Assam floods Part II: For Majuli island, Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh is an apocalypse in the making

Majuli is one of the youngest districts in India but it is continually surviving an insecure present as it cannot take its eyes away from a probable perilous future.

Simantik Dowerah August 17, 2017 08:11:50 IST
Assam floods Part II: For Majuli island, Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh is an apocalypse in the making

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 18 July, 2017. It is being republished in view of the current situation. 


This is the second of a three-part series on recurring Assam floods. This part examines the existential crisis of the vulnerable Majuli island.

Majuli, the seat of culture in Assam, a fortress of neo-Vaishnavite tradition and also the state's largest inhabited riverine island, is in a constant struggle for survival. Also the youngest district of the state, and a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Majuli is at the risk of being swallowed whole by the mighty Bramhaputra anytime.

Assam floods Part II For Majuli island Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh is an apocalypse in the making

Sarbananda Sonowal at a relief camp in Majuli on 12 July. Image courtesy: Twitter/@sarbanandsonwal

The fury of the floods that Majuli encountered in 2017 can be gauged from the fact that nearly 50,000 people were severely affected in 49 villages, and 1,760 hectares of crop were damaged. That several man-made factors contributed to this situation only makes the story all the more frightening.

Ranganadi hydroelectric project

The sudden release of water from the Ranganadi Hydroelectric project at Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh left a trail of destruction, particularly in the districts of Lakhimpur and Majuli in Assam. Given the surge of water from its tributary — the Ranganadi river — the already swollen Brahmaputra hit Majuli mercilessly.

The breach at Dhonarighat embankment at Selek towards Lakhimpur shocked everyone, more so because it was considered to be a safe zone. This happened because of the force of water.

"The Ranganadi project will help Arunachal Pradesh alone. Lower Majuli was affected because of the water's fiery pace. This is a repeat of what happened in 2008. But the top brass of NEEPCO (North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited) was never taken to task. The power company should have been compelled to follow protocol before releasing such huge amounts of water. But no one is concerned about the people of Assam," said Majuli Island Protection and Development Council (MIPADC) secretary Bharat Saikia.

The unexpected circumstances in which the district administration found itself captured by Majuli deputy commissioner Pallav Gopal Jha. "The water level increased suddenly due to man-made reasons. This particular flood could have been better managed if we had more time to respond. But we were caught unawares," said Jha.

Subansiri dam: A tragedy in the making

Led by a multitude of organisations, there is already a vociferous protest against the execution of the controversial 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Power Project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Many experts have already questioned whether the project being constructed by the state-run National Hydroelectric Power Corporation is safe.

"The central government has already sanctioned 96 dams in Arunachal Pradesh. But no one has the time to think about people downstream, because dams are a source of money. But there are too many risks involve. The soil here is soft. The area also falls under a high seismic zone and the fear of earthquakes is always real. A cloudburst can hit the dam and cause havoc. There is also the possibility of foreign aggression, especially with the China border being so close," Saikia said.

"Subansiri is a far bigger tributary of the Brahmaputra than the Ranganadi. There will be nine dams in total on the Subansiri. If the gates here are opened, the water will hit Majuli at the centre of the island, near Jengraimukh, causing a 30-metre hydro jump. It will pass over the entire island, and Majuli will cease to exist within minutes. We already saw what 1,600 cubic centimetres (CCs) of water could do when released from the Ranganadi dam instead of the maximum permitted 1,200 CC," he said.

Assam floods Part II For Majuli island Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh is an apocalypse in the making

A map of Majuli. Courtesy: Majuli Island Protection and Development Council

If such a scenario does occur, the north bank of the island, where the water wall would hit, has little protection. Had there been a bank protection project, the impact, at least this time, could have been less than what the Ranganadi caused.

"A Rs 338 crore flood control scheme is lying idle with the Central Water Commission for years. We have approached various authorities, including the prime minister, for help, but nothing has come of it. We are including the world heritage site angle to make our appeal stronger. Both Majuli and Lakhimpur are in grave danger because of these dams," the MIPADC secretary said.

"The Subansiri was originally conceptualised as a flood control project but it became a power project after the then chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh intervened. This resulted in scaling down of costs as well as flood control measures, which may have saved Arunachal Pradesh's funds but became a problem for Assam. Ultimately, both the height and depth of the dam were decreased, which many experts had opposed," Saikia said. Did the district status help Majuli?

After it was upgraded to a district in September, there was hope that the flood situation would be tackled better. Majuli is also Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal's constituency. However, the situation has shown hardly any improvement. "The condition is more or less same as before. There is an increasing feeling that people's expectations have not been fulfilled. The administration should have been more proactive, but a lack of planning is obvious. Some decisions were taken hastily, perhaps because it became a district. After Sonowal visited Majuli on 12 July, the relief was dispatched sooner. However, the situation was not upgraded in terms of manpower with the National Disaster Management Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Management Force (SDRF) units," said Raju Gam, a senior field coordinator with the Amar Majuli NGO.

"Three major embankments were damaged and erosion is continuing unabated in east and central Majuli," he said.

Bikash Saikia, secretary of Avakash Majuli, an NGO that assists the district administration in carrying out relief work and setting up of medical camps and distributing food and water, felt that relief is relatively better organised than before. He agreed with Gam that NDRF and SDRF teams were deployed in small numbers and were late in arriving.

"Areas like Begenati, Bhogpur and Kamalabari-Banpur Road were hit. It affected many panchayats like Chilakala, Sri Luit, Karatipar, Malabindha, Bebejia, Charigharia, Selek-Nalduar among others," Saikia said. "After the chief minister's visit, however, three medical vans are visiting the affected areas. The public health department is putting up tubewells and arranging for temporary toilets. This promptness was not seen before," the Avakash Majuli secretary said.

Assam floods Part II For Majuli island Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh is an apocalypse in the making

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal at a relief camp in Majuli on 12 July. Courtesy: Twitter/@sarbanandsonwal

There may have also been a manpower shortage, considering the district administration sought volunteers through WhatsApp messages.

Jha, however, denied this was the case. "We have sufficient manpower. There is no shortage. We are only trying to involve more community members through WhatsApp. There was only one flood-related death here, that too because of an accident," said Jha.

The geological aspect

"Majuli is situated at the confluence of Subansiri and Brahmaputra rivers. After the great Assam earthquake of 1950, the island has been rapidly eroding, as the Brahmaputra changes its course and undercuts the soil from the island. The reason for this is the age-old tendency of a river to shift on both sides and excessive sediment discharge. Geomorphologically, the island forms one part of the alluvial flood plain of the Brahmaputra," said Ananda Hazarika, head of the Department of Geography at Majuli College.

"Heavy sediment load of about 800 metres in the Brahmaputra results in the formation of innumerable longitudinal channel bars, and some of them have formed a mid-channel island, the biggest among which is Majuli. It originally measured 1,246 (1,256) square kilometres, but this is reducing due to rapid erosion of river banks," he said.

"Large-scale erosion occurs when floods breach the protection dykes, embankments or roads and cause major damage by rapidly destroying large areas of land. This type of erosion can be seen at Kaniajan in Majuli, where approximately three square kilometres of land was eroded between 1989 and 1993; at Jengrai Lakhimi Pathar and Borbil in 2004 and 2008; and at several points of the Haldibari-Besamora dyke," Hazarika said.

Apart from flood-induced erosion, there is another type, which continues throughout the year

"This erosion is caused by an almost vertical riverbank continuously collapsing into the river at low flows. This process is continuing from upper to lower Majuli. Erosion in places like Salmora, Dakhinpat, Sumoimari and several areas of lower Majuli have become a major concern," the professor said.

A better equipped south bank

In 1996-97, the MIPADC through the state government presented a scheme to the Planning Commission for the protection of Majuli.

"The then Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta wrote the foreword in the proposal which was sent to Planning Commission head Madhu Dandavate and the plan panel approved the project. Subsequently, Rs 200 crore was sanctioned for the Brahmaputra Board for a scheme prepared on this model. Under this scheme, impermeable spurs were put up from the eastern side of Majuli up to Kamalabari on the southern bank, while work on the remaining portion is in progress. However, the north bank is not yet covered," the MIPADC secretary said.

Living on the edge

Majuli is one of the youngest districts of India, but it is continuously battling for survival. It also cannot take its eyes away from a highly perilous future. Saikia was probably prophetic when he said in algebraic terms that the "Brahmaputra river is full of x, y and z", but it remains to be seen if the upcoming Subansiri dam will turn out to spell doomsday for Majuli.

Part three of this series examines if dredging is the answer to Assam's prayers. Read Part I here

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