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Assam’s Nightmare : Ravaged By Floods, Huge Erosion Of Land And COVID-19

The caption of a cartoon published recently in a leading daily of Assam -” our resources are national but not our disasters” neatly captures the long standing perception of the people of Assam that the Centre has been insensitive to the damages caused by recurring floods to the life, property and economy of the state . And right now when Assam is struggling to cope with the coronavirus Pandemic, the severity of flood damages in 27 plains Districts of Assam and Barak valley have been grave and unabated. It may be useful to note some of these facts : 2.7 million people have been badly affected in 2525 villages in 75 Revenue circles in 27 Districts out of 30 Plains Districts, a death toll of108 persons and extensive damage to habitations, roads and bridges and crop lands have taken place awaiting proper estimation.

More disturbing is the huge erosion of land (an estimated 8000 sq km of land had been eroded since 1951 )which led some to conclude that erosion of land is a bigger problem than floods as it shrinks the agro forestry based livelihoods and changes the course of rivers. It may be recalled that the great earthquake of 1897 and 1950 had changed the course of Brahmaputra and ecology of Assam valley as the tributaries too were affected resulting in a change of the geomorphology of the rivers of Brahmaputra basin.

The severity of floods in Barak valley Districts have been to a great extent caused by reckless feeling of trees in the catchment area of rivers like kushiara and Barak in recent years which is true of the catchment areas of Brahmaputra and it’s tributaries in Bhutan and Arunachal also.

The damages caused to the agrarian economy are massive: As these are often lost in gross statistics of ” crop damages” it might be useful to look at the details to see the extent of ” irretrievable losses”. About 81 thousand hect of matured Autumn and 83 thousand hectares of standing winter paddy, 38200 hect of jute,5000 hect of Pulses, 20000 hect of vegetables,1200 hect of sugarcane, 20000 hect of other crops including horticultural crops and oilseeds have been completely damaged. While it may be possible to transplant Winter paddy again after the floods recede provided paddy seedlings are made available to the farmers, the other crops damaged are entirety lost. Added to the farmers misery is the huge loss of livestock and poultry caused by floods and erosion. The current floods have caused much loss of Wild life as 106 forest camps at Kaziranga National Park alone have been submerged and 127 animals have been lost and the sight of the Rhinos seeking shelter on the road is now common even in some towns close to the National Parks.

The recurring floods point to the reality of total failure of the flood moderation strategy and action program of the Brahmaputra Board created by the Government of India in 1980 under the Brahmaputra Board Act as enacted by the Parliament.

This very Act is Centre’s recognition of recurring floods of Brahmaputra basin as a national problem. Therefore the real issue is whether the Board has been able to fulfill the mandate and if not what should be done to enable it to do so. A related issue is whether the flood moderation strategy adopted by the board was appropriate or the investment it made to meet its goals produced the desired results. There is no ambiguity in the Act in this regard as under section 3(d) the Board is required to prepare Master Plans for control of floods and ” bank erosion” meaning of banks of Brahmaputra and its tributaries and improvement of the drainage system. Further, under section 12, the Board has to undertake water resource survey for developing irrigation, hydro power, navigation and ” other beneficial purpose”.

It is on record that the status report on the work of the Board as on 30 June ,2019 68 Master Plans have been prepared of which 75 have been approved and sent to the states. However, the implementation of the drainage and hydro power projects have been tardy as evidenced by the slow progress of projects such as Pagladia dam in Assam or Tipaimukh in Manipur.

Despite these projects and the huge investment made by the Board, there has been a strong view both in Delhi and in the NE that the Board isn’t doing enough so much so that in 2015 the Ministry of Water resources was considering steps to restructuring the Brahmaputra Board into Brahmaputra River Rejuvenation Authority with a broader mandate. It is time now in the midst of the severe floods to take a holistic view keeping in mind the fact the discharge of Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries in monsoon is close to, if not more than the discharge of all the rivers of the country put together as estimated when Dr. K.L.Rao was heading the then Ministry of Irrigation in the Centre.

The new approach may be founded on an ecological view of the Brahmaputra basin, its critical importance in environment and climate change of the subregion of SAARC. This requires departure from the idea of river water as an economic resource” because this has been responsible for misplaced priorities, that is putting money in building hydro power projects and embankments which are routinely breached but not effective measures to control ” bank erosion” of land which destroys livelihoods and shelters of millions every year. The erosion is seen by many in Assam as a neglected subject though more critical as a survival issue for the people than recurring floods. This is a scientific and not an unsustainable ” economistic” view of the flood problem. Serious concerns about seismic safety, adverse ” downstream effects” of hydel projects in Arunachal on Assam plains have been expressed at official and public forum which are still to be addressed. A movement against Lower Subansiri hydel project of Arunachal is going on in Assam for its adverse ” down stream effects” that the people of Assam have to bear.

It is time now to view Brahmaputra floods primarily as an ecological and livelihood security issue for Assam and the entire Region ; and therefore the annual ritual of quick assessment of flood damages and release of special assistance to Assam must be substituted by a review of Brahmaputra Board’s Mandate and functioning to make it a Brahmaputra Basin Development Authority capable of addressing the issues of floods and climate change in a holistic way.

About RANGAN DUTTA

( The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam – Meghalaya cadre and has served as Scientific Consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India)

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