Assam's Dhemaji district faces extermination by floods

Published: Saturday 15 April 2006


-- Arney Mising, Arney Hazong, and Angonibari are among the over forty villages in Assam's Dhemaji district that have dropped off the map. The ravaging waters of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries have consumed them. Several hundred other villages in this flood-prone district are threatened with a similar misfortune. The woes of Dhemaji are two-fold. For one, floodwaters have engulfed the fertile farm fields leaving villagers homeless and poor. Secondly, large chunks of lands are gradually eroding away.

Dhemaji is at the epicentre of floods primarily because of two reasons. One because it's located in the 'flood prone area' of the Brahmaputra's North Bank Plains Zone: two-thirds of the district remains submerged under water between five to 20 days during the succession of flood waves that hit the district between July and October, every year. Secondly, Dhemaji is located at the foothills of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. Water from several reservoirs flow down into the district from the hills and criss-cross their way to the Brahmaputra. So during monsoons, Dhemaji is marooned by waters that gush down from the hills on one hand, and by the turbulent Brahmaputra on the other.

The silt and debris that the rivers carry on their way down from the hills and deposit them on the riverbeds in Dhemaji has compounded matters. The siltation over the years has raised riverbeds so high that rivers are unable to contain the normal volume of water during monsoon: banks simply burst inundating village after village.

Rapid deforestation in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh caused by shifting cultivation and unabated demand for timber has accelerated siltation. With no vegetation to bind it the soil is washed off by rains and finds its way to the rivers. The water bodies have also been choked with pebbles and boulders from the hills. More the silt accumulation in Dhemaji, more unpredictable is the behaviour of the rivers that flow through the district. Many of them have indeed changed their course.

Three main tributaries of the Brahmaputra located in the southern, central and north-eastern part of Dhemaji have aggravated the district's woes. A study conducted by the Assam Agriculture University, Jorhat, shows that these tributaries, along with the main river, have converted over 15, 000 hectares (ha) of the total 124,000 ha of farm fields in the region into sand pits.

Redundant embankments Embankments across the rivers have become redundant and today are part of the problem. Built during 1955-56, these embankments have long outlived their lifespan of 25 years and several of them have been sliced into pieces by the surging waters. Repair work had begun way back in 1985 but is today marred by adhocism. Several of these embankments lie unattended. Ironically, some of them serve as shelters after floods. In most of the peripheral villages in the district, one can see people constructing temporary sheds on the breached embankments when everything around them has turned into sand.

The productivity of a once-fertile district has plummetted. The monsoon destroys the standing crops while the floodwaters do not recede for the farmers to take up timely sowing of winter crops like paddy and mustard. Every year the floods destroy crop worth Rs 12-15 crore. The once self-sufficient district is now forced to import rice.

In such a context, government intervention is critical. However, for the state's authorities fiscal deficit has become a convenient alibi. Besides, there is not enough land to rehabilitate the displaced people either in other districts or in the forestlands. With rehabilitation ruled out, reclaiming wastelands through watershed development and anti-erosion measures assumes importance. But there are no reliable extension services to help farmers take up water and soil conservation practices.

The malaise that began more than a decade ago indicates a much deeper disconnect where basic needs of the rural people, which are closely aligned with ecology, are consistently ignored.

Rinku Pegu is a freelance journalist. This article has been made possible by a grant given by the National Foundation of India through its North East Media Exchange Programme

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