Embankments in Assam: Boon or Curse?
By Kishor Kumar Kalita
Because of the enormity of losses and sufferings caused by flood and erosion over the last few decades, both are considered the most crucial problems affecting particularly the Brahmaputra valley of Assam. The Brahmaputra has been the lifeline of this part of India and the mighty river runs for 2,880 kms through Chi, India and Bangladesh. Any alluvial river of such magnitude has problems of sediment erosion-deposition attached with it; the Brahmaputra and its tributaries are no exception in this regard. Most of the rivers and tributaries of the Northeast region are characterized by exceedingly large flow, enormous volume of sediment load, continuous changes in channel morphology, rapid bed aggradations and bank line recession and erosion. These rivers are flowing in the alluvial plains of Assam and therefore the lateral changes in channels cause severe erosion along the banks, leading to a considerable loss of good fertile land every year. The enduring problems of flood, erosion and draige congestion in the basin area of the Brahmaputra has created a deeper impact in the socio-economic dymics of the State. As the flood and river erosion is responsible for large-scale displacement of people from their abodes as well as loss of livelihood, it has also become the root cause for intra-migration throughout the State. The greater issues of identity, rights on common property resources, land and shelter, ethnic conflicts are largely connected with the happenings of such intra migration.
According to the estimates of the tiol Flood Commission, around 3.15 lakh hectares of land is prone to floods in Assam, which is 9.4% of the total flood prone area of India. Considering the vulnerability to flood, the government of India after the devastating earthquake of 1950, had instructed the Assam government to construct embankments as a means to solve this problem. The then State government made no delay to follow the charlatanism of the Union government and constructed a number of embankments in a hasty manner. Both these governments apparently ignored the very important need to study the river morphology before constructing embankments. Such an essentiality was ignored and with the fincial assistance of the Union government, the government of Assam constructed 4,176 kms of embankments within a period of three decades.i.e from1954 to 1980. According to an official statement, the existing cumulative length of embankments is 4,459 kms till 2007, and out of that 4,176 kms, i.e.93.5% of the total length, have been constructed before 1980. (Source: Information received under RTI Act 2005 by Society for Socio-economic Development in the Region, Guwahati, Ref. No:DP/WR/13/06/142).
These embankments were supposed to provide protection from inundation by flood and a positive argument was developed by the government for embankment construction, where such mechanism was postulated as the cheapest and most direct method for flood magement. Such a hypothetical and untested flood magement module was literally imposed upon the common people and because of their illiteracy in the sphere of modern science and technology; they had no option but to accept it. It was anticipated that such a mechanism would reduce the flood vulnerability and people would have a better of life with irrigation facilities in their agricultural fields.
But the result of constructing embankment was quite antithetical to its desired expectation. Instead of mitigating floods, this has exacerbated the problem by adding many new negative dimensions. The problem of erosion, which many groups and organisations have identified as an unfortute induction in the post-embankment period in Assam, is now becoming the root cause of many socio-political and economic problems of the State. It has also deepened interl conflicts within the indigenous community as a historical consequence of losing land because of rivers, thereby aggravating conflict over land.
Now the most pertinent question is about the sustence and usability of these embankments. It has been observed in the last couple of decades that instead of solving the flood problem in Assam, these embankments have regressively added more problems like erosion, breaching of embankments, displacement and more profusely siltation both in river beds and cropfields. The above mentioned RTI reply given by the Water Resources department of Assam has mentioned that 93.5% of the total embankment length is more than 28 years old and all these need timely and proper maintaince.To examine the state of existing embankments in Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, the government of Assam constituted a committee in 2007 with a view to find out the reason for breaches of embankments during the floods of 2007-08 and to submit recommendations about the action to be taken to prevent such breaches in future. This committee was headed by PP Verma, the then Additiol Chief Secretary to the Govt of Assam and the committee submitted its report in 2008.
In its report, the committee observed that the government has allotted very limited resources for the maintence of these embankments, and therefore structurally these are becoming weak and prone to breaches at any time. The committee rigorously stated in the report that the norms recommended by the Rashtriya Barh Ayog and tiol Flood Commission were also not followed in maintaining and repairing these embankments. The Verma committee categorised the entire network of embankments into three groups viz. extremely vulnerable, vulnerable and reasobly safe — and provided a series of recommendations to minimize the chances of breaches and consequent flood damages thereof. One of the most important recommendations of the Verma Committee was about suitable enhancement of repair and maintence allocation. It said: "The repairs of the damages and maintence should be started immediately after the rains stop i.e. by mid October every year, and should be carefully executed and completed by 31st March next year, with the help of expert advice in planned manner." Other recommendations suggested measures like repair and maintence of embankments during the rainy season; re-introduction of patrolling in embankments; proper research to study river; taming of river by constructing low level detention structure; flood forecasting system; deployment of amphibian dredgers for dredging the specified silted bed of different rivers etc. (Source: the above RTI reply No: DP/WR/13/06/142)
Surprisingly, so far, none of the above recommendations of the said committee has been implemented by the Government Assam. The people of Assam have a right to know about the present status of all the existing embankments in the State as well as reasons of non-implementation of the recommendations prescribed by the Verma Committee.