I’ve known rivers
Dusky, ancient rivers
Night fell on the skyline Silchar. By then, the mighty Barak had made its way through Assam’s second-largest urban conglomeration. The breached part of an important embankment was filled with turbid waters. Three-fourths (27-kilometres) of Silchar’s landmass had been submerged. The Barak was flowing at a speed of 1.5 meters above the danger zone. The waters rose fast and thick to make the despair and doom worse.
In the heart of the town, euphemistically known as the “posh” enclave, where the real estate prices are perhaps some of the highest in the country, 18 families including ours were huddled in a five-storey housing complex to see before our disbelieving eyes how ravaging the river could be. The day began on a positive note, despite the fact that reports of water entering low-lying areas of town started to come in the previous night. Incessant rains were common over the past few days. The town’s old residents tried to recall whether they had ever seen such severe downpours in Barak Valley.
Weather offices confirmed that Assam had recorded 858.1mm of June rains, surpassing the 1966 record of 789.5mm. Flash floods had also struck Silchar in 1966, according to statistics. In order to put the situation in perspective, the first time the government decided to build embankments along Barak to protect Silchar from floods was after the 1966 disaster. From the Sixties to the Eighties, various dykes were constructed along the river’s course.
Due to floods in the Barak Valley, and Silchar in particular, which are caused by heavy rains upstream and around Manipur, Mizoram, and Manipur, the entire Barak Valley has always been at risk. The documented history contains information on the massive flooding of 1916, 1929. The Valley also experienced minor floods on other occasions. Two important memoirs provide partial accounts of the 1929 deluge. Both come from Silcharer Kadcha, Kaliprasanna Bhattacharjee’s Silchar Diary. Amitabha dev Choudhury (2008) and Sundari Mohan Das’s report on the great floods in 1929, both published in the famous Bengali periodical, Prabasi. Ramananda Chatterjee edited the report in the same year. We learn of the extent of destruction caused by the river systems in the Barak-Surma Twin Valley. The similarity between the two great floods, separated by seven-years-less-than-a-century, mainly lies in the fact that both the Surma and the Kushiyara rivers in Sylhet were equally in spate as the Barak. Both natural disasters also occurred in June. Bhattacharjee’s memoirs, which include archival photos and his narration, show how water flowed at the first-storey elevation along the Central Road to Silchar. Many horror stories relate to corpses floating in the water. It was all death, squalor, and devastation. This was 1929. This was India under British control. At that time, the Barak did not have any dykes in place to slow the rising waters.
Ninety-nine years later, residents of a middle class housing society felt a chill when the waters began to rise up the stairs leading to the first floor. Sukumari Apartment on the ground floor, a 15 year-old building, was already submerged. The building is located at the southern Assam headquarters for the indomitable Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Five steps of the staircase were submerged by marauding waters that had filled the lift shaft. The water level was only four inches above the central power panel of this housing society. As the APDCL office disconnected power supply for fear of short circuits, the whole area was plunged into darkness.
It was the beginning of our struggle to survive, just like the other Silcharites. The fury of nature was brutal for the town, which had its municipal administration started in 1882. The town’s residents were still reeling from the trauma of the first floods, which occurred just a month earlier. The connectivity and communication systems went downhill. Already, the May floods caused by torrential rains in Dima Hasao had thrown everything out of whack. The May mayhem had halted rail communication in Lumding-Badarpur on the North East Frontier Railway. The surface transport system was also shut down due to the severe landslides that occurred on the national highway in Meghalaya. After the Valley was under siege with its beleaguered inhabitants, the second round came.
Our overhead tank was rapidly running out of water. Inverter batteries were being dried inside the flats. Mobile towers weren’t working. Internet connectivity suffered because there was no electricity available to power the modems. The use of candles and lanterns has been long forgotten by the middle class. Kerosene is no longer a light fuel. Asphyxiating nights were common in the Silchar marooned. As the sky was filled with dark, heavy clouds, and the meteorological office forecasting more rains, we heard stories of people drowning. The visuals of abandoned bodies seeking a piece of land reminded us of the 1929 anecdotes.
The government machinery got activated to look for the “miscreants” who had dug the dyke. Local media reports that a canal was cut through the embankment in May 22nd, in response to floods. This canal would allow stagnant waters to flow into the Mahisha Bel (a natural reservoir in which the town canals offload water back to the river since there wasn’t a gate). It was not secret that the locals had broken the dyke. It was already known and the line agencies had been kept informed. It would have been easy to fill the canal with water and repair the dyke in the remaining 20 days of the interregnum. However, that was not the case. Both those who attacked the protection of the town and the ones who almost oversaw it were convinced that the problem with the inundation of the catchment had a solution. The development was known to the ruling class of the district. It appears that none of them knew what Silchar was going to get. But the disaster was a “manmade one”, they began to say, when the deluge set in.
The name of an otherwise obscure location — “Bethukandi” where the dyke had been breached — suddenly became a global cynosure as the people who did the damage to the dyke and the majority of the townsfolk swept by the floods belong to two different communities. The flood waters will recede and life will rebuild its losses. Any pains will be forgotten in the history books. Elections will come. And, unfortunately, they will usher in a new tagline — flood jihad. It is hoped that the state that failed the river guard will save the social fabric.
The writer is an associate professor and head for economics at Cachar College under Assam University Silchar