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The rivers run through it

india Updated: Jul 12, 2013 00:00 IST

Hindustan Times
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As news about the Assam floods keep rolling in, only a few weeks after the monsoon devastation in Uttarakhand that killed more than 1,000 people, a nagging question is floating around: why is it that none of the Indian states are ever prepared to tackle such natural calamities even though they have become near-annual events? This year’s flood in 11 districts of Assam has already displaced 1.1 lakh people and has also damaged the Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage Site. Even at the cost of sounding like the-world-is-coming-to-an-end alarmists, the truth is that such devastation is the new normal and we must brace ourselves for more in the future.

In Assam, as we had seen earlier in Bihar during the Kosi floods, the rivers have been embanked and often the state governments are blamed for not repairing those before the start of the monsoon. While this charge is true, what is also true is that these embankments restrict the natural flow of the river and force it to ‘break out’, leading to floods. But such constructions are never questioned because of two reasons: first, there is a cozy politician-bureaucrat-builder lobby that keep it going and second, demolishing them now would probably lead to more destruction because of unbridled urbanisation on the river banks. But during the monsoon season, this infrastructure prevents the soil from absorbing the water and diverts the stream towards populated areas, leading to floods. Deforestation along rivers also leads to the deposit of sediments. The Brahmaputra overflows more frequently and its banks are now disappearing as a result of erosion.

The prime minister has assured all support to Assam, as he did to Uttarakhand. But monetary support is only a temporary solution, and an unsustainable one at that. It is better to accept that nature cannot be tamed and that we must learn to adapt. The first step should be reducing the residential areas around the rivers of the country and let the rivers follow their natural course.