Assam is once again at the receiving end of monsoon’s fury as the state’s second wave of floods this year has wreaked havoc, inundating altogether 4,626 villages under 114 revenue circles across 32 districts. About 5.7 million people have been affected thus far and counting, while the death toll has risen to 28. Besides the Brahmaputra and Barak, all other rivers in the state are in full spate.
Houses, schools, roads, embankments, etc, have been washed away at many places by the surging floodwaters, while nearly 90,000 hectares of farmlands are under water, affecting standing crops. Road connectivity to Upper Assam has been snapped and ferry services have been called off on the Brahmaputra due to turbulence caused by strong currents of the river, while rail services to Barak Valley and Tripura have been disrupted.
The rising floodwaters have also inundated vast swathes of land inside the state’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, including the famed Kaziranga National Park, where 90% of the area have been submerged, affecting scores of wild animals, many of which are now taking shelter in highlands. Altogether, 50 animals have drowned so far. Further, animal carcasses have been found floating in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries even as some wild animals crossing NH-37 to flee the flood-ravaged Kaziranga to adjoining Karbi Anglong hills have been hit by speeding vehicles.
While government agencies, including men in uniform, have their task cut out and are now busy carrying out rescue operations and providing relief to the affected, the usual clamor for declaring the State’s recurring annual natural phenomenon by the Centre as “national problem” has once again started to reverberate, even as many have decried New Delhi’s alleged apathy towards the affected people’s plight.
Many organisations, including political parties and student bodies, have once again upped the ante demanding tagging of the recurring floods in Assam as “national problem”, while a few Congress MPs of the state staged a dharna outside Parliament in New Delhi holding placards with a similar demand, perhaps blissfully forgetting that even their own party didn’t do this during its over five decades of rule.
And as has been the usual practice, the Central government has deputed one of its senior ministers to tour the flood-affected areas of Assam and take stock of the situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telephonic conversation with chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Dispur has, meanwhile, claimed that the state has enough stock of materials and funds to tide over the current crisis.
Now, while there is little that can be done immediately to take away the misery of those who have lost their hearth and home, but again the least that can be done is alter the general perception about the issue on hand. No doubt, funds will follow from the Centre and other donor organisations once the floodwaters recede to help rebuild lives of the affected families and for other infrastructural restoration works.
But it’s perhaps also high time to ponder over a long-term realistic solution, besides realising the futility of the conventional approach adopted thus far in dealing with the issue of recurring annual floods. For, far too long, the usual practice has been to seek additional Central funds to repair damage caused by floods, while others have tried for years on end unsuccessfully to impress upon New Delhi to declare the recurring devastating annual floods as a “national problem”, as if the declaration itself will solve the issue.
The issue has also served as a political fodder for organisations trying to target the government of the day, besides being used as a favorite milching cow by those involved in providing flood relief materials and flood mitigation measures – politicians, babus, contractors/suppliers, etc, all stand to benefit from floods as these virtually open the floodgates for fund flow. The floods, in a way, thus keep their cash registers rolling. But, has this traditional approach really benefited the state? Has it halted the floods in Assam? The answer is a resounding no.
Actually, the major flaw in dealing with the issue has been that for far too long it has been viewed as a “problem” by decision-makers and those influencing such a view. The minds of the people too have been conditioned to think likewise. But such a mindset is further from reality as floods in Assam are a natural phenomenon. It’s a natural occurrence that can’t be wished away or prevented.
Hence, the whole concept of flood control/prevention is erroneous. The fact is, besides being a rain fed area in itself, the Brahmaputra basin also serves as a natural drainage for rainwater flowing down the hills of lower Himalayan region during the monsoon. Most of the streams and rivulets that flow out of the hills of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, etc, empty in the floodplains of Assam, whose waters are then carried by the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers with spill-over effects, besides getting deposited in the numerous wetlands that dot the landscape.
Now, this is something that can’t be altered. The flow of the mighty Brahmaputra can’t be checked, nor the rivers bringing down water from the neighbouring hills. Hence, the obvious logical recourse should be to teach the people to learn to live with the floods. And it doesn’t require rocket science expert to realise that.
While yours truly definitely ain’t any expert, there are certain things that the government can definitely encourage the people living in low-lying and flood-prone areas to adopt. These can include encouraging them to build stilt houses, switch over to flood-resistant varieties of crops, build raised platforms around hand pumps, etc, besides teaching them basic life-saving skills. People can also be encouraged to adopt livelihoods that are in sync with the ground reality. For instance, many poultry farmers in neighboring Bangladesh have switched over to rearing ducks instead of chicken to minimise the impact of floods.
On its part, the government can concentrate on strengthening natural flood barriers, build highlands to act as temporary shelters in vulnerable areas for the affected people (as has been done in Kaziranga), ensure that water bodies like wetlands that serve as natural water reservoirs are free from human encroachments, ban any human activity that could impedes a river’s natural flow, dredge major rivers periodically, etc. Floods will in any case happen, but their impact can definitely be minimized. The government can chalk out a long term plan in this regard in consultation with experts, of which there is no dearth. The overall objective should be to make the people and the entire ecosystem flood resilient.
But the million-dollar question is whether the government of the day, irrespective of party affiliations, will show the political resolve required to adopt such an unconventional but realistic approach. Having already shown its political will on issues concerning country’s strategic interest, it is sincerely hoped that Modi Inc won’t let down Assam on a vital aspect that requires a new approach.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. Views expressed are his own)