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Explained: Behind the unprecedented pre-monsoon devastation in Assam

While the monsoons are yet to arrive, Assam has already been beset by floods and landslides that have left 15 people dead and more than 7 lakh affected.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati |
Updated: May 24, 2022 2:23:39 pm
A train buried under the rubble at New Haflong Railway station in Dima Hasao, following heavy rains. (Pic: Facebook/Debolal Gorlosa)

The monsoons bring destruction to Assam like a clockwork almost every year. However, this year, while the monsoons are yet to arrive, the state has already been beset by floods and landslides that have left 15 people dead and more than 7 lakh affected. The hill district of Dima Hasao, in particular, has been ravaged by flash floods and landslides, with connectivity to the rest of the state snapped.

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Assam floods: What is behind this unprecedented devastation?

Experts point out that there are a combination of factors. First, extraordinarily acute pre-monsoon rains. While the average rainfall for the period of March 1 to May 20 in Assam is 434.5 mm, the corresponding number for this year is 719 mm. That amounts to a 65 per cent excess. That is a “large excess”, according to the Indian Meteorological Department. The neighbouring state of Meghalaya has recorded an even greater excess: of 137 per cent.

A damaged road in a flood-hit village of Nagaon district, Saturday. (PTI)

“Normally we have rains coming in June and July when we experience big floods,” said Dr DC Goswami, an eminent environmentalist and a retired professor of hydrology from the Gauhati University. “This time it has come with a bang. The difference is the timing and scale.” Goswami attributed the changes in “rainfall intensity, arrival and departure times” to climate change.

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Partha Jyoti Das, who heads the Water, Climate and Hazard Division of the Guwahati-based environment non-profit Aaranyak, concurred. “Because of climate change, there are more and more concentrated rain and heavy rainfall episodes,” said Das.

He added that it was even more worrisome since the southwest monsoons were expected early (end May) in the northeast region this year. “There may be little respite between the recession of this pre-monsoonal flood and the advent of the first monsoonal flood surge, especially in Assam,” he said.

A damaged road in a flood-hit area of Nagaon district, Saturday. (PTI)

But it is not just floods that have wreaked destruction. There have been several episodes of landslides, especially in south Assam’s Dima Hasao and Cachar districts. At least three people have been buried alive in Dima Hasao’s Haflong. In a particularly horrific incident, mudslides washed away a portion of the rail tracks that connect the south of Assam with the rest of the country. The New Haflong railway station was also severely damaged with bogeys of a train at the station overturning under the force of landslide-induced debris. Portions of the road connecting Guwahati to Dima Hasao, and beyond to Barak Valley districts, have caved in.

But what is causing these landslides?

Das said that while landslides in that part of the state are not unheard of, the scale and the intensity was higher than usual. Das blamed this on the “undesirable, unpragmatic, unplanned structural intervention on the fragile landscape of hills”.

A case in point is the Lumding-Badarpur railway line. The affected railway line that connects Lumding in central Assam to Badarpur in south Assam and passes through the hill district of Dima Hasao was expanded into a broad gauge in 2015. The expansion work of this much-delayed project had begun in 1997, but the tricky landscape meant progress was woefully slow. Besides, the expansion project was marred by several red flags and even after its  inauguration, there have been accusations about it having flouted safety norms.  The current spate of landslides have affected the line in at least 58 spots, said railways officials. The trains in that section stand cancelled till July 1.

Flooded Hanuman Mela ground in Nagaon town, Saturday. (PTI)

Das said that the damage to the line suggested what many had been pointing out for years: that corners may have been cut in carrying out the construction.

Apart from the railway line itself, residents of Dima Hasao say that the district has seen hectic construction, both of public infrastructure like roads and private property, in recent times. “Over the years, there has not only been massive deforestation for the extension of the railway line and the four-line highway, there has also been rampant riverbed mining often done in collusion with the district authorities,” said Uttam Bathari, a historian and professor at Gauhati University, who hails from Haflong.

State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) personnel rescue people from a flood-affected village, in Hojai district of Assam, Thursday. (PTI)

Also, allegations abound of roads being built over streams and spring water sources – the reason, many say, so many roads have caved in.

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, an independent researcher based in Guwahati, said similar hastily carried out infrastructure developmental work in Arunachal Pradesh had led to an increase in landslides in the state in recent years. This month itself, five people have been killed. “Construction is sped up in the name of national security in Arunachal and improving connectivity elsewhere in Northeast India,” alleged Rahman.

Is then a trade-off between development and environment the only way to cut down on the destruction?

Das of Aaranyak said that construction needed to be “tuned to the ecological fragility of the region”.

Goswami also spoke of “conscious construction” and an “integrated holistic approach across state boundaries”.

Rahman suggested keeping “traditional knowledge systems in mind” and involving  the local community to build “sustainable infrastructure”. “As long as it is top-down it will depend on the masculinist engineering bureaucracies,” he said.

A villager wades through a flooded street after heavy rainfall, at a village in Hojai district, Friday. (PTI)

Blaming climate change for everything was not enough, said Rahman. “We have to look back at the mess we have created on the ground level in combination with climate change to account for such disasters.”

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