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Assam floods good business for the contractor-mafia nexus

By Professor  

But floods in the state have always been a matter of seasonal management instead of a long-term solution

Eleven dead, more than 4 lakh people affected across 800 villages in 13 districts of Assam. (The government’s daily flood bulletin strangely does not have the total number of people killed in the current wave. For example, it says 2 dead on Tuesday, July 4, 2017). Six rivers are currently flowing above the danger level, bringing two lakh hectares of cropland under water. It is the Barak Valley that has breached the banks this year and the worse, they say, is yet to come.

This is some kind of a déjà vu for someone who has written this story over and over again. For readers, it brings a sense of boredom brought about by repetitions and, therefore, merits only indifference. It is as if the flood in Assam is an inevitable monsoon occurrence and nothing can be done. What, however, is invisible to most are the millions of people who have lost their homes, crops, lands, and even dignity. The water will recede but that doesn’t mean life will go back to normal. Many will never find their way back home.

Flood misery is largely due to abysmally poor management of embankments. It is also one of Assam’s most lucrative employment opportunities; the 450 embankments across the state are high maintenance. They must be reinforced each year so a tender is floated and contractors pitch and money exchanges several hands. Long-term solutions go against the government-contractor-mafia nexus. In this context, it is important to recall the case of Sanjoy Ghosh, the social worker who was abducted from Majuli in Assam on July 4, 1997. Sanjoy was fighting against this very nexus to save the world’s largest river island from relentless erosion. He disappeared forever and the terrorist organisation United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) claimed responsibility for his death (they initially said they abducted him and he drowned while trying to escape).

Financial aid for flood victims, to the tune of several hundred crore, is prone to misuse. Distribution of relief materials is a good photo opportunity for politicians. In that sense, flood misery is, to a great extent, man-made.

Community alert systems and disaster preparedness are weak in most districts. Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts introduced commendable alert systems but failed to sustain them. A bioengineering method of containing soil erosion has not been implemented. Lakhs of hectares of land are lost every year, displacing people and forcing migrations that have created tension in several areas of the state; and brought pressures on land and occupations. With livelihood impacted and with the season’s harvest lost, families get into a vicious cycle of debt. If not every year, every alternate year the same family faces a similar situation. If the house survives then it needs repairs, which will not be covered under flood relief schemes. So an average family must borrow for food to last a season, to rebuild homes, buy livestock (that is very vulnerable) and sow again in the hope of a better harvest. Schools are shut down to make room for relief centres and thus children in disaster-prone areas become easy prey to human trafficking. Wildlife parks get inundated and make animals vulnerable to poachers as well as speeding vehicles.

The Great Earthquake of 1950 changed the topography and made the Brahmaputra even more susceptible to floods. The river is unstable and the shifting of river channels and soil erosion has become more frequent. More than 40 per cent of Assam’s landmass is said to be flood-prone and that accounts for some 9.6 per cent of the country’s flooded area. But floods in the state have always been a matter of seasonal management instead of a long-term solution.

The author teaches Journalism in O P Jindal Global University and is the author of Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters