The Numbers that Numb
Published: August 11, 2016
IN JOURNALISM schools and writing seminars across the world they coach you to bring out the human element in a tragedy, to go beyond mere numbers. But what do you do when the numbers are so overwhelming? 34 persons have died in floods that have hit Assam in 29 of its 32 districts.
Over 35 lakh people have been affected, more than five lakh people moved into over 500 relief camps. The damage is not limited to just humans. 80 per cent of the Kaziranga National Park was inundated with water, leading to the death of at least 310 wild animals, including 25 rhinos and 221 hog deer.
Map of Assam and its neighbours
The human story is even darker. Abdul Kalam Azad, a social worker, who works for sustainability in the river islands, narrates this conversation with a Char (river island) dweller Atowar Rahman.
Azad: How is the flood situation in your area? Rahman: Oh flood? It's medium, not much. Azad: Has water from Brahmaputra inundated your Char? Rahman: Yes. Azad: Your house? Rahman: Water has just reached the floor of our new house. Azad: Oh! And others? Rahman: Most of the cattle are shifted to the platform. A few families have also moved to the camps. Azad: And what about the southern platform? Rahman: A few houses have been recently washed away by flood and erosion. They are taking shelter there. Azad: Is the water level increasing? Rahman: Yes, slowly it is rising.
Rahman lives on a river island in Barpeta district in lower Assam. His nonchalance comes from endurance. Last year the flood had washed away his house. This year it has only been submerged. They get food grain as immediate relief, but no compensation or long term rehabilitation programme.
In Barpeta I met a 65 year-old-man who had to rebuild his house 17 times after it was washed away by the mighty Brahmaputra. Over the last 10 years more than 30 revenue villages were lost to the river. In Dibrugarh district, four square kilometers of agricultural land has been gobbled in this year's flood. In the last couple of decades this district has lost over 38 revenue villages, schools and tea gardens to the river.
According to an interim report submitted to the Home Minister, Brahmaputra valley is one of the most hazard-prone regions of the country. More than 40 per cent of its land is susceptible to flood damage. In the last 50 years, Assam has already lost 7% land to soil erosion in the state's 17 riverine districts. Despite knowing that Brahmaputra is chipping away at the land, response by successive governments, has been tardy at best. Over Rs 30,000 crore has been spent on making embankments, but most of it turns out to be either insufficient or, at times, even counterproductive.