In Assam, low-cost solutions for flood and soil erosion get you nowhere. Or they — as was the case with social worker Sanjoy Ghose — get you killed.
Villagers in Majuli, a flood-prone island in the Brahmaputra, 320 km east of Guwahati, believe that the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom killed Ghose in 1997 because his cheap flood control and anti-erosion techniques using local resources exposed a contractor-official-militant nexus that caused the most of people’s miseries. While Ghose’s formula cost a few thousand rupees, the government-sanctioned projects, some only on paper, were worth Rs. 3-5 crore with ‘cuts’ factored in.
Floods meant ‘monsoon money’ even before India attained independence. Records maintained by Assam’s water resources department reveal that since 1929 at least 15 expert committees have suggested steps for reining in the Brahmaputra. Three master plans by the Brahmaputra Board, considered a white elephant, are gathering dust.
This year’s flood, believed to be the worst since 1998, has killed more than 120 people, 550 wild animals in the Kaziranga National Park and countless livestock. The authorities in the affected districts reported loss of crops on 254,935 hectares of land. The agriculture department is yet to assess the monetary damage, but the Central Water Commission figures say that India loses crops worth Rs. 700 crore annually due to floods. The flood management bill for the country was Rs. 10,000 crore in the five years since 2007 while the projected outlay for the 12th plan is Rs. 50,000 crore.
But do floods really need management? “Controlling rivers is an invitation to disaster. You have to let nature take its own course, and learn to live with the flood. In fact, tribes such as the Mishings have been doing that for ages. Their chang-ghars [huts raised on bamboo or wooden poles] are an insurance against displacement due to floods,” says environmentalist and former Gauhati University professor Parimal C Bhattacharjee. In the 90s, the government came up with a scheme titled ‘Living With Floods’. It entailed construction of raised platforms with drinking water, sanitation and healthcare facilities. But it was withdrawn due to allegations of corruption.
Living with floods, experts point out, has become tougher today because of the various infrastructure projects in the Northeast. Assam’s geographical alignment — primarily a valley surrounded by hill states with narrow outlets into Bangladesh — makes it prone to flooding even if it rains heavily in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh or Bhutan. “The effect of big dams in adjoining states or countries is yet to be assessed, but contrary to popular belief, massive road infrastructure projects in the hills have resulted in topsoil erosion and sedimentation of rivers downstream. Without enough space these rivers overflow,” says Bibhash Sarma, engineer and consultant for the water resources department. “Other reasons include faulty planning of bridges. Most of these bridges don’t have the horizontal width to let large volumes of water through,” he adds.
Until 20 years ago, a network of 121 rivers lorded over by the Brahmaputra had more than 4,500 beels, or wetlands, to absorb excess water. The tendency of allotting low-lying land or marshy areas for institutes, industrial units and housing complexes has either eaten up such beels or reduced them to ponds rendering them incapable of being the natural drainage systems they used to be in the past. The near-dead Solabeel in Guwahati is a prime example.
According to Dulal Goswami, head of Gauhati University’s environmental science department, prolonged stay by migrants on sandbars is also responsible for rivers causing havoc while seeking channels to flow past. But this, he says, isn’t as much a factor as ageing earthen embankments that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
In 1937, Bihar chief engineer Captain GF Hall said that building bunds was “storing disaster for the future”. Some 113,000 people in Sootea area of Assam’s Sonitpur district found it out the hard way in June after four embankments were breached. But that has not stopped experimentation with expensive imported geo-tubes, which cost Rs. 5 crore per kilometre in 2008 and had to be fortified with cruder methods. There are other measures too, some slightly less expensive, some a lot more. But the bottom line is that living off floods matters more than living with them.