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A Letter From Silchar, Assam: Down a town, on a boat with a body

Nine days after Silchar saw its worst flood, water lies stagnant, power supply is still out at some places, officials are struggling with rescue, and people have questions over if things will ever change.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Silchar |
Updated: July 13, 2022 5:51:01 pm
At the Durga Shankar Pathshala, a lower primary school in Silchar, a caretaker lays out school uniforms to dry on the roof. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Every resident of Silchar has a story of the “bejaan jol”, or the big flood, that hit the south Assam town on June 20.

“(The water was) Up to my waist,” says the taxi-driver, driving us from the airport to the town. “It came up to my neck,” says the manager at our hotel. The project officer at the Cachar district disaster management, our third stop, holds up his left arm and says: “This high, for seven days.”

Nine days after the deluge hit, the main road that cuts through the heart of Silchar — the second-most populous town in Assam — is choked with traffic, its sidewalks teeming with pedestrians, and its restaurants open, as are shops that sell chunky earrings.

Aerial view of flooded Assam. (Express photo)

That an unprecedented flood, which most describe as “worst in their memory”, had submerged the road a few days back, is hard to imagine at first glance. But the signs are everywhere: in the big trucks with banners that read ‘on flood relief duty’, in the marks the water has left on boundary walls, in the shop fronts that have furniture stacked on top of each other, in the white-canopied medical camps. And in the conversations.

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Officials admit that in the beginning, there was a complete sense of “helplessness”. “The scale of the disaster was too big. There were not enough boats, not enough manpower,” says a district disaster management official. “The water increased suddenly. People have not experienced that before, and neither have we.”

At Fatak Bazaar, the wholesale market that is the commercial nerve centre of three Barak Valley districts, a man recounts to bystanders his close shave with a “gang of thieves”, who tried to rob his home during the flood. At Maya Hotel, one of the town’s oldest restaurants, famous for its Sylheti-style fish curry, the cashier can’t help recalling, as he accepts payment from customers: “Ki bejaan jol!… What big waters!”

Residents say the water came “first slowly, then suddenly” on the afternoon of June 20, following a suspected breach at the Bethukandi embankment along the Barak river the previous day.

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In a matter of hours, the river — which flows through Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam before entering Bangladesh — came rushing into the town, and in some cases, reached up to the first floors of buildings.

Calling it “a scene from a horror movie”, A Sinha, 41, says water entered first her lane, then her porch, then the house, swallowed the floor, then her furniture. Soon, she could see only the tops of cars on the roads.

In another part of town, head teacher Dilip Roy reached his government lower primary school after the waters receded somewhat to find books, OMR sheets, a brand new order of school uniforms floating. Roy and the school watchman are busying lay out the same on the rusted tin roof of the school to dry. “All is lost,” Roy says, “But we are trying to save what we can.”

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At the Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, the staff fashioned a raft to ferry patients, through knee-deep water. A temporary OPD was set up under the trees on drier ground. “While the serious patients were ferried to the hospital, what could be done outside, we did it there,” says oncologist and director of the hospital, Dr Ravi Kannan.

While waters have receded in most parts of the town, low-lying localities are still under. The water stagnant here for more than 10 days now, has started to smell. “It was brown before, now it’s black,” says Snehashish Dey, 24.

The approach to the hospital has waist-deep water, even 10 days after the flood hit. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

At Chencoori road, which now resembles a canal with wooden boats and floating shops, a father who left home to fetch Complan for his four-year-old daughter is haggling with a boatman. A retired schoolteacher wades through the waters to a spot with electricity, holding high a polythene bag of mobile phones, given to him by neighbours, to charge. (“By July 1, 99% power had been restored in Silchar, save for one locality that is still waterlogged,” an official from the Assam Power Distribution Company Ltd told The Sunday Express). A vegetable vendor, who is now selling wares on a make-shift raft, says the customers throw down baskets tied to ropes, and he puts the vegetables in.

The stoic resignation hits you, but there are also spurts of anger. “What is the use of taking photos and videos? Not like our problems go away,” says a man. Another shouts from his rooftop: “They spent so much on Namami Barak (a government festival to celebrate the Barak river), they could have dredged the river instead.”

Many say “the only good thing” the floods brought was a “sense of community”. “Without anything to do in the evenings, no phones, electricity, we would sit on our rooftops and talk,” says a resident of Das Colony. “I don’t think we did that before.”

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In localities that had network, WhatsApp groups became channels for information. “People were looking out for each other,” says Suraj Singha, a 32-year-old IT professional, adding that a group called ‘Silchar Flood’ with 400 participants became his saviour. “From ‘I have a lifeboat but please return on the same day’ to ‘What is the water level at Link road?’, it tackled various questions,” he says.

However, others have more scarring memories, like Mahitosh Pal, 66. His brother suffered a brain stroke the same day as the floods hit, and died two days later in hospital. The shocked family then realised the town’s crematorium, too, was under water.

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Pal was able to cremate his brother only two days later in Udharbond, 15 km away. He hired a country boat for Rs 12,000. “We floated with the body in waters that were 15 feet high… through a town that was in absolute devastation… Some people shouted at us asking us to get food and water, but fell quiet when they saw I had a body with me.”

While floods in Assam arrive every year like clockwork, the geographical spread of the current wave has been unprecedented, with Silchar among those unexpectedly hit. Additional columns of paramilitary forces, IAF were deployed for relief, the Minister, Public Health Engineering, has been camping in the district to oversee relief operations, and Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma dropped in three times over a week.

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Many blame the breach at the Bethukandi embankment, about 5 km from the town. The embankment lies adjacent to a wetland, Mahisha Beel. On May 22, a portion of it was allegedly cut by “miscreants”, as Chief Minister Sarma put it, calling it a “man-made” flood. On Friday, Sarma announced a CID probe, adding that six persons have been identified.

But the locals who live around the wetland say they did it to “save themselves”, tired of the waters. “For more than two decades, we have petitioned different governments, but our concerns have fallen on deaf ears,” says a local, who did not wish to be named.

Four years ago, a sluice gate was constructed, but it was never completed. In May, after the first wave of floods receded, the water did not decrease at the beel. So locals allegedly cut a canal, to let the water out. They claim they told the authorities about it.

Three weeks later, it was through this now-widened gap that the water came in.

On Friday, workers from different departments are busy reinforcing the dyke, making “ring bunds” and packing it with “geo-bags”.

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An irrigation department official says that while the breach was a contributory cause, it was not the only reason behind the floods. “Apart from the breach year, the incessant rains led the waters to top embankments at several places, not just Bethukandi,” he says, adding that the Barak basin had “fragmented over the years owing to developmental activities”.

At its peak last week, the Barak’s water level had risen to 21.59 m, against the danger level of 19.83 m. In the last few days, it fell at an excruciatingly slow pace. Finally on July 1, 12 days after the flood, it hit 19.82 m, just below the danger level.

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First published on: 03-07-2022 at 03:45:05 am
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