Assam floods Part I: Corruption, fund crunch, lack of political will won't stop the rampage of rivers
The intention of the Narendra Modi government has come under a cloud as there are many flood and erosion control schemes proposed by the Assam water resources department lying with the Centre for lack of approval for years.
Editor's note: The flood situation in Assam has worsened, with at least 99 people dying and 22.5 lakh being affected in 21 districts. The Indian Army has been called out for rescue operations in the state. This article on Assam's lack of infrastructural and administrative response to flooding is part of a series and originally appeared on 17 July, 2017. It is being republished in view of the current situation.
This three-part series on recurring Assam floods will examine what ails the state's fight against this annual phenomenon. The second part will take a closer look at the existential crisis of the vulnerable Majuli island. The third part will seek to examine if dredging the river Brahmaputra is the panacea that the state has been looking for all these many years.
Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi once famously replied to a reporter who questioned him on the government's inaction in the wake of devastating floods: "America tu baanpani hoi," he said, which translates into "Floods also happen in America." It was an ingenious way to deflect attention from a human tragedy that is akin to an annual ritual of mayhem in the state.
The floods were often bad when Gogoi was in power from 2001 to 2016. The chief minister had three straight terms. So when the governments changed at both the Centre and state, there was hope that things would get better. However, the people probably expected a bit too much.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised hopes while campaigning — that the flood and erosion problems would be given utmost priority and people would escape the fury of nature that they were subjected to for all these many years — but nothing happened in the first two years. Assam did not get any funds, probably because Congress was in power at the state level. But even a year after BJP's Sarbananda Sonowal took over as chief minister, there is no change on the ground," an official unwilling to be named said.
"No fund under the National Disaster Response Force has been released to the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) during the last two years for the restoration of flood damages," the official added.
Though the government has claimed sufficient funds are available, a severe financial crunch has affected even maintenance of flood and erosion control infrastructure, let alone building new ones.
"There has been no change at all, though we have relatively new governments both at the Centre and the state. Despite big announcements, nothing has been implemented. There is a huge difference between what they say and what is being done on the ground," All Assam Water Resources Contractors' Association president Muhi Borgohain told Firstpost from Guwahati.
Sonowal had set 31 March, 2017, as the deadline before which all damaged dykes across the state were to be repaired. Clearly, this did not happen as intended.
"When the chief minister said damaged dykes, it wasn't clear whether he specifically mentioned those embankments and dykes that were damaged during last year's flood or those before that. Practically speaking, all embankments are more or less damaged and could not be repaired before 31 March," Borgohain said.
The damaged flood protection infrastructure was to be repaired under the SDRF scheme. "It was estimated that 168 points at different embankments across the state will be repaired at a cost of Rs 1,500 crore. And while the funds were available on paper, the government actually had only Rs 345 crore. So it was finally decided that repair work would go ahead with the available funds and a two-phase project was initiated under the State Disaster Management Authority. In the first phase, 98 points were to be repaired at a cost of Rs 203 crore, and the remaining 70 points were to be repaired in the second phase at Rs 142 crore. Just before the monsoon set in, we somehow completed repairing the first phase. However, due to the hurriedly completed work, many of these developed defects," he said.
"This happened due to delay in releasing the money. So it has worked at some places and didn't work at some others. Releasing little money won't solve the issue," Borgohain said, pointing out to the large-scale damage that floods caused this time.
The second phase is yet to begin.
Now, leave alone the central-aided schemes, even state-run projects are facing financial hurdles because of which contractors are left to fend for themselves. Usually the deputy commissioner of a district is the main authority on whose nod the bills get cleared.
"In SDRF schemes, the norm is that the deputy commissioner has to issue a certificate stating that the work has been done to his satisfaction. But there are many DCs who delay the process and wait for the monsoon to see if the work is up to par. Even if there is a minor issue, the certificate is denied until it the problem is rectified by the contractor at his own cost," Borgohain said.
Apparently, many contractors are yet to get their dues because they have not been issued these certificates. This tug-of-war has also led to a stalemate going forward with effective flood and erosion control schemes.
Funding issues have also negatively impacted the lives of the people. The Laharighat embankment disaster and the one on the Ranganadi river in Lakhimpur are just two examples of such. The latter was breached at its right and left flank at Aamtala and Bogolijan, causing massive destruction.
"This was a Rs 365 crore central project. In March 2015, it cleared 30 percent of its cost. But even after two years, when the project is around 80 percent complete, the Centre has not released the rest of the money. As per the rules, it should have done when the project was 55 percent complete. The project has remained unfinished, which has led to breaches," the association president said.
Clutching at straws has often been the case with government agencies when it comes to tackling flood and erosion. And when the tempers of the helpless run high, governments would typically rush in with some half-baked semi-successful formula meant to give hope that a certain embankment won't be breached or an entire village won't simply vanish due to erosion.
"There are some embankment schemes for Morigaon district. But building embankments alone is not sufficient. Steps must also be taken to protect erosion and these need to happen simultaneously. An embankment was built at Laharighat in Morigaon district, but no bank protection measures were taken. The estimated cost was around Rs 20 crore while the government released only Rs 10 crore. The embankment was built but the bank was not protected. As a result, it washed away," Borgohain said.
This happened on Saturday. Just last week, both Sonowal and state water resources minister Keshab Mahanta visited the area and assured the people that the embankment was sturdy enough to withstand the strong current of the Brahmaputra river.
The Solengi river at Gohpur witnessed a similar situation. This year, the town was adversely affected due to floods. An embankment was built at a cost of Rs 5 crore without essential river protection, though the original cost was estimated at Rs 15 crore. Once again, the government failed to release the entire funds.
The situation is so dire that even the state water resources minister offers little hope to contractors.
"The water resources minister told us that the government is not releasing funds. 'Without funds how can I make the contractors work?' is what he told us," Borgohain recalled.
A quiet political angle is also emerging. Mahanta belongs to Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a coalition partner of the BJP government in Assam, while Sonowal and state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma are both from the BJP.
"There is a silent clash brewing between the BJP and the AGP. Since the water resources minister is from a different party, the finance minister is not giving him funds," he said.
Corruption has reduced but not disappeared
Allegations of corruptions are common when it comes to flood and erosion control projects in Assam.
"An expense is required only to get a project sanctioned from New Delhi. There are also expenses in Dispur and on the ground. However, things have got little better after a strict monitoring system has been introduced irrespective of the scheme size. Third-party monitoring has become a norm. All projects below Rs 100 crore are monitored by state-run engineering colleges while projects above Rs 100 crore are monitored by IIT Guwahati," an official privy to the process who did not wish to be named told Firstpost.
Cost sharing quandary
The Modi government's intentions have come under a cloud as many flood and erosion control schemes proposed by the Assam water resources department have been lying unapproved for years. The cost sharing model has also changed with different Five Year Plans.
"According to the 11th Five Year Plan, the expenditure in the Flood Management Programme was to be shared in 10:90 pattern, with the state bearing 10 percent of the cost and the Centre shouldering 90 percent cost of the total outlay. There were 100 schemes under the 11th Plan. Only after the state gives a certificate that its share was utilised does the Centre release its share in two tranches. The monitoring of these projects is done by the Brahmaputra Board. Under the 11th Plan, there are many projects where the second tranche is yet to be released. The outstanding amount comes to around Rs 240 crore," Borgohain said.
There is no outstanding so far as the state share is concerned in the 11th Five Year Plan schemes.
With the implementation of the 12th Five Year Plan, the cost sharing pattern changed again. This now became 30:70: With the state bearing 30 percent of the project cost and the remaining 70 percent to be borne by the Centre.
"Forty-three schemes came under the 12th Five Year Plan. The states' share came to Rs 51 crore before BJP came to power. This is yet to be cleared. Almost the entire amount from the Centre is outstanding. Only a project in Dhakuwakhana saw 50 percent released but the rest is still to be cleared," he said.
After BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, the cost sharing equation saw yet another change. This has now become 20:80 between the state and the Centre. The govt tabulated the total outstanding amount of both plans and reached a cumulative figure. "By combining two Five Year Plans, the Centre owes Rs 1,200 crore to the contractors. This includes the Rs 51 crore of the state which has now become Rs 115 crore after the new calculation," the association president said.
State budget gives water resources a miss
Although the math is ready, other concerns stand in the way. In the 2015-16 state budget itself, no allocation was made to the water resources department. Following this, the association raised the matter with the chief minister and the water resources minister in December, after which it was agreed that Rs 115 crore will be included in the state's supplementary budget. The principal secretary even assured that the Rs 115 crore will be released in June (although it should have been ideally released by 31 March, the last day of fiscal year).
"The money is yet to be released. They told us the state would tell the Centre via the chief minister to include Rs 1,200 in the Union supplementary budget in July. So far, we are yet to hear any news. Even the Centre has said that the state has not established a proper correspondence. The Centre can release the money only after the state produces a certificate stating its share has been utilised," Borgohain said.
Raging rivers won't stop
Former chief minister Gogoi was right. Floods happen even in America. However, what his government and the one that followed did not learn was that abroad, there is always a sincere attempt to mitigate the crisis and not mire the people in a web of facts, figures and funds.
The lack of infrastructure and space to cremate or bury the dead and the sight of numerous bodies floating down the Ganges in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are bringing home to us new horrors.
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