Drown­ing Out All Con­cern

The Economic Times - - Breaking Ideas - Ab­heek Bar­man

A Times of In­dia re­port pub­lished on Au­gust 2, 1915, said, “Re­fer­ring to the ex­ten­sive dam­age caused by heavy floods in As­sam, ‘The English­man’ to­day…says that the great earthquake of 1897 in some way af­fected the drainage of the coun­try and since that time, floods have been of great du­ra­tion and in­ten­sity.”

102 years later, a news­pa­per pub­lished an ar­ti­cle on Au­gust 4, 2017, head­lined, ‘Flood Fury: Why Brahma­pu­tra’s trail of de­struc­tion has be­come an an­nual rit­ual in As­sam’.

This year’s floods in the Brahma­pu­tra basin have hit more than 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple, spread across nearly 2,500 vil­lages across 19 dis­tricts in As­sam. Around 85 peo­ple have been killed so far, many see their liveli­hood in peril. In re­cent mem­ory, this year has seen the worst flood­ing since 2012, where 110 peo­ple were killed and around 2.4 mil­lion af­fected.

Apart from phys­i­cal dis­com­fort, there is a high like­li­hood of dis­eases like cholera. The gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse in terms of aid has been tardy. It is en­gaged in a war of words with state-owned util­i­ties and con­trac­tors, dodg­ing blame.

The Brahma­pu­tra starts in the ice deserts of Ti­bet, flows east and then takes a sharp turn south and west across the 7,750-me­tre-high Nam­cha Barwa, the high­est peak in the re­gion. This turn is called the ‘Great Bend’. Here, wa­ter plunges ver­tig­i­nously from 3,000 m in Ti­bet to 500 m in In­dia.

This river is called Di­hang. It is joined by two mighty trib­u­taries, Dibang and Lo­hit. Many more ma­jor trib­u­taries join it along its east-west flow across Arunachal Pradesh and As­sam. Even in win­ter, when the Brahma­pu­tra is at its low­est ebb, it’s spec­tac­u­lar, stretch­ing 10 km across in some places. From spring through sum­mer, as ice melts in its up­per reaches, the vol­ume of wa­ter swells. By end-June, mon­soon strikes the re­gion.

The vol­ume of wa­ter jumps five times, from around 20,000 cu m to 1,00,000 cu m — ev­ery sec­ond. It brushes off re­in­forced earth em­bank- ments, drown­ing vil­lages and farms along the river.

The disas­ter has opened the flood­gates of de­bate. One ques­tion is whether the em­bank­ments moderate flood losses, or whether they add to de­struc­tion. All gov­ern­ments be­lieve the for­mer. Af­ter ev­ery ma­jor flood, the Cen­tre and the state claim to have spent hun­dreds of crores of ru­pees to strengthen em­bank­ments.

But some ex­perts say th­ese earthen walls hem the river in, so wa­ter lev­els rise and flow faster. Th­ese em­bank­ments stretch for 4,500 km along the Brahma­pu­tra, its 103 trib­u­taries and As­sam’s other big river, the Barak.

The walls, built over the last 40 years or so, are age­ing. Lo­cals con­struct paved roads over th­ese em­bank­ments and the reg­u­lar move­ment of traf­fic — two-wheel­ers, cars and light trucks — add to the dam­age. Re­pair and con­struc­tion are slow and shabby. A con­trac­tor lobby, in ca­hoots with mantris and babus, al­legedly siphons off money.

Also, for years, en­gi­neers, plan­ners and bu­reau­crats have pushed to build dams in the up­per reaches of the river, where its course is rel­a­tively nar­row and wa­ter flows at high speed. In the­ory, th­ese dams, largely in Arunachal, would sta­bilise the flow across sea­sons. By dif­fer­ent es­ti­mates, they would also gen­er­ate 30,000-60,000 MW of hy­dro­elec­tric power.

Over the years, Arunachal has is­sued tenders, in­vited pri­vate sec­tor in­vestors and talked such projects up. None took off. In­vestors failed to reckon the dif­fi­culty of build­ing projects in such tough ter­ri­tory, or ran into fi­nan­cial trou­ble.

Many now ar­gue that even ex­ist­ing dams, run by state-owned North Eastern Elec­tric Power Cor­po­ra­tion (Neepco) are threats. Dur­ing win­ter, they al­lege, th­ese dams turn down­stream stretches into beds of sand. In the mon­soon, they’re over­whelmed by the flow and re­lease it in de­struc­tive vol­umes.

The big­gest prob­lem, mostly un­said, is gov­ern­ment ap­a­thy, in­ef­fi­cient fund­ing and sus­pected graft. All de­part­ments re­lated to con­struc­tion of roads, bridges, em­bank­ments and so on, outsource work to pri­vate con­trac­tors, who al­legedly kick money back. Gov­ern­ments spend money in two ways: cap­i­tal spend­ing is used to build as­sets and in­vest; rev­enue spend­ing mea­sures how much the gov­ern­ment spends on it­self, in­clud­ing salaries, pen­sions and chai-pani. Ide­ally, gov­ern­ments should in­vest more than blow­ing up cash on it­self.

In As­sam, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. In fis­cal 2015-16, it splurged 88% of to­tal spend­ing on it­self. In 2016-17, its to­tal spend­ing nearly dou­bled, but 80% was frit­tered away on it­self. Hi­manta Biswa Sarma, a Congress de­fec­tor who holds the fi­nance as well as eight other port­fo­lios in the new BJP regime, re­cently bud­geted for 201718. Rev­enue spend­ing is again 80% of to­tal expenditure.

With so lit­tle left to in­vest, As­sam will have to pad­dle fran­ti­cally to keep its head above wa­ter.

How thick-skinned can we get?

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