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A pragmatic option

The recommendation by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources to the Central Government for inclusion of river erosion

erosion

Sentinel Digital Desk

The recommendation by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources to the Central Government for inclusion of river erosion in the admissible list of calamities for availing assistance under National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF)/ State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) has huge significance for Assam. Acceptance of the recommendation by the Central Government can bring respite to lakhs of erosion-displaced families in the state. The parliamentary panel has noted in its report that river erosion in Assam is a big perennial problem causing significant economic loss, besides displacement of population. An estimated 8,000 hectares of land is lost every year to erosion caused by the river Brahmaputra, Barak and their tributaries causing multiple displacements of thousands of families in Assam, but their rehabilitation has been a big challenge due to exclusion of river erosion from notified list disaster to avail NDRF/SDRF fund. Even though the Assam government has notified erosion as a state-specific disaster, the fund available for providing relief to erosion-hit families is quite less as only 10% of the SDRF can be utilised for state-specific disasters. Official estimates show that more than 2,500 villages have been eroded and wiped out in riverbank erosion in the state over the past six decades which justifies notifying erosion in Assam as a nationally notified disaster. Under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, it is the SDRF that is primarily available with the State Government for disaster response. The Central government provides 90% of the SDRF assistance and the state's contribution is 10% in the case of special category states in the northeast region. If the State government fully utilizes the SDRF allocations and submit utilization certificates, then the additional requirement under SDRF is met from an allocation from the NDRF based on an assessment following the visit of an Inter-Ministerial Central Team to affected areas. The total SDRF allocation for Assam for the current year is Rs 686.40 crore which means only Rs 68 crore is available for utilization by the State government for providing relief to erosion-affected households. The rest amount is available for flood-related disaster response such as providing gratuitous relief, search and rescue operations, relief measures, clearance of affected areas, assistance against crop damage, against damaged houses and repair/restoration of immediate nature of damaged infrastructure. While floodwaters leave the trail of destruction for assessment of the damage, the same infrastructure such as houses, roads, private and government buildings, homestead, and agricultural land completely vanish in erosion which often makes an accurate assessment of the losses difficult. Creating an inventory of losses due to erosion can help overcome the problem of timely and correct assessment. Loss of livelihood resulting from loss of cultivable land also needs to be included in the inventory so that the economic loss due to erosion can be quantified in all respects and factored in while deciding the quantum of assistance under SDRF. Nearly 40% of Assam's total land is flood-prone and the area of the river Brahmaputra widening to almost double over the last century explain how the twin problems of flood and erosion in the state have aggravated and why these problems need to be looked at as special cases by the Central government while disaster response policies, programmes, and projects. The Assam government apprised the parliamentary panel that the Highest Flood Level of the rivers in the flood plain is increasing due to continuous deposition of silt and flood and erosion have more destructive because the Brahmaputra Valley is densely populated and "substantial displacement of the population has occurred due to riverbank erosion." Measures taken so far did not yield the desired result on account of the extremely shallow riverbed of the river and heavy sediment carried by the river in the monsoon, according to the state government. One of the solutions proposed by the Central government for addressing the twin problem is the building of large storage dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra and its northern tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh. The solution, however, faces hurdles of rehabilitation of people that will be required due to submerging of land if large storage dams are built. This will require cooperation by Arunachal Pradesh. The parliamentary committee expressed the view that before undertaking any ambitious project such as the construction of a large storage dam, howsoever, it may be useful, a proper study to assess the impact on the environment and ecology, as well as the flow of the river, need to be conducted. The question of the viability of hydropower projects due to the construction of storage dams also poses a stumbling block to such a solution. Settling these questions is not easy but cannot be ignored before pushing the large storage dams as a solution to Assam's flood and erosion problems. Until then inclusion of erosion in the list of nationally notifiable disasters is the pragmatic option available.

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