Translated from Axomiya by Biswajit Bora and Mayur Chetia. The article was originally published in the leading Assamese daily, Asomiya Pratidin, on 20 August 2017.
The problem of flood in Assam is heading towards a change in character, making the problem much graver and insoluble. This is not sudden but we have been noticing flashes of this change for the last decade. The fact that many rivers in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts have been shallowed by sand, that the paddy fields have been entombed in sand, that there is deposition of sand instead of alluvium during flood, that there is no fish and wood in the flood waters meaning that the graveness of the problem is heading towards a cataclysm. Flood in Assam is no longer a problem, it has become a catastrophe instead.
A lack of scientific attitude towards rivers, unplanned developmental work, dreadful attempts to control rivers and construction of big dams as well as groundwork for new big dam projects are the main reasons for this. Ecological questions such as climate change might also be associated with this change.
When there was massive deposition of sand at Chamarajan in Dhemaji or when the rivers in north Assam had been calamitously shallowed by sand, the people in Assam, especially the government of Assam should have woken up at that time. That was the beginning of the disaster. Accumulation of heaps of boulders at the Assam-Arunachal border in the rivers flowing down from the hills in Arunachal Pradesh for the construction of the Bogibeel bridge on the Brahmaputra as well as the construction of multiple roads and other construction works has led to this catastrophe in north Assam. It is known that 7.5 lakh of truckloads of stones were lifted from the river beds for the construction of the Bogibeel bridge. Scientists say that the deposits of sand under a stone in a river bed are four times the weight of the stone. When the stones are lifted, the sand deposits fill up the river bed. First, the river becomes shallow and the river bed rises up to the level of paddy fields. When the stream flows on such a river bed, it becomes inundated and the sand deposits spread to the paddy fields on the banks of the river. This is how the dreams of peasants are shattered forever.
Assam is compelled to suffer the consequences of the developmental works undertaken in China, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. The disastrous consequences of any developmental work undertaken on the river banks in those places fall upon Assam. Especially even if a leaf falls in Arunachal Pradesh, the rivers in Assam have to bear the consequences. The infrastructural works in Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan have perilously affected the rivers in Assam. One such example is the construction of trans-national highway in Arunachal. The construction works going on in Bhutan with financial aid from the Indian government and other countries have jeopardised lower Assam.
The big dams are primarily responsible for the characteristic change in Assam’s flood problem. How the Ranganadi dam has brought hardships to the people of Lakhimpur and Majuli districts and the Kurishu dam in Bhutan has done the same to the people of Nalbari, Baksa, Barpeta, Chirang, Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar districts are already well known. The Karbi Langpi Hydroelectric Project has also caused distress to the people of Nagaon, Morigaon and Karbi Anglong districts and has damaged acres of land. Those keeping a tab on the flood problem in Assam are well aware of the once prosperous peasants of Kamrup and Raha becoming paupers. All the big dams constructed till now are relatively small dams, but the construction of actual large dams is imminent. It has been planned to make Arunachal Pradesh the power house of India by constructing dams that would potentially produce seventy thousand megawatts of electricity. Massive hydropower plants like the Siang Hydroelectric Project with a capacity of producing ten thousand megawatts of electricity have been planned.
One example would clarify the interrelation between big dams and the problems of sand deposition and flood. As per the detailed project report (DPR), 193 lakh cubic metres of stones will be required for the construction of the Dibang Multipurpose Project. This is equivalent to 32 lakh truckloads of stones. If sand deposits in the Dibang which are four times the amount of the stones flow down to the Brahmaputra because of the lifting of the stones from the Dibang’s bed, 128 lakh truckloads of sand would fill up the river bed of the Brahmaputra. As a result, not only the Brahmaputra would be catastrophically shallowed but also the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park would be transformed into a desert forever. Even if the construction of the Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project gets completed, Assam’s heritage sites, Majuli and the Kaziranga National Park would cease to exist. Construction works are going on in Bhutan to produce 32 thousand megawatts of electricity by Indian companies with financial aid from the Indian government. Consequently, it would be futile to think about the future of the Manas National Park.
What is the relation between big dams and flood? Many people say that there is no relation between big dams and flood, while some others say that big dams instead check flood. Let us start from the second argument. All the big dams that have been planned in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh are meant for the production of electricity only. The questions of flood control, irrigation or drinking water supply are not addressed by these. The only exception is the Dibang Multipurpose Project which theoretically talks about flood control. (Many people get furious if someone says that considering the demand for electricity in Assam or the Northeast, these projects for the production of electricity by the Indian government are not meant for the northeastern region). It has been theoretically proved that large dams built to produce electricity cannot solve the problem of flood. Moreover, there is not even the option of flood control in the hydropower projects in the Northeast. Experts and scientists have shown that big dams have always caused devastating deluge. When there is rain and the river water level significantly rises, the gates of a dam need to be opened. Otherwise, the entire dam would collapse which would be another disaster. When the gates of the Ranganadi dam had been opened this time, he people of Assam could witness what force the released water flows with from a dam. Only those who do not understand this interrelation between big dams and flood stand in support of big dams. Nonetheless, people in Assam have come to realise big dams are leading Assam to a catastrophe by severely worsening the flood problem. We have only witnessed the calamitous consequences of the Kurishu, the Ranganadi and the Karbi Langpi dams, but we could easily foresee the imminent comprehensive outcome of all the large dams under construction in China, Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan. We went to Majuli, Lakhimpur, Nagaon and Morigaon to understand the disastrousness of the flood and the distress of the people affected. We have never seen such a deluge of epic proportions. Hundreds of thousands of bighas of land have been buried in sand. Those lands would remain barren for the next twenty years. The government has not rehabilitated the people living by the embankments who have been suffering from erosion for ages, nor does anyone have the slightest idea what the government plans to do with them. It is hard to imagine the plight of the people unless experienced or witnessed directly how their homes have been destroyed. Not only the furniture or utensils, but everything has been destroyed—the houses built on perseverance by multiple generations have been destroyed at the blink of an eye. The yards adjoining the houses which are usually a source of income for a household in Assam have been destroyed. The granaries have been destroyed, or in other words, the stored threshed grains for a year have been lost in flood. Cultivation of paddy or other crops has been destroyed, thus shattering the dreams for the coming year as well. The ponds and fisheries have been submerged in flood, thus destroying another means of economy. Livestock has been lost. The people have lost everything. The village infrastructures have been destroyed. Everything has been annihilated.
The government has failed to rescue and aid the people. It might be hard to gauge the extent of the graveness of the issue, but we are unable to express it in clear terms for the lack of a language. Let us give an example—when the people were drowning in flood, the government was busy playing ministerial games. Whatever has been distributed in the flood relief is an insult to the people affected. The less said about children’s food and fodder are better. Some two to four thousand rupees might be given in the name of compensation many months after the flood subsides, thereby kicking the broken hearts of the people once again. Whenever the president or a minister of the ruling party claims—we have given ₹4,00,000 to those who have lost their lives in flood and the Centre will also give ₹2,00,000—and compares it to others, no more humanity or civility could be expected from them, nor is there any possibility for any civilised and sensitive person talk to them.
Why have so many embankments been breached in flood? We have procured the list of contractors who were in charge of construction of the Hatimura embankment in Nagaon. The contract of the breached embankment was given to the brother and a friend of the Water Resources Minister of Assam. This seems to be the reason why the minister stated that someone had cut off the embankment. Embankments are not cut off nor destroyed by people but by devils disguised as contractors.
Let us come forward to rigorously study this change in the character of the flood in Assam. Let us come forward to realise the extent of loss due to flood in actual terms. Let us come forward to work for permanent solutions or measures to deal with the problem of flood. It is not only the time for distributing flood relief but also to earnestly think and work to change the scenario.