The water entered Asif Iqbal Khan’s home on June 17. Relentless heavy rain had meant the Palla river, which cuts across Lower Assam’s Barpeta, had overflowed its banks that day.
Two days since, the water is yet to recede from Khan’s home in Barpeta district’s Kadumguri village. His family remains marooned on beds inside the house.
The Palla overflows almost every year, but the 29-year-old Khan said he had never seen such flooding. “The water is flowing one foot above the main road, carrying very strong currents,” said Khan, who teaches in a private school in the village.
The situation is grim across much of the state: as of Sunday evening, over 37 lakh people across 4,462 villages had been affected by flood and landslides in 30 districts. Three districts are yet to submit their flood data. Over 1.5 lakh people have been forced to leave their homes and are quartered in 816 state-run relief camps. At least 71 people have died so far.
The year 2004 was bad, too, Khan recalled, but they did not see such a deluge. “Back then, the floodwater did enter our house or submerge the main road,” Khan said.
The Palla has indeed been on the rampage this year. It has washed away portions of the road that connects the administrative headquarter of Barpeta town with the rest of the district. On Saturday, the district administration banned heavy vehicles from the road.
As a result, Kadumguri, just nine kilometres from the district headquarters, has been deprived of government aid even as essential supplies run low. “The local MLA visited the village on June 17, but we have not received any help – neither food nor drinking water,” Khan said. “The tube wells, too, are submerged.”
Barpeta revenue circle officer Pranjal Baruah admitted that the administration had been unable to distribute relief in Kadumguri. “It takes lots of time to distribute relief as the whole district is under water,” Baruah said.
He added that they planned to reach the village on Monday. “We will distribute muri [puffed rice] and chira [flattened rice], drinking water, mustard oil, candle, mosquito coils,” he said.
According to the meteorological department, Assam has already recorded 109% excessive rainfall this month – 528.5 millimetre of actual rainfall until June 19 against the normal 252.8 millimetre for June.
Residents across districts echo the same sentiment: while floods arrive like clockwork every year in Assam, the sheer scale of this year’s deluge has not been seen in recent times.
Kushal Chandra Sarma, a resident of Lower Assam’s Kamrup district, said floods were an annual phenomenon in the village but they had never been as catastrophic.
“Xoru xura hoi thak, kintu eman dangor hua nai agote [There are small episodes every now and then but nothing of this magnitude],” said Sarma, who has been displaced by the floods.
Another resident, speaking to journalists in front of the flooded Rangia police station on Saturday, felt the same way. “I have not seen such big floods in my life,” he said.
Gyanendra Tripathi, chief executive officer of the Assam State Disaster Management Agency told Scroll.in,“The situation is under control as of now but the number of districts affected and number of people impacted and staying in the relief camps are quite phenomenal.
Tripathi added, “Around 100 roads were completely damaged and 35 embankments breached so far. Damage assessment is still going on.”
A dam in Bhutan
Tripathi attributed the floods to the unprecedented rainfall on three days – June 14, June 15 and June 17 but other theories have also been floated. Assam Chief Minister Himanata Biswa Sarma blamed heavy rain in neighbouring Bhutan and the release of water from hydroelectric projects for the acute floods this year.
On June 18, the State Emergency Operation Centre had warned that over 800 cubic metres per second of water accumulated at Bhutan’s Kurichhu Dam was likely to be released soon.
This, local authorities believe, has swelled rivers in Lower Assam, leading to the breach of an embankment on the Nakhanda river. The claim about the dam has been contested in some quarters.
Whatever the cause, districts in Lower Assam are badly hit, with Barpeta district the worst affected. As of Sunday evening, 12.76 lakh people, including 2.47 lakh children, had been affected in the district, according to official figures. The town of Barpeta remains almost entirely submerged.
“The situation is very grim after many embankments [were] breached in the neighbouring Nalbari and Bajali districts following incessant rainfall in the Bhutan foothills,” said Nandita Dutta, a senior Barpeta district disaster management official. “The excess water from two neighbouring districts impacted the water level of the eight major rivers of Barpeta district, which were already flowing above the danger level.”
Similar tales of misery abound in large swathes of Middle and Lower Assam.
In many areas, entire villages have been submerged. Almost every house in the village of Balagaon – part of Kamrup district’s Rangia area – has been underwater for the last three days. The 100-odd families who live in the village have been shifted to relief camps in and around the town of Rangia, much of which is also under water.
“The last three days have been terrible for us as water entered our homes,” said Sarmah, who lives in Balagaon village. According to him, matters got worse after several embankments were breached on June 17. “The floodwater also submerged a one-kilometre stretch of the Bhutan-Rangia road in our village. The water is flowing one to two feet above the road,” said Sarmah.
With key highways now impassable, several areas cannot be reached.
The surging flood waters posed a threat to the National Highway 27 at two points in Nalbari district, said the official. The road also connects the state capital of Guwahati to the rest of the country.
The Brahampautra river has spilled over into National Highway 17 at one point in Lower Assam’s Goalpara district. Similarly, parts of the National Highway15, which connects Upper Assam’s Tezpur to Guwahati, are also under water.
Meanwhile, several district headquarters are crippled, making it hard for the administration to coordinate relief. Floodwaters have submerged the headquarters of Bajali and Nalbari districts since Thursday.
Arup Choudhury, the circle officer of Tihu revenue circle in Nabari, said almost the entire district had been under water since Thursday. “The water has not receded as of Sunday,” he said.
It is not just low-lying areas close to the river that have been hit hard. Places where sustained large-scale flooding is almost unheard of have also been affected this time.
In Darrang district’s Mangaldoi town, Pankah Deka’s house has had chest-deep water since June 17. It is the first time in his life that the 50-year-old businessman has witnessed something like this.
Deka said it was a surreal experience, the flooding happened within minutes. On the morning of June 17, he had woken up to a drizzle – a heavy spell of overnight showers had petered out. The front porch of his house, where he parked his scooter, was prone to waterlogging. So he ambled out to check if he needed to take the scooter to higher ground at his neighbours’ house – something he would do routinely during the monsoons.
Things looked fine. Barely an inch of water had accumulated. But Deka decided to play it safe and take the scooter regardless. “I was speaking to my neighbour when the water suddenly gushed into our colony,” said Deka.
Even as they were speaking, the water had entered his neighbour’s house. He asked Deka for help with the furniture and electronic appliances – but he declined. “I told him I am sorry I can’t, I have to go home,” he recalled.
Deka dashed back home and raised a panicked alarm. “We need to lift everything up to higher ground,” he told his brother.
But before they could get to work, there was a thumping sound: the water had forced open the main gates to the house.
Deka said what followed felt like a scene from the movie Titanic: chest- deep water, people holding on to each other, hollering for help. “It was unlike anything I had ever seen in real life,” said Deka.
Indeed, Mangaldoi, the district headquarters of Middle Assam’s Darrang district, has perhaps never experienced floods of such intensity. Residents recall a particularly severe episode of flooding in 1988 but say this year was much worse.
“My mother is 74 – she says she has never seen anything like this,” said Deka, who managed to move his family to relatives’ homes in areas that are less affected but failed to salvage much of his belongings. “Everything’s gone – the divan, the washing machine.”