Millennium Post

Living and loathing in Assam

For the last six decades, it has been the same story during the monsoon season in Assam – floods destroying crops, houses and taking a heavy toll of lives, human and cattle both. Only the figures change from year to year and mostly tend to rise. This year, over two million people have been affected in 26 out of 27 districts in the state, while 150 people have lost their lives. The fury of the floods does not spare even the wild animals in the state’s Kaziranga sanctuary, home to the famous one-horned rhinos. These animals are frequently killed by poachers, despite the efforts of the forest guards and the elaborate network of observation posts. But that is a different story.

The floods started after the devastating earthquake of 15 August 1950. The heavy siltation of the Brahmaputra that started with the earthquake has been raising the riverbed, reducing its water-bearing capacity and increasing the intensity of the floods. To prevent floods, embankments have been built along the bank of the Brahmaputra and some of its big tributaries. Their total length is over 4,500 kms. Every year, the floodwaters breach the embankments at many places. Every year, the state clamours for a Central ‘package’ to repair them [this year Rs 3,460 crore has been sought]. Every year they are repaired, only to be breached again the next year. The story is repeated, all over again.

But this year, the story is slightly different. There has been a strident demand for a long time from the people of the northeastern states to restructure the Brahmaputra Board and give it statutory powers by enacting a new legislation. The Board was set up in 1980 by a Central Act, and started functioning from 1982 for the planning and integrated implementation of flood and erosion control measures in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys. Later, its jurisdiction was extended to all the northeast.

But the people, especially of Assam, were aggrieved that the Board had done practically nothing worthwhile either to control floods or to prevent erosion during its 30 years of existence, as proved by the recurrent floods and the consequent erosion of the riverbanks. They wanted to see that the Board performs the job it was set up for in the first place. It was also widely felt that the traditional approach to flood and erosion control by building embankments had proved totally ineffective. This time the Centre seems to have woken up to the gravity of the situation, especially after the prime minister made an aerial survey of the flood-affected areas of Assam in July. A move is afoot now to restructure the Board and give it a wider mandate by replacing the Act of 1980. The Board will be transformed into the Brahmaputra River Valley Authority [BRVA]. ’

The BRVA will have the mandate to coordinate the management of water, land and related resources to maximise economic and social welfare while protecting the ecosystem of the Brahmaputra Valley. It is likely to have an apex Council with the Union Minister as chairman and all the chief ministers and ministers for water resources of the northeastern states as members. The Council will formulate policy and give policy directions to the executive wing, which will be composed of technical personnel. Due to their intensive nature, the floods in Assam are widely reported by the media every year. The people are aware that floods occur every year in Assam. However, the flood problems of Manipur have not got much publicity even within the northeastern region as a whole. Regardless, the problem persists. The Imphal Valley is situated at an altitude of about 780 metres above sea level. It is like the bottom of a saucer, being surrounded by hills on all sides. During the monsoon, there is a heavy run off from the hills. The water is carried by several rivers and should either fall directly into the Imphal river or connect with it through lakes. But poor drainage conditions aggravate the situation and almost every year there are flash floods, causing heavy damage to crops and property.

The BRVA is therefore expected to take up flood problems in states other than Assam, which have so long been neglected. The BRVA is also likely to be confronted with another problem that has been agitating the people of Assam. It is the interlinking of rivers.

The logic behind the interlinking proposal is to divert surplus water from the northern river basins to the southern ones. The people of Assam are dead against it because they say that there has been no study to establish that Assam or the northeast is really water surplus and the water needs to be diverted to other states of the country. [IPA]
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