The flood situation in Assam gets worse every year. However, this year’s flood havoc has been the worst ever encountered in several years. In terms of the damage done to the State, this year’s floods will probably break all records. The floodwaters have so far submerged 3,374 villages and 81 revenue circles of 22 districts. The number of flood-affected people has shot up to 17,94,554 or almost 1.8 million people. This year’s floods have affected even the Garo hills of Meghalaya, an unusual experience of people of the region. In addition to the number of lives lost and property destroyed, the perennial floods of Assam have succeeded in almost completely destroying the morale of people engaged in agricultural activity. Year after year, the floods have destroyed crops and reduced farmers to penury. Year after year, the floods have driven affected people to highways for shelter, making them eke out the existence of animals with total loss of the last vestige of self-respect and dignity. Thousands of people have lost everything that they had including their homes and hearths and their cattle. And so helpless are our rulers against the might of the Brahmaputra and other rivers that there is little that they can be expected to do beyond making aerial surveys of the flood affected areas as some kind of an annual ritual. Unfortutely, none of this can ever undo the devastation that our rivers wreak on the people of the State. And while we keep speculating on what Chi is likely to do to the waters of the Brahmaputra at its place of origin, the death toll and the devastation wrought by the river keeps increasing every year. And while about Rs 10,000 crore has been made available to clean up the Ganga, we do not hear of even comparable amounts being earmarked to control the perennial floods of Assam and provide some relief to the devastation caused year after year.
One standard approach to flood control in Assam is rooted in the belief that the mighty Brahmaputra can indeed be dredged effectively to deepen the river bed and perhaps create more room for water. Past experience should have taught us that this is unlikely to happen and that attempts at dredging the river could be no more than imparting a few scratches to the river bed. One consistent approach to the business of flood control in Assam is that no one will permit any tall dams to be built in the State either to control floods or to generate sizeable dollops of hydroelectric power. We have had a great deal of experience of what floodwaters can do in Assam when rivers are not dammed and the water is allowed to flow freely. We have no experience of what could happen if there are a few huge high-level dams that could block the water and hold it for generation of electricity all through the year including the dry season. There are quite a few people of the view that Assam might be better off if a few huge dams are constructed to hold the water during the monsoon months, so that the inundating water does not cause the kind of death and destruction that it has been doing year after year. The issue is not a terribly complicated one. For years together we have witnessed what free-flowing rivers can do during the monsoon months. Are the heavens really going to fall if we were to build a few dams to control the flow of water? Do we have the courage to choose an altertive that may have the possibility of both controlling floods and generating very impressive amounts of electrical power? Or, do some of our rulers feel better off if they have the means of politicizing floods as they have been politicising poverty year after year? Much of our fears of what might happen if a huge dam were to collapse may well have been stoked by what our politicians want us to believe. And such politicians are not at all happy about scientists and engineers with experience of building huge dams interacting with the people and the media of Assam in order to find out whether building huge tall dams in Assam will really have only one outcome: that the dams will collapse and the calamity to the people will be greater than what they have gone through over the last three or four decades. Are we going to let an assumption about high dams (that could be no different from a myth) control our destiny for all times to come?