Rabindra Hajong had sensed trouble the evening before when he saw muddy water threatening to overtop the road to Lakhipur town, about 165 km west of Guwahati. Lakhipur is the headquarters of Lakhipur Revenue Circle in western Assam’s Goalpara district, sandwiched between Meghalaya and the Brahmaputra river.
In about nine hours since Hajong raised the alarm, a 50 ft-wide body of water erased a culvert and portions of the road at Sigri near Lakhipur and rushed toward Dhamor Reserve about 2 km away. It took moments for about 95% of some 800 houses to be submerged early morning.
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Floods in Assam come in waves dictated by the rivers. What hit Dhamor Reserve village on May 25 was a mini tsunami from the hills of Meghalaya.
“Most of us did not sleep that night. We had packed our important documents and other valuables and tried to keep them above the water level before we could move to safety or be rescued,” says Hajong, the Dhamor Gram Panchayat president.
But they could not save their most precious asset — the harvest-ready paddy they had toiled over for almost six months.
“We are used to floods, but the water level in the past used to rise gradually. That gave us enough time to reap the paddy and store it for the year ahead. We did not suffer as much in 1998 when Assam experienced bad floods,” says Sujit Hajong, a farmer whose crop on four bighas of land was destroyed.
The Hajong community was settled in Dhamor Reserve as refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan in 1964-66. Each family has an average of three bighas of land for farming.
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“Goalpara saw flash floods in 2014 and earlier, but in the eastern part bordering the North Garo Hills district of Meghalaya in areas along three tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The devastation this time came to the western part following a cloudburst in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills. Some 50-odd villages of Lakhipur Circle bore the brunt. We hardly had time to react but rescue personnel did a fast job of taking the marooned to safety, some of them to a relief camp,” says Varnali Deka, Goalpara’s Deputy Commissioner.
The villagers did not have to stay away from their submerged houses for long; the water subsided in four days. They returned home only to be caught in an inundating ‘wave’ on July 6. The cause of their misery this time was a breach in the 37 km-long Kharmuja-Nichinpur dyke that was expected to protect Dhamor Reserve and scores of other villages from the fury of the Brahmaputra.
The fluctuating water level has since made 262 of Dhamor Reserve’s 2,861 people stay on at the Baungaon Lower Primary School, a relief camp by the roadside. The others made their own arrangement or took shelter at the houses of relatives on highlands.
At Ghoshpara-Sahapara village about 5 km southwest of Baungaon, betel leaf trader Madhab Saha had raised his semi-concrete house by one metre after a “not-so-damaging” flood 13 years ago. The “safe height” did not insure his house and those of 71 neighbours from the dyke breach at Chilarvita, an average of 8 km northwest of both Ghoshpara-Sahapara and Dhamor Reserve.
Kharmuja-Nichinpur is one of two Brahmaputra dykes or B-dykes that Assam’s Water Resources Department (WRD) manages in Goalpara district. The other one is 2 km long for the protection of Goalpara town. The department also handles four embankments on three tributaries in the district.
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According to WRD officials, newly constructed barriers to keep rivers in check are embankments while the older ones needing repairs and periodic maintenance are dykes.
“We expected to stay in this relief camp for a week at most, not for almost a month,” says Madhab’s wife Uma Saha at Lakhipur’s Nidanpur Sabita Adarsha Prathamik Vidyalaya, where anganwadi workers keep her two children engaged in pre-school activities.
The plight of relief workers and service providers is no different from the inmates of the camps. The Baungaon school’s anganwadi worker Durgabati Das wades 2 km from her house, now shin-deep in water, every day “for the relief camp children who need to be in good spirits”. The Lakhipur house of Samin-uz-Zaman, an accountant with the Integrated Child Development Scheme, is in knee-deep water. Lakhipur’s anganwadi supervisor Sukurana Begum is luckier; the flood spared her elevated house but not her surroundings.
All of them had raised their houses after the 1998 flood level they thought would be difficult to surpass. The devastation in Lakhipur Circle happened that year because of a breach in the same dyke at Haguripara, about 6 km east of Chilarvita where the Brahmaputra tore off a section of the dyke on July 6.
Sahabuddin Mondal, former Gram Panchayat president of Haguripara, recalls how the 1998 breach changed the area comprising five villages forever. “These were revenue villages famous for growing quality paddy, oilseeds, pulses and vegetables. Merchants used to drive to Haguripara from far for bulk-buying. The 1998 flood turned the villages into smaller, disconnected chars (river sandbars). Some 80% of the once-prosperous farmers turned daily-wagers in far-flung areas while some families relocated elsewhere in Goalpara and other districts,” he says.
From 150 bighas of farmland two decades ago, Mondal and his six brothers now own about 10 bighas. He has to use a boat to travel to the ‘mainland’ almost throughout the year. But they are “still better off” than other Bhatias – Bengal-origin Muslims – who relocated to districts such as Darrang and Bongaigaon only to end up being suspected as ‘Bangladeshis’ and served ‘D-voter’ (doubtful voter) notices. Election Commission officials mark people they suspect to be foreigners as D-voters who are then referred to Foreigners’ Tribunals for ascertaining their citizenship.
The five villages under Haguripara Gram Panchayat have about 7,000 people now. Mondal says some 30% of the nearly 6,000 who relocated are yet to be cleared of the D-voter tag for inclusion in the updated National Register of Citizens. The rest of those who relocated and all those who stayed back made it to the register.
The Haguripara script of 1998 is now playing out for Chilarvita and the adjoining villages under the Tarangapur Gram Panchayat. “A channel of the Brahmaputra was 25 metres from the dyke. The rising river first eroded a 150-metre stretch and suddenly about 2 km of it was gone, washing away more than 350 houses in the nearest village,” says Tarangapur Gram Panchayat secretary Abu Bakker Siddique. “These villages began turning into chars a few years ago. The process has perhaps been completed this year to force more people to live on the mathauri (dyke) for the rest of their lives,” he adds. Flood-prone farmers are not the only ones to have undergone a change of fate in Lakhipur area, says Goalpara’s veterinary officer Nurul Islam. “Most members of Nagendra Narayan Choudhury, the British-era zamindar of Lakhipur, have relocated outside,” he says. Some amount of flood, he insists, has traditionally been necessary for recharging the soil of Lakhipur circle. “But things are getting too unpredictable, erratic and damaging,” he says.
Blame it on the embankments
Lakhipur is not the only part of Assam to have suffered from brittle embankments. Data provided by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) say 220 embankments were damaged or breached this time. Officials admit this has been a major factor in 56.71 lakh people being affected and in the death of 108 people across 30 of Assam’s 33 districts between May 22 and July 30.
“The intensity, damage and death in the last two decades have been proportional to the breaching of embankments, and it is getting worse every year,” says Partha Jyoti Das, who heads the water, climate and hazard programme of Guwahati-based NGO Aaranyak. “This also indicates how the entire flood management is heavily dependent on ad hoc embankments.”
For instance, 64 people died and 39.81 lakh were affected in 2016 when 26 embankments were damaged. In 2018, 25 embankments were damaged, 45 were killed and 13.22 lakh affected. Das says planners and engineers laid the “foundation of disaster” with the dyke-oriented National Policy for Flood four years after the great earthquake of 1950 that affected the courses of some major rivers. No time, energy or resources were spent on studying the hydrological, geo-morphological and climatic conditions of the rivers as the embankments came up all over. The embankments outlived their utility and began collapsing from the 1990s, rapidly by the turn of the millennium. There was patchwork maintenance of the old dykes, and agencies other than the WRD began building embankments haphazardly without any scientific input.
“The British colonialists began building elitist embankments in eastern Assam to protect their tea gardens, oil wells and urban settlements more than a century ago. Post-Independence, Assam continued with this idea that kept hitting the marginalised hard. In course of time, it became an embankment economy embellished with a dam economy in the upstream of rivers and a dredging economy for increasing the depth of the rivers without studying their silting nature,” says Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, researcher at Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies, who has been working on the sociological impact of river and flood management in Assam.
The Brahmaputra Board, formed in 1980 to “integrate management of flood and basins of interstate and international rivers in the northeast”, came up with the idea of building big storage dams to contain the rivers upstream. High-volume discharge of water from hydropower dams in Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan during the monsoon season has added to Assam’s flood problems.
The “engineering ego” that dissuades planners from seeking scientific inputs and makes them ignore traditional knowledge of living with floods has not only complicated disaster management but also the adaptability of locals to changing conditions, Rahman says. “The Mising community, for instance, has lived in the flood-prone areas of eastern Assam for ages, the water level never reaching the floor of their elevated houses on wooden stilts. They could predict floods until the embankments affected their survival skills. Many don’t have a clue about the fast-changing moods of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, leading to the desertification of large swathes of hitherto fertile flood plains,” he says.
Hydrologists point out that while the emphasis has been on building dyke after dyke, often to save one from the other, no thought has been given to how to properly drain water from the floodplains. “One has to understand that floods also happen because excess water cannot recede from the floodplains in time due to obstructions such as roads, embankments, unplanned human habitations, excessive sand and gravel mining and encroachment or blocking of wetlands, streams and channels,” says Das.
Ironically, some of Assam’s leading centres for ecological studies are built on reclaimed wetlands. They include the Gauhati University, Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Consequently, wetlands that once acted as “sponges” for absorbing excess water have been under pressure. They include Deepor Beel, a Ramsar Site on the western edge of Guwahati whose area has shrunk from 4,000 hectares to 500 hectares in two decades.
According to Rahman, one of the reasons for the obsession with inherently-flawed embankments is their profitability. “Floods actually mean a lot of money to a lot of people and many feed off the contractor lobby,” he alleges.
It is high time, says Das, for discourses on long-term strategies that are not based on putting up barriers in a bid to tame rivers and make them flow in a straight line instead of letting them meander at will. After the flood devastation across eastern India in 2004, the Centre had set up a Task Force that made several recommendations such as community-based management of dykes. These were soon forgotten.
“No amount of planning can succeed unless we discuss river basins, encompassing in the case of the Brahmaputra the catchments in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet and other north-eastern States. For that, we have to first ensure inter-district cooperation in Assam, go on to coordinated measures involving the neighbouring States, and then think of international collaboration. We must also be ready to spend time on research and development and wait 10-15 years for alternative plans to be in place,” he says. But when a temporary solution like an embankment becomes accepted as a permanent one, the government should invest in stronger and durable protection systems, he adds.
Lessons from the past
Through a Right to Information application, the Society for Socio-Economic Development had found that the cumulative length of embankments was 4,459 km till 2007 and 93.5% of them had been constructed before 1980. The official length now is 4,474.42 km comprising 423 embankments, 295 of which have outlived their lifespan.
But WRD officials say they are invariably blamed for embankments built by departments such as Soil Conservation and Agriculture as well as Panchayat and Rural Development that dole out projects under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). In Goalpara, for instance, about 15 km each of embankments along the banks of both the Krishnai and Dudhnoi rivers were done under MGNREGS.
“Of the 220-odd embankments that were damaged this time, 48 had breached including 17 of ours. Some of these were plugged.. The problematic embankments are usually the ones done locally without adhering to certain specifications and not maintained,” says a senior WRD officer in Guwahati.
“The specifications include using cohesive, good-quality soil that can withstand water pressure, proportionate riverside and countryside slopes from the crest of an embankment that is up to 7.5 metres wide for major rivers and 4.5 metres for tributaries,” says Asad Hussain, WRD’s assistant executive engineer in Goalpara.
But things are moving in the right direction, the government claims. There are discussions about inter-departmental synergy in handling conventional methods of flood mitigation. Officials say they have been focussing on research and development in addition to execution of flood management work and collection of hydro-meteorological data. The conversion of a River Research Station of 1958 vintage to the Assam Water Research and Management Institute is an example, as are activities such as geo-technical exploration and investigation, hydrological modelling, physical identification of soil samples and grain size analysis.
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ASDMA’s chief executive officer M.S. Manivannan says Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has sought restoration of all embankments with technical support from the WRD. “The government has proposed to the Centre the strengthening of the entire length of embankments for use as roads,” he says.
The government has also sanctioned the formation of a committee to study how floods happen, how to go about managing them, and how to mitigate an issue that “cannot be stopped” given Assam’s geographical position – largely low-lying and surrounded by the hills of Meghalaya, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram from where the rivers flow down.
“Fresh ideas have gone into flood mitigation. Child-friendly spaces in relief camps, in coordination with UNICEF, were made compulsory at every relief camp this time along with guidelines for maintaining COVID-19 protocols. Such spaces are helping lessen the stress that displaced children undergo,” Manivannan says. “We are planning for the years ahead too. We have decided to set up material banks strategically at flood-prone places to store emergency items. The materials include life jackets, 150 of which have been ordered, for use by flood-affected people. We have put up a Bailey bridge on the road near Lakhipur where the flashflood from Meghalaya washed away a culvert on May 25,” he says. The Bailey bridge, provided from the State Disaster Response Fund, was put in place by the Public Works Department (Roads) in 10 days. For the locals, the Bailey bridge was a throwback to the British era when the spot sported a steel bridge that was replaced by a wooden bridge in 1980. It gave way to a concrete culvert three years ago.
“The future of managing floods in Assam is perhaps in the lessons from the past. If we do it right, we can have long-term, more nature-friendly solutions. If not, we will be back to square one, discussing the same issues next year and the next without a solution in sight,” says Rahman.