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Floods: Assam needs much more than Rajkhowa sympathy

by Simantik Dowerah  Jun 29, 2012 19:50 IST

#Assam   #Brahmaputra River   #ConnectTheDots   #ULFA  

The pro-talks Ulfa team headed by Arabinda Rajkhowa today scored a smart political point over the Paresh Baruah-led anti-talks group by talking Assam floods. During the tripartite talks involving the state of Assam, the central government and the Ulfa, Rajkhowa sought urgent attention from the Centre to tackle the annual flood problem in the state.

It’s a pleasant, perhaps pragmatic, change of approach from Rajkhowa. The Bangladesh-based Baruah faction confines itself to sending mails to media houses whenever there are blasts in the state. It rarely speaks on issues concerning people. In Assam, devastating annual floods are a bigger existential issue than the question of sovereignty, being fiercely espoused by the group for sometime now.

"We have tried to draw the attention of the Centre towards the flood problem demanding a permanent solution," Rajkhowa told reporters after the meeting with home secretary RK Singh for the fourth round of tripartite peace talks.

School girls and a man carrying his bicycle wade through floodwaters at Jajimukh village in Assam on 27 June 2012. Reuters

He might have scored a political point over rivals but not everyone is convinced by Rajkhowa' sincerity to the issue. "I have only negative expectations from this bunch. They are making noise because flood is in the news now," said the Facebook comment of an anonymous writer.

Floods have been an annual fixture in Assam as is the resultant devastation to life and property. Many have expressed angst over the lackadaisical attitude of the government and the lack of technology to face the flood fury.

"The Central and successive state governments are equally at fault. What did the Brahmaputra Board do all these years other than being a cash cow for the politicians? They couldn't even make embankments that would last a year. We need a mass revolution and steps like stopping oil and coal production until this issue is addressed once and for all," said Diku Das from Baroda. He hails from Dibrugarh in Assam, a town whose existence is threatened every year by the mighty Brahmaputra.

The Brahmaputra Board, was set up as an autonomous statutory body under an Act of Parliament, called the Brahmaputra Board Act in 1980.

However, the board has failed to carry out the first function of its mandate effectively—"To carry out surveys and investigations in the Brahmaputra Valley and prepare the Master Plan for control of floods, bank erosion and improvement of drainage in the Valley"—leading to public displeasure.

"Tackling a problem like flood requires an institutional approach," said the person who did not wish to be identified.

But some disagree.

"Institutions are plenty. But nothing's happening. The ministers and bureaucrats simply make short gap arrangements and that's happening every year. The chief minister and his team is in the US trying to take pointers in how to manage disasters better. But we all know these are just glorified holidays!" said Bidisha Singha Dutta from Guwahati.

In one of its programmes in the state's local channel Newslive, experts rued that till date even though Rs 33,000 crore has been spent for flood control since 1954 in Assam no comprehensive study has been done on the behaviour of the Brahmaputra.

"Only haphazard master plans, stop gap arrangements are being made. In reality, if we spend even half the amount after conducting a serious study the flood problem can be mitigated. The classic example is the Hwang Ho river, which was known as China's Sorrow, is now much tamed," Shyamkanu Mahanta, a hydro-power expert, said.

"Brahmaputra can be controlled with effective engineering, strong political will and a constant funding source. If the nature of siltation, which is 600 million tonnes a year, is determined and dredging is done scientifically, for the next 50 years flood can be controlled if not stopped," Mahanta said.

A former member of the Brahmaputra Board, Pradip Pujari, said that till date the so-called high-powered body did not even conduct a basic academic study on the river.

"The master plans implemented till now are all temporary in nature," Pujari said.

The threat to the world's largest river island Majuli, which is also the seat of Vaishnavite culture in Assam, is very real and looming.

From over 1,000 square kilometres in the 90's, the island has shrank to 502 sq km now due to constant erosion and annual flooding by the Brahmaputra. Till date, Rs 100 crore has been spent in Majuli to protect it from river fury but with little impact. The Brahmaputra Board was given the responsible to protect the island.

"It is wrong for the Board to play with the lives of the people. If they are unable to save Majuli then we should look for alternatives," Pujari said.

However, Assam Agriculture Minister Nilamani Sen Deka, said, "Comparing Brahmaputra with the Hwang Ho is wrong. Brahmaputra has 126 tributaries. It is not the case with the Hwang Ho. It is tough to dredge all the rivers."

Former secretary, water resources department, AK Mitra, said, "The government has the will power. We are trying to reclaim the land that has been lost to erosion. We are doing a pilot project on it at Sualkuchi on the downstream of the river. The Brahmaputra has around 1,000 sand bars that lead to erosion. So far, Assam has lost 4,000 sq km land due to erosion."

The current floods in Assam have affected 22 districts. A total of 2,084 villages are under water while 43439.33 hectares of crop area is lost. A total of 10.8 lakh people have been directly impacted by the floods. The 173 relief camps across the state are now sheltering 1.66 lakh people.

The latest report released by the control room in Guwahati at 7.30pm on Thursday said that 23 people have so far lost their lives in the recent floods.

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