As the Bharatiya Janata Party launched its manifesto ahead of the Assam Assembly Elections on Tuesday, the Party promised that the people of Assam would be free from the vagaries of floods. The incumbent BJP-AGP alliance announced Mission Brahmaputra “to eliminate loss of lives, livelihood and property to the people of Assam due to floods”. 

The Party promised to devise a multipronged strategy involving river dredging as required from Sadiya in Tinsukia, where the Brahmaputra enters Assam, to Dhubri in lower Assam where the river exits the state and building reservoirs to store excess water from the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. 

Curiously, similar promises were made in the run-up to Assam Assembly elections in 2016 when Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, the then BJP State President, released a vision document for 2016 till 2025. While reservoirs are a new addition to the growing list of measures to control annual waves of monsoon floods, the dredging of the Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhubri continues as the promise for the 2021 elections. The Party also promised a state-sponsored insurance and rehabilitation scheme for flood and erosion victims in the same vision document in 2016 ahead of the elections.  

Over the last five years, reports of the Assam State Disaster Management Authority indicate that floods have only intensified except in 2018. In 2016, 18 lakh people were displaced, while the death toll stood at 38. In 2017, 20 lakh people were displaced, leaving 85 persons dead, which was also considered the worst flood in 29 years. While 2018 displaced only 4 lakh persons, in 2019, 52 lakh people were displaced, leaving 59 dead. Last year, as COVID 19 cases kept increasing during the monsoon months, 24 lakh people were pushed to relief camps due to floods.

Residents of Riri village protesting against Kaziranga National Park’s expansion plans. PC: Anupam Chakravartty

The Wait

At Dhemaji, a district known for unpredictable floods and river course change, people continue to struggle with massive deposits of coarse silt brought down by small rivulets. As many as 61 villages in the district were damaged after embankments breached in several places. For instance, on September 17, 2020, 47 houses in Kekuri and Dihiri villages were washed away by the Jiadhal river, a tributary of Subansiri, after an embankment breach, according to the residents of the village. Earlier this year, in January, around 1,500 angry locals blocked the National Highway – 15 demanding that the Water Resources Department repair embankments breached in 2007.  

Ahead of the elections, Ranuj Pegu, the incumbent BJP MLA from Dhemaji promised that Kekuri and other villages need not worry as the new embankment construction would start immediately after the polls. “Our MLA, Ranuj Pegu, had fulfilled his promises in the past. We believe that once the embankment comes up upstream of the Jiadhal river, we would not face a similar flood,” said Dibya Kumar Pegu, a member of Ganashakti, a BJP alliance partner. As per Kutum, Rs 6.43 crore was sanctioned by the State Water Resources Department to build a two-kilometre long embankment. 

The existing embankment connecting Kekuri and Dihiri had been breached at several places. The flooded Jiadhal not only left a trail of destruction, but also a series of ponds along the breached embankment. In March, with both the BJP and Ganashakti running election campaigns across these flood-prone villages, Kutum reminds others in the village that soon, their troubles will be over as construction would take place after the elections. 

Jiadhal, Kekuri and other smaller rivers remain completely dry for the six months after the monsoons recede. Jyoti Kutum, a 34-year-old widow complains that dust from the dried river bed now enters her makeshift house. Jyoti supports a family of five, including three children of her own. “I lost the cattle and the house to the floods. We only got relief materials after a disaster, but we are yet to receive compensation for the house,” said Jyoti.

Chandrawati Taid, 37, barely managed to escape that morning when Jiadhal changed its course and engulfed her house within minutes. “Some people got compensation to the tune of Rs 50,000 from the state government. We somehow never made it to that list,” she said. Jyoti Kutum, who received compensation for the house, still struggles to manage her family. She lost an entire drove of pigs to the African Swine Flu that impacted the Dhemaji district last year.

Chandrawati Taid from Dihiri village in front of the house that was damaged by the floods from Jiadhal river in Dhemaji constituency. PC: Anupam Chakravartty

The Two Battles

For Riri and Elengmari, two villages situated on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra in Bokakhat constituency, the people fight two battles annually during and after the flood season. One is the floods and erosion caused by the river system. The other battle is with the Forest Department. “We grow lentils and several varieties of rice in the Chapori (river islands) during the dry months. But as soon as the monsoons are over when the islands start emerging from a flooded river, we end up finding pillar on our land or a portion of our land fenced by the forest department. This usually leads to a confrontation with them. Occasionally they withdraw the claim. But shifting islands makes it difficult to demarcate these common lands,” says Jadu Kutum, a resident of Riri.

With rains intensifying each monsoon as in 2020, the state received 29 times the normal on June 25 when the first wave of floods hit the State, locals claim that the silt in the rivers has increased immensely. “On top of that forest department has decided to create a new range because rhinos and other wild animals have started fleeing Kaziranga, which is situated downstream,” added Kutum. Last year, the locals protested against the Kaziranga authorities for planning new additions to the park. “The park is slowly losing land. The animals are coming here, and they are expanding the park and taking our land,” said Kutum. 

As Prime Minister, Narendra Modi reached out to incumbent MLA of Bokakhat and the Agricultural Minister, Atul Bora, in a rally organised in Mahuramukh, a small town near these villages, people from these villages remain unfazed by the attention that the region suddenly got ahead of the polls. “We are tired of this administration and its promises to our people. We are thinking of changing them,” said Jitendra Morang, a young graduate from Elengmari. 

Pranab Doley, an independent candidate, supported by the Congress-led Mahajot alliance, has been campaigning against embankments and compensation lapses in Bokakhat, including areas around Kaziranga National Park. “We feel that the state government is launching these dredging plans or reservoirs without any scientific understanding of the river. The traditional knowledge where the river is not seen as a barrier but as a facilitator must be incorporate in developing an understanding towards protecting communities from disastrous impacts of floods,” Doley said. In his manifesto, Doley has stressed building scientific understanding of the river, flood resilience by building raised structures for flood-affected in each flood-prone village in Bokakhat constituency and timely compensation for the flood victims. 

Remains of a dwelling in Dihiri village in Dhemaji constituency ravaged by floods and failed embankments along Jiadhal river. PC: Anupam Chakravartty

Hydrocracy

Dhemaji in the north bank or Bokakhat in the south bank is just one of the many examples where the idea of ‘controlling’ floods by the state government has not yielded any outcome and possibly would remain the same even as floods and erosion are likely to increase. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, a river researcher and visiting associate fellow, Institute of Chinese studies, Delhi, who specialises in development studies, likens administration around rivers and water bodies as ‘hydrocracies’. He believes that the river infrastructure used for controlling floods are bound to fail as they stand against the flow of water, which partly the reason why dredging activities on rivers or embankments fail. “The hubris of large river-engineering projects in a geologically fragile and high-seismic region such as the eastern Himalayas comes from strong political support, and an overarching national security frame, which supersedes any traditional community worldviews of the river,” he stated in an article published by Economic and Political Weekly in 2020. 

Instead of planning large infrastructure like reservoirs to contain excess water or build embankments that fail, Rahman suggests an alternative approach to tackling floods. “The idea of building large embankments and reservoirs favours an economic paradigm which is highly speculative. Alternatives exist if proper scientific research is done to understand floods and rivers instead of taking measures like dams or embankments,” Rahman told EastMojo.

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