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Uddipta Ranjan Boruah
Date of Publish: 2016-05-25

The Flooding Frontier - Beyond Dominant Narratives


While the specter of previous year’s devastating floods are still haunting a considerable section of the Assamese society, here come the floods yet again. While the national capital wakes up and goes to sleep preoccupied in defining and redefining the basic mathematics of odd and even printed on their number plates, the forgotten frontier reels under chronic floods. As per a report on NDTV on April 26, 2016, nearly 1 Lakh people were already affected across 6 districts in Assam by then. By the time one is reading this, the numbers of course shall multiply manifold. Flooding is an annual recurrence in Assam and floods as such have become for Assam in words of Ashis Biswas, “the usual thing”. What is seen as usual is thus rarely covered by national and international media. According to the daily flood report issued by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority on Sept 7, 2015, 14.42 lakh people in 19 districts of the state were then reeling under the last year’s floods. Assam has always been prone to flood but the 1950 Great Earthquake in the region has made Assam even more vulnerable.

Dominant Narrative on Floods in Assam

The predominant narrative on Assam floods has been revolving around the issues of disaster relief and media coverage. In this regard, the indifference and dereliction of duties by the government in providing relief and also the limited coverage by mainstream national media have mostly remained the hot potato during and after floods. There can be no denying of the fact that there exists a power imbalance within the broad federal democratic structure of India wherein Assam and for that matter all other Northeastern states have fared poorly. This lack of power and agency is more than explicit – among other things – in coverage in mainstream Indian media. It has been observed that water logging on streets of Mumbai and Delhi are of far greater relevance in the TRP driven media industry in comparison to regular floods in the periphery. Thus, every time the frontier is flooded, analysts and critics are mostly engaged in tracing media representations and relief efforts. Plethora of write ups covering the lack of agency of the frontier and indifference of “mainland” India are lined up.

But, behind these dominant narratives remain veiled alternative narratives ranging from unpreparedness for disaster mitigation, loss of land and livelihood, degradation of soil quality and agricultural sustainability, need for regional cooperation for effective disaster mitigation, human-induced climate change and the entire narrative of development and disaster. Also remains veiled the unacknowledged inequalities, patterns of corruption and power imbalances within the peripheral state itself. Does it require mention that not all sections of the Assamese society are equally affected by calamities such as floods? Is an urban Assamese middle class male equally vulnerable as a man in remote traces of Dhemaji? Is that rural man in turn equally vulnerable as is his wife (a woman) and his daughter (a child in addition to being a girl)?

In our entrapment within dominant narratives we thus fail to engage with the ‘intersectionalities’ within the Assamese society, eventually ignoring the voices of the silent and marginalized. While demanding for greater coverage and breaking through the “step-motherly” attitude of New Delhi there exists the need to go beyond the dominant narratives to avoid getting cocooned within the obvious.

“Naturalness” of Natural Disasters

First and foremost, the narrative that natural disasters are unpredictable and unpreventable does not go well in case of floods in Assam. It is more than obvious by now that flood in Assam is a recurring annual phenomenon and shall visit every year during the summers when the level of rainfall is high. By sticking to the popular idea that floods are unpredictable natural disasters the entire discourse is then shifted towards disaster relief by ignoring the discourse of disaster mitigation. We then fail to ask that despite decades of flooding why do people still die every year. Will people keep dying every year in Assam till humanity exists? Is there no alternative to redeem the vulnerable of their predicaments other than dropping medicines, clothes, and sympathies every time there is flooding?

Having said that the floods in Assam are more than predictable, it should be the responsibility of the government – both central and state – to ensure preparedness and effective mitigation. This unfortunately has not been upto the mark in case of Assam. Tarun Gogoi, the Chief Minister of Assam said during the floods of 2015 that the state was unable to provide adequate assistance to flood-hit villagers as it did not have enough resources and called on the federal government in New Delhi for more support. Over the past 60 years, successive governments have built levees along most of the Brahmaputra, but experts say the embankments are not only poorly maintained but are a discredited form of flood management. The confining of the floods to “natural”, “unpredictable” calamities helps the government to actually escape from preparedness for mitigation and rather putting the weight predominantly around post-flood relief and therefore facilitating the political blame game.

While engaging primarily with the relief activities and on that line criticizing central and state government for dereliction of duties, what goes unnoticed is the post-disaster plight of the victims. The loss of shelter, cattle, livelihood, and land, leaves behind a considerable section in sheer poverty, making them even more vulnerable to the next year’s flood. Assam loses 8,000 ha of land to rivers like the Brahmaputra and the Barak and their tributaries every year. Very less is talked about the post-disaster relocation of the victims and there is absolutely no discussion about the entire discourse of development and its relation to disasters.

Sustainability of agriculture

Sustainability of agriculture in Assam on the face of damages wrought by natural calamities like flood is a crucial question. Unfortunately the dominant narratives on flood in Assam have mostly undermined the issue. Agricultural productivity and sustainability is a prerequisite in a predominantly agricultural economy like India. Frequent floods every year in Assam have been destroying standing crops, creating water logging, soil erosion and affecting large crop areas and thus threatening the sustainability of the drive towards higher productivity and production of various crops in the state. The Shukla Commission Report of 1997 titled Transforming the North East stated –

“The flood damage to crops, cattle, houses and utilities in Assam alone between 1953 and 1995 is estimated at Rs 4,400 crore with a peak of Rs 664 crore in a single bad year".

Regional Cooperation for Mitigation of Floods

In South Asia, floods in India and Bangladesh are often exacerbated and sometimes caused by cross-border river flows. In these circumstances the form, content and efficacy of relations between South Asian nations may have implications for flood warning, the range of possibilities for mitigating floods, and the extent to which precautionary investment can be made. The losses of lives and valuable assets could be significantly minimized by implementing non-structural measures including the improvement of flood forecasting and warning system. The existing flood forecasting and warning systems could be more effective if real-time data could be acquired from upstream areas where runoff is generated. Hence there is an urgent need for better cooperation between the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin countries viz, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan for effective flood control. Now that natural disasters do not stop at arbitrary international borders, the need of the hour is to go beyond the traditional confrontational issues and foster better relations with the neighbors.

Uddipta Ranjan Boruah

( Uddipta Ranjan Boruah  is a Post Graduate Student of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi and a contributing Author of Eurasia Review. He can be reached at uddiranbx@gmail.com  )


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