With the rains likely to recede in a month, Assam is faced with the painful task to rebuild even as the administration grapples with distribution of flood relief. In the three waves of floods that have hit the State this year, over 73 lakh people have been affected and 158 lives lost, the highest death toll in past seven years. Yet all this devastation may soon be a distant memory in the public mind as the festive season gets underway, unless we take stock of related problems dogging the State round the year. River bank erosion will remain potent even in the dry months, and is in fact a bigger headache than floods. Assam has been losing on average 8,000 hectares of land every year due to erosion. The State Water Resources Department estimates the cumulative loss at around 4.27 lakh hectares since 1950, which works out to 7.4 percent of the State’s area. Thriving villages and prime agricultural land have been swallowed up by the Brahmaputra and other rivers, yet successive governments in Dispur are nowhere near to formulating a sound policy to resettle the growing numbers of landless people. The drift continues with corrupt sections of Land Revenue officials capitalising on archaic land laws and practices. But two districts — Dhemaji and Lakhimpur — have been battling a greater scourge over the past three decades, which many experts consider to be a fallout of climate change in Assam’s interiors. It is the gradual desertification of the two districts, buried under thick layers of sand and gravel brought in by turbulent rivers year after year. Lakhimpur has been badly hit this year too, with alarming data already reported in a prelimiry survey by district agriculture officials. The depredations of Brahmaputra, Rangadi, Subansiri, Jiadhol, Dikrong, Singora and other rivers have left a total area of around 3,565 hectares in the district covered by sand. This is likely to impact thousands of agrarian families struggling to preserve whatever little fertility is left in their croplands.
As for Dhemaji, once the rice bowl of the State, this extensive ‘sand-casting’ phenomenon has saddled it with the sobriquet of ‘monsoon desert’. Hemmed in by the Brahmaputra on its south and having the Aruchal Himalayas to its north, this easternmost district of Assam has been witnessing sand deposits 3-5 feet and sometimes 10-13 feet in depth. The ubiquitous sand has filled up lowlands and water bodies, buried long stretches of key roads and made farming all but impossible. The many exotic varieties of paddy once grown here is now a thing of the past. With the soil in large parts of Dhemaji rendered mostly sandy, acidic and devoid of water and nutrient holding capacity, farmers have to gird up loins to really make something grow on the land. The mixed population here with a large component of indigenous people are however a hardy lot — going for altertive crops like mulberry, peanuts and sugarcane, while also experimenting with pisciculture, pottery and other livelihoods. Despite being cut off by floods for long months, Dhemaji has been consistently figuring right on top in the results of board fils, but the exodus of youths from the district is an inevitable outcome. The cultivators are left staring at barren, unproductive lands from where clearing off sand deposits is a forbiddingly costly proposition. The problem stems from the fact that floods are no longer ture’s blessings of yore — which once used to leave behind a fertile layer of fine, mineral-rich alluvium or silt on the land. With the Earth heating up fast, rains are getting more intense and confined to a 3-4 months window. This has made rivers here more violent during the monsoons, gouging up coarse sand and gravel from their beds in large quantities.
As these swollen rivers change course swiftly and rampage through Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts, embankments are breached and top soil from the fields washed off while sand is deposited in vast quantities. This year, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur have been among the districts worst affected by floods, along with Majuli, Koliabor subdivision of gaon district, Kokrajhar, Mankachar and Dhubri. But the gradual desertification of vast swathes of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts call for specific response from Dispur, involving as it does the livelihoods of large numbers of vulnerable people. In the context of Prime Minister rendra Modi announcing allocation of Rs 100 crore for a comprehensive study to go into the roots of the flooding problem, the Assam government needs to explore ways for better magement of upper catchment areas with its counterpart in Aruchal. After all, shifting cultivation, tree felling, boulder extraction and development works like road and dam building are all suspected to contribute to the sand deposition problem, so their roles ought to be examined at depth. The sole focus on embankment building and repair also needs be reassessed. Above all, it is high time Dispur devises a model to properly estimate the cost of irreversible damage to croplands due to sand deposition, work out how to relieve the distress of affected people and help them with some altertive income avenues.