Why BJP’s ‘Flood-Free’ Assam Dream May Remain Just That

Assam has seen intense flooding for many decades now – with the floods being both lifeline and threat to the state.

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Assam
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‘Flood-free’ Assam may not remain a political promise as long-term strategy – and not engineering solution – is needed.
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The very first point in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto for Assam Assembly elections is the one Union Home Minister Amit Shah has been stressing on at almost all poll rallies in the state – ‘flood-free’ Assam in the next five years.

The first of the 10-point agenda released by the BJP-Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) alliance is ‘Mission Brahmaputra’ – a programme to “eliminate loss of lives, livelihood, and property due to floods.”

But a ‘flood-free’ Assam might remain just a political promise as long-term strategies –and not engineering solutions are needed, say experts.

A Welcome Promise – But What Is The Plan?

With a multi-pronged strategy involving dredging and reservoirs, the BJP-AGP alliance has promised that if elected to power, Assam will no longer witness flooding disaster that takes away hundreds of lives every year.

Speaking to The Quint, Dr Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct associate professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business and a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that such issues making it to the political manifestos is a small win by itself.

“I am really glad that this kind of information is coming in the pre-electoral promises. One thing that I have come to believe is that when science meets politics, only then some change happens. Unless there is political commitment, you see no change of these issues. Be it flooding or climate change, it will not get attention unless there is strong political commitment.”

While flooding has become a poll issue only in the recent past, similar promises were made in the run-up to Assam Assembly elections in 2016 as well.

The then BJP state president Sarbananda Sonowal had released a vision document for 2016 until 2025, stating that reservoirs will be added to a list of measures taken in the monsoon to prevent floods. The party also promised dredging of the Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhubri, which continues to be a promise for the 2021 elections.

“It is impossible to make Assam flood-free, not just in five years but in 50 years actually. Another thing to be pointed out here is that flood does not equal to disaster. All floods need not be avoided and sometimes stopping floods will do more harm than good. The question we need to ask is what did they do in the last five years? They have been in power in the state for the last five years and in the Centre for the last seven years.”
Himanshu Thakkar, Expert, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

Is the ‘Dream’ Scientifically Impossible to Achieve?

Assam has seen intense flooding for many decades now – with the floods being both a lifeline and a threat to the state.

But the situation has consistently intensified over the last five years, except for 2018 – thanks to a combination of embankments, climate change, and human factor.

According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority, 18 lakh people were displaced, while the death toll stood at 38 in 2016. In 2017, the state witnessed what was called the worst flood in almost 30 years, losing 85 lives to it. In 2019, 52 lakh people were displaced, a two-fold jump from previous years.

“The embankments have been built in haphazard manner – creating more damage now. For example, the embankment in Dibrugarh protects the town from flooding but the small villages all over it are flooded. How are we planning to tackle these embankments in the next five years? Because unless we have a solution for this, flooding disasters cannot be stopped.”
Samir Bordoloi, Ecological Farming Expert, to The Quint

Rampant deforestation and townships springing across Assam have only made the flooding situation worse – again two factors that is not possible to fix with engineering solutions.

“If Assam flooding disasters have taught us anything, it is to never look at engineering solutions as standalone. Where will these proposed reservoirs be built? What will be the cost and impact? I mean, to suggest this in Assam is particularly mindless as the state has reservations against dams and reservoirs and have been suffering the ill-effects of this from a number of projects.”
Himanshu Thakkar, Expert, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

Thakkar also added that the BJP’s promise to use dredging, too, might not yield any impact in reality.

“Dredging means you make river deeper by taking out the sediment, making more room for water. But this will not work in a river that is as huge as Brahmaputra simply because the sediment yield is the highest in the world. So if you take the sediment out, it will come back next year. So, what is the plan here to make it ‘flood-free’?”

What’s The Way Forward

While the BJP has not released a detailed plan, if the party comes to power, there are three things that they should focus on – if not for a ‘flood-free’ Assam but at least a minimal disaster Assam, explains Dr Prakash.

  • First, involve local voices in planning and management of floods.

“People who work on the ground and who have enough experience have been dealing with these floods for years. The government has to involve them in the planning process as it cannot be done at a state level. Planning should be done in each area and every district, and only then will a holistic solution arrive,” he said.

  • Second, no more investment in embankments.

Successive governments in Assam have spent Rs 30,000 crore over the last 60 years in building embankments along Brahmaputra – its 103 tributaries, covering a staggering 4,500 km – only it has made zero difference.

“We should simply go back to basics. Earlier, thousands of streams were created from the river, to make sure that floods flow across them, minimising the risk of a disaster. But the embankment has disturbed that.”
Dr Anjal Prakash
  • And third, to seek international cooperation.

“You need to talk to upstream countries – in this case, China. Flood management is also about sharing information on water. What amount of water has been released in China will help us understand better how to deal with it better,” he added.

What the experts agree on is not a five-year plan but a long-term, wide-angle view that will make Assam a safer place to live even five decades later.

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