Assam on stilts: The recurring story of damage and death

No major changes in policies to deal with floods in state since independence

By Meghna Sharma
Last Updated: Tuesday 04 August 2020
More than 100 people have died in Assam floods. Photo: Flickr

It is a recurring story of damage and loss: Assam, every year in the last decade, has experienced floods that have led to the loss of human and animal life, destruction of crops, hunger and despair.

The floods batter infrastructure, aggravating the already poor drainage system. The poor are rehabilitated in relief camps with poor health and sanitation facilities. Those who are internally displaced and given temporary shelter in school buildings are left to fend for themselves after the schools reopen.

The cycle of floods and skeletal rehabilitation continues, year after year. 

The topography of Assam and the meteorological factors do not absolve the state from this tragedy. There has been a long history of negligence and misplaced priorities of the authorities regarding the overflowing Brahamaputra dating back to the British colonial period, and perhaps even earlier.

The fear of damage by floods led to the idea of building embankments when Assam and Bihar were considered for establishing cash crops by the British. More embankments sprung up to protect the crops in flood-prone areas.

The post-Independence era did not witness major changes in policies to deal with floods in the state. The Assam Embankment & Drainage Act, 1953, was enacted by the State Assembly to build and maintain embankments after the major earthquake of 1950.

The successive governments are said to have spent nearly Rs 30,000 crore in building embankments over the last 60 years.

The increasing intensity of floods every year speaks volumes about the ineffectiveness of these embankments. Even where they have been successful in protecting one target region, it has led to disaster in others.

The embankment near Dibrugarh, for example, protects the town during floods, but the change in the direction of the flow has been disastrous for the nearby villages. Embankment failures have been common due to the large quantum of water that it confines and due to the increase in hydraulic pressure during monsoons.

Yet, the policy seems to merely continue building embankments as the only solution to the recurring floods.

The spectacle of the blame game among the authorities has also become an annual feature — between the Centre and the state as well as between the district administration and contractors. Indeed, one of the reasons for a lack of proper analysis and its consequences is the absence of an integrated approach by the Centre and the state.

The Brahamaputra Board formed under the Brahmaputra Board Act, 1980, lacks coordination with the state government; New Delhi takes the decisions carrying on major operations. Similar lack of coordination can be seen between the Assam Disaster Management Authority and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

In an audit by the Supreme Audit Institution of India in 2013, the comptroller and auditor general revealed that the NDMA was “ineffective in functioning in most of the core areas”, and that even its rescue and relief team was inadequately trained.

No lessons seem to have been learnt for decades. Aggrieved by the apathetic attitude of the Centre, the All Assam Student’s Union has led various protests over the years demanding that the disaster be declared as a national issue rather than that of the state only.

The Centre seems to be content simply announcing release of funds under the flood management programme: It announced Rs 346 crore in relief for Assam. The local populace has taken matters in their own hands.

For instance, the villagers in the Baksa district, piqued by inaction by the authorities to repair the damaged embankment, came onto the streets and initiated the repair work themselves, while roundly criticising the government.

It has become imperative for the state to take urgent remedial measures. To start with, there must be a collaborative approach involving all stake holders — the Centre, the state, the district administration and crucially, the community.

The focus has to shift from mindless construction of embankments to flood mitigating policies that complement the existing embankments and accentuate the impact of floods. The dams in Assam mainly focus at the hydropower benefits and lack storage space for flood control — one of the established objectives behind the construction of any multipurpose dam.

Incorporating storage space in the reservoirs could be considered as a preventive measure during the floods. Hazard maps, which highlight areas that are vulnerable to floods or affected by floods, could help prevent serious damage and deaths.

Raising awareness among communities residing in the flood-prone areas and ensuring efficiency of the local authorities could help mitigate the effects of the disaster. It is equally important for Assam to work together with the neighbouring states like Meghalaya that shares the basin of Brahamaputra.

The need of the hour is to have a holistic strategic plan to break this cycle of misery. But then, is anyone listening?

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