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Unwanted annual ritual

The flood in Assam this year has claimed more than 75 people as well as 200 animals from the Kaziranga National Park. There are many reasons for this recurring situation in the state.

Nava Thakuria | Guwahati |

Since time immemorial, Assam has been embracing an unwanted ritual annually wherein hundreds of people die, crops are spoiled, infrastructure is damaged and fertile land areas are lost. The magnitude of flood waters may vary from one year to the next but recurring losses always mount for the inhabitants and magnificent wildlife of the state.

After devastating floods in 1988, 1998, 2004 and 2012, the annual calamity has hit Assam once again this year. If the 2004 flood affected 12.4 million people and claimed 251 lives, the 2012 calamity affected 10 million people and claimed 124 lives. The current wave of floods has already affected 5.5 million residents (out of Assam’s total population of 31 million) and claimed more than 75 lives.

According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority, the flood water has inundated vast areas of around 28 of the 33districts in the state damaging crops, road-embankments, private houses and other buildings with its concomitant features of erosion and landslides. Till date, over 175,000 hectares of farmland has been damaged with 4.5 million people in and around 4,150 villages facing the rampaging elements. Thousands have been rendered homeless and forced to take refuge in over 825 relief camps.

The internationally famed Kaziranga National Park on the south bank of the mighty Brahmaputra River has also got vastly inundated claiming over 200 animals including 17 onehorned rhinoceroses, 111 hog deer, 18 wild boars, 12 sambar, seven swamp deer, three porcupines, two water-buffaloes and one elephant, among others. Many animals drowned in the submerged World Heritage Site while some died when trying to escape for higher ground in the Karbi Hills, on the southern part of the park, which crosses National Highway 37. Forest officials, with the help of local people, rescued many animals and later released some in the reserve upon treating them for injuries sustained after colliding with vehicles on the highway.

Besides Assam, the flood has also affected Bihar (where around 200 people died), Uttar Pradesh (over 25 people dead), West Bengal, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Incessantly heavy rains on the Tibetan plateau (comprising Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan) for several days caused the flood in eastern India. Excess water released from the Kuricchu hydropower plant of Bhutan has created havoc in western Assam in districts like Nalbari, Baksa, Chirang, Barpeta, Kokrajhar, South Salmara and Dhubri. Various tributaries of the Brahmaputra including Manas, Beki, Gauranga, Aie and Champamati, among others, flowed above the danger mark for many days causing harm to localities in which Barpeta emerged the worst-hit district. The list of floodaffected districts elongates with Nagaon, Hailakandi, Goalpara, Morigaon, Dhemaji, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Morigaon, Nagaon, Golaghat, Jorhat, Cachar, Kamrup, Kamrup (metro) et al.

The local administration is being supported by the Indian Army and para-military forces, who have been engaged in rescue, relief and rehabilitation programmes round the clock. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently called Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal to take stock of the situation and sent Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Sekhawat for reviewing the damages. Sonowal and state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma followed the situation and organised relief efforts for the families affected.

The Centre has also released Rs 251 crore as the first instalment of the State Disaster Response Initiative to Assam as recommended by the 14th Finance Commission for relief necessitated by natural calamities. PM Modi also assured a delegation of Assam Parliamentarians of providing all central assistance to the state.

Hindi film actor Akshay Kumar also donated Rs one crore to the chief minister’s relief fund and another one crore for the benefit of Kaziranga. Kumar, who is recognised as one of the world’s 100 highest-paid celebrities, expressed his anguish over the devastation in a tweet. He also appealed to everyone to contribute for the people and wildlife of Assam in this hour of need. Later, Amitabh Bachchan donated Rs 51 lakh while Assam tourism brand ambassador Priyanka Chopra along with other actors came forward to invite donations.

Assam’s tiny neighbour Meghalaya has also faced the flood fury as the hilly state lost three people to the disaster that otherwise affected nearly 150,000 people. Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma, while informing that thousands of families are still in government-run relief camps, urged New Delhi for the necessary support.

Annual floods in the Brahmaputra basin wash away vital structures like bridges, schools, hospitals, roads and embankments causing huge setbacks to the welfare initiatives for millions of residents. According to Central Water Commission data, Assam on average witnesses the loss of 45 lives, 2.6 million people are affected and properties are damaged to the tune of Rs 128 crore by floods every year.

Heavy rainfall in the upper riparian area in Tibet, deforestation, encroachments of river banks and islands, and mismanagement of wetlands and other water bodies, which used to absorb flood waters from inflated rivers, are a few major causes. The devastating earthquake in 1950 also raised the Brahmaputra riverbed by two metres in eastern Assam thereby reducing its water retention capacity. Moreover, increasing habitation and various other human activities in catchment areas always lead to sedimentation in the Brahmaputra. The river’s annual sediment yield is reported to be as high as 804 ton per square kilometre at Pandu and 1,128 ton per sqkm at Bahadurabad (Bangladesh).

The annual flooding also brings the possibility of the outbreak of various water-borne diseases like dysentery, diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis E. Similarly, vector-borne diseases, especially Japanese Encephalitis, also threaten public health.