Blame it on climate change or whimsical weather gods, India’s commercial – and film? – capital on the Arabian seacoast began hijacking Assam’s monsoon in 2006. As the Americans would say colloquially, varsha hritu was all wet since (barring 2008).
Last (2009) monsoon was no different. Mumbai waded as Assam waited to be wet enough. So did the other northeastern states.
The unusual dry run precluded annual displacement for an average 5,000,000 people across Assam’s floodplains. But it left some government employees heartbroken; their bank balance was directly proportional to the floodwater level.
What ‘rain cuts’ and ‘silt clearance’ are for Irrigation Department officials across India, flood and erosion are for their counterparts in Assam’s Water Resources (formerly Flood Control) Department.
God, I thought, knew best how deep or wide raindrops cut the sides of earthen canals or how thick the silt is under water. I was wrong; most Irrigation officials know better, making money for filling up/repairing the rain cuts and clearing silt by the fictitious inch.
At least the Irrigation chaps don’t cash in on other people’s miseries. More often than not, Water Resources bosses spend a fortune to create a scenario necessitating the ‘control’ of floods. If things, except for their cuts from projects, invariably get out of control, there’s a readymade excuse: it is impossible to control nature’s fury.
And when nature leaks like mad, how can you expect low-cost measures to save 3,160,000 hectares of land in Assam – this is 9.4 per cent of India’s total flood-prone area, says National Flood Commission – from inundation?
Even thinking low-cost is a sin. Members of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), we are told, killed social activist Sanjoy Ghosh for daring to come up with an anti-erosion project (in Majuli Island) that cost less than one-thousandth of Rs 20 million the erstwhile Flood Control would have spent.
If you can’t fathom the Ulfa-FC connection, Google National Investigation Agency, North Cachar Hills, diversion of government funds and Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel), a tribe-specific militant outfit.
According to Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, erosion is a bigger problem than floods – maybe because the government receives far less money to check erosion than control floods.
Statistics reveal that in 2002, Assam incurred a loss of Rs 6,390 million owing to floods and erosion. Subsequently, the government demanded Central aid from New Delhi for flood damage repair and anti-erosion. The money given did not match the Rs 1,610 million received after the devastating 1988 floods.
In 1998, Assam received Rs 600 million as Central aid compared to Rs 3,000 million given to the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Both states suffered equally, but New Delhi apparently felt Assam’s crisis was less important.
The Assam government and various organizations have been demanding National Disaster status for the annual floods. New Delhi seems reluctant to give the tag. Maybe because it thinks floods in Assam aren’t anything new, or because Assam isn’t ‘mainstream’, or because National Disaster would entail fatter funds for Water Resources officials to capitalize on a ‘national scale’.
Whether or not Assam’s drenching disaster is national enough, the smiles are back on the faces of Water Resources officials. Why not? It isn’t monsoon yet, and Assam is reeling under water. After years, pre-monsoon showers have showered enough misery on poor villagers to make money from.
P Sainath had a decade ago written the masterly Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He, obviously, had no interest in flood-prone areas.