Assam villagers battered by recurrent floods rue inadequate relief, castigate politicians for not providing solution

Bidisha Barman | Apr 20, 2019 | 11 min read



Villages where waters wash away dreams, want permanent solution and not lame poll promises

Singara (Assam): Thunder rumbles in the distance and heavy dark clouds loom in the sky but does little to deter Budbori Payeng and Lalita Payeng from continuing to maneuver their axes to break down logs into neatly chopped wood in rapid strokes.

 “It has started already”, says Lalita Payeng, “Before the rains, we must stock enough firewood to sustain throughout these months, until monsoon is over.”  

The Singara village adjacent to the rivers Singara and Ranganadi gets submerged every year and the water refuses to recede even after the monsoon is over,also released water from Ranganadi reservoir add to the woes.

“Water comes rushing from the Singara river nearby and the strong current takes along everything- firewood, utensils, food, lanterns- in our houses. It has been so long we are living like this with the mad flood. Our fields are no longer cultivable as they are deluged for the entire year and hence crops are destroyed if we try to harvest,” Budbori Payeng tells 101 Reporters while directing attention to the rice planted in their land of less than an acre, “Here you see is one variety of rice which grows only in deep water, but we cannot rely upon its produce.”

The river water has found its way to the nearby fields. “The water will breach the road and enter our homes. We travel to raised roads at the t-point or embankments on our broken boat during the floods,” says Lalita adding that along with humans, their livestock also suffer from huge distress.

Several metres away, their neighbour, Dhenuram Narah, has a similar tale to tell. "Every year floods wash away our cows, goats and pigs. We may shift to relief camps, but it is difficult to provide them food and shelter. If they survive and fall sick, no one comes to treat them and they eventually die. The April rains have started and until January the water continues to stand in our fields and courtyards.  This means we cannot grow anything here and often end up working for others even though we are land owners,” says the 67-year-old.

In July 2018, there was a sudden deluge in the Singara river which caused massive inundation of more than 50 villages of Nowboicha Revenue Circle in Lakhimpur district. According to reports, the river overflowed after heavy rains and breached a PWD road which led the water into the villages blocking the NH-15(Lakhimpur-Arunachal Pradesh) for four days.  Residents allege that their miseries were neglected by the government which failed to set up any relief camp.

Again, a few days later water from the Ranganadi reservoir spilled and resulted in breaching of an embankment and flooded the road between NH 15 and the rail bridge over Ranganadi river. People of North Lakhimpur have serious grievances against NEEPCO, who they claim open the Ranganadi reservoir gates without warning and cause loss of lives and property.

In the bordering villages of Majuli, residents say that they spend the better part of the year battling the waters but more than flood it is erosion which has ruined lives of millions of people.

“The flood here is so routine an affair that it’s almost like we are born in the waters. We can live with the flood, swimming and rowing but who will give us back our lands lost to the river. There is no embankment to protect our village from the river. We don’t have any crop fields left to cultivate, no proper house to live, everything has been swallowed by the river,” said Rameshwar Pameng of Alimur Mising Gaon, the entire village have houses lined along both sides of the road now.

Rameshwar Pameng recalls the devastating floods of 1988 when all the embankments and elevated roads were under water and it has been since then they are fighting for help. Although a few villages were relocated in the year 1992, but after that till date no one has been shifted, neither provided any shelter or monetary help. In more than 100 villages in the Majuli district people live on roads in makeshift houses, supported by bamboo poles 4-5 feet high (called Sang Ghor). The river water continues to flood their homes, which are submerged for months during monsoon.

Wrath of the Brahmaputra

In 2018, more than 4 lakh people in Assam were affected and 46 died after severe floods hit the region following torrential rains.

Brahmaputra which descends from a height of 2,450 meters above sea level in the Himalayas flows through Assam along with its many tributaries and regularly changes its course. The braided river means life to the people of NorthEast India and Bangladesh, which gifts fertile soil to the valley, helping in agricultural and marine farming and is also a friend of the fishermen. But the river is as feared as it is loved.

Every year, Brahmaputra and 33 of its tributaries cause catastrophic floods in the Brahmaputra valley, Barak valley and also in neighbouring Bangladesh. 

The valley receives an average annual rainfall of 220cm. The southwest monsoon brings heavy precipitation from May to October causing the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to overflow. The river Brahmaputra contributes to significant amount of sediment load, which makes the Brahmaputra valley prone to flooding. Over the past years, considerable amount of land in the region has been wiped out, with Majuli facing the worst kind of erosion.

Temporary Relief camps and materials can never be sufficient for the millions affected by such a disaster every year and effective measures for control and protection of lives and land have been a dire necessity. As Government apathy continues to choke the region, situation do not seem to get better any soon. The Centre had proposed dredging along the length of the river after the disastrous flood of 2017, but relief has not yet been experienced.

Poll Promises undelivered, problems continue to persist

Dhenuram Narah says the Government and District Authorities have done nothing to change their distraught lives. The problem is not apparently of a few years but has continued for over 20 years now. Poll promises are made with swaying persuasion but even after four-five elections the situation remains grim in the village. “Do they consider our lives to be of any value,” he asks.

Government officials and politicians remember us during elections, only to forget us soon after. We heard that they are giving cooking gas to women, but have a look at us. We still cook food on earthen stoves using firewood and during floods when our floors remain deluged, even cooking food becomes impossible,” complains Budbori Payeng, convinced that whoever is in power can construct Bridges or Statues but their lives won’t change. The Payeng family have lost children to the incessant floods and all that is earned throughout the year needs to be spent on repairing their homes and buying essentials that are washed away every year.   

 In such places which have no urban area and where agriculture is still the major economic activity of almost all households, loss of cultivable land, plantations and farm animals have huge social and economic ramifications.

Project Officer of the Assam State Disaster Management Authority(ASDMA), Majuli district, Dibya Jyoti Saikia, says that significant work has been done in the past few years to control flood and minimise loss. Talking to 101 Reporters, he said that all the project work undertaken for the past year have been completed or nearing completion and being in good shape, this year the monsoon is unlikely to cause widespread damage.

Such claims are however refuted by Moneswar Kutum, the village headman of Sumoimari Gaon , a village critically affected by erosion happening every year rendering huge loss to the villagers. “10 years ago this village was stretched for kilometres from here (towards the river) but successive floods kept pushing its boundary inward with hundreds of acres of land abraded by the river. Small embankments are made here and there in the name of control measures but they are not planned properly so breach after a few days of rain,” puts Moneswar Kutum.

Pointing to a construction work just 50 metres from his home towards the river, Kutum narrates how the Government felled hundreds of trees on his land without his permission and initiated work for construction of an embankment. The work was left undone due to some clash between the Government and the construction company.  “ Whatever clashes the powerful people have, it is us who always suffer. We have shifted thrice in the past 10 years; our homes and fields are already devoured by the river. 240 families of this village and also many other villages in Majuli continue to reside along the ridges.”

In contrast to the assertions of the Project Officer, both Kutum and Pameng conform to the kind of relief they are provided during floods which is primarily half kg of rice, dal and sometimes a litre of oil for each family. “The situation becomes horrifying; we only stick to our children and family in those awful days. We have lost everything and yet were never provided any monetary help to revive. You will never visit the island if you see what happens here in the months when it is flooded,” says Rameshwar Pameng with almost teary eyes.

According to a recent revelation, reported by NENOW, The Brahmaputra Board, in an RTI reply, informed that it paid Rs 31, 48, 326 to charter an aircraft for four days from December 29, 2017 when Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Nitin Gadkari had come with his family to lay foundation stone for Brahmaputra Board complex in Majuli and spent a luxurious New Year in the state. The Brahmaputra Board, is supposed to carry out survey and investigations in Brahmaputra and Barak Basin and to prepare Master Plan for the control of floods, bank erosion and improvement of drainage and activities connected therewith. If such huge funds dispensed for control of flood and erosion are used for recreation and extended holidays of families of Union Ministers, then miseries of the poor victims can never fade.

Lakhimpur Lok Sabha Constituency

The Lakhimpur Parliamentary Constituency of Assam includes the Assembly segments Majuli (ST), Naoboicha, Lakhimpur, Dhakuakhana (ST), Dhemaji(ST), Jonai (ST), Chabua, Doomdooma and Sadiya. The current Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal won the Lakhimpur Loksabha seat in 2014 with a sweeping victory before he contested Assembly Elections in 2016 from Majuli and was elected as the CM of Assam. Lakhimpur and Majuli voted on 11th April as part of 1st Phase Polling. The constituency saw a 65% voter turnout this year.

Does belonging to the Chief Minister’s constituency have an edge over those from other constituencies?

“When Sarbananda Sonowal approached us for the previous Lok Sabha election in 2014 and then the Vidhan Sabha election in 2016, he assured us that if we vote for him he would solve the problem of erosion in Majuli and help us with relocation, establishment or jobs. But nobody in past so many years has received any benefits,” replies Rameshwar Pameng. 

Pameng also expressed anger over the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. The Bill, which was passed in the Lok Sabha on January 8 this year, facilitates citizenship of illegal migrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religious communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan in India.

“Is there any place for them to come and settle here? If there is, why isn’t it being given to us?” he asks.

Moneswar Kutum adds, “The govt knows about our situation. The previous Tarun Gogoi lead Congress Government told us that they do not have any provision for resettlement and we will have to continue living here. We know funds are allocated for us, this is the CM constituency and yet we receive no help or benefits. It has become an annual event now but no one even for once talks about a permanent solution to this problem.”

While denials continued, after the current Government came to power Yoga guru Baba Ramdev has been allocated 1200 acres and 148 acres of land in Chirang and Balipara respectively(at huge discounts and tax-free) to set up Patanjali factories in Assam.

Women like Budbori Payeng and Lalita Payeng of Lakhimpur are not even fortunate to avail benefits of multi crore schemes like Ujjwala Yojana or Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojna and even if they do, “Where shall we get the money to buy cylinders,” asks Lalita with a wry smile. 

Congress President Rahul Gandhi had visited Lakhimpur a week before the 1st phase polls and addressed a rally in the presence of thousands of supporters, but skipped any mention of the victims of this annual calamity. Repeated betrayals have left the people shattered and elections do not mean much anyway for people in these afflicted areas. Lakhmipur, Dhemaji, Majuli districts remain as the districts worst hit by floods every year.

The Project Officer of ASDMA, Lakhimpur, Papori Borah, however, maintains that proper precautionary measures have been taken in the district and coordinating with NEEPCO, the district authorities will try to prevent harm caused by water from the Ranganadi river. She added that after the flood of 2018, they recognized the loopholes and accordingly initiated projects like community-based warning system by installing sirens which can alert villagers when water crosses danger mark.

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