The rains started lashing Assam’s Lakhimpur district on July 8. Around 10 pm the next day, at Gourighat Balijan village, Bhadreshwar Barua peered out of the window in the living room of his mud-plastered house.

He was keeping a nervous eye on the embankment, some 300 metres away, that stood between his village and the raging Ranganadi river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The earth-fill embankment was intact, but he could hear the river crash against it, with what seemed like great force. With the rain showing no signs of relenting, Barua knew it was a matter of time before the embankment gave away. “I could hear it,” he said. “They had released water at the dam upstream.”

The dam on the river

Ranganadi is one of the smaller tributaries of the Brahmaputra. It originates in the Nilam, Marta and Tapo mountain ranges in Arunachal Pradesh, flows through the Lower Subansiri and Papum Pare districts of the state, before flowing downstream to enter Lakhimpur in Assam where it joins the Subansiri-Brahmaputra river system at Khichikagaon.

The already small river has diminished even more in the past few years, people living around the river claim, after an eponymous hydro-electric dam on the river at Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh became operational in 2001. Unlike earlier, one can cross the river on foot even in the winters, they say.

The winter Ranganadi and its monsoon counterpart are, however, a study in contrast. As torrential monsoon showers strike North East India starting in May, and continuing till almost August, the river often assumes unmanageable proportions. The difference, people living in downstream areas of the river say, has become accentuated after the dam came into existence.

‘But at least we survived’

By 10.30 pm on July 9, Barua’s worst fears came true: the embankment was breached. In no time, there was water all around, washing away everything in its path: people, animals, crop fields and bridges. “Two of my cows drowned,” said Barua. “The fields are buried in sand now. But at least we survived.”

In the adjoining village of Joinpur, as Joydeep Barua watched the river wash away the trailer of his newly-purchased tractor, he did not run towards higher ground like the other residents of his village. Instead, he rushed inside his house, almost completely submerged by then, to retrieve the tractor’s insurance papers. “I was sure he would drown,” said one of his neighbours. He did not, but he could not salvage the insurance papers.

Majgaon, which along with along with Joinpur and Gourighat Balijan comprises the Amtala revenue circle, was probably the worst affected. At least 11 houses were completely washed away, leaving bare vestiges behind.

By the end of the week, the water receded, leaving almost all of Amtala in ruins – damaged houses, farms buried in sand, hundreds of livestock dead. But the Ranganadi, after wreaking havoc in Amtala, breached its embankments at Bogoleejaan, further downstream. This relieved the pressure in Amtala, with the water moving on to Bogoleejaan, residents say. “We wouldn’t be talking today had the breach at Bogoleejaan not occured,” said Gourighat Balijan’s Dipen Bora.

A flood affected area in Bogoleejan.
A flood affected area in Bogoleejan.

People in Lakhimpur suspect that in addition to the incessant rains, their woes were exacerbated by the excess water released by the dam – the project can handle up to 160 cubic metres per second of water and anything more than that is released back into the river. The North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited, which runs the dam, has shot back in a press release that the situation would have much worse if the dam was not there.

While few in Lakhimpur buy that explanation, the resentment of people in the district, one of the worst-affected in the current wave of floods in Assam, is directed at the failure of the embankments. Embankments are the most widely used techno-engineering defence against floods in Assam. There is a strand of thought that views them as counter-productive, exacerbating water pressure rather than containing angry rivers. But they have become indispensable in the current scheme of things, as people living close to the river view it as a safety-net of sorts.

The embankment fails yet again

“So much money is put into these embankments,” said Keramat Ali, a resident of Bogoleeejan. “What is the point if it can’t even save us?”

In 2008, after Lakhimpur was ravaged by a particularly catastrophic wave of floods, a project worth Rs 362 crores was announced to rebuild and repair embankments along the Ranganadi river. The cost was to be borne by the central government and the state government, with the former paying 70% of the total expenditure. The project, which has been marred by legal tussles, corruption charges, face-offs between the administration and contractors, remains incomplete till date.

Annual repair work on the embankments between November and March is considered crucial in Assam as a preparatory exercise for the imminent floods. But no construction or repair activity took place in the dry season in Lakhimpur at all this time, owing to a clash between contractors and the forest department over royalties. Contractors employing earth excavated from forest areas in embankment-construction work are legally bound to pay royalty to the district forest department.

By the time construction was resumed at the end of March, the first batch of pre-monsoons rains already arrived, said Rahul Bora, a contractor. Lakhimpur’s deputy collector, Barun Bhuyan, also confirmed that construction had been late to begin this year.

The embankment on the left bank of the river, which got breached this year, runs for a length of 27 kilometres. In 2014, too, the embankment at Amtala was breached at the almost exactly the same spot. “Nine years, they haven’t been able to complete a 27-km stretch,” rued Ali. “And the breach happened at two places this time.”

Relief camps at an under-contraction by-pass road connecting Lakhimpur town with the soon-to-be-completed Bogibeel bridge.
Relief camps at an under-contraction by-pass road connecting Lakhimpur town with the soon-to-be-completed Bogibeel bridge.

Blame game

With public anger against the embankment breach boiling over in the district, the district administration and the contractors are blaming each other. Lakhimpur’s district collector Bhuyan, conceding that there is “public resentment”, blamed the contractors for the debacle. “It’s completely their fault,” Bhuyan told Scroll.in. “The state government had released its share of 30% funds, but the Centre hasn’t because the work not yet fully complete. They should have completed the work ahead of the rains.” According to the arrangement of the project, the Central government is supposed to release its share only when 55% of the work is completed, something that Bhuyan claimed, the companies contracted haven’t done.

The Assam Water Resources Contractors’ Association, a body of the state’s embankment-building contractors, has stood defiant, maintaining that the Union government didn’t release funds on time even though they had completed almost 80% of the job.

‘It will come again’

Meanwhile, queries about relief activities in the affected areas elicited a range of responses, from extreme dissatisfaction to “the government couldn’t have done more”. In Amtala, people complained about the state government’s intervention being lacklusture. “We did get rice, pulses and salt once, but nothing after that,” said Ganesh Hazarika. “The NGOs have been giving us water and food, though.”

Lakhimpur is currently teeming with volunteers from non-profits, both local and international, assisting affected people in the many submerged parts of the district.

Hazarika said that the state government was much more swift and pro-active in 2014, the last time the Ranganadi had breached the embankment at Amtala. “What we really need are tarpaulin sheets to protect the cows,” he said. “We have already lost so many of them. There is so much talk about gau-mata. Don’t our cows matter?”

However, in Bogoleejaan revenue circle – the other location of the breach – people said the government had commendably stepped in, providing food and other relief materials. “We’d be lying if we said the government hasn’t done enough,” said Bulbul Ali, currently residing in a state-government administered relief camp in the district.

As of Tuesday evening, more than 15,000 people in the district have been affected by floods and over 1000 people are still lodged in relief camps. At least 11 people – the highest among all flood-affected districts in the state – and more than 5,000 animals have died.

Lakhimpur’s story is not unique – embankments have been breached in many other places. In Morigaon district, damage to an embankment resulted in the inundating of over a dozen villages. It is a story that repeats every monsoon. People living close to the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries anticipate the floods, and prepare themselves too. They stock up on food, move livestock to safer ground. Yet, the floods leave a leave a trail of devastation almost every year inevitably. Often, the damage is exacerbated by embankments that breach only too easily. The death toll this year has already reached 65, and more than 500,000 people have been affected so far.

The worst is probably over for the year for Lakhimpur’s people. But as Keramat Ali of Bogoleeejan said: “It will come again. Will the embankment be complete by then?”

This is the first in a two-part series on the floods in Assam. Read the second part on the Ranganadi dam here.