What struck me on my first road journey from Shillong to Jorhat way back in 1967 was the fact that I didn’t notice a single ” Ghat” in the sense it is understood in northern India, along the mighty river Brahmaputra – the only river India that doesn’t bear the name of a female. Ghat is a brick staircase constructed along the banks of rivers and ponds to make it easy for the people to bathe, wash their clothes and to enjoy swimming. A ” Ghat” is therefore every where along the river Ganga from Calcutta to Hardwar and integral to the life of the riverine people. I also didn’t see anyone swimming in Brahmaputra then and even later. On enquiry I was informed three reasons: First, fast undercurrent of the river – probably the fastest in the world which is often impossible for a swimmer to negotiate: Second, it carries throughout the year massive quantity of sands and other fine particles which leads to shifting river banks so much so that if a person slips into even a little above knee deep water along the banks of Brahmaputra river water gets into her nostrils , it might cause cardiac arrest and even death .
I also didn’t see large constructed ponds – Pukur in Bengali or Talav in Hindi in Assam towns which are common in towns elsewhere usually associated with acts of philanthropy or government efforts to conserve water and to provide open space around the pond for recreation ,and in Bengal there would be invariably ” ghats” for bathing and washing. Of course there’s a huge tank at Sibsagar town but it doesn’t fall in this group. I also observed that commercial fishing in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries was then and now carried out by the fishery cooperative societies which under the State Fishery Rules had to be formed only by fishermen belonging to specific castes and Interestingly included “Maimal” – a Muslim community of fishermen and those who happened to be people from lower Brahmaputra valley close to Bengal and north Bihar where river fishing was the traditional occupation of certain castes such as Kaivartas in Bengal. In Upper Assam interestingly there was a significant presence of fishermen of North Bihar origin. One must note that there are still many ” wetlands” in Assam such as Deepor Beel , near Gauhati airport, a Ramsar site– as it was notified under the 1971international convention on Wetlands at Ramsar in Iran which has been under severe threat due to dumping of wastes, encroachment and unauthorised construction. The point to note is near absence of man made tanks. In this regard, the prescient observation of the World Bank in its appraisal of the Assam Agricultural Development Project in the late 1970’s must be recalled. Commenting on the huge untapped ground water of the Brahmaputra valley the Bank’s experts noted that “Brahmaputra valley of Assam is a thin crust crust of land floating over a lake bigger than Lake Superior”. This explains why ponds are not constructed as excessive recharge of ground water in monsoon might add to the flooding of low lying areas which also rules out “Ghats”. And tapping the ground water by shallow tube wells for growing crops in the” Rabi” was the strategy the Bank recommended.
The Strategy Report of the World Bank 2007- Development and Growth in North East India – The natural resources, water and Environment nexus estimated the flood prone areas of the region to be 3.6 million hectares and Assam contained 88% of such areas; and an estimated 3,86,000 hectares had been eroded- mostly in Assam since 1954. The position must have worsened since then. The Bank recommended (a) common River basin management system integrating hydropower, flood and erosion management and inland water transport ,(b) expanding and deepening community based forest management, biodiversity conservation, conservation of wetlands and (c) regional cooperation since geography is economic destiny. An insightful part of the report is chapter 5 entitled Path dependence in the North East- Why history matters . In this North East is viewed as a transition Zone – the confluence of major bio geographical realms . This suggests the imperatives of a sub regional approach encompassing North East, Bangladesh and parts of Myanmar because the huge sediments Brahmaputra and its tributaries as well as the rivers of Barak valley carry and the impact floods cause affect the entire sub region.
This year’s massive floods and erosion in Assam, huge landslides in Manipur which caused disruption of the road transport services apart from crop losses, destruction of habitations, suggest that policy makers- Department for development of the north east (DONER) , NE states, North East Council and Niti Aayog need to revisit the very first issue, the Bank stressed – a common River basin management system integrating hydropower development. The latter is critical as the state response to the concerns raised by several environment activists and public protests in Assam against hydro power projects in Arunachal such as Lower Subansiri hydel project on the ground that during high floods, the unavoidable release of water from the reservoir would inundate vast areas of Assam have not been addressed to the satisfaction of the people of upper Assam who are certain to be affected by such actions.
This apprehension is real as vast areas of Lower Assam and parts of North Kamrup were submerged in this year due to release of water from Kurichhu Hydel project in Eastern Bhutan. In this situation the reported decision of the govt of India to provide financial and technical assistance to Bhutan on generous terms to create a hydel power generation capacity of 5000MW of which over a thousand MW capacity has been already put in place naturally raised fears in Lower Assam districts like Barpeta and Nalbari.In the same way construction of Tipaimukh dam in Manipur and unprecedented submergence of Silchar town in this year due to floods in Manipur uplands and breaches in dykes all over in this year have raised some basic issues of ecological security of the region.
This requires a subregional approach as Bangladesh is affected as much by floods in the upper reaches of the rivers in Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur as towns of North East India and therefore merit inclusion in the Act East policy because building physical infrastructure like roads makes little sense unless it provides uninterrupted service. It is therefore time for North Eastern Council and DONER Ministry to take the call to consider inclusion of the issues of flood moderation and ecological security of the North East as an issue for SAARC – South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation and Bay of Bengal Multisectoral Technical and economic cooperation (BIMSTEC) and made central to the region’s response to the challenge of climate change. The continuing floods in the North East and Bangladesh suggest that it is now time for action.