Monday, 8 August, 2022
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If India starts acting on the yearly floods in Bihar and Assam, that would be true nationalism

Attention deficit of the public, policy dyslexia and lack of political will lie at the roots of the recurring tragedy of flooding in Assam and Bihar.

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It’s an annual affair. Every year the floods arrive, bring devastation. ‘Reliefs’ arrive, bring consolation. Nothing changes. Water recedes. Drowned for months, the land emerges, drained of life. Hordes of living skeletons teeter on this dead land to build a life again.”

It could be this week’s despatch from Assam. But it is not.

It could be P. Sainath, writing on why everyone loves a good flood, two decades ago. But it is not.

This was published in 1948 by Phanishwarnath Renu, among the finest storytellers of 20th-century India. Titled ‘Kosi Dayan (Kosi, the Witch)’, it was published in January 1948 in Janata, the weekly magazine of the Socialist Party. The floods and the promise of taming the Kosi river through a barrage forms the backdrop to many of Renu’s writings, including his magnum opus, Parati Parikatha (Tale of a Wasteland). When floods returned in 1964, despite the Kosi barrage, Renu wrote a sharp article in Dharmyug titled ‘Purani Kahani: Naya Paath (Old Story: New Reading)’.

That could well be the title of the story of floods in post-Independence India. It is a recurring story of political and policy disabilities: attention deficit of the public, dyslexia of the policymakers and lack of will on the part of political leadership, year after year.


Also read: Covid forced them out of cities, now the Bramhaputra is forcing them to move homes in Assam


Attention-deficit

Seven decades after Renu wrote about this annual occurrence, the cycle continues. Every year we hear about floods first in Assam and then in Bihar. Just as we hear about heatwaves in north India or the monsoon breaking in Kerala. Every year, we read about animals drowning in the Kaziranga National Park and assume that some people must have died too. We look up only when the death toll crosses 100, as it has this year. Pictures of north Bihar villages inundated with water is as staple as that of snowfall in Shimla. We notice deaths in Bihar when they cross 500, such as in 2017. Thousands of square kilometres of one of the most fertile lands in the country flooded across as many as 19 districts of north Bihar that year is, at best, a faint national memory.

This year, floods have been bad in Assam and threaten to be equally bad in Bihar. But all you get to learn from the media is the Sachin Pilot-Ashok Gehlot drama. The other day, my son drew my attention to something: Arsenal, the British football club, had released a short video saying, “Stay Strong Assam/We are with you”.

He asked me if I had seen something like this from Indian sportspersons or celebrities. I had no answer. The harsh truth is that the season’s first heavy downpour in Delhi, the clogging of a few drains and the tragic death of one auto driver in a flooded underpass in the national capital got more attention from the national media than the last three weeks of floods in Assam and the impending threat in Bihar. Delhi is indifferent to all this, just as it is to the continued incarceration of Akhil Gogoi and his colleagues, just as it was to the ground reality of the National Population Register (NPR) in Assam. Northeast is a distant land.


Also read: ‘We are with you’ — Arsenal FC expresses solidarity with Assam battling floods


Policy dyslexia

Yet, the problem is not just the media and political indifference in the charmed circles of New Delhi. We are dealing with a much deeper collective learning disorder here. The problem is with the mindset that policymakers from Delhi to Patna to Guwahati share. Deliberately or otherwise, our policymakers are unable to read the evidence lying before them.

We have come to think of annual devastation and destruction caused by the floods in Assam or Bihar as natural calamities beyond human control. And we respond to these just as we respond to a sudden, unanticipated catastrophe like an earthquake: hurried rescue, paltry relief and perfunctory rehabilitation.

This makes no sense. Floods are not an accident. Flooding at irregular intervals is part of an eco-system in the Brahmaputra valley and the terai region of the Himalayas. The multitude of rivers that come down from Nepal hills to north Bihar and the mighty Brahmaputra that comes from Tibet bring life-sustaining water and soil to these regions. Rains are bound to vary, so excessive release of water via floods is a normal phenomenon, familiar for centuries.

While floods are natural, destruction by floods is not a natural phenomenon. It is mostly the product of human intervention, often the faulty paradigm of what we call ‘development’. Deforestation in the catchment area, building of human habitation on the river banks and in the floodplains area, encroachment on wetlands, changed cropping pattern and, ironically, quick-fix attempts at flood control are in a large measure responsible for the devastation caused by the floods.

Scientists and scholars have repeatedly drawn our attention to the failure of the existing policy paradigm. Take Bihar, for example. Dinesh Kumar Mishra, an engineer and hydrologist, and his NGO Badh Mukti Abhiyan has for years drawn attention to the folly of building embankments to control Kosi floods. Since Independence, the length of embankments in Bihar has increased more than 20 times. Far from a reduction in flooding, this period has actually witnessed a three-time increase in the flood-affected area. Mishra says we need to learn to live with floods.

In Assam too, geologist Dulal C. Goswami and environmentalist Partha J. Das have been cautioning that engineering solutions like embankment or dredging have long exhausted their efficacy. The limitations of this solution were evident at the time of Independence. It is a scandal that we still live with this outmoded and counter-productive approach.


Also read: Assam floods submerge Kaziranga, kill dozens — Why the annual season is so devastating


Weak willpower

Professor Dulal C. Goswami and many other environmentalists have been arguing that India needs an integrated approach to managing floods. It would mean thinking simultaneously about water management, physical planning, land use, agriculture, transport and urban development as well as nature conservation. Goswami reminds us that the solution cannot be evolved just within the boundaries of India. A comprehensive solution to Assam floods must involve the entire Brahmaputra basin region that covers China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India. We need to coordinate with our neighbours for better information, warning and help in managing excess discharge. In other words, we need policy and politics, diplomacy and development, engineering and ecology.

The idea is not new. We have come a long way from the days of the Flood Control Policy of 1954, which shared the modernist hubris that nature could be tamed through engineering miracles. We now have a wealth of environmental learning to draw upon. We are more aware than ever that climate change is making matters worse. Floods in the last two decades have been more frequent and more devastating than earlier decades. We need to act fast.

That requires mobilisation of national political will. Nationalism is not about playing war games in TV studios or inventing an internal enemy. True nationalism is about taking on real and tough challenge of national significance, giving it undivided attention, working out a fresh solution, committing substantial national resources and seeing it through.

A national response to floods in Assam and Bihar is a good way to begin the project of positive nationalism.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. The solution to the problems of flood and river erosion is urgent. Floods that occur in Assam causes a huge loss. A comprehensive plan is to be taken in order to tackle the flood problem in Assam. What hurts one is that the government does not feel urgent to solve the Assam’ flood problem.

  2. India includes Yogendra Yadav also. If Yogendra Yadav’s brain polluted with crooked politics has original implementable ideas for early actions on flood controls, Bihar would welcome him. So far the past record of Yogendra Yadav’s politics has been more damaging to India’s interest rather than any meaningful inputs. However, he is better than Raga whose Ragas are understood by Congress pets only.

  3. Can’t canals be built to re-route these excess waters and divert them to a reservoir? I am not an engineer. It is just a thought. Should these people continue to suffer floods annually, suffer destruction of crop and properties every year?

  4. I liked the scaffolding of the post. The concluding thought struck the most. I hope people, from far and wide, read it and get a sense at-least what nationalism also means, because they would never stop and think for a moment, the dimensional circumference of an ideology.

  5. Regarding Assam flood please go back to the original documents by Brahmaputra Board on flood control. We need to construct reservoir dams on the north bank rivers as was the original BB proposals; not run of the river schemes like Ranganadi and also with reduced capacity like lower Subansiri. Only a reservoir dam in Siang river will solve half the flood problem.

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