In a wide swath of northern and northeastern India, from Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, to Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, seasonal floods have eased following abatement of the flow from ice-melt in the upstream Himalayan belt. But in Assam, close to 15 lakh people still remain seriously affected as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries have inundated 16 districts. Even as relief and rehabilitation measures are undertaken on a war-footing to ameliorate the immediate suffering of more than 2.46 lakh people who are in relief camps, longer-term steps need to be taken up in earnest. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s announcement of the State’s decision to form a Flood and Erosion Protection Authority at a cost of Rs.1,000 crore to strengthen embankments and build anew those that have outlived their utility, has come not a day too soon. The Authority’s remit will include undertaking long-term anti-erosion measures including dredging of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra to minimise the impact of floods. The State has also proposed the formation of a Brahmaputra Valley River Authority. These need to be implemented in a time-bound manner.
For Assam, not forgetting their beneficial aspects such as replenishing the soil, floods represent virtually an annual scourge, with their after-effects persisting even longer than elsewhere. According to the State’s Economic Survey for 2013-14, it suffers an average loss of Rs.200 crore a year; the figure was an estimated Rs.771 crore in 2004. While the all-India figure for flood-prone areas is 10.2 per cent, as much as 39.58 per cent of Assam is classified as flood-prone. About 16.5 lakh hectares of the State’s area is flood-protected, while 9.31 lakh ha remains vulnerable. The scale of the problem of erosion has only grown over time: an estimated 4.27 lakh ha has been washed away since 1950, at an average annual rate of 8,000 ha. The Brahmaputra and the Barak, along with their 48 major tributaries and innumerable sub-tributaries, have periodically claimed roads, bridges, buildings and communication infrastructure, besides livestock, crops and so on. According to the State government’s assessment, the life-span of 75 per cent of the embankments, running to a length of 4,474 km, has expired. The Water Resources Department has submitted a proposal to the Centre to strengthen these stretches. The application of space-based tools for project-planning, the use of geo-synthetic materials for flood management structures, and optimal dredging activity in the rivers are some of the steps that have been suggested by experts. It is clear that unless innovative flood management strategies are quickly implemented, Assam’s development will be blighted.