There is much heartburn over Union Home Minister Rajth Singh not only failing to announce a flood aid package for Assam, but even in acknowledging the State’s flood situation as a ‘tiol calamity’. While winding up his whirlwind one-day visit to the State on Saturday to assess the flood damage, Singh pointed out that Rs 620 crore is already lying in the State Disaster Response Fund which may be used immediately. ‘Once this amount is utilized, Centre will give more funds,’ is what the Home minister promised. Mentioning that the Assam Chief Minister has handed him a memorandum detailing flood-related losses, Singh said a Central team of ministers will soon visit Assam to prepare a report on the damage. Based on these inputs, the Centre will supposedly take a decision on opening its purse-strings. The Home minister was evasive about the ‘tiol calamity’ question, saying that such a declaration ‘will not solve Assam’s problem’. What he sought instead was an action plan from the State government on how it wants to go about solving this problem, and why it arises in the first place. Singh does have a point here, for the State is yet to thoroughly study this problem, let alone formulating a comprehensive response. Whatever little we know about the Brahmaputra’s peculiar draige and flow is courtesy the efforts of some experts.
The Assam budget this year proposes to pursue with World Bank to take up a Rs 1,500 crore Assam flood erosion and river magement modernization project. Another proposal seeks to modernize the hydro-meteorological data collection system by using modern technology under tiol Hydrology Project (NHP), also aided by the World Bank. So unless Dispur gets a thorough handle on a problem that has gobbled up 4 lakh hectares in the State, there is no way it can think of solving or even maging it with long term effect. In the past, the Assam government had on different occasions petitioned the Centre for ‘tiol problem’ tag to flood and erosion in Assam. Resolutions to this effect were passed by the Assam assembly too in 2002, 2012 and 2015, but the Centre remained unmoved. The issue figured during the 2005 tripartite talks between the Centre, Assam government and AASU; the Centre reportedly agreed to the request, only to make a volte-face in no time. Whether it is NDA or UPA ruling at the Centre, Assam’s flood problem has been an issue to do some politics with, but never a recurring human crisis needing long-term response with matching fincial backing. Other weightier states pushing their own agendas forcefully have figured more in New Delhi’s calculations. What Assam has been getting over the years is dibs and dabs of Central assistance under different headings to tackle floods. This in turn has set up a long-running, continuous scam in this State with politicians and babus falling over themselves to siphon away the funds.
No government ought to put up with such wholesale loot of public money to tackle a problem causing so much public grief, but that is what has been happening in Assam with the Centre winking at it. The opposition Congress is now demanding the BJP-alliance government should wrest a Rs 1,200 crore from the Centre, even though it failed to get a similar package in bygone years when it was ruling at the Centre as well as in Assam. If the hard-nosed Modi government is now wary of making a big bang commitment in the me of flood relief, there is not much Dispur can do, given its past record. As for announcing packages, the NDA government has already tied itself up in knots in Jammu & Kashmir. Devastating floods hit that state in 2014. When the Centre last year announced a Rs 1,667 crore relief package for rehabilitation of flood victims in J&K, it was denounced as the ‘biggest joke of this century’ by trade, tourism and civil society bodies there. They had estimated the damage at Rs 1 lakh crore, which the J&K government had whittled down to Rs 44,000 crore. So the Centre’s package was a big letdown, despite thousands of crores already released earlier for the state to combat floods. Prime Minister Modi later followed up with announcing a Rs 80,000 crore package for J&K, including 7,854 crore for flood relief, reconstruction and magement. It remains to be seen how much of that aid actually translates to meaningful action on the ground in that state. People across the country have in fact become cynical of Central governments announcing large packages, particularly before elections. Had it not been so, Prime Minister Modi would have done better with the Bihar electorate with his huge package announcements. The Assam government must now firmly push its case with the Centre of the damage floods have wrought to 28 districts and nearly 2 lakh hectare cropland in the State. It must devise a comprehensive action plan, seek funds under appropriate heads, and for a change, make proper use of the money.