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Keeping head above water in Silchar

Young boys who were helping transport flood-affected people in Silchar town take a break to eat lunch at College Road in Silchar, Cachar district of Assam, on June 30.

Young boys who were helping transport flood-affected people in Silchar town take a break to eat lunch at College Road in Silchar, Cachar district of Assam, on June 30. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

On June 20, as the water level rose, Dipankar Dhar waded past a refrigerator, an LPG cylinder and scores of vintage books — all floating around his waist — after descending from the first floor of his three-storey house on College Road. A rescue boat was ready. Dhar and his family exited the house with a few clothes and basic necessities, climbed onto the boat, and sailed to the edge of Park Road. This was the nearest “island” in Silchar, a town where only about 10% of the land had been spared the sudden flooding close to midnight of June 19.

The Dhars were among the first to check into a hotel on Park Road. “We could have stayed on the first floor like many others marooned in our locality. But our kitchen on the ground floor went 6 ft under water and there was no way we could cook or organise our food,” said Dhar, a contractor based in Kolkata who had come home recently to settle a property dispute.

Shyamsundar Roy, a businessman, and Moushumi checked into the same hotel with their eight-month-old baby three days later. They had been banking on the water receding, as has often been the case with Silchar, within a day or two from the ground floor of their four-storey building on Bibekananda Road. “We shifted the ground floor tenants to the second floor and hoped for the best,” said Roy. “But it was becoming unbearable. After the inverter battery drained out, for three nights we had no power. We hired a boat to a point near the hotel, a 10-minute drive from our house on normal days. And here we are, on a forced staycation.”

Unlike most Silchar residents who were taken by surprise, Hemanta Bora said he was used to floods back home in a northern Assam village. The family of this former soldier, who handles security at an Oil and Natural Gas Corporation facility near Silchar, decided not to move from their rented, third-floor house. “We kept saving the inverter battery to charge our mobile phones and I waded chest deep occasionally to get provisions. My office had my family shifted to a hotel after nine days because my service was needed at the facility,” said Bora.

Never before had the hotels around Gandhi Bagh been booked for 10 days at a stretch by locals. “All our 21 rooms are booked but we are managing with less than 50% staff, many of whom are marooned. But we are only providing a few items on the menu because there is no one to prepare the fancy dishes,” said Amit Patoa, the manager of a starred hotel. “It would be wrong to say we are making the most of people’s misery. We have provided discounts on room rent and we have not charged extra for food despite having to buy fish, vegetables and everything else at 200%-300% more than the usual prices.”

Explained | Assam’s annual tryst with devastating floods

Silchar, the headquarters of Cachar district, is the hub of the landlocked Barak Valley comprising three districts in Assam. Silchar got hit after landslides damaged the arterial railway line through Dima Hasao at 56 points in mid-May. A highway through Dima Hasao was similarly affected. The only other highway through Meghalaya connecting Barak Valley to the rest of the country was cut off less than a month later. It was made usable in about a week, but perishable items landed in Silchar rotten because the trucks had been stranded in Meghalaya. To make matters worse, 30%-70% of goods of most shops and warehouses in the town had been submerged way too long to be of use. As of July 1, 173 people had died due to the floods and landslide in Assam. Of Silchar’s 28 wards, 26 were badly flooded. More than 1,00,000 vehicles had been damaged. Property damage was estimated to be over ₹1,000 crore, said the Assam Assam Minister for Public Health Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Tourism, Jayanta Malla Baruah.

Thirsty people in flood-hit areas

No one in schoolteacher Bipul Sinha’s family had any appetite to eat on the first-floor house in Bhagatpur locality. They were barely 1.5 m above the water level. In just five days, the ochre coloured water that the overflowing Barak River had brought had turned a dull black and was stinking. Bathing was a luxury as there was no electricity to draw water from the underground tank. The family’s stock of drinking water had run out three days after the floods. “You can survive without electricity and even food, but not water,” Sinha said. “On the fifth day, I bought a dozen one-litre bottles of water at a premium, but it was peanuts compared to the ₹1,000 I had to pay the boatman one way to fetch it.”

Flood-affected people desperately try to get drinking water in Silchar town. Most people used boats, or plyboards tied on tubes of truck tyres, or slabs of thermocol stitched in plastic sacks to fetch water at ₹500 for a 20-litre canister that would normally cost ₹70. Some boiled the floodwaters to survive.

Flood-affected people desperately try to get drinking water in Silchar town. Most people used boats, or plyboards tied on tubes of truck tyres, or slabs of thermocol stitched in plastic sacks to fetch water at ₹500 for a 20-litre canister that would normally cost ₹70. Some boiled the floodwaters to survive. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Barely 900 metres from his house, on College Road, a ‘boat stand’ replaced the local taxi and rickshaw stand soon after the area turned, as Sinha put it, into “a sea”. Boatmen Rahamatullah and Gopal Das justified the charge — ₹100 per 100m — to make up for their inability to fish or ferry people across the Barak River for a living.

Most used boats, or plyboards tied on tubes of truck tyres, or slabs of thermocol stitched in plastic sacks to fetch water at ₹500 for a 20-litre canister that would normally cost ₹70. Some boiled the floodwaters to survive.

The situation eased after three days when individuals, local NGOs and the Cachar district administration began distributing water along with biscuits, candles and matchboxes. Manipur and Mizoram pitched in while boat-mounted water purifiers were placed strategically. There were a few like Ajit Das, an optical store owner, who ferried water on his two-wheeler from his house on Public School Road for friends in need. “My house was not inundated and I tried to help the only way I could, by providing water to the nearest point from where my friends and relatives could collect it,” he said. Saurabh Chakraborty, a member of Prayash NGO, said the Barak River came visiting as a great leveller: “Everywhere, owners of swanky cars and tall buildings as well as the homeless were begging for water.”

Problems in providing relief

Water and relief material did not reach people due to non-availability but alleged mismanagement, many said. Samin Sen Deka, a reporter for a Guwahati-based TV channel, said relief did not reach his marooned locality for almost a week. He watched helplessly as his two young daughters cried due to hunger.

At the Silchar Government Higher Secondary School near the Cachar Deputy Commissioner’s office, about 500 inmates from the flooded Dhakaiya Colony complained about getting less than what was assured. “The board outside says we are supposed to get 5 kg of rice and 300 ml of mustard oil per head. We are getting 1 kg of rice and barely a few spoons of oil to cook. And how can 3 litres of (packaged) milk suffice for 15 people, many of whom are children,” asked Seema Biswas.

Few perhaps know about relief distribution better than Jaichand Das, a truck driver whose family of 12 has been living in a 10-wheel truck parked near a railway level crossing at Ramnagar on the outskirts of Silchar. In May, when the first flood of lower intensity struck Silchar and Cachar district beyond, he had driven his truck for the district administration to distribute relief material to the flood-hit people. “We swam to safety when our house in Durganagar went under water save the tin roof. Rukman Singh, the owner of the truck I drive to transport food grains (from the Food Corporation of India warehouse near Silchar), was kind enough to let us stay in the truck, but we are disappointed that the government could not provide any kind of relief to us. Had it not been for the Army, we would have died of thirst,” he said. The Army camp at Masimpur near Silchar remained inundated for more than a week as did parts of the Assam Rifles camp in the town.

A couple takes out their wet clothes from their marooned house in Silchar town in Cachar district. Water and relief material did not reach people due to non-availability but alleged mismanagement, many said.

A couple takes out their wet clothes from their marooned house in Silchar town in Cachar district. Water and relief material did not reach people due to non-availability but alleged mismanagement, many said. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

“Whatever relief is being provided is by the locals themselves,” said Trinamool Congress MP Sushmita Dev, whose house on Station Road was inundated for a few days. “There has been total mismanagement of the situation. We have seen floods since childhood, but there was never any party politics during disasters until now. The BJP (local MP and MLAs belong to the Bharatiya Janata Party) has taken control of the operations and made a mess of it. They have to let the district administration work.” Neither Silchar MP Rajdeep Roy nor Silchar MLA Dipayan Chakraborty took calls, but local BJP leader Anita Choudhury denied that the party was “branding” relief material provided by the district authorities.

Cachar Deputy Commissioner Keerthi Jalli admitted the district machinery took time to respond, but said that was because most officials and employees were themselves marooned. “We lost no time in requisitioning dumpers and excavators, the only vehicles that could be used in most areas, to transport relief, move doctors and help the police patrol vulnerable areas,” she said.

Much of the patrolling on dumpers at night was to assure the townspeople that the law-and-order situation was being taken care of, said Cachar’s Superintendent of Police, Ramandeep Kaur Dhillon. “We have received SOS calls about burglaries in shops and houses closed for days. But there has not been a single case reported. People have panicked because the nights are pitch black without electricity.”

More than 4,000 transformers in Silchar and the district beyond were under water for about a week, leading to extensive power cuts.

Blaming Mahisha Beel

With a population of more than 2 lakh, the 27 sq. km Silchar town is protected by a long embankment on the Barak River, the lifeline of Barak Valley. At about 7 p.m. on June 19, the district authority issued a statement warning residents that the town could be flooded because some miscreants had cut a channel on the embankment at Bethukandi about 3 km from the heart of the town.

Ajit Das had been tipped off earlier by Ashis Das, a resident of one of the villages in the Bethukandi area and the mason who had built his optical shop at Rangirkhari. “I stacked most of the spectacles on higher shelves and placed the inverter and battery on a stack of chairs. I warned the shops in the area but none took it seriously,” Ajit Das said.

Tapu Pal, who runs a pharmacy near Rangirkhari, wished he had heeded the warning. Floodwaters destroyed the medicines on the lower shelves but the loss he suffered was much less than what the maternity hospital opposite his store faced. It is closed indefinitely.

The flood, which struck at a force, killed 16 people in the town while three remained untraced. The scale of devastation struck the people when a couple of bodies wrapped in polythene were found floating, possibly disposed of as the town’s cremation and burial grounds were submerged. Struck by this, Kumar Kanti Das, a popular doctor, temporarily allowed his Charitable Hospital ground to be used for cremation.

People carry drinking water through floodwaters on College Road in Silchar town.

People carry drinking water through floodwaters on College Road in Silchar town. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

By the time the people realised what had hit them, a narrative had been built that the residents of Mahisha Beel had cut the embankment at Bethukandi to drain out excess water into the Barak River that flows down from Manipur and meanders into Bangladesh. The embankment topped by a partly metalled road is a barrier between the river and the beel (wetland). The belief became stronger when Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who visited the town thrice in a week, said the Silchar disaster was man-made. Bethukandi is a largely Muslim-inhabited area with a few Hindu pockets.

Arijit Aditya, the editor of Silchar-published Bengali daily Bartalipi, found something amiss in the district authority’s June 19 warning. While accusing some miscreants of causing the breach, it said the river water could inundate low-lying areas of the town despite efforts to repair the damaged stretch of the embankment. “For years, the people of Mahisha Beel have been under water for nine months. Why should they suddenly cut the embankment? There could be a case of incompetent officials shifting the blame on the villagers,” he said.

“How can anyone say the locals cut the embankment? Water was flowing out of Mahisha Beel towards the river through a drain near the point of the embankment where a sluice gate has been lying half-constructed for months,” said Gopal Das, the president of the Bagardor Borjurai Gram Panchayat, in May when the water level of Mahisha Beel was higher than that of the Barak River. The locals, he said, informed the authorities concerned about the ‘cut’ on the embankment. On May 23, Debabrata Pal, the executive engineer of the Water Resources Department, lodged an FIR against unknown miscreants under Section 427 (mischief causing damage) of the Indian Penal Code read with Section 3 of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.

“Mahisha Beel was a small wetland. The excess water from Mahisha Beel used to drain out through Rangirkhal, Singirkhal and Longaikhal on the other side of the town. But encroachment constricted these khals (canals) and kept inundating our farmlands,” said Shaheen Hussain Laskar, a former farmer living under a makeshift tent on the embankment. “To say we breached the embankment to teach the townspeople a lesson for making us suffer all these years is a bit much. The strong current of the river washed away the weakened embankment around the under-construction sluice gate.”

He is not off the mark. ‘Barak Riverscape: Ecological status and Trends’, a document of the Wildlife Institute of India under a project of the National River Conservation Directorate, found the Barak River system fragmented by the construction of four dams, six medium irrigation projects, three hydroelectric projects and barrages. The report says the 900-km river provides several ecosystem services but is “threatened due to developmental activities in its basin, increased water abstraction, sand mining, heavy metal pollution, increase in invasive species and climate change”.

The basin has undergone considerable land-use changes in the last three decades. Between 1988 and 2018, the water area decreased by 23.48% while the urban area increased by 73.76%, and the riverbed increased by 134.62% although a dredging project was undertaken in 2018.

“Without going into the details, it would suffice to say that the need to construct the Bethukandi sluice gate to let the excess water of Mahisha Beel drain out into the Barak was felt long ago,” Aditya said. “The beel became a milch cow during the Congress regime through invisible schemes until former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi sanctioned the sluice gate. The work on that stagnated after the BJP won the elections in 2016 and Silchar has now paid for that.”

The way forward

S.R. Swami, a retired chief engineer of the Water Resources Department, said Silchar needs many sluice gates with proper maintenance, regular upkeep of the embankments and better risk assessment besides overhauling of the drainage system. “Even if Barak Valley does not experience rain, heavy showers in the hills around make it vulnerable. And the planning has to be long term if such a disaster has to be avoided,” he said. The Bethukandi breach could not have been the only cause of the unprecedented flooding, he added.

The mindset of officials and the political class needs to change too, said Mantu Das, a Silchar-origin engineering designer now working with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. In 2016, he had proposed a project under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation to bail the town out of its waterlogging and sewage issues. He had even organised a workshop for the town planners. “What they wanted was stop-gap arrangements, not elaborate projects to separate the sewage system from the rainwater drainage system,” said Das. “They failed to understand that one has to study the hydrology of the valley as well as the hills around and analyse rainfall and flood patterns in these areas over more than a century besides factoring in climate change to come up with a set-up that can last for at least 100 years.”

Such studies could be facilitated if the Assam University in Silchar has a centre for disaster management, noted Parthankar Choudhury, who teaches ecology and environmental science at the university. “This centre, the proposal for which was submitted to the University Grants Commission, should be a top priority in view of the unprecedented floods in Silchar,” he said.

For the time being, the focus is on preventing post-flood water-borne diseases, with medical teams fanning out to check the health of relief camp inmates and those marooned in their homes. Help is also pouring in from organisations such as Dharmanagar and Kanchanpur Chemist and Druggist Association in adjoining Tripura.

A health worker begin fogging to prevent the spread of malaria in a makeshift camp in the flood-affected Morigaon district of Assam. For the time being, the focus is on preventing post-flood water-borne diseases, with medical teams fanning out to check the health of relief camp inmates and those marooned in their homes. 

A health worker begin fogging to prevent the spread of malaria in a makeshift camp in the flood-affected Morigaon district of Assam. For the time being, the focus is on preventing post-flood water-borne diseases, with medical teams fanning out to check the health of relief camp inmates and those marooned in their homes.  | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

For those who were forced to leave home, a bigger worry is how soon they can go back with the Barak River starting to rise again: on July 1, the gauge at the town’s Annapurna Ghat recorded 19.87 m after dipping to 19.85 m (0.02 m above the danger level) on June 30. The fear that the gaping hole in the embankment at Bethukandi could cause another flood is palpable, although the district authorities have sought to assure people that the repair work would be completed fast.

Watch | Why does Assam flood every year?

“Finding labourers who are charging ₹1,000 per day instead of the normal ₹300-400 to clean the house is tough. Tougher still is to get clean water to wash the muck and filth left behind by the floodwaters,” Dipankar Dhar said.


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Printable version | Jul 4, 2022 12:02:28 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/assam-floods-keeping-head-above-water-in-silchar/article65589854.ece