Editor's note: In a three-part ground report, we seek to cover different aspects of the impact of the annual floods in Assam from its children to the exchequer. Part 2 deals with the extensive loss that the state suffers due to the recurring floods.
Guwahati: In the latest wave of its annual phenomenon of floods, Assam suffered an inconceivable degree of material loss in terms of breached barrages, damaged crops, eroded land and levelled houses to the tune of a whopping Rs2,939 crore as estimated by the state government. This is apart from the loss of 77 human lives and 92 animals, including seven rhinos.
This is 15 times the average loss the state puts up with every year owing to floods, Rs 200 crore, according to the Economic Survey, Assam, 2015-16. Over the past decades, the state has lost hundreds of crores of rupees every time Brahmaputra and Beki rivers and their tributaries overflowed. The flood in 1988 had inflicted a loss of more than Rs 4,630 crore.
Since 1950, gushing rivers have eroded 4.27 lakh hectares of land, roughly thrice the size of Delhi. The changes in flood pattern were noted after the great earthquake of 1950 in the region. Erosion of this scale has rendered more than 50,000 families landless and homeless. On an average, 8,000 hectares of land are lost every year. This is more than the size of 11 football fields.
More than half of the state's 32 districts are bearing the brunt of extreme monsoon this year. Roads and bridges got submerged and mobile phone towers and power transmission infrastructure have also been damaged at many places. While some media reports say about 12 lakh people in the state have been affected, some peg the number at 16 lakh.
The central government is yet to announce a relief package for Assam. Moreover, a report presented by the comptroller and auditor general a week ago highlighted that the Centre had released only 40 percent of the funds it had earmarked for flood-control projects in the state. Out of Rs 2,043.19 crore that the Centre was to share with Assam between 2007-08 and 2015-16, only Rs 812.22 crore have been released.
"Further, the state government also did not release 84 percent of the allocated budget provision. Insufficient flow of funds adversely affected the implementation of schemes,” the report said.
The ground reality in the flood-hit regions illustrates the government's under-preparation. Liyakat Ali, a teacher at a madrasa in Golakganj sub-division, Dhubri district, told Firstpost how there were not enough country boats for the relief work. He said while about 20,000 people must be affected by the flood in the district, only five boats have been provided. Of them, he alleged, only two are being used for relief work while the remaining are being given on rent to those who can afford it for personal use.
The government's relief camps too leave one wanting for more. Illiyas Rahman Sarkar, a social activist working towards the rehabilitation of the flood-fit in Dhubri district, said many people did not want to stay in these camps because the relief material is not enough. "Say, if you are staying in a relief camp for 15 days, you will get relief materials for only three days."
Kripaljyoti Mazumdar, project officer (Response & Recovery), Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), conceded that some district administrations issue relief material only for two-three days at a time. He said the districts have their own constraints. He could not tell how much foodgrain was being supplied to the relief camps on a daily or weekly basis.
This, despite Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal claiming there is no shortage of fund and that the state government has been prepared to deal with the flood.
Owing to a shortage of the essentials, Sarkar said many people were moving to higher-altitude and managing food on their own. He said some NGOs were engaged in the relief work, which was softening the blow for the flood-affected people. Of more than 1,500 residents of Gokalganj's Pub Kanori village near Assam-Bangladesh border, only a few hundred have sought shelter in relief camps. There are no relief camps in the area now as the flood water has receded.
Yakub Ali, 53, a resident of the village was erecting a wall with bamboo, jute and mud at a frantic pace as he spoke this reporter. It was the 11th time in the past six years that he had to rebuild his house. A father of six, he shared how he had to walk three kilometres thrice a day to fetch jute. He said he was in a hurry to complete the house as he wanted to bring his children back from the relief camp at the earliest.
The flood has left nothing for Yakub and his fellow villagers. He said now he needed to sell his cattle to make ends meet. He said he was in talks with a cattle trader who was willing to pay only Rs15,000 for his livestock. He said he was expecting Rs25,000 for an animal, but they have become weak as they haven't had much to eat.
"I have no option other than to agree to his price because if I do not sell, my family will die in the famine," Yakub said.
He was still fortunate enough to be able to save his livestock from the flood, most people aren't able to do that. According to North-Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd, the 2013 floods had claimed more than 1.81 lakh cattle, an important source of income for villagers. Sarkar said more than 10,000 cattle were affected in Dhubri district alone this year, so one could guess the total number.
According to the ASDMA, this year's flood has washed away about 1,569 hectares of crop land till 27 July. The worst-hit regions are Lakhimpur, Dhubri, Biswanath in the Brahmaputra valley and Karimganj in the Barak valley. In Barpeta district's Baghbor circle, hundreds of hectares of crop land were washed away and more than a hundred houses were destroyed when the Brahmaputra breached the embankment on 11 July.
A Baghbor resident, Sabera Banu, 20, said she used to work in the rice field, which was swallowed by the flood. She said she planned to move to another village and try making a living out of pottery. She informed that many others have also gone to live with their relatives.
NGO shows the way
While the likes of Yakub and Sabera are driven to desperation, an NGO's intervention shows a ray of hope that the aftermath of flood need not be this gloomy. Jhai Foundation, active in Western Assam, modified 50 houses in Barpeta district on an experimental basis. The NGO's employee Jahidul Islam told Firstpost that the foundation of these houses in Majidbhita village was raised, keeping in mind the water level during the previous year's flood. He said this year, these houses could withstand the flood unlike other houses in the area.
"For this, we had to spend only Rs9,000 per household. Such small efforts help a lot,” he said.
The NGO also encourages people to maintain a kitchen garden and grow vegetables, a practice that helps them a lot when floods wash away the crops.
More efforts needed
A research report on Assam floods says that while the Centre and the state governments have done a lot over the past decades to control the natural disaster, most of the actions have proven to be ineffective. The report laid emphasis on strengthening the embankments and their scientific assessment at regular intervals. Speaking with Firstpost, Guwahati-based geologist and a river researcher Jayanta Ray too stressed on the need to have strong embankments and their regular maintenance.
The aforesaid research also recommended increasing rivers' water-carrying capacity by clearing their bed, something the state government plans to take up this winter.
Watch this space for the third and last part of the series tomorrow that deals with the uncertain future that the state's children face because of this devastating annual affair.
The author is a Guwahati based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. She tweets @syedaambia
Updated Date: Aug 01, 2017 14:00 PM