It is hardly surprising that a State like Assam with so many rivers should also have a large number of embankments to contain, control and direct the flow of rivers. This is largely because quite a few of the rivers of the State turn into rivers of sorrow during the monsoon months. It is well known that dams and embankments have somewhat different functions, and that, therefore, it is not essential that embankments should be as strong as dams are. Besides, dams are rarely as long as embankments are. Even so, embankments should be strong enough to eble the estimated flow of water to take place without any breach in the embankments. Unfortutely, in Assam, most of the embankments are constantly in need of repair. This is because they were not constructed strong enough at the beginning. As a result, it is the repair of embankments, rather than the construction of new ones that has become front-page news in Assam today. According to a statement made to jourlists recently by the State Water Resources Minister Keshab Mahanta, his department had taken 98 schemes for repairs and strengthening of embankments in 2016-17. Of these, 94 schemes were completed in April this year, while the remaining four were completed in May due to constraints imposed by court cases. The minister also told jourlists that the State government was mulling over whether black toppings could be done on embankments to strengthen them. He said a proposal in this regard would be sent to the Centre very soon.
What passes our understanding is that the total focus of the State government should be on the repair of existing embankments rather than the construction of new ones. This is a situation that clearly indicates how casually our engineering departments and the contractors engaged by the relevant departments have taken the task of maintaining our river embankments in proper order to ensure the safety of people living in areas along the embankments. The recent devastating wave of floods is reported to have damaged embankments in 26 places in 15 districts. This is a clear indication of the fact that the construction of embankments and their proper maintence has not been taken up as seriously as they should have been in a State plagued by floods every year. There have been condemble instances of contractors providing totally substandard work even in the repair of embankments. What is often overlooked by the State government is that more often than not our contractors are out to make easy money out of such a repair work which can be repeated every year and given to the same set of contractors under different mes. As a consequence, the entire business of repairing embankments in Assam has become a lucrative one for contractors.
There have been countless complaints about contractors who complete their repair works of embankments with some sand, earth and stone chips so that there can be the appearance of repair works having been done. Neither the contractors nor the engineers seem to be even remotely concerned about the large number of people who would be seriously endangered whenever an embankment is damaged at any spot and permits floodwaters to create havoc in neighbouring areas. A case in point is the Hatimura embankment at the confluence of the Brahmaputra and the Kolong that was constructed in 1963. It was last “strengthened” in 2010-11. The breach in the Hatimura embankment on the night of August 12 led to devastating floods in Koliabar sub-division. Even so the minister has asserted that there weren’t any anomalies in the repair work carried out earlier. However, there are allegations of shoddy and substandard work by the two contractors involved, one of whom was the minister’s friend and the other his brother.
It has become very important that the entire business of maintaining our embankments is seen as large-scale and expensive repairs to most of them and more as a task of strengthening our embankments rather than irresponsible patch-up jobs that are viewed as highly lucrative contracts involving very meagre investments. It is important for our State administration to take the cue from south Indian States like Tamil du, Andhra Pradesh, Telenga and Kartaka to learn how embankments are to be built and maintained. Several of the embankments in the south Indian States are over 100 years old. In the south no one talks of patching up embankments. There is occasiolly talk about strengthening them, but the origil construction and maintence of embankments in south India is so excellent that the question of repairing embankments or of their leaking anywhere is generally ruled out. We need to have an attitude towards the strengthening of embankments that has some resemblance with the norms prevalent in south India mainly because such norms reflect a genuine concern for the safety and welfare of the people. When one thinks of the general attitude to embankments in Assam, there is a strong feeling that no one is really thinking about the fate of the people in the event of an embankment getting damaged and inundating huge areas with flood water. People in flood-prone areas have a stronger right to much greater care in the magement of our dams and embankments. This is what our State government needs to keep in mind at all times.