For more than 40 years, the residents of 60-odd villages in Naduar circle, in north-central Assam’s Sonitpur district, believed they were out of the reach of rain-swollen rivers.
The reason? Embankments that walled off river Brahmaputra to the south and its tributaries from Naduar area. When the embankments cracked on June 26 last year, both their villages and their faith drowned.
“In a flash, dozens of houses in our village vanished, as did our livestock, our major source of livelihood,” said Tikaram Sharma of village Kasomari village.
Before help arrived from the army’s Gajraj Corps at Tezpur nearby, 57-year-old dairy farmer Sharma lost his herd of 60 goats and 21 milch cows. Others had more grim stories.
There were more ‘Naduars’ last year. Breaches in embankments at 74 places along many of Assam’s 121 rivers killed 134 people — they include 16 landslide victims in the hills — and brought about displacement and crop damage.
Experts attributed the breaches to earthen and concrete embankments because they are their past expiry date.
The killer years were 1988, 2004 and 2007 when 234, 354 and 195 breaches in embankments happened.
Water resources minister Rajib Lochan Pegu admitted that 82% embankments have outlived their utility.
“We have submitted a R4,031.41crore scheme to the Brahmaputra Board for strengthening the embankments,” he said.
“Government’s delay in post-flood rehabilitation does little to help the affected people. For instance, Rs. 1.52crore to compensate for loss of livestock did not reach the people in three districts, nor did the money to repair damaged houses,” said Prithibhushan Deka, of NGO Gramya Vikash that worked in three affected districts in 2012.
However, NGOs insisted the department ends up doing patchwork with at least R70crore it gets from budgetary allocation and disaster relief fund; district officials don’t deny that patchwork is the way out.
The emphasis is on engineering solutions that are ‘visible’, that satisfy entrenched contractors instead of simple non-structural and low-cost solutions.
“Learning to live with floods is said to be a new concept, but tribal communities such as Mishings have for ages been living in chang-ghars (houses on stilts) in flood-prone areas,” said Nandita Hazarika, state project officer for revenue and disaster management department.
Assam’s geographical alignment — primarily a valley surrounded by hill states — makes it prone to flooding even if it rains heavily on the hills of Arunachal Pradesh or Bhutan.
Others said Assam should have learnt to cope with the annual floods long ago. But as environmentalist Parimal C Bhattacharjee said, “It is better late than never.”