A brief note on Floods and Erosion in Assam: Problems without Prospects

In Assam, for those who perhaps do not directly suffer, floods and erosion are an annual affair that come and leave with the monsoon. Every coming year is equally or more devastating than the earlier one. Mridugunjan Deka makes a case on the seriousness of the issue, using publicly available and accessible government data sources. 

I first went to a relief camp for flood and erosion affected people in December 2017 while working on my master’s dissertation in Chirang district, Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). The families taking shelter in the camp had lost their lands and homes to the Aai river in the monsoon of that year. I remember the experience because until then our (I was along with a friend) only foray into the field was with people who had been displaced due to ethnic conflict and conflict induced insecurity. We struggled to communicate with the people who had taken shelter in an open field, because our interviews until then were centred on human agency and human induced displacements. How do you start talking about displacement due to erosion and floods in a region/state that is better known for being an ethnic cauldron, where small and big communities are in complex interlinked and delicate relationships with each other, encased in the language of indigeneity, resource, state apathy and relative deprivation? These are questions where the issue of floods and erosions have a crucial stake. In Assam, for those who perhaps do not directly suffer, floods and erosion are an annual affair that come and leave with the monsoon. I try to make a case here on the seriousness of the issue, primarily using publicly available and accessible government data sources. 

Fire-fighting floods and erosion: Ineffective measures and damning data

The floods in Assam have become more devastating with the passage of time. In recent years, the intensity of damage has increased. Every coming year is equally or more devastating than the earlier, and this is a cause of serious concern because earlier the deluge used to be at its most damaging once every seven or ten years.  The Assam government’s Water Resources website shows a list of the average annual population affected by floods from 1950s onwards to the mid 2000s. From 1953-59, the number was at 8.5 lakhs, and the figure subsequently increased to 15 lakhs for the years 1960-69. It continued to increase: from 1970-79, 20 lakhs people on an average were affected annually. The figure more than doubled in the next decade (1980-88) 45.50 lakhs, and by 2005, it had increased to 45,86,000.1 When we jump straight to the year 2020, in the middle of July, an estimated 40 lakhs in Assam have been affected by the floods already across 27 districts among the state’s total of 33 districts. The floods are currently in their third wave, and there could be more flood waves incoming before the year ends.

The floods cause displacement which is both temporary and permanent in nature. Erosions along river banks and riverine islands, aggravated during floods, have permanently displaced people over the years. People displaced by floods have the option of returning to their homes and land (whether that land remains cultivable and homes habitable, is another serious matter), but this is an option that those displaced by erosion do not have. Accurate data on displacement, in the case of permanent displacement by erosion as well as temporary displacement during the floods is hard to come by and does not exist in a systematic manner. The numbers of those who get displaced are only accounted for when they move into the relief camps set up by the government. It is a well-known fact in Assam on the ground that many prefer to set up their own shelters of tarpaulin sheets and other makeshift paraphernalia along raised places like high roads, highways and embankments, rather than move into the government aided camps. According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), by mid July 2020, a total of approximately 49,000 people have been displaced by the floods and is now in relief camps. These official displacement figures are not the real figures because, as mentioned earlier, not all affected people go into the camps, while some take shelter with relatives and friends.

The data related to environmental disaster induced displacement in northeast India is amongst the least reliable 2. For conflict induced displacement, on the other hand, data is far widely and accurately available. However, blurred and obscured data does not take away from the fact that environmental disaster induced displacement and particularly flood cum erosion induced displacement in Assam is a serious issue. The recurring nature of this displacement should have made it one of the most important policy priorities over the years, and yet that is not the case. Non-governmental estimates, for instance those given by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) for India, mentioned that 3.6 million people (36 lakhs) were displaced on an average annually between the years 2008-2019. Most of these displacements were ‘majorly by flooding during the monsoon’, the IDMC quoted 3. These data point towards a policy imperative that is made invisible in the media discourse, and with more grave consequences, in the policy directives by the state government in collaboration with the Centre, whose approach is limited to fire fighting after the disaster occurs.

The state agencies refuse to learn from indigenous knowledge or community knowledge, a tendency that could be construed as nothing short of governmental or bureaucratic arrogance. A video that went viral in the social media filmed by the social activist, Soneswar Narah and his colleagues, from Bokakhat, an area near the Kaziranga National Park (85% land area has reportedly drowned in the national park at the time of writing), showed local people complaining about faulty practices by engineers and contractors involved in water related public infrastructure. The people complained that the engineers had ignored the warnings of the local villagers, and went ahead with a sluice gate construction, designed faultily because the water flowed at a sharper angle onto the other side of the embankment. “We told them they had put the gates too high up and as a result, the water fell at a greater force and dug up the edges of the embankment”, a man is heard saying in the video. Over the years, a sort of embankment Raj has come up, where contractors, public infrastructure officials and politicians have much to gain, at the cost of any sustainable solution to the problem. There is a regular breaching of embankments every year for the want of adequate repairs or old-age weathering, only to be again less than satisfactorily re-built or re-paired. Mothawri Bhanga (literally in Assamese- breaking of an embankment) is an oft repeated phrase in the socio-space and media of the region.

 The water resources department website lists out the total length of embankments in the state at 4473.82 kilometres, most of which were constructed between the years 1954 (four years after a devastating earthquake) to the 1980s 4. These abnormally high numbers of embankments have failed, ever since their construction began, and this claim can be substantiated by citing the draft Assam State Water Policy of 2007.5 A total area of 3,86,000 hectares (3860 sq km), the draft policy report cited,  have been eroded between the years 1954-2004, the average eroded area being 80 sq km per year. There are more damning observations in the draft policy report- 90,700 families of 2534 villages were “brutally” affected due to erosion in the same period. These figures by the governmental agencies highlight the miserable failure of ‘flood control’ over sixty five years.

Despite the refusal to learn, a realisation on the ad-hoc nature of utility of embankments seems to be present on paper. The policies on paper, for example the National Water Policy of 2002, National Water Policy of 2012, mentioned “non-structural” measures in addition to embankment and dyke constructions. The 2012 National Water Policy spoke of rehabilitating natural drainage systems. For Assam, on all fronts, these policies have been non-existent with the repetitive failure of embankments in preventing floods and the rampant encroachment of wetlands by construction of apartment buildings (includes an apartment the author currently lives in), healthcare centres, malls, and educational institutions, among others. A need to engage communities for dealing with flood situations is recommended by the 2012 National Water Policy as well as the Draft Water Policy of the state. One is driven to wonder whether the realisation that all of these policies appear on paper only and not substantively anywhere else, has made the water resources department to bluntly state “no long term measures have been implemented so far to mitigate the flood and erosion problems of the state” in its website, in a rare moment of self confessed governmental failure. Such an admission however hides more than it reveals, as ad-hoc fire-fighting measures are annually implemented for the floods that come in multiple waves, conveniently overriding local knowledge of communities and sustaining the politician-contractor complex around the embankment Raj. Well-meaning civil society groups, citizen’s collectives and students raise donation drives, increasingly through the online medium now, to provide bare necessities as relief to the affected people. When flood/erosion induced displacement takes place, stepping up of the non-governmental groups is much needed to provide relief in the short term, or if the groups succeed in sustaining their work at a targeted level, it is done till the post-flood scenario. However, the rising number of such drives, inherently well meaning as they are, does raise the question of a normalisation of the problem, a pre-given ‘floods as usual’ that needs to be countered with short shrift measures of monetary assistance or assistance in kind.

Not running out of examples, Running out of policies?

Although comprehensive and accurate data on erosion induced displacement is hard to come by, an investigation by Amar Axom, an Assamese daily, reported that in the last 65 years a total 44,13,290 houses have been destroyed, losses of the same running into Rs 439.312 crores.6 The problem of erosion and floods is a twin one and cannot be viewed separately from each other; Baan-Khohonia (floods and erosion) is a two word term that had entered the local parlance, in the myriad news reports, civil society grammar and private communications. Damning data, although fragmented, on permanent erosion induced displacement is available. An RTI report revealed in 2019 that 228 schools in Dhubri district of Assam have been washed away by floods since 2012.7 The schools were state run elementary primary schools, and one simply doesn’t know how many private run and non-provincialised schools of the district have suffered a similar fate. Further east, in Barpeta district’s Sarbhog area, the river Beki had devoured about 20 bighas of agricultural land in the last three years. The same river, a little north in Baksa district, had eroded Tilabori village near Salbari. The erosion has meant loss of homes and fields for 50 families over a period of ten years, and as result of erosion, 80% of the village has been obliterated. We can cite the relatively well known case of Rohmoria near Dibrugarh city. It has lost nearly 40 villages in a span of five decades to the Brahmaputra. Mass demonstrations and protests by the affected people of Rohmoria have not shaken the conscience of the administration. Some commentators fear that the constant eroding of Rohmoria will pave the way for a complete disappearance of the city of Dibrugarh. The char (riverine islands of a semi-permanent nature) areas of Assam in places like Barpeta, Nagaon and other districts get constantly flooded. The ‘invisible” poor8 who reside in these areas are already at the margins of the state and its welfare agencies, and news of their displacement does not reach even the regional media.
In Assam, land has always been an emotive and contentious issue tied to tradition, economy and life of the multi-ethnic communities that have made it its home over the centuries. The fractured indigenous politics of the region is tied to land, as are the communities falling outside the pale of indigenous assertions. The survival of agrarian and riverine communities is tied to land. As a resource, land plays a crucial role in the delicate and complex relations between the numerous small and big communities of the state. One shudders at the thought of how these resource rooted conflicts could become more complex and more deadly in the years to come, if the twin flood and erosion problem is not accounted for in terms of its contribution to displacement.


 I grew up listening to the story of my great grandfather’s house in Baharghat, in Kamrup District. It was swept away by the river Borolia sometime in the second or third decade of the 20th century. With his homestead disappearing, he had to re-settle in a nearby village, not very far from his old land that disappeared under the river. Today, could a family re-settle in a similar manner near a spot where they had lost their land to river erosion and floods?

 Recently, there was word from the village that a portion of the land has re-appeared as the river had had a slight change in its course. The old well has reappeared too ! The ownership of the land however, after nearly a hundred years of disappearance, is not clear and is bound to raise problems in the event of any reclamation. Does the state have the language in its policies to deal with such displacements, and more importantly, the erosion induced displacements that take place year after year in the present times? Various official sources state that about 7.40% of the total land area of Assam was eroded by rivers in the last seventy years.  Assam is a state where a lot of ethnic conflict induced displacement had occurred over the years. Serious policy interventions are needed on a war footing, and a change in attitude towards local knowledge systems is needed, as much as the re-thinking of the feasibility of mega dams in a naturally flood prone and seismic zone. Peace is at stake because protracted conflicts tied to land would intensify in the coming years, and that is an alternative the region can ill afford.

All Photo Credits from Jonai by : Takam Mising Porin Kebang (TMPK) and Bhaskar Basumatary. Collected by Vishal Saikia. They were made available by the author.

Mridugunjan Deka is a research scholar at the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University. Mridugunjan can be reached at dekamridugunjan@gmail.com.

References:

  1.  Government of Assam- Water Resources. https://waterresources.assam.gov.in/, Accessed 19. July’2020.
  2. A) Hussain,Monirul (2007), Status Report on the IDP situation in Assam, in A Status Report on Displacement in Assam and Manipur (co-authored with Pradip Phanjoubam), Kolkata: MCRG.
    B) Fernandes, Walter (2017), Internally Displaced Persons and Northeast India, International Studies, 50(4), 287-305
  3. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. www.internal-displacement.org/countries/india,  Accessed 20.July’2020.  
  4. Government of Assam- Water Resources. https://waterresources.assam.gov.in/, Accessed 21. July’2020.
  5. Government of Assam- State Water Policy of Assam (Draft). Page-11. Draft prepared by Assam Science Technology & Environment Council.
  6. Amar Axom news report on 21.July 2020.
  7. Singh, Mukesh Kumar, Assam: Floods wash away 228 Dhubri schools since 2012, Northeast Now, 8.Nov-2019, https://nenow.in/north-east-news/assam/assam-floods-wash-away-228-dhubri-schools-since-2012.html. Accessed 17.July’2020.

The term invisible is used here from Sanjoy Hazarika’s usage of the term regarding ‘invisible groups’ for the “truly marginalised and poor because they find water transport  convenient and cheap” (page no. 251) in
Hazarika, Sanjoy (2005), The Brahmaputra: muse, metaphor, source of life, India International Centre Quarterly, Monsoon-Winter 2005, 32(2/3), pp 243-252

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