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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Assam: Flood after flood, the sands of time

In 2020, the Jiadhal, a tributary of the Brahmaputra that flows through Dhemaji had flooded multiple times. The waves of floods across Assam had affected 73 lakh, killed 103.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Dhemaji |
Updated: March 27, 2021 8:37:51 am
Moni Pegu Doley and her daughter stand at the spot where their house stood before the Sept 2020 flood. (Express photo: Tora Agarwala)

Six months after the flood receded from Kekuri village in Assam’s Dhemaji district, there are traces of it everywhere: in the swathes of sand on the embankment, in the pillars that remain of houses that were swept away, and in the temporary shacks built in their place.

In 2020, the Jiadhal, a tributary of the Brahmaputra that flows from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh through Dhemaji, had flooded multiple times. The waves of floods across Assam last year had affected 73 lakh, killed 103.

For Kekuri and Dihiri villages which lie close to the river — or for that matter, across this part of Upper, Eastern Assam — such destruction is routine. However, nothing, says Moni Pegu Doley, a 40-year-old resident of Kekuri belonging to the Mising community, had prepared her for the deluge on September 17. “I was a little away from my house,” she recalls. Before her eyes, her clothes, cows, hens, ducks, pigs, the few pieces of furniture she owned, and finally her house, disappeared. “I sat my 8-year-old daughter atop a trunk, and pulled her to safety… We lost everything. Our cows, my husband’s source of income, my loom….”

Nearby in Dihiri, Jamini Milli had also never seen a flood this big. “I thought I would die…We picked up whatever we could, and ran.”

Around 43 houses were washed away in the two villages, and their occupants have been staying in temporary shelters since. For the first few months, they lived under tarpaulin sheets provided by the government; now, it’s bamboo and tin shacks, near where their homes stood.

Moni, whose husband now works as a daily wager, says the family has not been able to farm their land either. Unlike in some parts of Assam where floods replenish land, every such episode leaves Jiadhal with deposits of sand, making it infertile.

While all districts in Assam are affected by floods, the low-lying Dhemaji, the eastern most district, is usually among the worst hit.

Temporary shacks which came up after the homes broke in Dihiri village. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Since 2016, except the one year of 2018, the floods have only increased in intensity in Assam. And, like in every election, they have returned as a poll issue. In all his rallies, senior BJP leader Amit Shah has been promising a “flood-free” Assam should the party retain power.

In its manifesto, the BJP has announced a ‘Mission Brahmaputra’ to eliminate “all losses to lives, livelihoods and property due to annual floods”.

The Congress manifesto emphasises “intensive usage of (GIS) Geographic Information System, (RS) Remote Sensing, and other scientific approaches”.

While Moni will vote on March 27 when Dhemaji goes to polls, she says, “Elections? Governments? What’s the use?… It was the same during the Congress… the AGP…and now when the BJP came, our houses were destroyed.”

Like others, her hope is some government will rebuild a “mathauri (embankment)” that broke 14 years ago in a flood. Villagers have held protests, run pillar to post, to no avail.

Though experts see embankments as “impractical”, as the river regularly breaches them, that is the only approach governments have taken towards controlling floods in Assam.

Broken homes in the aftermath of the flood in Kekuri village. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

The BJP manifesto mentions building reservoirs and dredging the Brahmaputra from Sadiya in the east to Dhubri in the west. However, experts see dams on the river as problematic given that it is inherently dynamic and unstable. As for dredging, the BJP has been talking about it from before it came to power in the state, and is also seen as impractical because the Brahmaputra sediment yield is among the highest in the world.

As Ranoj Pegu, the incumbent BJP MLA at Dhemaji, promises Kekuri and Dehuri that the embankment will be rebuilt, Moni says that maybe, this time, it will happen.

She has heard that the tendering process is on.

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