Dr. Himanta Biswa Sharma after taking charge as the Chief Minister of Assam made a number of promises to address the flood and erosion issues of the state. Similar assurances were also made by the Assam water resources department. In a statement, the government stated that it was committed to protecting the people of Assam from floods and erosion.
Has the Assam government been able to fulfil these promises made multiple times during the past 12 months? Or are all of these assurances false? Or were these promises made like the previous Sarbananda Sonowal government just to woo the voters?
It is pertinent to mention that the Assam government is now headed by those individuals, who were at the helm of affairs during the previous Congress government. The BJP which came to power in 2016, has completed six years in office.
Let us take a look at the promises that the state’s ruling party made before coming to power. The party in its “Assam Vision Document, 2016-2020,” released before the 2016 assembly election, the BJP made the following promises under the category of “Flood and Erosion Control.”
(1) Identifying Majuli as a high-priority zone under a special programme to prevent further soil erosion.
(2) Dredging the bed of Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhubri, the problem of siltation will be identified and addressed at the root.
(3) Constituting a Barak Board in line with the Brahmaputra Board.
(4) Reviewing the Brahmaputra Board.
(5) Implementing a special scheme for promoting erosion preventing plantations like bamboo and mangrove along the river banks under MGNREGA.
(6) Protecting the livelihoods of inhabitants in flood-affected areas.
(7) Introducing a state-sponsored insurance and rehabilitation scheme for flood and erosion victims.
(8) Updating and upgrading the state disaster management system.
(9) Reviving the River Research Institute to formulate implementable and scalable long, medium and short-term solutions.
The primary concern right now is whether the Assam government will be able to fulfil the nine promises made to manage erosion and floods in the vision document.
Let’s explore and examine these questions using data that is in the public domain. The Assam Assembly unanimously approved a formal resolution on July 18, 2012, urging the Centre to recognize the flood in Assam as a national issue.
According to the resolution, the issue of erosion and floods is what has caused the state’s overall development to stall throughout the post-independence era. The resolution also noted that flooding has affected hundreds of people and that erosion has resulted in the loss of thousands of hectares of land in the river’s basin.
In order to find a long-term solution, it was suggested during the tenure of the Congress government that the Centre declare erosion and floods to be national problems. It may be recalled that in July 2013, the Assam Assembly was informed by the then revenue minister Prithvi Majhi that the state has lost 427,000 hectares of land to erosion since 1954. On the other hand, Tarun Gogoi, the Chief Minister of Assam at the time, requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2014 that the Brahmaputra Board be modified and reorganized in order to create the Brahmaputra River Valley Authority (BRVA).
We all had high hopes for the BJP-led Sonowal government to bring about a radical shift in Assam’s approach to controlling floods and erosion. But let’s look at what actually transpired.
(1)In reality, Majuli was not adequately protected. The Rs 208-crore-scheme sanctioned by the Centre for the protection of Majuli in 2018 has not been implemented at all by the government.
People from 16 villages in the Bhakat Sapari area were forced to leave their homes in October 2020 as a result of Majuli’s erosion.
(2) On October 24, 2016, the Union minister Nitin Gadkari in the presence of the then Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal announced that the river Brahmaputra will be excavated and express highways on both sides of the river would be constructed.
Gadkari had stated that the Centre will contribute Rs 1 lakh crore to this effort. Unfortunately, Nitin Gadkari mentioned in the Upper House of the Parliament on February 8, 2020, while replying to a question by MP Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, that the Central Government has no proposal to excavate the Brahmaputra and build fast motorways.
(3) On June 18, 2016, then Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal met an eight-member delegation from Brahmaputra Management and Development and Brahmaputra River Development Agency in Dispur to discuss the excavation of the Brahmaputra, Barak and its fourteen tributaries.
He said that the excavation project began in 2005, but was stalled due to the state government’s negligence. The subject at stake is whose ineptitude stopped the excavation work that the BJP had promised to deliver in June 2016.
(4) The Assam government has not started any scheme for the defense, insurance, or rehabilitation of flood victims. Notably, despite the opposition’s demand to declare Assam’s flood situation as a national issue, the water resources minister of the previous government tried to appease the central government by asserting that there was no need for additional flood relief from the Centre.
The 15th Finance Commission approved the erosion problem in Assam to recognize a natural calamity and advised to provide proper compensation and rehabilitation to those affected by erosion. Even though there are provisions under the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) and National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF) to grant compensation and rehabilitation to flood victims, from 2012 to 2020, the Central Government did not provide a single penny to Assam under the National Disaster Relief Fund.
The Assam government had made a request to the Union government for Rs 1,018.19 crore in aid for the damage caused by the flood in 2020–2021. However, despite numerous requests, Assam received only Rs 51.53 crore. How the state government will implement the above-mentioned plans without assistance from the Centre?
Recently, Chief Minister Sarma has talked about ‘Flood free Assam’ and also termed the earlier Brahmaputra digging scheme as impossible. He also tried to cover up the failure of the government by asserting that the excavation of the Brahmaputra River was not intended to be completed within a certain amount of time. If so, will the recently unveiled “Flood Free Assam” project remain on paper as well?