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Floods, embankments and water management


The State government has made a few very significant announcement s in connection with floods in Assam in the on-going winter session of the State Legislative Assembly. While the first is about adoption of a new policy which proposes to make additional use of embankments along rivers as road networks, the other is about the Centre’s decision to constitute a unified agency called North East Water Management Authority (NEWMA) for effective flood management in the entire region. Construction of embankments on both sides of the Brahmaputra, the Barak and their 100-plus big and small tributaries, which began soon after the country attained independence, has more remained a money-spinning mechanism for a section of corrupt politicians, corrupt officials and unscrupulous contractors, rather than solving or at least easing the flood problem.

Floods have remained an annual scourge for Assam for several decades now. Yet, none of the State’s engineering colleges and universities have ever had any well-designed course – under-graduate or post-graduate – for producing engineers, scientists, planners and policy-makers for effective flood management in the region. This alone is enough to drive home the point that the government – irrespective of which party has been in power – has not been serious enough to effectively tackle floods and erosion. That the existing network of embankments has long surpassed their period of efficacy has been a story that has been in circulation for the past three decades now. That the embankments have only complicated the flood problem rather than solving it has also remained a major topic of discussion.

Critics have argued that embankments have only cut off the numerous water bodies – beels and wetlands that used to serve as God-gifted water cushions during the high flood season – in the process contributing towards abnormal increase in water-level of rivers during the peak of monsoon. Moreover, most paddy fields have been prevented from getting the rich alluvial deposit that the Brahmaputra and its tributaries used to earlier leave behind as an annual gift for thousands of farmers. About the movement of fish and other aquatic living beings, the less said the better. Granting of land pattas on char islands to suspected infiltrators and people of immigrant origin have further disturbed the Brahmaputra, leading to bank erosion in which most losers are families belonging to the indigenous communities. Now that the State government has announced using embankments as roads too, the question can arise as to whether the construction process of the embankments had actually factored in the vehicle load factor during the designing phase.

The government has so long restricted, if not fully banned, plying of vehicles on embankments because of the damage it could cause to the vital flood-protection structure. The Centre’s decision to constitute the North East Water Management Authority on the other hand is a welcome move. But then what needs to be examined by experts from various fields is whether this new agency will only look at water or also at the numerous factors that have caused the vast water resource of the region to behave in an increasingly erratic manner. The very intention of setting up NEWMA will be meaningless if factors like massive deforestation, indiscriminate earth-cutting, establishment of numerous hydel dam projects, various climate change factors, and above all the diversion of Brahmaputra by China are not brought under its purview. Citizens of the region have so far not heard their hon’ble Members of Parliament raise or discuss these issues, whether in Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha.

Nothing has been also heard about hon’ble MPs from the eight North-eastern States ever sitting down with domain experts to understand the nitty-gritty of the complicated water-environment-development nexus. Such an exercise would not only have helped them in raising and discussing the issues in Parliament, but would have also provided them with the technical details which they could have discussed with their constituencies. In the absence of such exercises, all that is likely to happen is that while on one hand floods and erosion will continue like before, on the other, NEWMA will turn out to be another white elephant like the Brahmaputra Board.