The recent wave of floods in the State has once again shown up how vast areas remain critically dependent on embankments repaired again and again over the years. They are the only bulwark against turbulent rivers, so once they give way, which is often, the deluge sweeps away everything. Long past their lifetimes, most of these embankments begin to leak as the water pressure begins rising. Roots of trees spreading through embankments, rodents burrowing within and other wear and tear factors constantly weaken embankments, which therefore need regular maintence. But funds are not released timely by the Central or State governments from their shares, so contractors leave their works incomplete. That is inviting disaster, because when it comes to repairing and strengthening an embankment against the might of a river, nothing can be left partially done. No wonder it has been a losing battle in Assam, which has the longest length of embankments in the country at nearly 5,000 kms. Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal has now petitioned Prime Minister rendra Modi with the proposal to develop these embankments as road-cum-embankments under a special PM’s scheme for flood and erosion control. Once the road component is added, surely regular funding and improved technology can be accessed to maintain embankments, so goes the thinking in Dispur. The PM has referred the proposal to the DoNER minister, so it remains to be seen how strongly the State government pushes its case with a detailed plan.
However, mere conversion of embankments to road-cum-embankments will not guarantee their safety unless it is accompanied by regular river channel maintence. The proposed dredging of the Brahmaputra along its entire length from Sadiya to Dhubri (and also beyond to Bangladesh) is a mega project in itself, also having the component of two expressways to be built on its north and south banks by the silt dredged up from the riverbed. The coming days will reveal how urgently the Central government goes ahead with this project, but channel maintence ought to be a scientific policy-guided, year-round activity. It is unforgiveable how district administrations at present allow haphazard sand mining activities close to river banks. This ensures that water currents flow deep and strong near the banks, threatening to overwhelm embankments during the rains and erode and undercut it during the dry season. But sand mafias are getting a free run in cahoots with a section of administration. Illegal sand mining is a dangerous activity that must be strictly combated. Overall, the mentality that has turned embankment building into a parallel economy in Assam must go. Hitherto, embankments have been projected as the only one-stop solution to protect human settlements against flooding, but it seems the motive has been to hold on to embankments as money spinners — with contractors paying back politicians their lions share. After all, the government has no altertive but to repair or rebuild a breached or collapsed embankment to keep it in ‘operative condition’, if it has to protect habitations — a sort of blackmail to keep public money flowing. Over Rs 30,000 crore have been spent for flood prevention in Assam since the 1950s, most of it on embankments, yet it still provides political parties the ammunition to blast each other as to where all that money has disappeared.
Obviously, seeking long term solutions to flooding involves hard work, and has been uttractive to a section of officialdom because the ‘fund flow’ from the Centre is not guaranteed. There is, of course, the big dam lobby that advocates building dams and reservoirs upstream to regulate water flow and prevent floods. Others have suggested a broad-based, regiol hydraulic approach, centred around the river basin while accounting for inflows from Tibet and Bhutan highlands, besides also assessing the recharge of groundwater aquifers. It is also pointed out that if there is no concerted effort to help Aruchal Pradesh keep its green cover, it will keep losing its top soil while rivers downstream will keep getting shallower with the washed down silt. The Brahmaputra with its 103 tributaries is a notoriously difficult entity to control — the fourth largest river in the world in terms of annual discharge, highly unstable due to aggradations of the riverbed, intense braiding and heavy sediment load. Most experts are unimous on one point — that embankments are a temporary solution at best, but once a government starts building embankments, it becomes a permanent activity. Doubtless, vested interest has much to do with why embankments continue on and on. In Assam, many embankments are, in fact, used as roads and high shelter points by people. Now that the State government wants to make it official and turn these into road-cum-embankments, it needs to also ponder upon what permanent effect that will have on draige and ecology, on the overall health of the river.