Once again, Assam is ravaged by floods, which seem to have become an annual ritual for the millions living in this northeastern corner of the country.

According to government estimates, the current flood has already resulted in 27 deaths, displacement of over 37 lakh people across the state and submergence of over 150,000 hectares of cropland.

These statistics of damages will only go up in the coming days leaving a larger crises, including epidemics, destruction of amenities, loss of livelihoods and so on that will inevitably follow.

Focusing particularly on Majuli river island in Assam, this article primarily addresses two issues: (a) how the dominant flood control methods have actually worsened the situation in the state and (b) what ought to be done.

When a solution becomes a problem

One of the key interventions by the Indian state for flood control has been the construction of embankments, which goes back to the colonial era. These structures have gained particular salience in Assam since the early 1950s, enabled especially by the Assam Embankment and Drainage Act of 1953.

In the last six decades, the Assam state has built a network of about 5,000 km of embankments along the Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries. In Majuli alone, which is a landmass of only about 500 square km, close to 190 km of embankments have been constructed during this period. Despite this, 39.6% of the total land area in Assam remains “flood prone”, which is four times its national counterpart. Once every few years, an episodic flood devastates the entire state, while regular floods inundate a large part of the state every year.

While biophysical factors contribute to the phenomenon of flooding, the calamity is deeply affected by human activity, rooted mainly in the ways in which the state has altered the river systems through massive infrastructures, including embankments. This affects the flood situation in many ways.

First, embankments have confined the course of the river, which means that during the monsoon, when the river swells up, it puts excessive pressure on the riverbanks, causing breaches. While communities living in flood-prone areas are somewhat prepared for low-intensity flooding as part of the landscape, breaching of the embankments often wreaks havoc that they find themselves absolutely unprepared for.

Majuli, for instance, was ravaged by a historic flood in 2012, caused mainly due to the breaching of embankments in multiple locations. Currently, most of Majuli is under water, and once again, it is the breaching of an embankment that has caused this large-scale inundation of the island.

Second, the embankments have also produced a peculiar pattern of vulnerability in the Majuli landscape (and Assam in general). They have divided the island into two different zones – the areas inside the embankments, that is, the mainland, and a large area that remains outside the embankments – with distinct catastrophes in the two geographies.

For the inside zone, the frequency of flood events may have reduced due to the embankments, but the phenomenon of embankment breaching now cause far more catastrophic flooding in these areas, as mentioned above. Besides, once floodwater comes in, it stays on for long duration since the natural outlets are now blocked by the embankments. The result, of course, is water-logging, which leads to contamination of drinking water sources, various diseases and crop failures.

On the other hand, for the outside zone, floods are now more permanent part of the landscape than ever, since floodwater does not evenly distribute in the island any longer due to the embankments. As a result, for thousands of dwellers in chaporis – silt islets located outside of embankments – as well as those living right along the embankments (but outside of those), there is no such thing as flood season anymore – they practically live in flood-like condition round the year.


Wrong focus

The Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has proposed the constitution of Embankment Protection Committees in order to ensure timely monitoring and upkeep of the embankments in the state. While this is a positive direction, it hardly addresses the flood crisis.

Instead, by focusing on embankments, the discourse on flood is once again narrowed to techno-engineering approaches to processes that are indeed political-ecological in nature. Besides, it remains uncertain if such a committee will serve much purpose other than becoming yet another layer in the bureaucratic maze of governance of flooding and related hazards.

Furthermore, flood hazards are not simply about immediate or one-time losses. Instead, years of flooding, combined with riverbank erosion, as is the case with Majuli and the Brahmaputra valley as a whole, can result in irreparable damages to the natural resources, thereby breaking down traditional livelihood practices.

In Majuli, for instance, a large population (belonging to the Kaivarta and the Mising communities) that had traditionally lived off fishing are now increasingly turning wage-labourers as the wetlands in the island have gradually disappeared due to the processes of flooding and erosion.

Holistic perspective

Addressing the flood crisis in the island, then, requires stabilising the sources of rural livelihoods as well, and not merely techno-engineering interventions to control a flood event.

It is most urgent that the Indian state moves beyond the colonial legacy of embankment and similar technocratic measures, and instead addresses flood from a more holistic perspective. The National Disaster Management Guidelines, 2008 already listed a host of “non-structural” measures for flood management, including flood plain zoning, flood proofing, flood forecasting and warning, and capacity building of communities. Unfortunately, these measures have hardly translated onto the ground. The government agencies vested with flood and erosion control remain obsessed with techno-engineering approaches to these processes.

There is a need for appropriate adaptive measures to be put in place in flood prone areas. This requires research as well as drawing on successful experiments elsewhere. Equally essential is to involve local communities in the processes of flood governance, who often possess rich local knowledges about adaptation to and governance of flooding, but are currently entirely missing from the picture. Small-scale, localised measures are far more effective in environmental governance than grand, top-down solutions.

Putting it simply, flood control is not just about techno-engineering interventions. It is about treating the environment holistically and empowering local processes of democratic decision-making and resource governance.

Mitul Baruah is an Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology at Ashoka University.