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Our floods, their floods

The coverage of the J&K floods had the frenzy of 24/7 news channels multiple angles, replays and ‘Here is How You Can Help’ guides. Coverage of the floods in Assam and Meghalaya was low-key, matter-of-fact.
There was a time when the charge of neglect by the central government was the staple of Northeast India’s politics. That is no longer the case. The region now features prominently on the national agenda. Complaints against the central government are less frequent. Yet there is a deep reservoir of suspicion that the country’s governing elites do not take the region’s concerns seriously. And the feeling is that the attitude is the same no matter who is in power in Delhi.
These suspicions surfaced recently when floods and landslides caused large-scale devastation and misery in Assam and Meghalaya. The late September floods occurred just as floodwaters were receding in Jammu and Kashmir. The timing brought home the dramatic contrast between the media coverage of the two flood stories. The national electronic media covered the J&K floods with all the frenzy of the 24/7 cable news channels multiple angles, relentless replays, and the “Here is How You Can Help” guides. Its coverage of the floods in Assam and Meghalaya, on the other hand, had none of those bells and whistles: it was low-key and matter-of-fact.
Floods in Northeast India and in Assam in particular are of course, more common than floods in Srinagar. To that extent the conventional distinction between unusual and infrequent events that constitute “news” in a way that ordinary, everyday occurrences do not, might explain the difference in coverage. But it also says something about the calculations that media houses make regarding their “home markets” in terms of audiences and advertisers. There the media’s self-representation as a societal institution with a vital role in a democracy comes in conflict with the reality of media houses as businesses. Whatever the reason, in a democracy media coverage has consequences.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi complained that the Modi government responded more promptly and generously to the J&K floods than it did to the floods in his state. He expressed regret that the Prime Minister visited J&K, but he did not come to the Northeast.
But whether it is the Northeast or J&K, how much money is available for flood relief may not be that important in the long run. What is crucial is the intellectual investment that the country makes to understand the causes of these “natural” disasters. For so-called natural disasters are rarely just natural; man-made factors always play a role. That flood destruction has become routine in Assam is no comfort to an Assamese. It is only a reminder that what has been done so far in the name of flood control has been either awfully inadequate, or profoundly wrong-headed.
After the J&K floods, the Supreme Court asked the central government for a report. In 2013, it had ordered an inquiry into the floods in Uttarakhand. Those floods also received significant media attention because major Hindu pilgrimage centres like Kedarnath and Badrinath were affected, and thousands of pilgrims were stranded. The expert body submitted its report earlier this year. It concluded that the hydroelectric dams under construction had contributed to the flood disaster and recommended the cancelation of 23 proposed projects on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins.
One aspect of Assam’s frequent floods has been relentless riverbank erosion. It does not produce dramatic one-time losses associated with temporary submergence during a flood, but the permanent loss of land and property. Over the years erosion of riverbanks has led to the loss of livelihood of thousands.
Flood control in Assam has mostly consisted of structural interventions such as embankments and dykes. Between 1953 and 2004, 4,500 kilometers of embankments were built in Assam making it the state with the third most extensive flood control embankments in the country. At the same time, flood damages and the total flood prone area in the state have increased significantly. Embankment breaches have been the cause of a number of devastating floods. There are now efforts to raise and strengthen embankments. In recent years there has been talk of geo-tube constructions to reclaim lost embankments and build new ones.
Could it be that structural interventions of this sort are inappropriate in the particular conditions of the Brahmaputra river system?
Geo-hydrologist Dulal Goswami tells us how, as the Brahmaputra enters the plains of Assam after cascading through deep Himalayan gorges, because of the sudden dissipation of its immense energy it unloads enormous amounts of sediments downstream. The Assam earthquake of 1950 has dramatically changed the river regime. Massive landslides in the Himalayas blocked the downstream flow of a number of its tributaries and when the trapped water burst through a few days later, it caused catastrophic floods downstream. The enormous volume of landslide debris carried downstream raised the Brahmaputra’s riverbed. Near the city of Dibrugarh it was estimated that it went up initially by about five feet, and by another five feet five years later. Floods in the Brahmaputra Valley have been more frequent and destructive ever since.
In recent decades, in the wake of construction projects such as bridges on the river Brahmaputra, there has been evidence of increased riverbank erosion and floods in areas downstream of the construction sites. There has been large-scale deforestation in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. On top of it there have been major structural interventions in rivers entirely unrelated to flood control, such as the hydropower dams. More of them are in the planning stage.
Is it reasonable to expect that more robust embankments would be able to withstand the Brahmaputra’s growing fury under these conditions? Surely there are limits to the protection that embankments can provide. One can hardly ignore the increasing flow resistance that the water encounters from the growing number of formidable man-made obstacles.
This does not mean we should not build bridges and dams. But the cumulative effect of these structures has to be thought through more carefully than we have in the past. Understanding even a single aspect of the floods in the Brahmaputra system requires a kind of serious interdisciplinary intellectual investment that we have been unprepared to make so far.
Would more media attention have made a difference? This is a counter-factual question to which we’ll never know the answer.
The writer is professor of political studies, Bard College, New York.