Enua porote jao basarote
Kal baanpaani eti aahi
Maha sabade moshimur karile
Xarukoi kherare pajati /
Dhananio tol gol,
Chenehio uti gol
Dugdugi bandhakot ase
(At such time, last year
The deadly flood with fearful roars
Smashed the small thatched hut
The paddy fields immersed in water
The beloved too swept away
The necklace is under mortgage)
– Bhupen Hazarika, Bard of the Brahmaputra
While pre-monsoon showers are being welcomed in various parts of the country, especially the capital city and states across the Northern belt that were reeling under a severe heatwave, rainfall brings different tidings to the Northeast, where Assam and Meghalaya are witnessing severe flooding and landslides. We are barely halfway through June, and Assam is already seeing its second wave of deadly floods. Within my own parliamentary constituency of Nowgong, in middle Assam, the situation has turned critical for the second time in a month. The situation is extremely volatile, with the number of people and districts affected increasing by the day.
The situation in Assam is volatile, with the number of people and districts affected increasing by the day. However, the struggle of tens of lakhs of people finds no place in the national discourse on development.
In 2020-21, while the state government sought Rs 2,642.99 crore for restoration works, a token amount of just Rs 44.37 crore was released.
Since 1954, Assam has lost 4.3 lakh hectares of land to erosion, which is 7% of the state’s area – as a yardstick, that is more than three times the size of Delhi.
With 40% of Assam’s area (close to 32 lakh hectares) being flood-prone, roughly than the national mark of 10.2%, the issue of water-induced disasters in Assam is too grave to be relegated as a partisan or regional demand
Plea to Declare Assam Flooding as National Calamity
Given the nature and scale of the problem, and that it involves the larger question of river-basin management, the role and support of the Union government is key. Flood phenomena in most other parts of the country are quick to make national headlines, receive necessary central aid, and become a priority for those at the helm of policymaking.
However, despite flooding being an annual phenomenon in Assam, the struggle of tens of lakhs of people finds no place in the national discourse on development. This needs to change.
It is for this reason that there has been a long-standing plea to declare flooding in Assam as a national calamity. As per , no funds were released under NDRF to Assam in the years 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2021-22. In 2020-21, while the state government sought Rs 2,642.99 crore for restoration works, a token amount of just Rs 44.37 crore was released.
While flooding in Assam itself receives little national attention, the associated issue of erosion is even further disregarded. A year-long and irreversible phenomenon, riverbank erosion submerges large swathes of land and triggers mass displacement. Yet, it has failed to receive intervention and assistance from the Union government in terms of comprehensive policymaking & fund allocation. The Assam Water Resources Department the annual average loss of land due to river erosion at nearly 8,000 hectares, causing damages running into hundreds of crores every year.
Since 1954, Assam has lost 4.3 lakh hectares of land to erosion, which is 7% of the state’s area – as a yardstick, that is more than three times the size of Delhi. In the recent Budget Session, I to the Central government to include erosion in the admissible list of calamities for government assistance under the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and to add flood control and management, including anti-erosion schemes, to the Concurrent List of subjects. The comprehensive tackling of flooding and riverine erosion, cannot be left to the meagre resources of a single state like Assam.
The Huge Opportunity Cost of Annual Flooding
A major portion of the cropped land in Assam is rain-fed, making the monsoon essential to life and livelihood in the state, also sustaining the floodplain ecosystem that nourishes the region’s rich biodiversity. Assam is one of the largest producers of paddy in India, and flooding is essential for rejuvenating vacant land for the next cycle of crops. But it also brings unmeasurable misery to households, leaving a trail of devastation as it claims lives, triggers large-scale displacement, and destroys essential infrastructure like homes, roads and bridges.
Owing to its bowl-shaped topography, Assam faces the brunt of torrential rainfall in the region, with excess rainfall from neighbouring Northeast states collecting on its plains, along with the swelling of the Brahmaputra.
Owing to its bowl-shaped topography, Assam faces the brunt of torrential rainfall in the region, with excess rainfall from neighbouring Northeast states collecting on its plains, along with the swelling of the Brahmaputra. However, the real tragedy lies in the fact that despite being a routine affair, the issue has received only short-term band-aid solutions, instead of more sustainable, longer-term forms of redressal. A combination of the state’s unique geography, increasing pace of unplanned development and exacerbating effects of climate change, make the issue a complex one, in need of urgent but thoughtful action.
In the upcoming Monsoon session of Parliament, MPs across party and state lines must consider raising the demand for comprehensive interventions for flooding and erosion in Assam. With 40% of Assam’s area (close to 32 lakh hectares) being flood-prone, roughly than the national mark of 10.2%, the issue of water-induced disasters in Assam is too grave to be relegated as a partisan or regional demand.
Further, while relief and rehabilitation is crucial in its own regard, as policymakers, it is especially important for us to also look beyond the stopgap measures that our electoral system rewards. The state finds itself in a constant cycle of fire-fighting every year and the opportunity cost of this time, money and human resources is a range of other development activities, which inhibits any meaningful improvement in quality of life.
Nature's Limitations vs Human Aspirations
It is also a question of how we as policymakers are going to balance very real development aspirations of people with nature’s limitations. There are no easy solutions, but we now find ourselves at the end of the rope with climate change and its manifestations. In this context, the need for a comprehensive and progressive climate migration policy arises, one that recognises the increasing role of climate in flood & erosion-induced displacement, and seeks to protect the rights of affected communities.
Given that India is home to both flood-prone as well as water-scarce states, the viability of trans-basin pipelines for equitably distributing abundant freshwater resources could also be worth exploring.
Currently, the huge water resources that the Northeast provides go unutilised, and are flushed down the Bay of Bengal every year. There is no dearth of knowledge, research & innovation, but simply of political will. It is only a question of how we incorporate emerging research and existing traditional community practices into our flood mitigation and adaptation strategies, both of which are integral to the well-being of affected communities.
But to begin, those making policies must look beyond Delhi and the northern imagination of India. Grappling with flood fury, Assam, too, deserves to be recognised.
(Pradyut Bordoloi is a Congress Lok Sabha MP from Nowgong, Assam and a three-time Cabinet Minister. Evita Rodrigues is an Associate at Swaniti Initiative attached to MP Bordoloi’s Office. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)