That sinking feeling

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Photo: Ujjal Deb
Photo: Ujjal Deb

As torrential rains lashed Guwahati on the night of 26 June, Kanak Barman, 45, and his two daughters, Pratima, 12, and Tulsi, 8, were fast asleep. In a matter of hours, half the city — considered the gateway to Northeast India — was inundated. The incessant downpour caused a huge landslide in the Udayachal hills where Barman lived with his family in a ramshackle tin house. Pushed by the force of the landslide, a portion of his neighbour’s dwelling crashed into Barman’s house, killing him and his daughters instantly. His wife Kalyani and son Ganesh escaped with grievous injuries. Nine other lives were lost in the city due to electrocution in the flash floods and landslides.

The city, which houses more than 15 lakh people, was under siege. Many areas were under waist-deep water. Even the official residences of ministers and MLAs were not spared. There was neither power nor telephone connectivity, and people were marooned with no food and drinking water. The next morning, small boats could be seen plying on the city streets.

On 28 June, celebrated Assamese actress Bobbeeta Sharma took to social media and posted a picture of dirty floodwater inundating her living room. “Never in my 23 years in this house have I ever seen floodwater come inside,” she lamented. Like Bobbeeta, thousands of Guwahati residents were dumbstruck by the way their hometown fell prey to a dirty deluge.

Once a lush valley nestled between the Brahmaputra on one side and a series of hills on the other, Guwahati is now a concrete jungle that is getting suffocated with a population overload.

“This disaster is man-made,” says senior citizen and former Assam DGP HK Deka. “The state government has to take the blame for its total apathy towards urban planning and its failure to strictly enforce municipal rules through the local body, which it has been controlling most of the time. The municipal authority has turned a blind eye towards the violation of building rules and rampant encroachment. In some cases, the officials have actively connived to break the rules. But the citizens should also share the blame equally for their lack of civic consciousness. They use the drains and roads as garbage dumps, footpaths as hawking areas; many of them encroach upon the drains. They occupy the hills to build houses without caring about safety, destroy the hills, often vertically, exposing them to landslide.”

Deka makes a valid point. For example, the Sorusala part of the Solabeel wetland has completely disappeared due to the extension of the Nehru Stadium in the heart of the city; the Guwahati Commerce College field as it stands now was once a tank known as the Ram Rai Dighi, which used to store rainwater and prevent floods. Such instances are plenty across Guwahati.

Infrastructure development is the hallmark of any developing city and Guwahati is no different. But the way the government and civic bodies have gone about it is nothing short of horrific.

According to government records, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) received Rs 16.5 crore during 2006-14 to restore the drainage of the city and clean up the Bharalu river, which runs through the city and joins the Brahmaputra. On paper, the GMC has spent the funds, but the problems remain.

“Our first target should be the restoration of natural drains as they carry 80 percent of the water to the Brahmaputra,” says Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority CEO M Angamuthu. “Every construction permit would be strictly verified from now on and we will not allow any encroachers.”

But the question is why did it take a deadly deluge and loss of 12 lives for the state government to wake up from its slumber? After the latest deluge, the government has finally started an eviction drive to free the river bank of Bharalu and the Silsako Beel wetland, but a lot of damage has been already done.

“For decades, the government did nothing,” says Akhil Gogoi, chief of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), an organisation fighting for the rights of peasants. “Now that a disaster has struck posh areas and even the houses of ministers and MLAs were inundated, they got unnerved. Their misdeeds came back to haunt them. So, as a knee-jerk reaction, the government is evicting poor people. They are easy and soft targets. Why doesn’t the government act against big promoters who are destroying hills to construct high-rise buildings?”

Gogoi also alleges that the government has violated green norms by giving a no-objection certificate to the Shristinagar project. Located on the Ramsa hill in Noonmati locality, this is supposed to be the Northeast’s biggest integrated township project. Gogoi claims that the project has failed to obtain the mandatory Central Ground Water Authority clearance as well as the crucial clearance from the National Board of Wildlife.

But the irony is that even Gogoi has to share part of the blame. Over the past few years, he has led a movement demanding the allotment of land deeds to those who have settled in the hills around Guwahati. On 22 June 2011, three persons were killed in Guwahati when a demonstration organised by Gogoi turned violent and the police had to open fire. Ahead of the recent General Election, the government did actually give 500 land deeds to hill dwellers as an act of political appeasement.

“Although the disaster is man-made, the larger implications would be much more disastrous,” says Partha Jyoti Das, a noted climate change and environment researcher in Guwahati. “As the Northeast is an eco-sensitive region, it is facing the effects of climate change. The rainfall that Guwahati received on that fateful night was nothing extraordinary and there are chances that in the future the city might receive at least double that amount of rainfall. What will happen in such a situation? The city might face a Mumbai-like situation. This is because the drainage system has almost collapsed. Added to that, the impact of climate change will only make weather conditions like rainfall very unpredictable and uncertain. The need of the hour is to reduce the risk of disaster and prepare for the worst.”

Since the 1980s, Guwahati has been enduring floods and acute water-logging. During 2005-13, Assam received Rs 11,000 crore as flood relief funds, but the money has not solved the problem yet. Nobody knows what happened to the relief funds. All they know is that when it rains again, the story will remain the same.

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