In characteristic businesslike manner, Prime Minister rendra Modi took stock of flood damage in five Northeast States in a marathon series of meetings on Tuesday, absorbing presentations made by the State governments. He then announced an overall package of Rs 2,000 crore for the affected NE states. The PM also made it clear that a “significant component of this package will be devoted to repairing damaged infrastructure and improving water holding capacity of the Brahmaputra”. Taking a long term view, he has stressed ‘proper magement of water resources’ of the NE region, beginning with a study by a high-power committee to suggest measures for permanently solving the flood problem. Specifically, a corpus fund of Rs 100 crore has been created for conducting this study. The Prime Minister reportedly said that spending money for flood relief year after year is no solution at all, that what is needed is to go to the root to tackle this scourge. This study is therefore planned to be comprehensive in scope by taking in the multi-state and multi-tiol dimension of the flood problem. How the rainwater cascades down from the high reaches of neighbouring country Bhutan as well as other NE States into the rrow Brahmaputra valley and creates havoc — is the larger picture that needs be appreciated before we get to how the problem has been aggravated by loss of green cover and top soil in the upper catchment areas that lie in these States. No government at the Centre has so far displayed the will to look at the larger picture and seek permanent solutions through coordited action. The Brahmaputra Board set up by an Act in 1980 was limited in its scope to ‘planning and integrated implementation’ in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, a mandate it has failed miserably in doing justice to from New Delhi. In 2011, the then UPA government at the Centre did think about restructuring the Brahmaputra Board into a wider, autonomous basin authority to be med ‘North East & Brahmaputra River Rejuvetion Authority (NEBRRA)’. After threshing over the inputs received from stakeholder States, the NDA government’s thinking last year veered around to a proposed ‘Brahmaputra Barak North-East River Development Corporation (BBNERDC)’. And there the matter has stood so far.
And in all these years, as it was earlier, the Centre’s response to the flood problem in Assam has been mostly knee-jerk, limited to announcing packages which fell far short of the expectations here. Meanwhile, a parallel economy in the State developed around these Central flood relief packages. State government departments spent thousands of crores of Central money which enriched vested interests, but have left no system in place till date to combat floods. Yet demands are occasiolly raised in the State that its flood scourge be given a ‘tiol problem’ tag, with the expectation that it will permanently loosen the Centre’s purse strings. So we need to read between the lines of what Prime Minister Modi told Assam government officials in Tuesday’s review meeting. “Flood ravages Assam every year, and funds come to the State every year. That’s no solution. What I want to get across is that we shouldn’t allow rerun of floods in the State,” he reportedly said. While stating that the Centre needs to be sensitive to this region’s flood problem and adopt a positive mindset, he also stressed that the problem of Assam as a downstream state will have to be studied thoroughly and discussed with experts having wide field experience as well as riparian people. Appreciating this as the “main takeaway” from the PM’s visit, State Fince Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has pointed out that no proper study on the Brahmaputra has been undertaken before by the Centre to evolve permanent flood control solutions. Referring to the last such study by Professor Dulal Goswami of Gauhati University, Sarma has said that the mighty Brahmaputra’s character has changed much since then and it is presently 50% larger in volume. A comprehensive study now is a must as all future flood control and mitigation measures will be based upon it. Truly, the Brahmaputra is a unique river in many aspects, recognised to be a heavily sediment-prone river second only to Chi’s Hwang Ho. Experts have called for integrated watershed magement in Brahmaputra’s upper reaches, reviving wetlands linked to the main channel, use of traditiol expertise and local short-term data, and a well thought out policy on embankments, dam building, dredging the riverbed and river linking. To consider all these complex and inter-linked issues with a really problem-solving approach is the need of the hour, instead of quibbling over the quantum of flood relief packages year after year.