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Where a state drowns each year: Assam floods and what needs to be done

Sanjay Barbora | Updated on: 23 June 2015, 1:11 IST

The deluge

  • Floods affect millions of people and wildlife in Assam each year.
  • Much of the state is a valley criss-crossed with many large and small rivers.
  • Native people had learnt to utilise the floods to their benefit; also found ways around it.

Short history

  • The British ruptured local knowledge; built embankments to protect only their own tea estates.
  • This continues: dykes, embankments, rail lines are built with short-term economic logic in mind.
  • This has adverse impact on social geography. Embankment in one village floods others around it.
  • The rise of radical politics in Western Assam is linked to loss of control over water resources by locals.

The right path

  • The government has an aggressive development agenda.
  • It needs to have genuine dialogue with those worst hit.
  • Also tap into local knowledge to fight floods.

Being stranded in the middle of a vast expanse of water, regardless of the actual depth, is a particularly fearsome and paralysing experience.

In Assam, it happens to millions of people each year and demands some serious attention.

One of the region's foremost public intellectuals, the late Parag Das, once wrote that the floods were a great leveller in the otherwise hierarchical and unequal society.

The daily wage earners who live along the railway tracks of Fancy Bazar in Guwahati, the wealthy businessmen in their houses along Zoo Road, as well as the ministers in Dispur, are all united in their misery and ignominy of having to move their belongings to higher ground in full view of others during the monsoons.

Every year, I too join the multitudes that navigate flood and waterlogged streets, as we attempt to make our way to work or back home.

Like my fellow citizens, I feel utterly vulnerable and small in the face of torrential rain that turns our cities and villages into a veritable sea of mud and water.

Geography doesn't help

Much of Assam's landmass is actually a valley crisscrossed by large and small rivers, so living with seasonal floods and exaggerated flows of water ought to be normal.

Such a reality also entails two kinds of common-sense responses, one that pushes humans to protect themselves and the other that forces them to adapt. The landscape of the Brahmaputra valley is replete with outcomes of these two impulses.

Much of Assam is a valley crisscrossed by large and small rivers, so living with floods ought to be normal

Travellers and soldiers who visited Assam in the medieval period wrote about the amazing rivers and awe-inspiring seasonal rains. Assam's native people used these factors to their advantage in their battles against other armies.

They also learned to channelise the flow of water in different directions, sometimes irrigating their fields and, at other times, saving their villages.

Even today, one sees the remnants of ancient embankments and dykes, though they have been rendered useless in modern times. If these impulses signify the need to be protected by the flood, the ubiquitous houses built on stilts along the floodplains reflect people's ability to adapt to adverse conditions.

However, this landscape changed with the advent of British colonial rule and the expansion of tea and other cash crops in the 19th century.

The tea industry necessitated the growth of a network of train lines, the construction of modern embankments to protect the tea-growing areas from waterlogging and the selective opening up of motorable roads.

As a matter of fact, so selective was this process that Allied army engineers attempting to build a road from Assam to China during the Second World War ended up cursing the greed and rapacity of the planters and the colonial government.

The roads and railway lines were completely useless for the war effort and had been built only to extract resources - not for human connectivity.

Mad dash for cash

The colonial period was also important for the reorganisation of land settlement and use.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial authorities allowed large numbers of cultivators from the Gangetic floodplains of colonial Bengal to settle along the fertile riverbanks in western and central Assam.

Peasants were allowed to settle for short and medium term leases that helped them to cultivate income-generating cash crops like jute.

The Assamese historian Arupjyoti Saikia has written extensively about the contentious politics around land settlement and use in the 19th century and his work provides a useful lens for understanding the importance of the history of agrarian transformation in Assam.

Independent India inherited much of the colonial hubris on matters of flood control and engineering. The propensity to build embankments and dykes with a very short-term economic logic in mind created several unintended consequences that continue to have an adverse impact on the social geography of the Brahmaputra valley.

The short history of top-down planning for irrigation and flood control in Nalbari district, where I have been doing fieldwork for the past three years, is an instructive example of what I mean.

Ever since the 1950s, various governments and political leaders have championed a regime for controlling water resources in the district.

In doing so, they have radically altered the social structure of the place. The construction of a small embankment along one permanently settled village creates waterlogged conditions in the paddy fields of another.

In turn, these minor alterations resulted in large changes in land use and livelihoods of local communities. As new settlers came in to occupy irrigated land, older natives were forced to migrate in order to find livelihoods.

Helpless and ignored

It is no secret that the growth of radical politics in western Assam had much to do with the growing redundancy of local communities in issues related to water sharing and control.

This unwillingness to consult flood-affected communities on the outcome of engineering interventions is one of the main reasons why most citizens feel vulnerable in Assam. This is set to become more pronounced as the current government is bent upon carrying out its aggressive developmental agenda.

In September 2014, a cloudburst over the Garo Hills in Meghalaya resulted in a devastating flash flood in Dudhnoi and other areas of Goalpara district in Assam. Relief workers, including some from the government, were shocked at the sight of submerged, fully grown teak trees along the foothills of Assam and Meghalaya.

The redundancy of local communities on the water control issue led to the growth of radical politics

Like the Allied engineers, the relief workers expressed anger at the newly constructed railway line that prevented the flow of floodwater from the Garo Hills to the Brahmaputra.

The annual floods in Assam ought to be a time for sober reflection on the country's developmental direction, rather than hysterical reactions to what has become an annual calamity for the people of the state.

This can only be ensured by genuine dialogue and consultations with those who are rendered most vulnerable. After all, those who decide on such matters should feel the helplessness of climbing to their desk, then to the loft, in order to remain safe when the levee breaks.

First published: 22 June 2015, 10:39 IST
Sanjay Barbora @CatchNews

An associate professor at TISS, Guwahati, Sanjay Barbora's research interests include agrarian change, resource conflicts, media studies and human rights. He is also involved in community media and radio journalism, as well as the democratization of public spheres.