barak river, with water rising up to 12 feet (4 metres) in some places. The alleged cutting of a river embankment and the administration’s failure to close the breach even 25 days after it was detected resulted in a disaster on an unprecedented scale and magnitude. Even after the majority of the affected areas dried out in the first week of July, the ordeal continues to haunt residents.

A breach in the embankment at Berenga point on May 19 submerged areas near the Manisha beel and other parts of the town. On May 22, miscreants allegedly cut the embankment at Bethukandi, five kilometres away, just upstream of an irrigation department’s half-completed sluice culvert. Bethukandi is about one kilometre from the heart of Silchar, the headquarter town of Cachar district in Barak valley.

According to information available with the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), the Executive Engineer, Silchar Water Resources Division, reported both the breach at Berenga and the cut-breach at Bethukandi on May 23 via wireless telephony message. The department lodged an FIR the same day.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma described the unprecedented flood situation to be a “manmade disaster”.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma described the unprecedented flood situation to be a “manmade disaster”. | Photo Credit: NAGARA GOPAL

Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma described the unprecedented flood situation to be a “manmade disaster”. Sarma, who visited Silchar three times in ten days, announced a probe by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) into the embankment cutting incident. He said policemen would have to be deployed to prevent such sabotage.

On July 1 and 2, the Cachar Police arrested four persons in connection with the Bethukandi embankment ‘sabotage’. It took three visits by the Chief Minister and 38 days after the filing of the FIR on May 23 before the arrests happened.

Reasons for flooding

Explaining the reasons for the flooding, Dibakar Bhattacharjee, retired Chief Engineer of the Water Resources Department and a former Officer on Special Duty to the Water Resources Minister, said: “In the current year a high flood wave occurred in the third week of May in Barak, causing a breach in the embankment at Berenga, which is located upstream of Silchar town. Floodwater entered Silchar town through this breach and inundated a vast area, including the Mahisha Beel area. According to the authorities, subsequently, some miscreants cut open the embankment at Bethukandi in the downstream area. It appears that the intention was to quickly drain off the inundation at the Mahisha Beel area. By the end of the fourth week of May, when the flood situation improved, the breach at Berenga was closed but the cut at Bethukandi remained open.”

The collapsed embankment along the banks of the Barak in Bethukandi area, on June 30.
The collapsed embankment along the banks of the Barak in Bethukandi area, on June 30. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Heavy rain in the third week of June led to a sudden rise in the water level in the Barak river, and water gushed through the Bethukandi cut, almost submerging the town where the floodwaters of May had not yet receded completely. Except for a few high patches, the rest of the town was under water, affecting 90 per cent of the population, said Bhattacharjee.

The Barak rose to 21.61 mm this year, close to the river’s highest flood level of 21.84 mm recorded in 1989. Bhattacharjee said that although 60 per cent of the town had been submerged in May, people had more time to shift to safer places because the Berenga breach was further away than Bethukandi.

‘Large excess’ rainfall

The India Meteorogical Department’s rainfall data show that the actual rainfall from June 1 to June 27 in Cachar district was 726.3 mm against the normal rainfall of 386.1 mm with a departure of 88 per cent. The IMD categorises rainfall as “large excess” when the departure is equal to or greater than 60 per cent.

Bhattacharjee explained that the topography of Silchar town made it vulnerable to severe flooding if the embankment was not maintained well. “The banks of the Barak are high in comparison to the town’s general ground level. As such, the absence of an embankment system will result in inundation to the extent of 2 metres in some parts of the town in the event of the river spilling over its banks. Like Guwahati, Silchar is endowed with many detention basins such as Mahisha Beel, Padma Beel, Malin Beel, and Karua Beel, where the discharge gets ponded. But these areas have lost most of their detention basin characteristics because of urbanisation. Besides, all the natural and drainage channels of the town have been encroached upon,” said Bhattacharjee.

The topography of Silchar town made it vulnerable to severe flooding if the embankment was not maintained well.
The topography of Silchar town made it vulnerable to severe flooding if the embankment was not maintained well. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

Silchar is surrounded by rivers on three sides: the Barak in the north and east, and the Ghagra in the west. The town has many natural drainage channels such as Rangirkhal, Longaikhal, Boaljurkhal, and Berakhal. Except for the Greater Malugram area and a few other isolated pockets, all drainage discharge flows towards the Ghagra through these channels.

To protect Silchar town from flooding, a peripheral embankment system was built in the 1950s. Subsequently, an embankment was built on the banks of the Ghagra, and sluice gates were provided for natural drainage.

On June 19, a day after the Barak crossed the danger mark, the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), Cachar, issued an advisory warning of the impending disaster as a result of the cut-breach at Bethukandi. It said: “In view of the incessant rain and Barak river flowing much above the danger level, the situation remains critical and rainfall is predicted to continue. Moreover, as per reports, miscreants had damaged the dyke at Bethukandi and despite efforts to repair that portion, water now enters [the town]. This flow is likely to affect low-lying areas of Silchar town (specially Sonai Road, Rangirkhari, Link Road, Ambicapatty, Ashram Road, College Road, Public School Road, and Fatak Bazar area) and nearby areas of Bethukandi.”

“To protect Silchar town from flooding, a peripheral embankment system was built in the 1950s. Subsequently, an embankment was built on the banks of the Ghagra, and sluice gates were provided for natural drainage.”

The DDMA advised “vulnerable sections of [the] public” living in and around these areas to take precaution and seek immediate shelter elsewhere. It also advised citizens to avoid leaving their houses unless absolutely necessary.

Suggested solutions

According to Bhattacharjee, strengthening the peripheral embankment system in Silchar along the Barak and Ghagra rivers is critical to protecting the town from flooding. After the devastating floods of 1985 and 1986, when water entered through the Silchar railway station area, a new embankment was constructed behind it, but this embankment got destroyed in some areas while converting the tracks to broad gauge from metre gauge. These gaps need to be plugged with suitable structures to prevent flooding of the town, he said.

Bhattacharjee also suggested that the existing drainage outlets, that is, sluice gates in the Ghagra embankment, should be augmented by providing additional openings. According to him, though there was a proposal to provide additional openings in Rangirkhal for which land acquisition was made, the work was not taken up. He underlines the need for reviving this proposal and providing a pumping station at Rangirkhal and other gates so as to reduce the time it took for the water to drain off.

Trains lie derailed after a landslide caused by heavy rainfall occured on May 15 at New Haflong railway station on the Lumding-Silchar route in Dima Hasao district. 
Trains lie derailed after a landslide caused by heavy rainfall occured on May 15 at New Haflong railway station on the Lumding-Silchar route in Dima Hasao district.  | Photo Credit: AP

According to the ASDMA, the floods caused 43 breaches in embankments (the highest in all districts), damaged 444 roads, and claimed 36 lives in Cachar. The district had the highest number of fully damaged houses in the State, with 10,755 reported (of the 18,030 in the State) between April 6 and July 1. Similarly, 94,786 of the total 1,20,393 houses were reported partially damaged in the State during this period.

Train services were disrupted when unprecedented landslides and floods on May 14 and 15 in adjacent Dima Hasao district triggered dislocations on the Lumding-Silchar broad gauge line at 53 locations. Road communication to the district and to the Barak valley as well as Tripura, Mizoram, and parts of Manipur was also disrupted. A special train service between Silchar and New Haflong station in Dima Hasao resumed on June 30. A special train between Guwahati and Langitng was also started on the same day, but the B.G. stretch between Langting and New Haflong is yet to be restored.