Explained! Why Assam’s Floods Do Not Get The Status of ‘National Calamity’
The annual floods unfailingly batter the state of Assam year after year with alarming regularity. This has been no different. Despite this, the floods find no mention in mainstream media nor does it draw any sympathy from the central government. The problem uniquely remains Assam’s and Assam’s only.
All the hue and cry by various pressure groups to treat the same as a National Calamity have fallen on deaf ears.
G Plus attempts to elaborate why, despite the annual disaster perpetrated in the state of Assam, the floods have failed to qualify as a national calamity.
Flood and erosion
These two natural calamities have been wreaking havoc in the state of Assam year after year. Even as the state continues to deal with the surge in Covid pandemic cases, the government and the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) is forced to balance its resources between the three big catastrophes that have hit the state together.
While the Covid-19 crisis has been accepted as a pandemic worldwide as also in the nation, the annual miseries compounded by the other two calamities are limited to the state. Apart from the regular funding that is kept aside by the Centre (often insufficient), Assam, at times, sees meager donations from a few ‘celebrities’ and others who decide to throw crumbs at the northeastern state.
Keeping aside the previous years, even in the current year, while the pandemic has affected the lives of thousands, the annual floods have already marooned many areas without succor. While the Covid death toll is 50 (as on 16th July), the death numbers for flood and erosion are at 71 and 28 respectively.
Leave aside the rest of the state, the flood havoc caused in the Kaziranga National Park, home to two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino population and different species of birds and animals, and the gradually decreasing landmass of the world’s largest riverine island Majuli (that has reportedly been reduced to less than half of its actual size) due to erosion, has failed to acquire the sympathy of the Centre.
So despite millions being affected every year, neither flood nor erosion is called ‘National Calamity.’
What is a National Disaster or National Calamity?
As per the Disaster Management Act, 2005, “disaster” means a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.
A natural disaster includes an earthquake, flood, landslide, cyclone, tsunami, urban flood, heatwave; a man-made disaster can be nuclear, biological, and chemical.
How can Assam’s problems be considered a disaster?
There is no provision under law to declare a natural calamity as a “national calamity or national disaster.” Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister of State, once replied to a question in Parliament, “The existing guidelines of State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF)/National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF), do not contemplate declaring a disaster as a ‘National Calamity’”.
The 10th Finance Commission (1995-2000) examined a proposal that a disaster be termed “a national calamity of rarest severity” if it affects one-third of the population of a state, but the same was not elaborately defined.
Although in 2001, the National Committee on Disaster Management, under the leadership of the Prime Minister, was mandated to look into parameters to define ‘national calamity’, no fixed criterion was decided.
Levels of disaster
The National Disaster Management Plan 2016, published by the National Disaster Management Authority, categorises disasters into three levels – L1, L2 and L3, based on “the vulnerability of disaster-affected area, and the capacity of the authorities to deal with the situation.”
Level L1: The level of disaster that can be managed within the capabilities and resources at the district level. However, the state authorities will remain in readiness to provide assistance if needed.
Level L2: The level of disaster which requires assistance and active mobilisation of resources at the state level. At this level, the state is required to deploy its agencies for disaster management. The central agencies must remain vigilant for immediate deployment if required by the state.
Level L3: This corresponds to a nearly catastrophic situation or a very large-scale disaster that goes beyond the response capacity of the state and district authorities.
Relief measures and solutions expected if declared National Disaster:
-National support to the state from NDRF
-Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) is set up, with the corpus shared 3:1 between Centre and state.
-National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF), funded 100% by the Centre, when resources of CRF proves inadequate.
-Grant of concessional loans to people affected if the disaster is declared ‘severe’.
AASU demands Assam’s flood and erosion problem to be declared as ‘national problem’
Over the years, various organisations of Assam have been pleading with the Centre and making demands that these issues be treated or given the status of ‘National Disaster.’ The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has been demanding the state’s flood and erosion issues to be declared as ‘national problem’ ever since the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 and determined a permanent solution to the problems under Clause 7 of the Accord.
Speaking to a leading daily, Samujjal Bhattacharya, Chief Advisor of AASU said, “In 2005, following a tripartite meeting to review the implementation of the Assam Accord, the Centre made an announcement declaring flood as a national problem, but nothing happened on the ground.”
In the Assam Vision Document 2016-25, the current ruling party had laid special emphasis on “flood and erosion control.” However, in 2019, Rattan Lala Kataria, the Minister of State for Jal Shakti and Social Justice and Empowerment, replying to a question by Biswajit Daimary, MP, Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), in the Rajya Sabha said, “Assam flood cannot be considered as a national disaster.”