Waste and clogged drains: A week’s rainfall brings Guwahati to its knees

AS THE sun shone on Sunday, after nearly a week of incessant rainfall, Guwahati – the largest city of the Northeast – sprang back to life: traffic was back on its arterial roads, customers thronged its many restaurants and cafes, and shops opened shutters.

However, Anil Nagar, a residential locality in the heart of the city, continued to be a picture of disarray. Submerged in water for nearly a week, a steady trickle of harried residents on rickshaws, suitcases into tow, made their way out of the low-lying locality to safer ground.

As three large machines pump floodwaters from the locality into the nearby Bharalu-Bahini – the city’s main river that drains into the Brahmaputra – Sunil Roy, 66-year-old businessman and long-time resident of Anil Nagar, said he thought the “worst was over” when the rainfall abated for a while on Saturday. “But it rained again this morning, and we are flooded,” he said, wading through murky brown knee-deep water, filled with plastic waste. Roy said he is particularly worried that the guard-wall built along the Bharalu river will give away, and send a gush of water into the area.

Incessant rainfall caused localities such as Rukminigaon to also be inundated for most part of the week. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Years ago, the dynamic river was a natural connection between the city and the Brahmaputra, but it has now turned into a stagnant clogged drain, carrying the city’s waste. A few months ago, a part of the guard wall had broken. In the current spell of rain, cracks had appeared — along it, sacks of cement have been lined to withstand the pressure of the water. “If this breaks, then we are finished,” Roy said.

Floods in Assam arrive like a clockwork every year. As does the accompanying devastation. Currently, nearly 43 lakh people across 33 districts of the state are affected, as the Brahmaputra ominously flows above the danger level. On Sunday, the state’s disaster management authority reported nine more deaths, taking up the total death toll this year to 71.

However, in Guwahati, it is not the Brahmaputra, but artificial floods caused by heavy rainfall that have been wreaking havoc in the past week. On June 13, as rain battered the city, residents were advised to stay indoors, and schools were closed by the Kamrup (Metro) district administration. Since then, not only have low-lying parts of the city (Anil Nagar, Nabin Nagar, Tarun Nagar) has been almost entirely submerged, landslides have been reported in the hills surrounding the city. On a hill in the city’s Boragaon area, a landslide claimed the lives of four laborers, burying them alive while they were asleep.

On a hill in the city’s Boragaon area, a landslide claimed the lives of four laborers, burying them alive while they were asleep. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Incessant rainfall caused localities such as Rukminigaon and Hatigaon, which would witness the occasional flash floods, to also be inundated for most part of the week. “It has never been this bad… There is usually a bit of water, but it disappears in a couple of hours. This year it is unlike ever before,” said Kanika Biswas, a domestic worker in the Rukminigaon.

Shaped like a trough, Guwahati has been traditionally prone to waterlogging, but residents said the devastation this year is reminiscent of 2014 and 2017, when the city saw a similar episode.

For the past week, residents of several localities have been rescued by NDRF and SDRF boats, and moved to relief centers in the city. “We have tried to respond as quickly as possible – when the rain started, we put out helplines, closed schools and issued advisories,” said Kamrup (Metro) DC Pallav Gopal Jha. He admitted that reaching out to each and every stranded resident was a challenge because not everyone wanted to come to a relief camp. “But we got the Guwahati Municipal councillors, as well as city-based NGOs involved — and we were able to reach out to ward-wise people.”

Partha Jyoti Das, who heads the Water, Climate and Hazard Division of the Guwahati-based environment non-profit Aaranyak, said, at one point, the city had systems of “natural drainage and storage” in the form of rivulets (like the Bharalu ) and wetlands (or beels such as the Silsako Beel), but both were “steadily destroyed”. Drains have been clogged with plastic waste… unlike before the Bharalu does not have water-carrying capacity, and there has been rampant construction on wetlands,” he said. “So, there is no way for the water to escape.”

For example, settlements such as Anil Nagar and Nabin Nagar were earlier low-lying grasslands and wetlands — but by the 1980s, most of this land was occupied by people, and built on. Civil engineer JN Khataniar, who is the technical adviser to the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority, also pointed out the “massive unauthorized human habitation” in the surrounding hills of Guwahati, where there is “earth cutting and deforestation”.

When it rains, the water flows down from the hills, carrying a lot of silt, which in turn, clogs up drains. Moreover, scores of landlides have marked the city in the past week. In a hill in Boragon, 21-year-old Shivam Sarkar said he woke up last week when he heard a “loud sound”. “We immediately checked on the laborers, who live next door. But they did not respond,” he said. “We then saw that a part of the hill had caved in and they were dead inside.”

Sarkar and his family have now moved to a neighbor’s home. “We are scared — we have lived here for many years but never thought something like this would happen,” he said.

In the Navagraha hills, a 30-year-old woman, who has now moved to a relief camp because her home is in a high risk area, admitted that homes in the hills had been built in a “haphazard manner”. “But people do not do it on purpose. Many come to Guwahati from villages to earn a livelihood. They have no choice. Wherever they see land, they build,” she said.

After the 2014 floods, the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government, had tried to address the issue. “Pumping capacity had increased 10 fold, 14-15 km link drains were provided,” said MGVK Bhanu, a retired bureaucrat, who was associated with the Guwahati Development department. However, none of this was sustained.

“The main issue is that even if a system to address it is created, it is not maintained properly,” Bhanu, who had unsuccessfully contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket, said.

In the last week, the Opposition has hit out at the BJP government. Congress chief Bhupen Borah led a rally to protest against the state government’s alleged apathy to flash floods. Sivasagar MLA Akhil Gogoi, who also visited flood-affected localities, tweeted: “A city of many promises has been destroyed by willful or no planning, lack of vision, political inefficiency and ineffective technical resolution. When our government will wake up to save the citizens of Guwahati from the mayhem of artificial floods?”

Assam Housing and Urban Affairs Department Minister Ashok Singhal said the government had done a lot of “interventions”, including de-silting the river in the last eight months.

“In a phased manner, we will work out alternative drainage routes, increased pumping, as well as water harvesting,” he said, adding that the situation was “100 per cent” because of the increase in rainfall in the past week. “123 mm of rain is overnight. The volume of water was so high that the main river channel was unable to carry the water…so this kind of situation is obvious.”

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In Anil Nagar, resident Pradip Barman disagreed. “To an extent, yes, people are responsible and so is the rain. But you cannot blame the rain gods alone — it is high time a proper long-term plan is made,” he said.

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