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Fire, Floods And A Pandemic: Assam Is Submerged In Crisis

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As I write this, over ten lakh people have already been affected by the ongoing deluge spread all across the state of Assam, amidst the lurking fear of a pandemic. How will people follow social distancing rules when the only place they could call home has been washed away by massive flooding? According to reports, 23 districts have been affected and the death toll has risen to 21.

MORIGAON, INDIA – JUNE 28, 2020: A woman fetches water from a partially submerged hand pump in a flood-affected village in Morigaon district in the northeastern state of Assam, India,.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Anuwar Ali Hazarika / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Anuwar Ali Hazarika/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The Upper Assam town of Dibrugarh has been badly affected by floods this year. Many disturbing images have been doing the rounds on social media of people rowing boats within the township. The All India Radio (AIR) station in Dibrugarh was heavily inundated.

Many people claim that the recent rise in the occurrences of floods can be attributed to improper drainage mostly arising because of clogging of drains with plastic waste. The Digboi town in the nearby Tinsukia district saw landslide after a very long time. This is reportedly the second landslide after 1995.

As usual, the Dhemaji district in eastern Assam is worst affected in this second wave of flood. It lies on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River and is an extremely fertile area albeit ecologically fragile. It has been reported that 80 % of the Kaziranga National Park is inundated with one female rhino and three Hog deers being reported dead.

The increase in the flooding scenario has been on the rise over the past decade because of climate change. With the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) releasing its first comprehensive report on the ‘Assessment of  Climate Change over the Indian Region’ and projecting a temperature rise of 4.4 degree Celsius by the end of the century, we have a lot to worry and act upon as an upcoming superpower!

A Submerged forest camp in flooded Kaziranga national park in Nagaon District, Assam
A Submerged forest camp in flooded Kaziranga national park in Nagaon District, Assam

Floods And Fire: A Double Whammy

Just four days after the World Environment Day, Baghjan in Tinsukia District was in the news for an extremely sad event. On 9 June 2020, a massive fire broke out in Baghjan Oil Well no. 5 after it had a blow out on 27 May 2020 and had been leaking gas because of high pressure.

A team of experts had arrived from a Singapore-based firm named M/s Alert Disaster Control to assess the situation of the blowout. They were on the field when the fire broke out. Some claim the hot day must have aggravated the situation resulting in the inferno and it would take nearly four weeks to bring the situation under control.

Experts say that the oil well-catching fire will make it easier to control the disaster. In this unfortunate event, over 2000 people have been affected and they have been provided with relief measures by Oil India Limited (OIL).

On the other hand, two firemen lost their lives. They were Durlov Gogoi (an ex-football player) and Tikeswar Gohain, who worked as assistant operators at the fire service department of OIL. Their bodies were recovered by an NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) team.

The tragedy does not end there. The Maguri-Motapung beel (wetland) just near the Baghjan well has been severely damaged because of the blowout. It is situated very close to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and is an important bird area notified by Birdlife International.

Every year, people witness the migratory birds that visit this wetland turning it into a potential eco-tourism hub. New Delhi based The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has been assigned with the task of assessing the air and noise levels near the well along with the bioremediation of the sludge.

A part of the wetland being destroyed for massive spread of fire caused by the condensate from the blowout.

A carcass of the Gangetic dolphin, along with a dead snake and birds were found after the blowout. The beel has suffered a massive loss at a time when the entire area is hit by floods.

Wetlands are extremely crucial for flood control as they act like sponges. The water from the nearby Dangori River has caused hindrances in the ongoing operations of dousing the fire at Baghjan. Moreover, the incessant rains have led to the collapse of a bridge connecting Doomdooma and Baghjan.

The following video was taken during the collapse and it looks extremely scary!

Oil India Limited (OIL) has been regularly putting out updates on social media about the progress made so far and also about the hindrances caused during this operation. 

The Case With Bhutan

Some leading newspapers reported last week about Bhutan stopping irrigation water into India. This is a very serious allegation, given India lies downstream. It will affect co-riparian rights severely, thereby hampering the camaraderie that both countries enjoy.

Image credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Government of Bhutan/Facebook.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Government of Bhutan had given out a statement through a Facebook post on June 26, 2020, refuting the claims made by India. The Facebook post read:

“Clarifications on the recent news articles published in India alleging that Bhutan has stopped the supply of irrigation water to farmers in areas in Assam adjoining Samdrup Jongkhar District.

  1. Since 24th June 2020, there have been several news articles published in India alleging that Bhutan has blocked water channels that supply irrigation water to Indian farmers in Baksa and Udalguri Districts in Assam adjoining Samdrup Jongkhar District.
  2. This is a distressing allegation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to clarify that the news articles are totally baseless as there is no reason why the flow of water should be stopped at this time. It is a deliberate attempt by vested interests to spread misinformation and cause misunderstanding between the friendly people of Bhutan and Assam.
  3. Baksa and Udalguri Districts in Assam have been benefitting from the water sources in Bhutan for many decades and they continue to do so even during the present difficult times when we are faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.
  4. Since the lockdown in India and closure of Bhutan’s borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Assamese farmers are unable to enter Bhutan to maintain the irrigation channels as was done in the past. However, understanding the difficulty that would be faced by the farmers in Assam, the Samdrup Jongkhar District Officials and the general public have taken the initiative to repair the irrigation channels whenever there are problems to ensure the smooth flow of water to Assam.
  5. The heavy monsoon rains and sudden rise in the water levels is posing serious challenges, but the Bhutanese authorities, including with heavy machinery, are on standby to clear any blockage and channel the water whenever there is a problem.
  6. Bhutan would like to assure the people of Assam that the Royal Government of Bhutan, particularly the Samdrup Jongkhar District authorities, will make every effort to ensure that the disruptions caused by the monsoon rains to the irrigation channels are addressed without delay and there is water available for the farmers in Assam. Bhutan would like to request for the understanding of the farmers in Assam as sometimes there could be few delays in the flow of water due to disruptions caused by the heavy monsoon rains and the operational difficulties arising from the restrictions put in place by both the countries due to COVID-19.

    Image credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Government of Bhutan/Facebook.
  7. The Samdrup Jongkhar authorities maintain close contact with their counterparts in Baksa and Udalguri. The challenges faced during these difficult times have been explained to them and they have expressed understanding of the situation.
  8. The people of Bhutan, especially those living along the borders of India, deeply value their age-old ties of friendship and cooperation with the people of India, particularly their close neighbours across the borders in Assam and West Bengal. The people of Bhutan feel that such ties of friendship, cooperation and support must continue and be reinforced during these difficult times. “

It was also clarified by Assam’s Chief Secretary Kumar Sanjay Krishna through a tweet.

India has been the recipient of so many Hydel power projects of Bhutan, as the latter is famous for exporting electricity. But, till date, there has been no formal water-sharing agreement between India and Bhutan, unlike the Indus Water treaty (IWT) with Pakistan, or the Ganges Water Sharing treaty with Bangladesh, and the Mahakali treaty between India and Nepal.

The transboundary water sharing between Bhutan and India has been very informal, through the centuries-old irrigation system called the jamfwi in the language of Bodo. The Bodo dominated districts comprising Udalguri, Baksa, Chirang and Kokrajhar, collectively known as Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) share border with Bhutan. These districts lie on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River.

The most formal transboundary cooperation between India and Bhutan is through the Transboundary Manas Conservation Area (TraMCA) which has been extremely crucial for conserving tigers in the recent past. The area is interspersed between the Sankosh River in the west and Dhansiri River in the east. In India, it includes the Manas Tiger Reserve and in Bhutan, the forested areas of south covering the Royal Manas National Park, Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary and Jomotshangkha Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Ecosystem Services provided by TraMCA supports a total human population of over 10 million in India and Bhutan. Both the countries have been benefiting from resource sharing because of the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 1949 which was duly revised in 2007. We must never forget that Indians can visit this happy neighbour without a passport!

The need for coordinated efforts should be enhanced in these moments of crises pertaining to COVID-19, climate change, and the Chinese ‘threat’, as this part of the Himalayan region is prone to devastating effects of the deluge and deteriorating diplomatic ties.

Here’s a video of former All India Radio (AIR) staff artist, Syed Saadullah, who is seen strumming his guitar and singing an Assamese song in knee-deep waters from his home in Dibrugarh.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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