Assam is barely halfway through the rainy season this year and already over 40 lives have been lost due to floods. Last year in May when the BJP-led alliance government took over reins in Dispur, it walked straight into damaging floods with the State recording 60 percent more rains than it did in the corresponding period in 2015. There were 26 embankment breaches across the State and 26 lives were lost. There was then much talk about forming committees to keep tabs on embankments in the dry season and firming up flood prevention measures. But the continuing fund squeeze left the incoming government’s hands tied. Much hope was pinned on the Central government loosening its purse strings to release funds for repair and bolstering of embankments. The expectation was that the Centre would do something to release part of the Rs 1,200 crore for 89 embankment reinforcement projects drawn up by Assam government, with Dispur’s share fixed at 30 percent of total cost. New Delhi released around Rs 347 crore under SDRF for repair and strengthening of the damaged embankments and erosion protection works. Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal then set April 30 this year as the deadline to complete embankment works, warning officers of ‘stringent action’ if they failed to do so. But what can the government do to put contractors to work, if they clamour about past bills not yet cleared? And now, embankments are already giving way in the State, which is hardly surprising with most of them past their expiry dates. As many as 295 out of the existing 423 embankments, which account for 3,998 kms out of total 4,474 kms of embankment in Assam, have long crossed their 25-year lifespans. However, the embankment breach in Lakhimpur district bears watching for a different reason. After NEEPCO’s hydro project on Rangadi at Yazali in Aruchal Pradesh was forced to release waters, a great surge of floodwater broke through geo-mat barriers to breach a key embankment at Bogolijan. The district headquarters may be inundated at any instant unless the situation improves soon. If this is the damage a 405 MW hydel project can do because of its ibility to hold excess floodwater, the mind boggles at the havoc downstream a 2,000 MW project like the one over Subansiri can cause.
There is a crying need for clean power in Assam as well as other parts of the country, but there can be no compromise with storage capacities and safeguards in hydro projects being envisaged in this region. The Centre has repeatedly cited technical difficulties in treating Assam’s flood problem as a tiol problem, but this is not something that can be solved with piecemeal approach and funding. The tragedy for Assam is that its administrative machinery is rushing about to plug leaking embankments past their lifetimes, when these very embankments are part of the problem. With human settlements reaching right up to the banks of rivers due to exploding population, it is either embankments or bust. Experts have repeatedly called upon the government to review the existing policy of building embankments, ensure tural outlets for floodwaters to flow, and seek localized solutions based on the lay of the land while involving local people as stakeholders. Embankments force the Brahmaputra and other rivers to flow along rrow channels which get shallower due to high siltation, particularly near the banks. The huge pressure during the rains on embankments is difficult to withstand, more so if they are long past their lifespans. The problem is aggravated by artificial congestions along the entire rrow and elongated Brahmaputra valley, due to bridges, roads and sluice gates. Rather than focusing on techno-engineering interventions like building dykes and embankments, various non-structural measures like including flood plain zoning, flood proofing and flood forecasting, along with capacity building of riverine communities have been suggested in the tiol Disaster Magement Guidelines of 2008. But all such proposals have remained on paper and limited to academic discussions. On the ground — as in Assam — it is the minister-bureaucrat-engineer-contractor chain that determines how flood protection and mitigation works are taken up. In several flooded places this year itself, locals have aired their complaints before the media of shoddy works, lack of public information about such projects, and unknown but big-shot contractors not even bothering to visit the sites. So when these badly repaired embankments again collapse, it is the hapless locals who bear the brunt of the fury of rivers. Such flooding during rains and erosion through the rest of the year are not only taking away land and destroying resources, these are breaking down traditiol livelihood practices. Clearly, flood control in Assam has to be more holistic and democratic if it is to have any lasting impact.