Why children in Assam are crying at the sight of rains

There was no sense of coordinated relief work in rural Assam.
There was no sense of coordinated relief work in rural Assam.
Image: Reuters/Utpal Baruah
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Indrani Sarma lives with her husband and daughter in a three-storied house on Zoo Road, an upmarket area of Guwahati, the capital of the northeastern state of Assam. However, the height of their house—like several others in the vicinity—did not fortify them against the floods.

From the afternoon of September 22 onwards, until the next 36 hours, Sarma and her family were stuck at home, in utter darkness after sundown, with water flooding their house and nearly submerging their car. “Water was everywhere, yet we had no water to drink. There was no way to communicate with the world except for the mobile phone, until its battery died,” she said.

So far, over 44 people have been killed in Assam, and 55 in Meghalaya, due to massive floods that were caused after two days of heavy rainfall on September 21 and 22. According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), 431 villages in the districts of Dhemaji, Kamrup, Goalpara, Nalbari, Nagaon and Morigaon still stand affected; 93,155 hectares of crop area are under water. Last week, the central government announced Rs674 crore in aid.

In 2014 alone, there have been several waves of floods in Assam, affecting more than six lakh people in 23 of its 27 districts and killing 68. Relief camps with tarpaulin sheets as roofs have been dotting the states’ roads for a long time now.

“The IMD (India Meteorological Department) had informed us of heavy rainfall across Assam. That is very vague information because Assam is spread out. IMD could do better by providing relevant information so that preventive measures can be taken,” said Nandita Hazarika, state project officer, ASDMA.

However, the floods from May onwards have been “seasonal.” One reason cited is breach of embankments on the Brahmaputra river. “Our embankments are more than 50 years old. We receive funds only to repair them, rather than to fortify them,” Hazarika said.

Given that most of Assam is agrarian, farmers are looking at a poor year ahead. While one paddy crop was harvested earlier in the year, two others have been destroyed in the floods.

In Morigaon district’s Asigor village, the bamboo houses of Raj Ali and Hilimuddin Khatun seem to be floating on an island amid deep waters. A tiny boat is their only point of contact with the rest of the world. When the waters came in, the boat was the first thing Khatun had rushed to save; his wife hurried to gather the children, the utensils, documents and the Koran.

As water nearly reached the tin roof, the two families moved to a relief camp on the road.

On the edge of the houses is a swamp, which leads to a large mass of water, with trees only at a great distance. The swamp is where the children defecate, and the mothers wash clothes and utensils. They get their drinking water from a borewell.“Every time it thunders now, we fear the roof will fly off and water will enter the house again. It is very difficult to sleep,” Ali’s wife Madaja Khatun said.

In Simultola village, one man pointed to the river nearby. “When we were young, the river was about 40kms away. In the last few years, it kept coming closer. Today, it has reached our doorstep,” he said.

Particularly for women, floods mean their lives take a turn for the worst.

Safiya Khatun, a young mother of two, explained that broken roads increased the distance to the market and schools. “Our brick stoves are on the floor. When it floods, we cannot cook. Men go in search of work and food because the crops are destroyed. But I am worried about my children’s books being destroyed,” she said, adding that government officials and NGOs visit only after the worst has passed. She pointed to a broken mangle of woven bamboo sheet, which once used to be the wall of her toilet. “Men can go anywhere (to defecate), where can we go?”

In Dhemaji’s Rekhasapori village, Bhagyaban Doley had noticed the breach of an embankment at a few hundred meters away from the school where he is the principal. He rushed out the 105 students to the main road at an elevated height. Within an hour, the gushing water took down several meters of a nearby concrete bridge, and the school was submerged. What was visible when this reporter visited, was just the tip of the roof; 33 houses in the vicinity were also submerged. “The Army and the National Disaster Relief Force came immediately. But I’m concerned about the future of these children. They see floods every year and it affects their education. Many students begin to cry even when there is slight rainfall,” he said.

The relief efforts by the government are ineffective. Hazarika said that ASDMA is pressurised to take ad-hoc measures but they aren’t helpful in the long run, especially in Guwahati where there has been haphazard construction. In several villages, borewells get submerged, creating an acute shortage of clean water. Similar is the fate of temporary toilets erected with bamboo and tarpaulin. It was not for nothing that the middle class in Assam was livid about Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s Rs5 crore relief fund towards flood-affected Kashmir, before flash floods hit his own state.

The apathy of officials is legendary. “Each year the government spends crores to fortify infrastructure and embankments. Yet, every monsoon, these collapse. Where is all the money?” asked an angry Luit Goswami of Rural Volunteers Centre in Dhemaji, which has been working on flood relief work in the district for nearly two decades.

According to the Economic Survey that was carried out in Assam for 2013-2014, the state incurs a loss of Rs200 crore annually due to floods. The average erosion rate is 8,000 hectares every year and 4.27 lakh hectares of land have been washed away since the 1950s.

The assistant commissioner of Goswami’s district, Dharmakant Mili, perfectly reflected official attitude towards the problem. “Flood is a regular phenomenon in Assam, and the people are used to it. They know how to deal with it their own way.”