Assam’s valleys are used to floods. But what hit the state’s western region, bordering Meghalaya, last month was unprecedented; people there had never imagined that killer waters would rise up in moments and sweep their entire lives away.
Ask cousins Nayan and Rupam, 13. They both lost their parents when a flash flood — the result of incessant rainfall from September 20 to 23 — struck Kamarpara, a village of potters 100 km west of Guwahati.
River Singra, flowing down from the hills of adjoining Meghalaya to join the Brahmaputra downstream, never seemed like a threat to these villagers on higher ground. “We shifted here from a flood-prone area. We were wrong to think that the floods wouldn’t chase us,” says village elder Nakul Kumar, 69.
In Dilinga village nearby, Padma Das, 66, recounts the ‘water attack’. “Suddenly, we found ourselves in 10 feet of water. Our houses are damaged and paddy fields ruined,” he says.
These Assam villages were perhaps luckier than Bholarbitha in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district. River Jinjiram, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, wiped out more than 80% of this village’s 300 homes.
“Our village used to be inundated every monsoon, but this time was different. The current of the water was too strong; it was as if we were hit by a cyclone in liquid form,” says Zubair Hussain.
Villages in this part of Meghalaya, close to Bangladesh, are acquainted with Bordoichila, the annual springtime storm eulogised in Assamese folklore. But this year’s floods were an unprecedented disaster.
Meteorologists attribute it to unusually high post-monsoon rain, but ecologists blame it on climate change, encroachment on hill slopes and a degradation and even partial destruction of a network of wetlands that once were natural absorbers of excess rainwater.
In Meghalaya, chief minister Mukul Sangma admitted that illegal stone quarries have affected the ecology of the hills and the course of rivers.
“Letting people [mostly migrants] settle on riverbanks and sandbars has complicated matters,” says environment scientist JD Goswami. “All this is making the flooding more intense and more widespread.”
He has a point; this year, most of the 179 victims across Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya were from areas beyond traditional flood-prone zones. And in the urban bustle of Guwahati, where a construction boom has claimed many beels or expansive ponds, a total of six died from drowning, electrocution and landslides.
Rescue operations began fairly promptly, as the affected areas have an active Border Security Force presence, in addition to the Army and units of the National Disaster Response Force.
Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju and union minister of state for sports and youth affairs Sarbananda Sonowal — both originally from the region — responded relatively quickly on behalf of the Centre, arriving to take stock of the situation.
But the victims, particularly in Meghalaya, complained of not receiving adequate relief.
This is a persistent problem in the flood-prone north-east. Though 179 people have been killed by flooding here in 2014 alone — 68 in Assam, 56 in Arunachal Pradesh, and 55 in Meghalaya — only Rs 887 crore has been allocated in relief by the Centre; Rs 674 crore of this for Assam. By comparison, when the city of Mumbai was inundated in the 26/7 deluge of 2005 — nine years ago — the Centre allocated Rs 476 crore in relief funds.
Meanwhile, across 28 districts in the north-east — 23 of these in Assam — floods have caused losses worth an estimated Rs 4,350 crore in infrastructure damage and crop loss this year alone, with Assam accounting for Rs 2,010 crore of this loss.
“We are trying our best to provide succour to the victims besides offering compensation to families of those who have died,” says Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi.
Meanwhile, even online — where some local NGOs have gone to try and raise funds and material for relief operations — the response has been nothing like the outpouring, say, in the wake of the recent Kashmir floods.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced Rs 2 lakh as compensation for the families of each person killed, promising to do more for the region as rain-bearing clouds threaten more havoc over the coming weeks. For the time being, though, the states and Centre are still arguing over who should do how much.
As Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, says: “The north-east will always remain a periphery. It needs bombs and blood and dead bodies to make news.”