Recurring annual nightmare

It is time now to view the Brahmaputra floods primarily as an ecological as well as a livelihood security issue for Assam and the entire region

Recurring annual nightmare

The caption to a cartoon published recently in a leading daily of Assam read, “Our resources are national but not our disasters”. It neatly captures the long-standing perception of the people of Assam that the Centre has been insensitive to damages caused by recurring floods in the state.

And right now when it is also struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, the severity of floods this year in 27 plains districts of Assam and the Barak valley has been horrific.

It is useful to note some of the facts – 2.7 million people have been badly affected in 2,525 villages in 75 revenue circles across 27 of 30 plains districts, a death toll of 108 people, and extensive damages to habitations, roads, bridges and crop lands have taken place. More disturbing is the huge erosion of land (an estimated 8,000 sq km of land has been eroded since 1951), which has led some to conclude that erosion is a bigger problem than floods as it shrinks agro forestry-based livelihoods and changes the course of rivers.


It may be recalled that the great earthquake of 1897 and 1950 had changed the course of the Brahmaputra and the ecology of Assam valley, resulting in a change of the geomorphology of the rivers of the Brahmaputra basin. The severity of floods in the Barak valley districts has been caused to a great extent by the reckless felling of trees in the catchment area of rivers like the Kushiara and Barak in recent years.

That is also true of the catchment areas of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. The damages caused to the agrarian economy are massive. As they are often lost in the gross statistics of “crop damages”, it might be useful to look at the details to see the extent of “irretrievable losses”.

About 81 thousand hectares of mature autumn and 83 thousand hectares of standing winter paddy, 38,200 hectares of jute, 5,000 hectares of pulses, 20,000 hectares of vegetables, 1,200 hectares of sugarcane, and 20,000 hectares of other crops including horticultural crops and oilseeds have been completely damaged. While it may be possible to transplant winter paddy again after the floods recede, provided paddy seedlings are made available to farmers, the other crops are entirely lost.

Added to farmers’ misery is the huge loss of livestock and poultry. The current floods have also caused much loss of wildlife as 106 forest camps at Kaziranga National Park alone have been submerged and 127 animals lost. The sight of rhinos seeking shelter on the road is now common in some towns close to the National Park.

The floods point to the total failure of the flood moderation strategy and action programme of the Brahmaputra Board created by the Government of India in 1980 under the Brahmaputra Board Act as enacted by Parliament.

This very act is the Centre’s recognition of recurring floods of the Brahmaputra basin as a national problem. Therefore, the real issue is whether the Board has been able to fulfil its mandate and if not, what should be done to enable it to do so. A related issue is whether the flood moderation strategy adopted by the Board was appropriate or the investment made to meet its goals produced the results desired.

There is no ambiguity in the Act in this regard as under section 3(d), the Board is required to prepare master plans for control of floods, “bank erosion” (meaning the banks of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries) and improvement of the drainage system. Further, under section 12, the Board has to undertake water resource surveys for developing irrigation, hydropower, navigation, and for “other beneficial purposes”.

It is on record that a lot of work had been done in these fields as noted in the performance audit reports.

For instance, the 2010-11 report on the work of the Board observed that 43 master plans were prepared against a target of 57 in the 27 years of its existence. Despite some delays, six drainage projects such as the Demow project in Assam, and four hydro power projects such as Subansiri, Siang and Tipaimukh were completed and handed over to the National Hydropower Corporation.

The Board also completed construction of a dam over Pagladia River and handed it over to Assam in 2007. Such projects and the huge investment notwithstanding, there has been a strong view both in Delhi and the North-east that the Board isn’t doing enough. So much so that in 2015, the Union ministry of water resources was considering steps to restructure the Brahmaputra Board into the Brahmaputra River Rejuvenation Authority with a broader mandate.

It is time now, in the midst of the terrible floods, to take a holistic view while keeping in mind the fact the discharge of the Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries in monsoon is close to, if not more than, the discharge of all the rivers of the country put together. T

his was estimated when Dr KL Rao was heading the then Union ministry of irrigation. The new approach may be founded on an ecological view of the Brahmaputra basin, its critical importance in the environment and climate change in the sub-region of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. This requires departure from the idea of river water as an “economic resource” because it has been responsible for misplaced priorities.

For instance, putting money in building hydropower projects and embankments, which are routinely breached but not effective measures to control “bank erosion” of land that destroys livelihoods and shelters of millions every year. The erosion is seen by many in Assam as a neglected subject though more critical as a survival issue for the people than recurring floods. This is a scientific and not an unsustainable “economistic” view of the flood problem.

Serious concerns about seismic safety, and adverse “downstream effects” of hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh (like Lower Subansiri) on the Assam plains have been expressed at official and public forums but are still to be addressed. It is time now to view the Brahmaputra floods primarily as an ecological as well as a livelihood security issue for Assam and the entire region.

Therefore, the annual ritual of quick assessment of flood damages and release of special assistance to Assam must be substituted by a review of the Brahmaputra Board’s mandate and functioning. It has to be transformed into a Brahmaputra Basin Development Authority capable of addressing the issues of floods and climate change in a comprehensive way.

The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India