Every flood in Assam gets Central aid. But nothing changes on the ground for the poor and homeless. Ratnadip Choudhury on the latest tragedy
PRANJAL SAIKIA, 30, a reporter from Majuli, swims against the floodwaters, trying to reach Borbeel village. Borbeel is one of the worst affected villages in Majuli, one of the largest fresh water islands of Asia.
“Here people learn to live with flood and erosion since their birth,” says Pranjal, capturing the devastation on camera. “After every flood, funds are pumped in, but nothing is ever done to strengthen the embankments.” Almost the whole of Majuli is under water; its only link to the mainland, the ferry service, has been suspended since the Brahmaputra started flowing furiously over the danger mark. For over a week now, Majuli has been facing an acute shortage of essential goods and electricity and thousands are living in makeshift chang ghars (bamboo houses on stilts).
It’s not only the 200-odd villages of Majuli that are facing the fury of a raging Brahmaputra; 1,972 villages in 16 districts of Assam are submerged. At least, 18 people have died so far and 17 lakh people have been affected. While the state reels under the devastation, CM Tarun Gogoi has been conspicuous by his absence. The chief minister, away on a six-day visit to Tokyo as a member of the Empowered Committee of State Finance Ministers to study goods/services tax and related matters, cut short his “study tour” on 26 September to rush back.
THIS IS the second time this year that floods have ravaged Assam. In June-July, a massive flood across the state left 5 lakh people homeless and affected 6.57 lakh hectares of fertile land; 77 people also lost their lives.
Flood management in Assam began after the formulation of the National Policy for Flood in 1954. Since then, Assam has lost 4.29 lakh hectares of land — 7.4 percent of its total land area — to flood and erosion, turning 1.3 lakh families landless. The State Water Resources Department, the nodal agency for fighting flood, has till date been able to protect only 16.5 lakh hectares from the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.
According to state government records, 9.31 lakh hectares is affected every year by floods, over Rs 125 crore lost to crop damage, and roughly 2,500 hectares eroded by the Brahmaputra. At least 2,534 villages have been washed away since 1954. But, Assam has been lucky in so far that every time waters have flooded the state, it has received a shot in the arm from the Centre by way of generous financial packages.
During the Gogoi rule, besides special packages for the 1998 and 2004 floods, Assam has received around Rs 1,000 crore for flood management. It has also got $142 million from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as part of the Assam Integrated Flood and River Bank Erosion Risk Management Project, which is supposed to be implemented in three sites in Dibrugarh, Kaziranga and Palasbari, all flood-prone areas.
New Delhi has also identified 14 perennial flood-prone sectors in Assam. “The worry is that the flood-damage in Assam is increasing, and if a check on human activities in the catchment areas of the Brahmaputra in the upstream regions is not done, the impact will be deadly,” says Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
The question then boils down to whether the funds have been utilised properly by Assam? In the June-July floods, the Gogoi-led government had asked for Rs 11,316 crore. The Centre obliged with Rs 500 crore. In the past 40 years, Assam has roughly spent no less that Rs 30,000 crore on flood-control and erosion. Then, where are the funds going?
“There is a nexus between the party in power, the contractors and bureaucrats,” says Manoj Borah, a youth leader who moved the Gauhati High Court on official apathy towards development of Majuli. “Floods and erosion allow pumping of funds, a major part of which is siphoned off.” After the 2004 floods, the Centre formed a task force, but most of its recommendations remain only on paper.
The state’s response is typical. “The second wave of floods is due to excessive rains in Arunachal Pradesh and a fresh wave of monsoon,” explains Water Resources Minister Rajib Lochan Pegu, also the MLA from Majuli. A joint survey by the Brahmaputra Board and the state water resources department identified 950 km of the embankment as “extremely vulnerable” and about 2,390 km as “vulnerable”.
After the July floods, the Gogoi government has asked New Delhi for Rs 3,460 crore for a complete overhaul of the embankments. The government also declared in the Rajya Sabha that of the 4,459 km of embankment around the Brahmaputra in Assam, 4,176 km were built before 1980 and their life span is over.
During the Gogoi rule, Assam received Rs 1,000 crore for managing floods from the Centre and $142 million from the ADB
Besides the damage caused to people, recurrent floods have also wreaked havoc on the rich wildlife of Assam. Over 600 animals died and over a 1,000 were displaced during the June-July floods from the Kaziranga National Park alone. Over the years, massive deforestation has caused over 3,000 wetlands in Assam to disappear. These held a sizeable amount of the floodwaters. Poachers have a field day every time the water flows above the danger level, forcing animals to flee to higher ground, which makes them more vulnerable. On 26 September, a rhino that had strayed from the Kaziranga National Park, was found with its horn and ears chopped off while it was still alive!
Though for rhetoric’s sake, flood and erosion control are focus areas of Tarun Gogoi, one wonders how many more floods it will take for that to translate into action.
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.