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Sink or Swim: Can NEWMA Tackle Flood and Erosion in the Northeast?

By: Rajeev Bhattacharya

Last Updated: August 13, 2020, 17:34 IST

Flood-affected people take shelter at a temporary structure near their submerged house along Brahmaputra river in Morigaon district, Assam, on July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Flood-affected people take shelter at a temporary structure near their submerged house along Brahmaputra river in Morigaon district, Assam, on July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

NEWMA’S objective is to chart a new trajectory in the region by overcoming the hurdles faced by the Brahmaputra Board.

Decks have been cleared for the creation of a new statutory agency for tackling the twin dangers of flood and erosion in the crisis-prone Northeast.

A bill will be tabled in the next session of Parliament for establishing the North East Water Management Authority (NEWMA) which will replace the Brahmaputra Board.

The board, however, will not be dissolved as planned earlier but merged with the new body following certain changes incorporated into NEWMA’s charter over the past three months.

The amendments were based on the recommendations of some chief ministers from the Northeast at a conclave in the capital in March ahead of the lockdown.

“NEWMA will be a more powerful agency and cooperative body. All the NE states are to be represented in the governing council,” said Rajiv Yadav, chairperson of Brahmaputra Board, who has also been tasked to head the executive board of NEWMA as the first chairperson.

With headquarters in Guwahati, NEWMA’S objective is to chart a new trajectory in the region by overcoming the hurdles faced by the Brahmaputra Board. It will have a governing council with the minister of Jal Shakti as the chairperson and the post of the vice-chairperson moving in rotation among the Northeast chief ministers in alphabetical order.

NEWMA has been modeled on the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) with the power to raise financial resources for the schemes to be implemented. And similar to NHAI, there will be an executive board for implementation of the projects across the region where the opinion of all the Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils would be given importance.

The constitution of a more efficient agency in lieu of Brahmaputra Board was mooted one-and-a-half decades ago during the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. But the initiative failed to make headway following opposition from some Northeast states. Arunachal Pradesh, in particular, was apprehensive that such an agency would override its concerns and views on schemes designed to check flood and erosion.

More meetings were convened during the second UPA regime without any result. The project was fast-tracked from 2017 after a high-level committee headed by the vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog submitted a detailed report spelling out the role and function of NEWMA.

Why Was Brahmaputra Board Crippled?

The Brahmaputra Board’s failures stem from a combination of factors which was allowed to drag for many years without any ameliorative measures by the government.

It is incredible but true that not a single project begun by the board could actually be completed. The best example is the controversial Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project in Arunachal Pradesh where problems faced in land acquisition had put the scheme in limbo for many years till it was handed over to NHPC Ltd.

Officials said that the Brahmaputra Board was unable to forge inter-state cooperation considered imperative for the completion of such jumbo projects. Other states in the region considered the board as being biased in favour of Assam.

During the formative phase after the agency was constituted in 1981, there was a severe crunch of technical manpower since experts were reluctant to shift from other parts of the country to Guwahati due to the disturbed conditions in Assam.

Some former officials of the Brahmaputra Board underscored that it was never granted financial independence. Till 1999, no construction activity was entrusted to the agency. It was tasked to compile reports for multipurpose hydroelectric projects, drainage schemes and preparation of master plans of the Brahmaputra, Barak and other tributaries.

“The board was engaged with implementation of projects post 1999 but the quantum of such work was smaller than the schemes executed by the state governments. It could take up only those projects which were requested by the state governments and for which the Centre was willing to provide funds,” said former secretary of the Brahmaputra Board DJ Borgohain.

Will NEWMA Be Effective?

For the government, tackling flood and erosion in Assam has meant repetition of the same policies every year – repair of embankments, approaching the Centre for funds and occasionally briefing the media on the controversies that erupt over the allocation and implementation of the schemes.

What is, however, certain is that the situation in Assam and other regions in the Northeast ravaged by flood and erosion have not improved over the past several decades. It has only turned worse with the increase of population and encroachments.

Some experts on these issues are certain that NEWMA could be hamstrung with the same set of problems if the approach and strategy are not amended.

“ NEWMA is welcome but we hope it will not end up like the ineffectual Brahmaputra Board. A holistic framework fixated on research and development based on latest solutions should replace the current piecemeal and temporary solutions of Porcupines, geo-bags, etc, used only on guesswork. Capacity building focused on modern advanced technology should pivot the continuing process for the new agency,” said Prof Nayan Sharma.

Doubts have also been raised on whether NEWMA would be able to earn revenue since there is hardly any scope to generate income from flood-control and anti-erosion schemes. Income generation could be possible through the hydroelectric projects that have been planned but they could take years to complete given the problem of land acquisition and the long procedure that such projects have to undergo before being executed.

DJ Borgohain is apprehensive that Assam could be deprived of its due if all the states have an equal stake in NEWMA. “It is necessary to understand that more than 90 per cent of the flood and erosion problem in the Northeast lies in Assam. Therefore, it appears like an exercise that will enable the government to say ‘Look, we have created NEWMA which will solve your flood and erosion problem’. So, it looks like another political move to fool the people for some more time and then blame NEWMA for its failure to deliver,” he said.

Borgohain has drawn attention to certain grey areas that could impact the role and function of NEWMA. He explained that most of the projects on flood and erosion are executed by the state governments since water is a state subject. “So what will be the role of the state governments now after NEWMA becomes functional? Will water be moved to the central list?” he asked.

A few days ago, Assam minister for water resources and science and technology Keshab Mahanta told this correspondent that the 15th Finance Commission had agreed to include the expenditure on anti-erosion projects which means enhanced allocation of funds from the Centre and increase in the schemes undertaken by the state government.

(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati. Views expressed are personal)