This is that time of the year when Assam is submerged in neck-deep waters flowing from the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Every year this time around, the monsoons become a curse for all of us. The incessant rains coupled with floods, followed by an epidemic of water-borne diseases, and rounded up by festivals to celebrate the spirit of the river, wasting a huge chunk of public money, has been the trend for quite some time now.
Having been born and brought up in Assam, I have witnessed this misery from a very young age. Governments changed seats banking on the lacunae of the previous government in power, but no significant change has come for the people who face this problem of flooding every year.
This year, as recorded by the media, over one lakh people have been affected. Hundreds and hundreds of villages have been washed away. National and state highways have been submerged and disrupted. Uncountable cattle and livestock have been lost. And mind you, these are just reported figures. There are villages and stretches of forest lands tucked away in the remote rural areas of the 15 worst flood affected districts in Assam, which are humanly immotorable during the monsoons.
This yearly episode of flooding shall be followed, as always, by some tokenistic development packages from the Centre, criticism by opposition regarding how terrible this present government is, round table discussions by bureaucrats to develop some action plan (usually involving the organisation of fancy events), some media room discussions and debates by philosophers and armchair developmentalists with no possible solution oriented outcome. It has now come to a point where we have entered a state of learned helplessness.
It’s baffling to come to terms with the fact that the yearly devastation caused by floods in my state is never a national priority. The only plausible explanation can be that it happens every year, and so if we spend so much of the state exchequer’s money on development packages to this region, we will eventually be bankrupt. But the problem lies deeper. It is purely about the political will of those in power to solve this issue and the increasing thrust on developmental projects at the cost of the lives of the people who are seen only as vote banks.
I am reminded of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” that talks about the rise of Disaster Capitalism. The book says that America’s “free market policies” could dominate the world through exploiting disaster-affected people and countries. Though not entirely, we can safely draw parallels between her book and our present crisis in Assam.
Development aggression and disaster capitalism are two sides of the same coin. One classic example is that of the Pagladia Multi-purpose Project. What originated as a minor flood protection project was later converted into a multipurpose project dealing with flood control, irrigation and power generation (Thakkar, 2007). The proposed site is located in Nalbari District of Lower Assam, bordering Bhutan. The area is inhabited both by tribal (Bodo) communities and non-tribal communities (Ibid). The river ‘Pagladia’ is known to change its course and flow rapidly. This is because of the shift in large mountainous masses due to seismic factors, resulting in landslides and floods. At the time of construction, the dam resulted in the submerging of 38 villages. Coming under pressure from the people, the construction was stalled in 1987 (Bharali, 2004). But soon after the regional party of Assam, AGP (Assam Gana Parishad), came to power, the project was restarted promising a permanent solution to the flood problem. Which, of course, never happened.
The agitation against the dam was further heightened and received a lot from support from civil society and political parties. Though the project envisioned bringing development, it failed to gather support primarily because it was an undemocratic move by the government. After a fresh review, it was found out that the dam would displace 20,000 families living in that area, and about 34,000 acres of fertile land would be destroyed along with 57 schools and 4 market and civic institutions in that area (Thakkar 2007).
The example of the Pagladia Multipurpose Dam questions the critical technicalities involved in development planning. It is of prime importance to evaluate how development planning is about prioritising the needs of the populations for whom it is planned, and the considerations of disaster risks in such planning. Development programmes often fail to benefit those who are at risk, and can inversely increase their vulnerability – or even turn into disasters.
To attain SDG goal 11: sustainable cities and communities, and SDG goal 12: responsible production and consumption, the prime initiative of the Government should be to establish pre-disaster and post-disaster measures that are prepared with meaningful involvement of communities. This whole bandwagon of spending crores of money on celebrating the spirit of the river isn’t very useful to a state that’s reeling from abject poverty and yearly floods. What we need is a long-term sustainable solution.
Only with sustained efforts and targeted interventions, disaster risks and vulnerabilities can be reduced, else this shall be a cyclical process of Governments engaging in disaster capitalism.
Photo Credits: Ankita Hazarika