Many areas in Jalpaiguri district under knee-deep water
Representational image Credit: EastMojo image

What Guwahati went through in the last few days has been routine for residents of Anil Nagar and Nabin Nagar—brothers in arms, two of the city’s lowest-lying residential neighbourhoods— for decades. As an old resident of Nabin Nagar, I have seen, felt and experienced it all.

Though now technically a non-resident, (I am based in Delhi), my heart, soul and family still live there. I often visit my hometown, sometimes multiple times a year, but I do take care to avoid a visit during the rains. The reason is obvious. With a tight schedule, I can’t afford to miss my flight or train back to Delhi because of waterlogging or by wading through waist-deep waters with my luggage.

This year, large swathes of Guwahati have experienced what these two neighbourhoods have been going through for years — without their grievances being properly addressed, and earning them the ironic epithet of ‘Paani Nagar. If we compare Guwahati to a bowl, Anil Nagar and Nabin Nagar would be the bottom; the first ones to drown.

Living in a Waterworld

We shifted to Nabin Nagar from the high-security Dispur capital campus in 1985 when I was in school. Urban floods or waterlogging were alien concepts for Guwahatians at that time. When my father laid the foundation of the house in 1979, there were not many people in the locality, which was surrounded by barren paddy fields with the usual sticky clay soil.

A year after shifting, we got a taste of what would be routine in our lives in the years to come. One rainy day, after a few hours of heavy showers, rainwater run-off came gushing down from the nearby hills and inundated our neighbourhood and compound. The water receded in a few hours. Our house, which was around three feet high from the ground, was spared, though. This hide-and-seek game continued for the entire rainy season. We were dumbfounded.

The next year, the unthinkable happened. One fine morning, I woke up to find my new shoes and my favourite cricket bat floating. Rainwater had entered our house, just short of touching my mattress! There was water everywhere—inside the closets, sofa, kitchen, toilet. It was mayhem. The misery was indescribable. We now had a whiff of what people in flood-prone villages of Assam went through every monsoon.

What we thought would be a one-off incident became a regular affair every rainy season. That was 1987. And this is 2022. The same old story continues even today, relentlessly.

A couple of times we even stayed at a hotel or a relative’s place. But gradually, we made peace with the waters or tried to find a way around them. We had two sets of clothing — one normal and the other for the monsoons. I used to wear shorts, slippers and a T-shirt and slippers to the main road, where I would change to school uniform at a friend’s place. We kept bamboo, wooden planks, ropes, bricks, and small raised platforms handy for the rainy days. Guests were a no-no during the rains.

Many people sold off their plots and shifted to ‘safer’ places. Others built houses on stilts — meaning left the ground floor empty. We too tried many solutions. Our old house’s plinth is now at the same level as the road. In a bid to deal with the water-logging problem, the authorities started to raise the level of the road. To catch up, we had to raise the elevation of our compound and floor.

When nothing worked, we, too, built a new house beside the old one, much higher— hoping it would be impossible for rainwater to rise to that level. For some time, the new house was safe. The waters would enter the compound, but not the new house. We felt a sense of relief.

But in 2016, the rainwaters had the last laugh. It was back to square one. We had about six inches of water in the new house. The old house was in almost chest-deep water. This year, too, we were not spared. And this is not our family’s story alone. Anyone living in Guwahati’s low-lying and water-logging-prone areas would resonate with my story.

How Guwahati sank

I have seen Guwahati’s sinking story playing out before my own eyes. In the 80s, waterlogging would be confined to select neighbourhoods such as Nabin Nagar and Anil Nagar, parts of Zoo Road, and the GNB Road stretch from Chandmari to Silpukhuri or so. Now hardly any locality is spared.

Guwahati has come up on what used to be paddy fields, low-lying marshy areas and wetlands surrounded by lush green hills — most of them were virgin and uninhabited.

When it rained, the run-off would get accommodated in the wetlands and low-lying areas. The small rivers such as Bharalu, Bahini, Mora Bharalu, Basistha, etc, would carry the excess water to the Brahmaputra. So unless there was a backflow of floodwaters from the Brahmaputra, Guwahati would largely be safe.

Over the years, residential colonies came up across the city. High-rise gated societies were then unheard of. The norm would be to buy a plot according to one’s paying capacity and build an individual house. The farmers started selling their land for quick and easy money. My father told me that he and a few colleagues bought plots together from one such person in 1969, before his marriage. Shillong was Assam’s capital then.

The creation of Meghalaya in 1972, and the shifting of Assam’s capital to Dispur, which was then on Guwahati’s outskirts, led to a migration of people from Shillong. This led to a spurt in Guwahati’s growth in an unplanned manner, though, as building norms or municipal laws were largely absent or not followed at that time. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation was constituted in 1974, and large parts of present-day Guwahati were outside its jurisdiction.

What followed over the years was a story of haphazard growth that did not take into account basic norms of urban planning or ecological concerns. Neighbourhoods after neighbourhoods sprung up without even basic facilities such as proper roads, drains, water and, in many instances, even electricity. The mantra was to buy a plot of land first, build a house and then run around for civic amenities.

The same happened in Nabin Nagar, Anil Nagar and numerous colonies dotting the city. When we first shifted, there were no drains, the roads were kuchcha (built of mud and stones) and there was no municipal water. But we were lucky enough to have an electric connection.

The onus was on the owners to carve out little, narrow drains around their plots. But it made no sense as the drains led to nowhere and were akin to shooting in the dark. So when it rained, these would, obviously, overflow.

Unplanned growth

As demand rose, land rates skyrocketed, and those who could not afford a ‘miadi patta’ (land with registered title deed) plot looked for other cheaper options. This led to a rise in illegal settlements and encroachments along and inside the wetlands, government land and the hills, many of which were reserved forests with lush green vegetation and a variety of wildlife.

Slowly the city expanded. Now, we have settlements all over Guwahati and its outskirts, legal or illegal. Wetlands such as Deepor Beel, a Ramsar site, and Silkaso Beel— where an eviction drive was carried out recently— have been encroached. Many wetlands disappeared. The hills are now barren at places with the top soil exposed because of habitation and construction, and rampant cutting of trees to free up space for housing needs.

Scarcity of potted land also led to the rise of high-rise housing — in plain words, apartment culture – and concretisation of surfaces so that the compounds are easy to maintain. But in the process of rapid concretisation, the soil gradually lost its capacity to absorb water.

Over the years, drains were built but maintenance and cleaning always remained a problem. Lack of civic sense, a habit of throwing just about anything and everything into the drains with impunity, choking them in the process, was a double whammy.

In areas such as Nabin Nagar, Anil Nagar and nearby Lachit Nagar, a wide network of robust storm water drains was laid out in the 90s below the arterial streets of the neighbourhoods. In the initial years, they were cleaned before every monsoon. But very soon, everyone conveniently forgot about them. New residents in these areas now wouldn’t even know such a system exists.

The storm water drains were built without taking into account future expansion and projections. In many places, the width of the existing rivers is reduced over time. Concretisation of both sides of the Bharalu by shrinking its width along with parts of Zoo Road, for example, boomeranged.

So now when it rains heavily, the run-off from the hills brings along with it slush and mud, which further jams the already choked drainage system. Because of the loss of vacant space and wetlands, and the reduced capacity of the rivers and stormwater drains to carry the water, the run-off spills over to the roads — wherever it finds space. The result? urban floods and deadly landslides.

Lost all hope

In the 90s, or even early in the 2000s, no one would have fathomed that places such as GS Road or Rajgarh Road, or Panjabari, whose elevation is comparatively higher than most places, would be affected. Now it does not surprise anyone. 

A friend of mine quipped: “Guwahati is perhaps the only place where you have the probability of a boat colliding with a Mercedes.” What he said in jest is perhaps an indication of the times to come.

So will Guwahati be like it was before? I do not have an answer. Neither do residents of Anil Nagar and Nabin Nagar, who have lost all hope. Their only solace in these trying times: They are not in this alone.

A native of Guwahati, the writer is an independent journalist presently based in Delhi, and writes on issues of public interest.

Also read: Rebel Maharashtra MLAs arrive at Guwahati, lodged in hotel amid tight security



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