I wonder how long we can stay forgetting disasters that lacerate us unfailingly every year. Isn’t it time again for the most abiding mammoth floods? In Assam, monsoons are soon getting underway and have we taken in any headway since last year? No sooner would the distended rivers break all barriers and in a surge would start devouring humans, animals and villages alike. Indeed, so uninhibitedly have the floods seeped into our cultures that we have often looked at the damage induced as sort of ineluctable from our lived (unlived) realities. And why not, it would certainly not be an exaggeration to posit overlooking as an integral activity of the monsoon culture in Assam every year.
What have we traditionally been overlooking? First, a motivated urgency to understand the human-flood relationship has never had emerged vividly in any politico-cultural contexts in India. Is it just because rivers belong to a realm quite starkly dissimilar and distant to humans? While it must be remembered here that engineering rivers is something much far from understanding them. To understand floods, therefore, it would rather be important primarily to look back to the historical discourse of the Brahmaputra at least.
The Brahmaputra, as a matter of fact, is not merely a singular bank-to-bank flowing body, but a well-fed water system with more than 50 tributary rivers contributing to it. As the information says, the river discharges around 19,830 cubic meters of water per second that ranks it among the highest water carriers of the world. But with huge quantities of water, come high volumes of silt and other sediments that often destabilize the river system during floods. Moreover, as an aftermath of the two massive earthquakes that radically wiggled the region’s landscape in 1897 and 1950, the river bed has substantially swollen up and the amount of silt burden has considerably increased. Studies have also shown the presence of a subaqueous mud delta looming on the inner shelf of the river system. So when floods occur this time again, is there any dearth of opportunity that channels of the river would not imperiously change their courses and run amok to swallow lands and habitats? But, of course, this has happened all the time.
Second, the existential urge to paternalize over non-human environmental objects like rivers. These are nothing but mere attempts to push on more with the patriarchal structure at hand. We have usually known that floods are largely man-made phenomena these days. The rapacious encouragement for the construction of gigantic hydro-electric dams in the bordering areas of the state can very easily upset the already loaded river especially during floods. And this is a known fact with no actual measures to reckon with. The river certainly maintains its own natural cycle of water movement. Restraining or flexing that movement through another artificial channel will only create havoc, which dams in general are inclined at doing. As a consequence, the river at times, is highly prone to getting totally dried up increasing the water shortage problem that dams actually intend to resolve. While at other times as the dam gates are flushed open, water will be filled with abundance to the extent of a fatal deluge. I really think the technology usually called river-water management is actually a defunct mechanism. Why do enlightened people even think that they can manage every possible thing which is not human? With the flourishing of big dams, no agriculture really prospers given the fact that much of agricultural lands and forest areas are annihilated in the dam construction process. It also lethally increases the water’s turbidity and salinity damaging a whole lot of subaqueous ecosystems as well as humans above ground. Above all, it is the most perilous source of fatal floods that continue to occur every year in Assam destroying lives and properties immeasurably.
Whatever happened in Majuli and Lakhimpur last year due to the sudden release of waters from the Ranganadi river hydro-electric dam at Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh is a significant gesture of what many people call river-water management. Another minor issue arising here is that although contiguously situated at the borders of the two states, more than the lion’s share of benefit from the project purportedly goes only to Arunachal Pradesh. Now that this is not enough, the 2000 MW Lower Suvansiri hydro-electric project is also chipping in. The project is on the process of its execution. We have had witnessed numerous protests on the streets led by several concerned groups with hardly any proactive measure undertaken by the sentries of this nation-state. What does this suggest? The authorities are well-nigh determined to catch up with their monstrous ideas of “development” by turning a large group of people into petty surplus populations. As the gates of Lower Suvansiri open up, the island of Majuli would immediately fall to submergence leaving behind no trace at all, Suvansiri being a far bigger tributary of the Brahmaputra compared to the Ranganadi. And then, where will the people go? They are bound to gradually suffer and die. At best they would work as daily wagers or laborers in cities currently aping development, which would perhaps make it even more excruciating. I am afraid this almost sounds like a meticulous labor-management scheme in an obscurantist development model of the nation-state.
Similar issue arises in the case of the Kurichu hydro-electric project in Bhutan, the unannounced water release of which has had created uproars in districts of lower Assam like Barpeta and Baksa in the recent past. Contrived floods on the banks of Manas and Beki rivers, both tributaries of the Brahmaputra, are disastrous consequences of this man-made project. One of the UNESCO heritage sites, the Manas National Park in Assam, which is a refuge to varied species of animals, natural habitats and ecosystems, is also under high risk from inundation by the Kurichu project in Bhutan. This absolutely calls for an immediate consensus at the South Asian level, which has never happened in more than a decade now. No wise mind would still corroborate with such man-made disasters after knowing the rudimentary features of the river that so intimately overlaps with the state’s natal life as well. We have been hearing outcries from the states of West Bengal and Bihar about the decommissioning of the Farakka hydro project. The Farakka is one of the oldest river-run projects of the Indian nation-state that had created huge controversies during its normative phase primarily in erstwhile East Bengal with people like Maulana Bhasani, the char leader, steering a staunch opposition against the Indian government in the forefront. After its commissioning by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975, it has provoked numerous lethal floods, turned the river water saline, brought fishes like Hilsa in Bangladesh on the verge of extinction, and at times has dried up West Bengal. Can we not think in similar terms? Why not decommission these large hydro-electric projects in Assam, which quite evidently has been incurring heavy damages downstream upon its execution? The present government in Assam, which initially promised to adhere to only small projects, now has nothing much to say when controversies about the commissioning of large-scale projects like Suvansiri are making rounds and threatening lives in the fringes of the state.
Thirdly that the river is alive insofar as it can flow is a concern for nobody. Looking at the river from a vantage enclave in distance by singing hymns and singsongs would end up to nothing. If we really need to understand floods, it is imperative to understand the river through its pristine ritual, which is to let it flow as it has been flowing since ages. Obscurantist ideas like dredging the river bed have recently surfaced in public life, which is yet another futile and patronizing attempt at preempting the river’s natural discharge. If we can simply respect the space of the river, it will respect ours as well.
It is real time we thought about floods on highly serious grounds. Survival strategies are prerequisite. People usually suffer long term ailments from a singular phenomenal flood. Government relief is but customary and short term. The accretion of effects on victimized populations in the longer time is unspectacular, so no one’s concern or perhaps a deliberation. If we can only take care of the long-time concerns of the populations after floods, we are halfway there. Agricultural losses are huge every time the floods come. For example, Assam is one of the highest producers of cash crops like jute. Jute captures a large part in the modern agricultural history of Assam. It requires a prolonged and arduous period of cultivation as it grows on the flood plains. It, therefore, has the highest risk of getting inundated, so sincere measures for safety and retrieval must be ensured immediately. As floods come, it would devour everything in a rather disinterested manner. Better to be prepared by taking some serious measures once and for all this time. Or should we sit content forgetting the upcoming disaster as the disaster development authorities and the army would do their jobs anyway?
Dhrijyoti Kalita is a researcher from Guwahati, Assam. He is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures in the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. He can be contacted at [email protected]