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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2253

Flood in Assam: Isn't it a National Disaster?

By M. Burhanuddin Qasmi

"The flood situation in Assam is grim once again, nearly 50 lakh people affected in the deluge". "Army called out in flood-hit Assam, 8 million displaced". "At least 21 of Assam's 27 districts are now hit by the third wave of floods that began Wednesday (5th September), affected 10 million people". These and similar news about Assam were making headlines about the third wave of devastating floods in Assam in almost all national and international media portals till mid September. This year the state has been hit by the killer flood three times, successively, within a short span of three months. Some ladies sail through a boat to save their lives leaving behind their homes and belongings Some ladies sail through a boat to save their lives leaving behind their homes and belongings

Cost of Recent Flood

An Assam government statement said 'a total land area of two million hectares was affected, besides nearly 4.8 million hectares of cropland, since July'. A total of 70 people have been drowned in separate incidents till 15 September 2007.

The floods that began in July have so far hit more than 10 million people covering about 9,000 villages - the worst hit districts being Cachar, Karimganj, Hailakandi, Dhubri, Morigaon, Barpeta, Goalpara and Nalbari. Incidentally the districts are Muslim populous who make nearly 31 per cent of state's total population.

According to 2001 census total population of Assam is 2, 66, 38, 407 and flood displaced are more then one third of the total population. There are reports of breaches in embankments in 60 places. Flash flood partially damaged National Highway (NH) 31 and 52 and posed a threat to state's main life line NH 37 by eroding basement area of an important bridge in Golaghat district. Heavy traffics have been diverted through a gravel road. State's water Resource Minister Bharat Chandra Narah informed that the situation worsened because government did not get enough time to repair the breaches of dykes and embankments during the second wave of floods in the month of August. The first wave of pouring flood water hit the state on 11th July this year.

"Road links in several parts of the state has remained cut off with a number of bridges washed away," Bhumidhar Barman, Assam revenue, relief and rehabilitation minister, told the media.

Soldiers in rafts and wooden boats have rescued hundreds of people over the weekend in the worst hit districts of Dhemaji, Dhubri, North Lakhimpur, Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj.

"There are about 500 makeshift camps now where thousands of people are sheltered, while many more are staying in raised embankments and other such platforms under tarpaulin tents," said Barman. Flood waters also inundated vast tracts of forest land in most of the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, including the world heritage sites - Kaziranga National Park and Manas Tiger Reserve.

Jamait leaders Maul, Badiriddin Ajmal and Mahmood Madris with flood victims in AssamJamait leaders Maul, Badiriddin Ajmal and Mahmood Madris with flood victims in Assam

Tea gardens, particularly in the Barak valley in southern Assam, have been hit hard by the floods which caused at least seven of them to close down while others are on the verge of closure.

The receding waters bring their own set of problems. The immediate danger is always of water-borne diseases spreading in the absence of safe drinking water. This year, till date, over a dozen people have reportedly lost their lives to water-related diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, etc in flood hit districts in addition to those drowned in the floods.

Cause of Sorrow for Assam

Every year the floods leave a trail of destruction, washing away villages, submerging paddy fields, drowning livestock, besides causing loss of human life and property cost in several billions.

For Assam, the mighty Brahmaputra, though a life-giving river has become more synonymous with devastation than with prosperity. Also known as the ‘Burha Luit’ (the Old Red River) and the ‘Bor Noi’ (the big river), the Brahmaputra has become the river of sorrow.

The media covers the news only in one part of the year when floods submerge the State - and that too a mention here and a mention there. But they have never covered the misery that the people go through, year after year. Floods have pushed thousands of people to an uncertain future; they have shattered Assam’s fragile economy as a whole. For a state with 2.66 crore people, it is a major problem: more serious than insurgency.

Thousands of people, we see, living in slums of Guwahati and other big cities; some are passing decades after decades in roadside makeshift huts praying for their lucks. And a few have migrated to neighboring states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal in search of livelihood are not Bangladeshi emigrants. They are those unfortunates lot of Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims displaced by the ravage of nature – flood and erosion or by the haterate of politics – riots and ethnic displacements from districts like Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Goalpara, Barpeta, Dhubri, Nagaon and Marigaon.

The 2,906 km long Brahmaputra is one of Asia's largest rivers, traversing its first stretch of 1,625 km in China's Tibet region, the next 918 km in India, marching over the length of tiny map of Assam, and the remaining 363 km through neighbouring Bangladesh before converging into the Bay of Bengal.

The recurrence of flood and erosion continued to be the major obstacle towards development of Assam for decades. The Brahmaputra and the Barak are the main two rivers, which cause all problems during the monsoon. In fact, the successive waves of devastating floods in almost every year have virtually destroyed the agriculture based economy of the state.

Usually Assam experience incessant rainfalls during the monsoon season, which normally commence from the month of May and remain till mid October. Apart from this, occurrence of floods in Assam has direct correlation with rainfall in the catchments areas of neighbouring states like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and the adjacent country Bhutan.

Deforestation is also a major reason for the floods becoming an annual feature. Indiscriminate deforestation has led to massive amount of topsoil coming loose in the rains. Thus, the soil flows into the river and in turn causes the riverbeds of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to rise.

Isn't it a National Disaster?

According to the National Flood Commission, the area liable to floods in Assam stands at 31.60 lakh hectares. Assam thus accounts for as much as 9.4 per cent of the total flood-prone area in the country.

The Assam Revenue Department gives alarming statistics: In the year 2002 alone, Assam’s estimated loss of property, including land due to erosion, was put at Rs. 72.43 crore. Damage to public utilities stands at Rs. 566.24 crore. The area eroded by rivers in spate across the state was 429,657 hectares.

The table below shows the extent of damages caused by the floods in the state over the five years during 1997 - 2002. We assume when the official statistic for succeeding five years, 2003 – 2007 will come the damage will be much higher than the one below. Since years 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007 have seen massive destruction and displacement due to flooding in the state.

There is a full-fledged Flood Control Department headed by a Cabinet minister, but even then the problem continues to be more dangerous in each succeeding year.

In 1981, the Brahmaputra Board was set up with the main purpose of implementing schemes to harness the river. All it has done in the last 26 years is to prepare a master plan that envisages two massive multi-purpose dams on the Dehang and Subansiri rivers - tributaries of the Brahmaputra - in Arunachal Pradesh and smaller dams on the other tributaries. The two mega-dams will cost Rs. 250 billion.

Statistics say 21 out of 27 districts of the state routinely suffer from floods. While districts like Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur, Goalpara, Dhubri and Barpeta remain flooded for nearly three months, the number of people frequently affected is 40 lakh while the standing crop area damaged is over 200,000 hectares.

As of now, there just does not appear to be any immediate solution. So, every year we see the Indian Army launch rescue operations; the civil authorities worry about epidemics; food shortage becomes acute as the standing crop is destroyed; road and rail links get disrupted, NGOs with truck load relief goods and visible banners overhead rush to the affected areas; and the media sadly treats it as a routine story.

The Assam government, opposition parties and all non governmental organizations (NGOs) of the state have been continuously asking the Central government to declare the flood in Assam a 'National Disaster'. But all pleas have fallen on deaf ears. It is doubtful whether any practical measures will be taken to prevent floods in Assam. Plans after plan will be made and will gather dust inside government files like usual business.

Why this discrimination with northeast?

Due to floods, Assam has suffered a loss of Rs 3,100 crore in the past five decades. Official estimates show that since 1954, various government agencies have completed as many as 631 flood control schemes and constructed about 4,458 km long dykes along the major rivers across the state. In order to protect a total of 31 lakh hectares of vulnerable land, which has been identified by the National Flood Commission, only 16 lakh hectares could be protected from floods in 53 years. Official records say that total loss in the early 80s was about Rs 228 crore. And it has been gradually increasing with every passing year.

To remove the backwardness of the region, tackling the flood menace is a must. Otherwise, all efforts to bring northeast at par with other mainland states will come to a naught.

The question is when Assamese will see a permanent solution to the problem they have come to live with as long as they can remember. "I do not know", replies chief minister Tarun Gogoi. The key to the solution is with the Centre, according to him. Assam government cannot tackle the flood menace on its own. Its resources are meager. It doesn’t have enough money to pay the salaries to its staff. And the debt burden is Rs. 10,000 crore plus. Flood problem is gigantic.

Elaborating further the chief minister points out that in 1998, one of the worst flood years, Assam received a paltry Rs. 59.90 crore as central aid but Uttar Pradesh was showered with Rs. 300 crore. So the question is: Is flood havoc in Assam less important for New Delhi. Doesn’t a loss of Rs.1, 200 crore (1998) merit special consideration? Or, is it a fall-out of out-of-sight-out-of-mind syndrome? Inescapable verdict is, according to chief minister, the Centre is not serious about Assam floods.

Although the same Congress is ruling in Assam as well as in New Delhi yet it is difficult to disagree with Tarun Gogoi. And more so Assam sent the first ever Prime Minister to Delhi because Dr Manmohan Singh as an MP comes from Assam who nevertheless made applause promises during 2005 floods in the tail of Gogoi's first term as chief minister which at least provided much relief to Mr Gogoi becoming a successive second term chief minister of Assam.
"The apathy of the Centre is something surprising."Do we exist for them?" asks a local journalist.

"It is painful that some people in Delhi even ask the cost of Assam's currency in Indian rupee – they know Assam produces tea but unfortunately they do not know that Assam is a state of India", observes a northeastern student from Delhi.

Putting all the statistics in front it becomes crystal clear that the entire northeast is not receiving what it deserves from the Center. Be it road links, railway links, tourism facility or any civic infrastructure starting from a standard national play ground, let alone the promise of international air ports in more than one locations of seven sister states.

We do not know the reason of any discrimination nor we know if the discrimination exists at all or not; but we do know statistically that there are inequalities in term of national facilities to the south, north, central and northeast region of India which at least indicate massive carelessness of the Centre in issues concerning civic society living in the northeast region.

NGOs Appeal

'The priority needs in flood hit Assam are health and water sanitation goods, including clothes tarpaulins, polythene sheets, tube wells, water purifying tablets, mosquito nets, medicine, chlorine and hydrogen tablets, bleaching powder, baby food, dry food, and utensils etc', say volunteers working for emergency relief with various NGOs in Assam.

Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Al-Qasmi president Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) who is also the president of Assam State Jamiat Ulama-e Hind described the situation as "very pathetic and disastrous". "Women have no Sarees to wear, we need all that's need to live a life", he informed Eastern Crescent from Goalpara, one of the badly affected districts by the recent flash flood. His party (AUDF) members and Jamait volunteers are busy in relief and rescue work in most of the affected districts of Assam, he said.

As in the past, this year too Markazul Ma’arif, the leading Muslim NGO in northeast region doing the emergency relief and rescue work. The organization also is underway to build up temporary camps at different places and then help rehabilitate victims aftermath the flood. Mr. S. H. Chaudhury, vice president of the NGO said, "I personally am looking after the relief work". Markazul Ma'arif has collaborated 'Tube Well' installation in the camps for pure drinking water and medical camps in various districts with London based international humanitarian organization Muslim Aid. Mr. Chaudhury earnestly appeals to the philanthropic organizations and individuals in and out side India to come forward and help carryout the rehabilitation work.

"It is just agonizing to see that who have normal living few days ago have even not a glass of water ready to break their Fast or start it with in this month of Ramadhan after just few days of raining", says a charity worker from Karimganj.

The UNICEF and some other international organization are also in the region with relief materials.

Government of Assam is mainly doing the rescue work in addition to air dropping of Cheera (flattened rice) or baby food. "The government has also distributed edible packets in some makeshift relief camps but there has been a clear discrimination among constituencies won by AUDF or AGP in the last election and those won by Congress", says Maulana Ajmal.

A Darul Uloom Deoband graduate and Editor ‘Eastern Crescent’, English monthly, M. Burhanuddin Qasmi is also a poet and Director of Mumbai based institute ‘Markazul Ma’arif Education and Research Centre’.

- Asian Tribune -

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