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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Recurring Floods Of Assam- From A Political Ecology Perspective

Affecting millions of people, damaging countless houses, destroying public and private property worth thousands of crore and claiming hundreds of lives annually, floods can be easily described as a bane of Assam. But it is these floods which have also shaped the geography of Assam, as we see it today. And therefore a good question to ask in 2023, the 76th year of Indian independence, is: what are the different flood control mechanisms that have been in use so far? How effective they have been? And how can we imagine Assam, not without floods, but without suffering, for floods might be inevitable in Assam, but suffering needn’t be.

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By: Anushka Saikia

“The drama of floods unfolds when the river begins to rise in April; by July it is swollen to its full height and the whole country becomes an inland sea”, narrated Scottish army surgeon John M’Cosh in 1837 in Topography of Assam. He also wrote how the sites of large villages are known only by their roofs above the stream. Rightly called the people of the floodplains, the riparian Assamese communities are traditionally adapted to the annual flood since time immemorial. This relationship between flood and the people of Assam can be best described with what Radhakamal Mukherjee in his book The Changing Face of Bengal has described about humans adapting to a flood landscape and that they ‘live a more or less amphibious life’. Be it the writings of Sankardeva, the social-religious reformer of Assam or the British travellers to this region, all very well portrays how the flood is very natural to Assam from yore. The numerous tributaries of the Brahmaputra continue to change its course over the centuries due to floods, tectonic factors, fluvial activity, river capture, or siltation and change in course of tributaries. This often makes flood a very natural phenomenon in Assam, but is it going to be a same story from the cradle to the grave? Or has it been in fact the same story in all these years?

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There is a popular trivia which is often posed to students in Assam during quiz competitions – how many districts in Assam get flooded? Those who have faced this know that this is a tricky question. Because the number of districts keeps increasing almost every year in Assam, it is difficult to keep track of the exact boundaries or the total number. Therefore a very safe answer is ‘all districts’, which is also the correct answer and precise one too.

And just like an annual festival, like Christmas, Diwali or Bihu, floods occur in Assam, without fail. Affecting millions of people, damaging countless houses, destroying public and private property worth thousands of crore and claiming hundreds of lives annually, floods can be easily described as a bane of Assam. But it is these floods which have also shaped the geography of Assam, as we see it today. And therefore a good question to ask in 2023, the 76th year of Indian independence, is: what are the different flood control mechanisms that have been in use so far? How effective they have been? And how can we imagine Assam, not without floods, but without suffering, for floods might be inevitable in Assam, but suffering needn’t be.

Hence, we can argue that the flood issue in Assam is not merely an environmental disaster but a hybrid of human-environment artefact if seen through the lens of a political ecology framework, as rightly proposed by Gilbert F. White in his paper Human Adjustment to Floods: a Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States in 1945.

This article, therefore, aims to examine the recurring issue of flood and resultant damage in Assam through four main theses of political ecology.

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  1. Political objects and actors- This thesis attempts to explain the socio-political conditions of a system. It is contentious to call the floods of Assam a natural phenomenon any longer since there are several loopholes on the part of the government and its administration. The major gaps are the lack of coordination between the state and centre. Flood control is more of a reactionary response rather than a preparatory one and the timing of the reactionary response itself is delayed, which further worsens the situation. This feedback mostly comprises building an embankment with no steps taken to protect against erosion. Breaches have been reported from Brahmajan and Solengi river embankments in Gohpur in 2013 as per the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) flood report of 2013. This was due to the negligence in essential river protection post building an embankment for Rs 5 crores. More than half of the embankments stay in a dire strait almost the whole year because there is always a huge contractor-administration nexus that makes a seasonal benefit from a flood situation, and hence the ‘recurring floods.’
  2. Conservation and control- The relevance of this thesis lies in the usually viewed cordial efforts at environmental conservation which has detrimental effects in the long run and fails hugely as a conservation effort. There are instances of mockery as to how control mechanisms and structures like embankments and dams end up causing more floods. The Ranganadi Hydroelectric Plant in the district of Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh by the North East Electrical Power Corporation (NEEPCO) since its functioning in 2001 has been creating big trouble to the districts of Lakhimpur and Dhemaji as the dam water released by NEEPCO just takes three hours to reach North Lakhimpur. This sudden torrential inflow of water swells the water level of the Ranganadi river submerging several villages in the river banks. A similar situation is also faced by the people of Golaghat in Upper Assam since 2000 due to the functioning of another NEEPCO dam in the Doyang River that flows through Nagaland and Assam. We see how a certain class of environmental victims are created through the act of flood-control measure itself and this pushes a certain section of people to the margins.
  3. Degradation and marginalisation – Flood spells disaster – but not equally for everyone. Often it is seen that the majority of the low-income individuals who rely chiefly on agriculture are highly very likely to dwell in the most vulnerable and remote locations that are surrounded by nature and hence are disproportionately affected by natural hazards and disasters. Thus, populations chiefly dependent on agriculture, livestock production and fishing, when affected by yearly floods, end up abandoning their lands and homes in search of work by migrating to many South Indian cities in the country. All these have been a cause of growing out-migration in the state leaving behind an older generation and thus limited availability of farmers to sustain good outputs. Clearly, there is a complex web of the interaction of cultivation and production with links between degradation and marginalization in the flood-prone region of the Brahmaputra plains.

While on the one hand – floods force people to flee from Assam to different cities in the country, fragmenting families, friends and identities, on the other side, there is another marginalised section of people, the char dwellers, coping with the annual floods of Assam. Locally known as Chars, the sandbars are the alluvial deposits resulting from the unique fluvial-ecological flow of Brahmaputra and high sedimentation rates, which however tend to disappear overnight due to rapid erosion. These chars facilitate the survival of distressed migrants from neighbouring states and the riparian country of Bangladesh. The Chars, which is a part of the Ganges Brahmaputra delta, the largest delta of the world, covers 5% of the total area of Assam spreading across 14 districts, 55 blocks and around 2300 villages (Government of Assam, 2016) and accounts for almost 10% of the population in Assam which are mostly the migrant Muslims of East Bengal origin (Balram Kumar, Debarshi Das 2019).

  1. Environmental Subjects and Identity– Paul Robbins in his book Political Ecology: A critical Introduction writes “People make an identity as they make a living”. This is what we encounter among the tribal populations inhabiting the riverbanks in Assam who are inseparably linked to the sacred customs, traditions, homelands and a shared history with the mighty Brahmaputra River and its tributaries. Coping with the flood is natural to them for which these communities who are hugely dependent on the environment for their livelihood needs, are highly unlikely to migrate long distances, so they always feel a threat within themselves. Social activist, Sanjoy Ghose writes how the people of Majuli, particularly the river-dwelling Mising tribe explains the insecurity of not knowing whether there will be any Majuli left at all. Majuli district in Assam is the largest river island in the world. “Floods we’ve learned to live with, but the loss of the land which nurtured us has made survival difficult”, recounts an inhabitant of Majuli in the book Sanjoy’s Assam: Diaries and Writings of Sanjoy Ghose. These are the River People; the name “Mising” comes from mi (man) and asi(water), or “man of the water”. They build Kare Okum, a traditional Mising chang ghar (sometimes spelt changkar) which is a wooden house built on bamboo stilts with mud foundations and a bamboo thatch roof. However, several factors have threatened the identity of these people who have been resiliently living in harmony with the river for centuries. The traditional way of living in a chang ghar is not much welcomed by the younger generations. The people of these tribes who have a timeless bond with nature do not easily out-migrate but are also embracing newer technologies and ways of living, somehow giving up their traditional adaptive methods of living with the flood. This, in the long run, tends to threaten their communal customs and practices which otherwise hold these small societies together.

The recurring flood problem in Assam, when apolitically viewed, seems like a natural disaster that generates heterogeneity in the riverine ecosystem, influencing the distribution, composition and abundance of organisms.

But when politically viewed, the flood problem is so much more than just a natural disaster which along with the heterogeneity in the riverine landscape also brings heterogeneity in the lives of people across populations. Floods in Assam are more of a socio-economic production of nature and their annual occurrence depends hugely on the way we administer the relationship between society and the environment.  (The author is a wildlife biologist, Elephant Research and Conservation Division (ERCD), Aaranyak, Guwahati, Assam who can be reached at anushasaikia5@gmail.com)

 

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