Nobody Cares About Assam

Maitreyee B Chowdhury

Sep 08, 2015, 11:53 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 09:17 AM IST

Had Delhi or Mumbai faced the kind of floods Assam is suffering from, it would have been the prime issue for media and politicians alike. Assam has been facing floods almost every year, and yet, we get to know so little about it, and even lesser gets done to be better prepared for future.

Bistirna paarore axonkhya jonre hahakar xuniu nixobde nirobe  Burha luit tumi Burha luit buwa kiyo?

(How can you oh mighty river Luit, be silent in spite of the cries of innumerable people and their sufferings on your banks?)

—Bhupen Hazarika

It is the birth anniversary of one of the most recognizable faces from Assam, Bhupen Hazarika. World over people who had loved and revered this versatile musician’s contribution to the music industry might be listening to one of his most famous songs which began with the above mentioned refrain that urges the river Luit not to remain indifferent to the sad plight of the numerous people on its banks. The song is of course as relevant today as it was when it had been written years ago, primarily because in spite of being in 2015- an advanced age of communication, Assam’s problems are nobody else’s headache even today. Budha Lui( Another name for the Bramhaputra) still flows without compassion during every monsoon and is a perhaps only a reflection of the apathy of both the state government and the centre towards the plight of the people of Assam.

A few years ago, I was in Guwahati in the month of August to attend the wedding of a dear cousin. Two days before the wedding, I was surprised to see my uncle make arrangements for boats. I was told that every year during the monsoon the roads would be flooded with the average water levels at about five feet on the side roads. Incidentally my cousin’s home, situated in the Zoo Narengi road is supposed to be one of the better locations in the city of Guwahati and I could not help but wonder what would be the state of those living in areas with less infrastructural facilities, if this was the condition in well to do localities.

On the day of the wedding, the venue had to be changed from the girl’s house to a guest house at the last moment; the bride in her bridal finery sat on a boat and was ferried to the main road! If we were to play a game of imagination, close our eyes and for a moment witness this scene in a city like Mumbai, Delhi or even Gurgaon – it would make national headlines. The press would have a field day; pictures would be splashed across international media- boards would be set up, the prime minister might have made an aerial survey, huge compensations would have been doled out- but most importantly those living in the big cities would have made sure this was talked of till the next few months forcing the government to take adequate action.

A slightly more enhanced imagination could take you to the picturesque locale of Assam, imagine yourself wearing gumboots in your own house with water around your bed, being without electricity and social media for more than 5-6 days, eating leftover food from a non working fridge, while all the while fish swim and other water borne insects swam around you- place yourself here and try and gauge your own reactions.

As a student of Cotton College in Assam many years ago, I would walk on the banks of the river and slowly watch the water levels rise as the monsoons approached. I would hear of friends and family in picturesque small towns like Dibrugargh, Sonitpur and Barpeta frantically prepare for the inevitable flood waters that would disrupt their life soon.  As always nothing would be done, maybe a minister would make an appearance somewhere, the old and the poor would cry, some photographs would be taken of a minister hugging a flood-affected family, some nonexistent packages would be announced, the local papers would print these photographs and people would go back to their troubles. For days I would sit by the river ruminating of Hazarika’s song and wonder why the flood waters could not be controlled. Today as I talk to some of those affected by the floods in these small towns I realize that as before disaster preparedness practices are still mostly relegated at the household level and some at a community or village level.

Floods in Morigaon, north-eastern Assam. (AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO)
Floods in Morigaon, north-eastern Assam. (AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO)

It goes without saying that the history of Assam has been dominated with the recurring floods and in many ways its repercussions cannot be divorced from the socio-economic implications it has had on the people of the state for years now. Talking to my friends over the phone I get the feeling again and again of the pent up anger and the feeling of alienation that is now a part of their psyche, especially amongst those who have chosen not to leave the state in search of more lucrative avenues outside. Governments now and in the recent past seem to be trying to make people learn the ethics of living with the floods and adapting to them, rather than improving conditions like a civilized civic society should.

This year, as in other,s the flood has affected lakhs of people all over Assam. Many have already died while the poor have had their homes and in some cases entire villages washed away. But floods don’t restrict themselves only to the poor. Dibrugargh one of the affluent large townships of Assam has especially been severely affected this year. The Dibrugargh medical college and its departments are under water, disease and filth all over the beautiful town. At a deeper level, the causes of worry are even more long term.

Areas like Dhemaji and Lakhimpur which face floods almost every year face acute contamination of ground water since sources of drinking water like deep tube wells and hand pumps mostly go under the flood waters in situations like this, resulting in disastrous consequences even after the flood waters have receded.  

The politics of flood would now ensure that the blame games begin, funds exploited and tokenism become a part of relief efforts. All these factors also raise serious questions about the nature of studies undertaken by independent scholars as well as government bodies, their subsequent implementation in flood management allied with that of government endeavours. Last month the central government released Rs 207 crore to the state for relief and rehabilitation, how that money would be used is of serious concern. Chief minister Mr Tarun Gogoi while accusing the central government for lack of proper relief allocations also concedes that precious little had been achieved by the previous Congress government in the centre too.

In between these political squabbles, some more people would have lost their lives, others their homes, water borne diseases would kill some more- the river water would recede in time and be forgotten till another year. Luit which gets its name from the red colour of its waters, supposedly sullied by the blood that fell off the axe of the sage Parashurama will live up to its name once more, while the apathy of those in power will kill more than the waters perhaps.

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet and writer based in Bangalore

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