Assam Floods – A Repetitive Disaster
The biggest disadvantage one faces while dealing with any natural calamity is its unpredictability, and the inevitable element of surprise. The reason behind this is simple. If an impending catastrophe is predictable, steps can be taken in a direction, which might actually help one in either overcoming it, or at least reducing the losses to a minimum. Floods in Assam are an exception. Although the magnitude of the floods may vary, a majority of the districts of Assam are submerged every year by flood waters. Given its predictability, one might assume that this disaster is, on a whole, avertable. Sadly either due a lack of intent, or due to the complexity of the situation, or a combination of both, the threat of floods has not been reduced at all in the past fifteen years.
The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh is a Rajya Sabha MP from the state of Assam. Whether the decision to choose Assam over other states was done out of political or personal convenience or out of sheer love for the people of Assam is another matter. The real matter is however much more serious. Having been a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam ever since he became the Finance Minister of India in 1991, is Manmohan Singh unaware of the sheer magnitude of the problem of floods that Assam has been facing since long?
The Prime Minister, we are told, has announced a sum of Rs. 500 crores. But, why should he always wait for the predictable disaster to actually strike? Could that money not have been sanctioned beforehand, probably in January? But, it would not have received much attention at that time, and would not have projected the Prime Minister, and his renowned advisor from NAC as a Messiah of the flood affected people. Leave apart his inability to predict economic slowdown, the Prime Minister and the Congress state government in Assam seem unable to rescue the state out of a predictable disaster. This rubbishes all claims made by his supporters in the Congress that our Hon’ble Prime Minister is a pragmatist, and if he really is a pragmatist, he is indifferent to the very people he represents.
This brings us to a question. Why has no systematic study been done on the Rs. 33, 000 crores that have been spent in the state since 1954 in the name of flood management? First Post reports that the Assam Human Rights Commission has taken the Assam floods as a suo-motu case, and has asked the government to furnish details of money spent on flood relief, from 2005-06 to 2011-12. While the results of the enquiry may be awaited, the people of Assam already know that the embankments (mathauris) that have been constructed in various places in Assam are substandard, and are easily eroded by the flood waters. There are some places in which these embankments have not yet been constructed. Can there be a better proof than this that the government does not care if people die and their dead bodies are washed away in flood waters?
Experts have already pointed out that the Rs. 500 crores as a relief is an utterly insufficient amount, notwithstanding the fact that much higher amounts have not been used in a proper manner. The Asom Gana Parishad has said that the actual requirement is something around 30,000 crores. Even if one considers the margin to be grossly exaggereated, given that around 24 lakh people were affected by the flood this year in 2012, Rs. 500 crore is grossly insufficient, if not negligible. The alarming fact however, is that there is no guarantee that most of the money will not be gobbled up before it reaches the actual victims. The low rank of Assam in most indices relating to corruption aggravates the matter even further.
It is the sign of a government’s escapism that it can spend huge amounts on relief after a disaster has taken place, to project the magnanimity of the Prime Minister and the dynasty in control, but is reluctant to provide a direction towards avoiding them. The amount of money that has been spent on relief, if spent on infrastructural development to thwart floods could not only reduce the loss of life and property, but would also be economically viable for the government.
The second aspect of floods in Assam is its environmental consequence. Around 600 animals have lost their lives in the Kaziranga National Park alone, including endangered species like the rare one-horned rhinos which Assam boasts of as a state animal. The damage caused to these species is undeniable; however this is not the first time that Kaziranga itself has been subjected to floods. This reflects the negligent attitude of the Centre as well as the State in this regard, especially when the Forest Minister is a powerful politician, who is seen by many as a potential Chief Minister.
The flood waters are receding, and hopefully the worst might have already been over. Over a hundred and fifty people have already lost their lives, and we cannot afford to lose any more. The end of floods will create more problems, especially relating to health and sanitation. No major initiative in this regard has been announced yet. People who have lost their homes are still defecating out in the open. The dead bodies of human beings as well as wild animals that have been washed out by flood have contaminated even ground water. This increases the risk of water-borne diseases in the flood-affected areas. In the past, a huge section of the population of Assam has got afflicted to diseases like malaria, typhoid and cholera, just after devastating floods.
The Health Minister of Assam, another future Chief Minister, known for his ambitious schemes, has failed to come up with a detailed plan as of now. The Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi was cooling his heels in the United States, till the PM and his advisor, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi arrived in Guwahati. They reportedly arrived in Guwahati to take stock of the situation, and took the aerial route to gauge the magnitude of the problem, when the actual pangs of the people were visible on the flooded grounds.
The Chief Minister’s supporters have claimed that he had gone to attend a seminar on disaster management in the United States. Quite ridiculously, the Chief Minister left his people reeling high and dry in floods and decided to go to the US to take lessons in disaster management, only after the disaster had actually struck. One can only stand and admire his “vision.”
Given the callousness in which floods in Assam are dealt with, one can assume that the disaster might not be prevented or even its magnitude reduced, unless of course, it happens at the mercy of the river Brahmaputra itself. A government and the people who elected it are overseeing Majuli, once the world’s largest river island; recede to nothingness after erosion. This is not enough to prick the conscience of the government and the people.
Floods are now dealt with as an ineluctable fact of life. It has evoked nothing more than the programmed reaction from even the Prime Minister, who incidentally represents the state in the Rajya Sabha. This might be another classic instance where the people of Assam have failed themselves as much as their government has failed them. Otherwise, the mismanagement of a disaster of this magnitude is enough for people to cry out and say, “Enough is enough.”
(Image courtesy- New Indian Express)