The electoral heat is soaring in Assam with the three-phase assembly election kicking off on March 27. But for Kalpana Bora, 60, this frenzy means nothing.
It’s a dusty March afternoon and Kalpana is sitting in her home next to the busy NH-15 highway in Kekuri gaon. Her face is lined with worry and it isn’t about the election: it’s about the upcoming floods in Assam. Based on last year’s record, she said, the first dhal, wave, is likely to come roaring in about one and a half months from now.
Kekuri is home to about 120 families belonging to the Ahom and Sonowal communities. It’s also among dozens of villages in northern Assam’s Dhemaji district that are annually inundated by the tempestuous Jiadhal river from late April to October.
These floods are a perennial problem in Assam. The state has – more than Goa’s total area – to river erosion since 1950, and 2,500 villages have been wiped out.
The Jiadhal river flows from Arunachal Pradesh’s Abor Hills down through Lower Siang and then through Dhemaji in Assam. Dhemaji is one of the worst flood-affected districts in the state; the river’s flooding last July.
The Jiadhal is also notorious for changing its course frequently; the highway is speckled with bridges built at different points of time based on the different channels of the river. It has changed its course three times in the last four years and has only grown more volatile with changing rainfall patterns.
As a result, residents are indifferent towards the upcoming election, tired of the series of broken promises to solve their problems.
A short drive from Dhemaji towards Lakhimpur district reveals the consequences of the river’s ferocity: fields on either side of the road are deposited with silt from years of heavy flooding. Every now and then, a concrete building half buried in sand looms into view.
Last year, floodwater entered Kalpana’s home for the first time.
“It was on the day of Vishwakarma Puja, September 17,” she said. “The floodwater remained in the house for two days. The courtyard completely dried up only in early November.”
The water receded and dried but its discharge – mostly sand – consumed about two feet of the house’s foundations, apart from damaging trees and soil. In anticipation of this year, she’s built a knee-high concrete barrier at the house’s entrance and hopes it will keep the floodwaters in abeyance.
A house half buried in sand in Kekuri.
Kalpana Bora (left) and her daughter-in-law Prabali.
Yet that was only one of several waves of water from the Jiadhal last year, Kalpana said. Last year, the river flowed right past her home, carrying cattle, goats, hens and pigs along with it.
“The current was so strong that it took away an adult man,” said Prabali, Kalpana’s daughter-in-law.
Four people live in Kalpana’s home: Kalpana, her son, Prabali, and her grandson. The family has three cows and three hens, and 4.5 bighas of farmland at a short distance from the house. A saang ghar, a house built on stilts, sits in the courtyard; their animals shelter there during the floods.
The floods have taken a toll on their land. “We used to get about 150 bhaars of land in a good year. Now, it’s dropped to 15 bhaars,” Prabali said. One bhaar is roughly 20 kg.
Importantly, not a single representative from any political party stood by them when the floods hit, Kalpana said. But with the election around the corner, politicians and party workers have come knocking at their doors.
“Just a few days ago, three women from the Congress came seeking votes for their candidate,” Kalpana said, her voice tinged with anger. “But why do they forget us at other times?”
She continued: “Xihote gaarit bhurungkoi ahibo, olop xomoi thaki gusi jabo. The leaders would come in cars, stop for a while, and leave. How would they understand our misery without spending time with us?”
So this year, she isn’t even sure if she will vote. “Even if I do, I will randomly press a button [on the EVM],” she said. “What difference does it make anyway?”
‘Jiadhal has become a milch cow’
Across the highway and a few kilometres from Kekuri, Dilip Pegu has a similar story.
Dilip is a farmer from Nalamukh gaon which has a population of 1,200-odd people, mostly members of the Mising tribe. He cultivates paddy on four bighas of land which he owns, and as a share-cropper in a seven-bigha plot. Here, farmers prefer to grow sali rice through wet rice cultivation, a method popular across southeast Asia and Assam. The crop is transplanted under variable water depths with the onset of the monsoon showers in June-July and harvested by late November or early December.
Last year, due to the flooding, Dilip had to transplant his crop nearly five or six times. “Yet I could get little yield,” he said. His saplings were destroyed by the floodwater and silt deposits. Not only did Dilip lose his crop, but he had also spent Rs 10,000 on a hired tractor to ready his fields.
Does he get any aid from the government?
Dilip said he received Rs 6,000 across three instalments as part of the PM Kisan scheme. He gets free rice from the government’s fair price shop with his BPL card. But it is far from enough: his daughter studies nursing at a private college in Guwahati and her monthly expenditure is over Rs 3,000 a month. His son is a student in Class 11 at a private junior college in Dhemaji town, and Dilip pays Rs 30,000 per year as fees.
He also did not receive monetary compensation from the administration during or after the floods last year.
Desperate, he has been working as a daily wage labourer for the past few months.
“On average, I get 10-15 days of work in a month,” he said. “The wage ranges between Rs 300 and Rs 350. But again, once the rains start in a few weeks, work opportunities will come down.”
Across villages, farmers told Newslaundry that the Jiadhal’s flooding has pushed them to wage labour. Those who still farm have switched to bao rice, a crop variety generally grown in low-lying swampy land and in flood-prone regions with water stagnation. But even this does not hold much promise, farmers said, since more sand with less fertile silt has affected the productivity of crops in the area.
Infuriated by the annual calamity and the administration’s apathy, thousands of villagers staged a blockade on the national highway on January 7. Their key demand was the completion of an embankment between Barman gaon and Kumutiya river on the upstream of the Jiadhal to control the flooding.
Dilip Pegu (centre) and Mahesh Pegu (right) from Nalamukh.
The road between Nalamukh and Tinigharia which has been damaged by floodwater.
The original embankment was constructed in 1975 from Jiadhal Mukh, at the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh, to Barman gaon. It was breached in 2004 and repaired in 2006, when it was also further extended from Barman gaon to Kumutiya – a total length of nine km. But soon after, it was breached by floodwaters again in a nearly three-km stretch towards Kumutiya.
Locals told Newslaundry that its construction was substandard, without proper boulder reinforcements.
“Jiadhal has become a khirati gaai, a milch cow, for contractors and politicians,” Dilip said, meaning an easy source of income. “They do not want the issue to be resolved for personal interests.”
Mahesh Pegu, a farmer in Nalamukh gaon, said the area has a long history of embankment breaches, a testimony to the government’s poor planning and construction. In 1988, for example, an embankment was breached at Tekjuri and Tinigharia, after which the flood intensity only went up.
Does he think the January 7 protest made an impact? Mahesh is not optimistic.
“Such protests keep happening every now and then,” he said. “But nothing comes out of them, as politicians take little interest in the flood problem.”
Like Kalpana, he spoke bitterly about how politicians only show up before an election. In January 2019, he recalled, Ganshakti party leader Banikanta Doley came “begging for votes” before the election to the Mising autonomous council.
“He flooded us with promises,” Mahesh said. “But after he won, he was nowhere to be seen.”
The party line
The Ganshakti party plays a prominent role in the politics of Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Majuli districts. It’s the governing party of the Mising autonomous council and has been in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam since 2016. Party chief Ranoj Pegu won the bypoll from Dhemaji constituency on a BJP ticket in 2017.
Banikanta Doley, the elected council representative from Jiadhal constituency, which covers nearly 25,000 people spread over 60 villages, refuted allegations that his party has been negligent in addressing people’s needs.
In comparison to previous governments, Banikanta told Newslaundry, the Ganshakti-BJP alliance has “done much more”. After the January 7 protest, for example, around Rs 5 crore was sanctioned in February from the state-owned priority development funds to repair and rebuild the damaged embankment. He claimed that since the Election Commission’s model code of conduct came into force on February 26, the tender for the repair work could not be issued.
“It will happen once a new government assumes office in May,” he said.
Banikanta added that the council had distributed around 60 tubewells, some boats, and torchlights to villages affected by the floods last year. “We gave a one-time relief of Rs 10,000 each to 42 houses wasted by floods in Kekuri, Dihiri and Tinigharia,” he said. “I also got a road repaired in Kekuri at the cost of Rs 16 lakh.”
But why did it take so long to get funds sanctioned for the embankment, especially since it’s a long-standing demand?
Banikanta deflected. “Flood is a complex problem,” he said. “MLAs and ministers from other parties did not do anything before our alliance came to power.”
Also, he alleged, some “local leaders” stand against the alliance and raise objections to anything they want to do, which adds to the delay.
Dipak Pegu from Tinigharia who house behind him was submerged over 10 times last year.
An agricultural field and a road near Nalamukh covered with sand deposits from the flooding.
Farmers in Nalamukh want the government to replicate the geobag embankment that was constructed in Maatmora in neighbouring Lakhimpur district. This Sisi-Tekeliphuta embankment was breached in 1998, after which it was repaired and – products made of polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene used to – on a five-km stretch from Maatmora to Kherkota. The project cost Rs 156 crore and provided crucial protection to the riverine people of Dhakuwakhona and Majuli.
“We heard it was done by a Malaysian company,” Dilip said. “The same needs to be done here with the Jiadhal river. Only a foreign company can do it. Our local contractors are of no use.”
Why embankments may be a temporary solution
But while locals unequivocally repose their faith in embankments, academics and activists don’t share their conviction. According to them, embankments are, at best, a temporary solution to annual floods.
“There is no guarantee that an embankment will not be breached by severe floods in a few years’ time,” said Keshab Krishna Chatradhara, an environmentalist and activist in Gogamukh town, around 20 km from Jiadhal Chariali. “And once that happens, people are caught off guard and villages turn to ruins.”
This has happened numerous times in Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts over the decades, he said. Also, the amount of money invested into building embankments is not wise in terms of a cost-benefit analysis.
“Even if you spend Rs 30 crore per kilometre using high technology – as in the case of Maatmora – a deluge can breach it someday and wipe out everything,” he said.
Historian Arupjyoti Saikia, who has written a biography of the Brahmaputra river, is also a well-known critic of embankments in Assam. Saikia that building embankments from the early 1950s onwards intensified both the unpredictability and the intensity of flood damage in the Brahmaputra valley.
However, the popular perception of embankments goes strongly against such informed analysis, perhaps as a result of state policy, Chatradhara said.
“Back in the 1970s, the National Flood Commission clearly stated that embankments were, by all means, a temporary protection and that they rather aggravated the situation,” he said. “But the state water resources department ignored this and has been on an embankment-building spree, year after year.”
As for Jiadhal flooding, Chatradhara said it’s difficult to find a solution because of the river’s turbulent nature. Before committing to a big project, he said, the government must first carry out a detailed assessment of the downstream areas.
“Not only flood control but such a study should take into account concerns over resettlement, ecological diversity, siltation, fertility of soil, and all such related aspects,” he said. “But the government is not thinking in that direction.”
Similar to Nalamukh, other villages also lack trust in contractors and politicians.
Dhiren Sonowal, 22, a fish seller from Salmari gaon, said the quality of construction work is very poor in flood-hit villages, since roads get damaged within a short span of time. He pointed at the main road of his village which runs past his shop. “This road was built only two years ago,” he told Newslaundry. “Its edges have already started coming off.”
He added: “Contractors and politicians have become richer. But our lives have remained the same, if not worse.”
A saang, or makeshift raised platform, inside a home in Salmari.
A makeshift bridge connects a house to the main road in Salmari.
Dhiren Sonowal from Salmari village.
During high floods in June and July last year, villagers from Salmari and neighbouring Goroimari pooled money to repair a damaged road on their own. A panchayat member had been asked to appeal to the district administration for help, Dhiren said, but nothing happened.
Residents of Salmari told this reporter that the village resembles an ocean during peak floods. Most families are forced to build bamboo bridges to connect their homes with the main road. Patients are carried on others’ shoulders to reach the road, and almost every household owns a boat to sail on the floodwaters and collect grass and leaves for their cattle and goats.
Villagers said they often take shelter on saangs, raised platforms made of bamboo, built inside their bedrooms. With the spectre of an imminent deluge never really fading away, these are staples in some households round the year.
“The situation gets so severe here that there are popular songs which say Dhemaji loi suali nidiba. Don’t marry off girls to Dhemaji,” said a young man near Dhiren’s shop.
Jyoti Saikia, Dhiren’s mother, said families also face an acute shortage of drinking water and sanitation issues.
“Though many families have wells in their compounds, the floods dirty the groundwater,” she said. “Last year, we all had to wait by the road for the government to supply water in tanks.” With courtyards inundated by muddy water, people were unable to use their toilets. “Open defecation became very common,” Jyoti said. “This further polluted the water and the soil.”
Salmari and Goroimari also participated in January 7’s road blockade. Residents told Newslaundry that the government should repair roads and embankments in the winter months – but it does not do so.
“That was one of our demands this time,” said Jugal Bora, a farmer from Salmari. As for the construction of the embankment, Jugal is sure they’re in for a long wait.
“The deputy commissioner came and told us it could not be done until the under-construction bridge on the Kumutiya river was completed,” he said. “That is likely to take three more years. Until then, we are left at the mercy of the river.”
Chatradhara agreed that the government’s quality of construction work is poor. “Bad work means more work,” he pointed out. “As the infrastructure breaks down frequently, politicians have more projects to sanction to the contractors. The beneficiary out of all of this is anyone’s guess.”
This is also why embankments are built on a large scale in Assam, he said, contrary to scientific opinion.
“First, it means more work and more money for contractors,” he said. “Second, politicians use the embankments as means of getting votes from villagers.”
Mahesh Pegu summed up the general frustration in the area on the eve of the election. “Over the years, we have tried every party: Asom Gana Parishad, Congress, BJP,” he said. “There have been ministers from Dhemaji. But has our pain reduced?”
Yet Salmari’s Jyoti Saikia said she will go to the polling booth on Saturday. “It is my democratic duty,” she said. “I will probably vote on issues like government schemes.”
What about issues like flood control? “I have little hope left,” she said.
Pictures by Ayan Sharma
This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.
Contribute now and help to keep news free and independent.