The Prime Minister of India has just announced a Rs.2000 crore relief package to deal with the damage caused by the devastating floods have impacted the northeast region of India since mid-June, particularly the states of Assam, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. The floods escaped media attention for quite some time, as is want of events that take place in the North-East of India.
The region regularly receives torrential rain during the monsoon season, and has experienced severe flooding as recently as 2016. Despite this, no real measures have been taken to address the impact of these rains in the long term, and assistance from the government is slow and inadequate. At the time of writing this statement, over 17 lakh people have been displaced, more than 3000 villages remain underwater, and nearly 100 persons have perished due to drowning or electrocution while still more remain missing in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys.
Assam is the worst affected region, with over 2000 villages submerged and 1 lakh hectares of crops destroyed. Arunachal Pradesh is nearly cut off from the rest of the country, with its capital city of Itanagar isolated due to the near-complete erosion of its main connecting road. Manipur has suffered a double blow, with nearly 1 million people being displaced and a significant part of its lower valley completely submerged.
According to the information received from the United NGOs Mission, Manipur, AHRC’s partner organisation, the main reasons behind the sustained damage this monsoon are the numerous dams built illegally in the area. Most of the hydropower projects and dams being built at this time have not been subjected to Environmental Impact Assessments(EIA) in accordance with the law. Governmental organizations such as the North Eastern Electric Power Coorporation (NEEPCO) and the National Hydroelectric Power Coorporation(NHPC), both of which regulate the operations of these projects, have been criminally negligent in their handling of the same. The North-east Dialogue Forum has called for decommissioning of these hydro projects in the region, alleging that they have received information that no EIA, human rights impact assessment or cumulative impact assessment was conducted before the Ranganadi dam was built in Arunachal Pradesh in 2002.
The NHPC failed to open the gates of the Ithai barrage in Manipur immediately after it overflowed, causing more flooding in the surrounding regions. NEEPCO also ordered the opening of the Ranganadi Dam in Arunachal Pradesh on July 9, 2017 which was constructed without obtaining clearances under the Environment Protection Act or the Indian Forests Act. This was done without following the procedures of prior intimation or early warning system to alert the locals and concerned authorities. This soon caused damage to human lives, livestock, and crops, including over 20,000 hectares of paddy. The district of Lakhimpur, which served as a catchment area for water released from the dam, was severely affected, with more than 200 homes being submerged, displacing the families that lived within. According to NEEPCO, the presence of the Ranganadi dam minimisedthe impact of the floods but activists and locals in the area claim otherwise.
A few other projects which are illegal or which will cause severe damage must also be closed. The first is the Pare Hydro Dam in Manipur, which is upstream from a large community settlement that will be affected if the dam overflows, which is a likely scenario in the next monsoon. The second is the Loktak Hydro Power Project, which has also commenced without the relevant approvals of both the State and Central Government, nor the completion of an Environmental Impact Assessment.
The floods have also caused landslides, which are resulting in a heavy loss of human life in these hilly regions. Apart from the loss of life and shelter, residents in the region also face a heavy loss of livelihood in the aftermath of these floods. Fishing and agriculture, two of the main sources of income for residents, are both severely impacted by flash floods and torrential rain. The available data suggeststhat the frequency of floods has increased from one annually to three, leaving the people in the area facing a nearly permanent threat to their life, homes, and livelihood.
The floods have also impacted the fauna and flora of the region, particularly Kaziranga National Park, with over 80% of the park being covered in water. Several species which are the target of international conservation efforts have been affected, most noteworthy being the death of the park’s most rare and famous inhabitant, a one-horned rhinoceros.
It is essential that the Central Government ensures that affected persons have access to adequate food and water for the duration of their displacement. Even more essential is the need for effective long-term measures to be put into place, so that this level of devastation and displacement does not take place again. The Central and State Government must work together to immediately identify those dams and power projects which have commenced in violation of environmental protection laws. The illegal construction of dams or other structures which have such a detrimental impact on the environmental must immediately be ceased until such time as the assessments as per law is conducted by an independent agency. Further, adequate warning systems must be in place after rigorous testing to ensure that no water is released from a dam without warning to the surrounding population.