Guwahati: Floods in Assam have become synonymous with the state, especially during monsoons. The river Brahmaputra and its tributaries swell, causing devastation to life and property on a massive scale.
The first wave of floods hit the state in May this year; by the third in July, it had already affected around 3 million people in nearly 3,000 villages in 27 districts of the state. More than 1.2 lakh hectares of agricultural land submerged displacing over 44,000 people and claiming the lives of over 100 people.
However, the situation worsened this year with the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. With lockdowns imposed, people are confining themselves inside their houses. Many found themselves sandwiched between the pandemic and the struggle to survive the floods.
Team EastMojo went to Barpeta district which has been the focal point of devastation by the annual floods. Just to give you a rough perspective, till July, over nine lakh people were affected in more than 683 villages alone. This includes the damages to over 16,000 hectares of cultivable land as well.
Floods usually destroy the life and property of the people affected, but in Barpeta, it takes a whole new meaning. Here, due to the floods, the topmost fertile layer of the soil is flushed away causing soil erosion which is detrimental for the agricultural activity. Now, the people of Barpeta are not only facing the forces of floods as they are also right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Till now, over 150 people have been detected COVID-19 positive in the district.
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CASE STUDY 1:
We were able to meet Gunaram Das, a daily wage-earner in Sarthebari village of Barpeta who is fighting many battles. Five in his family depend upon him, but without any financial support from anyone else, Das is now helpless. According to Das, the flooding of his house is a daily affair and has been the same for the past 20 years.
“The mud houses including mine are now damaged. It’s been two months that I have kept my cattle in a nearby school. I have nothing to feed my cattle as well. The hay decayed due to the floodwaters,” he said. Relief came from the government side for a day, he said.
Additionally, he said that there is no proper drainage of the floodwaters and hence they have even developed sores on their feet due to the constant water contact. He laments that they have to stay here submerged under the filthy floodwaters for another three months.
Moreover, the tubewell from where the family used to get their drinking water is also submerged hence they now have to go to long distances to get drinking water. “And, if we go to doctors to get medicine for our normal illness they don’t bat an eye. I took my daughter to the hospital for medications but due to the COVID-19 virus fear the doctor didn’t even check my child. They just handed over the medicines from far away,” Das lamented.
CASE STUDY 2:
We met up with Putuli Barman from Barpeta, wife of a farmer who returned home after spending nine days in a relief camp. Her home is still submerged and with agriculture off the list, chances of a viable livelihood for the family remain uncertain. The family had to bring in the kitchen stove inside their bed-rooms as their kitchen is now submerged.
Upon asking the reason for not shifting back to relief camps, she said, “We have our cows here and hence we cannot go to the relief camps leaving them. Right now we have kept them in our neighbour’s place. We would be utterly helpless if any thief takes our cows away. Our livelihood comes from agriculture and it’s been two years that we are unable to do even that due to the floods.”
The family has two daughters and a son but due to the less availability of food options due to floods and due to the pandemic, they sent their daughters to their relative’s place. “We kept our son with us and we manage our food somehow. We cannot go out to search for work due to the lockdowns and also to work on our fields due to the floods,” said Barman.
A total of 70 relief camps are in Barpeta alone but many don’t want to go there as they have to leave their livestock behind. This thought is being echoed by many villagers as we venture into the submerged villages. With over five lakh people affected, Barpeta remains one of the worst affected districts due to the floods.
The devastation in Barpeta is not uncommon as it remains one of the worst affected every year. We connected with Harmohan Barman who is a local journalist from Barpeta. He has been reporting on many issues of the district right for many years. According to Barman, this is the third wave of floods that the people of Barpeta are facing at the moment. “The first one occurred in May and now this is continuing since the end of June and beginning of July,” said Barman.
Barman said that cause of major concern for people of the district is that the Bura Dia River and the nearby Tihu river — both tributaries of the Brahmaputra River — are not registered in the action plan of the water resources department. Barman added, “Due to this, the department does not accept any form of schemes. Even if something is done by the panchayats that are never enough. Even we know that panchayat is unable to apply or use such any scheme on a bigger scale due to low funds and technical restrictions. Now for people like us living in these areas, it seems that staying submerged under flood water is the only option.”
This year, however, the flood was not the only concern. With the outbreak of COVID-19 and repeated lockdowns, people in rural areas were sandwiched between the fear of being infected and the struggle against flood. With houses flooded, roadways now becoming submerged under floodwaters, many houses become isolated due to the floods. If a COVID-19 patient gets detected in one household, it becomes increasingly difficult to take that patient to a COVID-19 hospital or even provide some amount of medical support while being home quarantined.
CASE STUDY 3:
We were made aware of a village where three COVID-19 patients were taken from a single household the previous day. Rather than the patients taken away in an ambulance, all three of them had to wade through the floodwaters to reach the hospital. We were able to talk with the father who wishes to remain anonymous. He said that his son allegedly gave some medicines to a friend in Guwahati and it was from there that he became COVID-19 positive.
Upon his return to the village, the son allegedly was in home quarantine for two days and was unable to move out due to the floods. “This resulted in my wife and my daughter also being affected due to the virus. Cars were unable to come and take them away. We somehow managed to walk amid the floodwaters, reached the main road, and then went to the hospital. They are right now in Barpeta Medical,” the father added.
Not far from the capital city of Guwahati, Panikhaiti dons a solemn look due to the floods. Here, a relief camp was set up in a primary school where people of all ages are clubbed inside a small classroom. A place where people are without masks and unable to maintain social distancing norms or even maintain basic hygiene.
Over 50,000 displaced people are now taking shelter at relief camps as such. Since May 22, a total of 56,89,584 people have been affected in 30 districts of Assam. The state government has set up 621 relief camps and 109 people have lost their lives in flood-related incidents, till now. Notably, 2,62,723 hectares of crop area has also been affected by the floods.
Additionally, State Disaster Relief Force, National Disaster Relief Force, Circle Office, Civil Defence, and Inland Water Transport and several locals are engaged in rescue operations. As of now, as many as 81,678 people have been evacuated. These teams of National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Fund are deployed every year to provide relief measures in the flood-affected areas.
According to RS Gill, the Officiating Commandant of 1st BN NDRF, more than 950 marooned villagers evacuated during this year’s monsoon. They also helped in screening inundated areas. A total of 11 search and rescue teams of NDRF are pre-positioned in Jorhat, Bongaigaon, Kamrup Metro, Kamrup Rural, Baksa, Barpeta, Cachar, Sivasagar, Sonitpur, Dhemaji, and Tinsukia, according to Gill.
Barpeta and Panikhaiti are just a small fraction of the devastation caused by floods and the fear of COVID-19. Districts such as Dhemaji, Bongaigaon, Dhubri, Nagaon, Jorhat, Kamrup face the forces of flood with the ever-looming blade of COVID-19.
To dive a bit into the nuances of Assam floods, we met up with senior journalist Nava J Thakuria, who has been reporting on floods and other environmental issues from decades. According to him, the removal of encroachments from the river belt and protection of all the water bodies is a must to mitigate the damages caused by these floods.
He added that flood is a natural and a national problem. Hence the government of India must consider it a national problem. “They must take initiative as how to mitigate it, how to live with it, how to educate the people and how to rehabilitate the people after the flood because the flood has an enormous impact on the social life,” Thakuria said.
The government of India has a pertinent role to play in the mitigation of floods and they should play as well said Thakuria. He said that “If anything happens in the upper recurrent country above us in Tsangpo in the Tibetan region it will have a direct impact here. At the same time if something happens in Guwahati or Dhubri it will impact Bangladesh. So Bangladesh, India, and the Tibetan region somehow have to come together to mitigate floods. But the Tibetan people are dominated by China so there lies the problem. Because if India if not a friendship relation we have almost become an enemy nation to China so who will start the talks.”
Additionally, Tibet is the third pole after North and South and it is a huge reservoir of fresh water. Any ecological disturbance there impacts the entirety of Southeast Asia.
“Once the talks happen if something happens in Tsangpo immediately an alert can come. And now it’s the age of digital media so a Tweet from the Chinese government or Tibetian authority will be available to people of India and Bangladesh. So one can then be alert and can also be prepared before any drastic scene occurs,” he said.
Moreover, Thakuria believes that all the encroachments in the river belt should be removed with the preservation and protection of all the water bodies near any river that must be looked up upon as a reservoir of excess rainwater.
Every year, three to four waves of flood ravage Assam which is around 31.05 lakh hectares and about 39.58% of the total land area of Assam. This is about 9.40% of the total flood-prone area of the country. Due to this, Assam incurs an average annual loss of Rs 200 crores in Assam.
The devastation is not new to the state and has been since the 1950s. The death toll of this year alone has crossed 100 with lakhs of people displaced. The solution to the yearly floods varies from person to experts to different political spokesperson without any substantial way out. Reacting to floods after it occurs rather than preparing for it beforehand can only take us so far.