Flood, Displacement and Politics: The Assam Chapter

Floods and river bank erosion is a deadly menace for millions of people, specifically for the marginalised population in Assam. Assam can only progress by solving the perennial flood problem of the state. This paper shows how the natural disaster and the resultant internal displacements of people have been used to fan the exclusionary politics of citizenship in Assam.


Habibur Rahman, a 33-year-old farmer, was dismantling the huts of his home in an unprecedented panic-driven urgency. The Aai river[1] which was more than one km away from his home last year, was rapidly eroding the houses and lands of Nepalpara village of Chirang district, Assam, and was approaching the home of Rahman very fast. His dwelling consisted of three huts made of tin, bamboo and cement pillars. Among them was a kitchen, a hut for his parents and another one where he stayed with his wife and four children. He could dismantle only one of his huts and shift it to higher ground before the river swallowed his entire land together with his home. Everything his family ever earned over successive generations disappeared within a few hours. Without help from his kinship and social networks, as all the villagers were busy rescuing their own homes and struggling with their miseries, only some of the household items he possessed could be shifted to safety.

 Underdevelopment is glaring in many sectors of Assam, such as education, health, general infrastructure, and the economy, even after seven decades of independence. Flood and the extensive damages caused by it is one of the most prominent sectors that testifies to the significant failure of the state to control them. Flood management in the state started systemically in 1954[2]. Much water has flown down the Brahmaputra, but neither the flood has come under control, nor the damages caused by the flood have been sufficiently managed. This raises serious questions about the quality and sincerity of the efforts put in by successive governments so far. Though catastrophic flood is recurrent, the state has never made an adequate attempt to bring up necessary infrastructures to meet these yearly episodes of extreme misery and inexplicable suffering of the masses. Over the years, some elements have been identified that enhance the damage, but those elements have remained uncontrolled. A significant part of this paper is based on the fieldwork carried out in 2020.  

Flood in Assam is a yearly phenomenon which remains strongly visible throughout the state from May to September. Several zones of the state witness up to five waves of flood a year. The impact of flood in the state, which we will discuss in the following subsections, is multi-dimensional ranging from economy,  infrastructure, and society to even the citizenship of the marginalised people. The effect of flood and erosion on the citizenship of the marginalised people exposes how some in the garb of disaster management tend to exploit the human conditions under distress further. These examples of heightened discrimination during a disaster are not limited to Assam. In Odisha, during cyclone Fani, which made landfall in May 2019, Dalits were denied shelter in the relief camps by the upper castes amid the deadly storm (Chari 2019). The discrimination against the Dalits remained intense in the state, even during the relief and rehabilitation process (Patra 2019). Also, during the COVID-19 outbreak in India, communal polarisation and prejudices against Muslims became rampant, and they were targeted, and many were physically assaulted in several places ( Gettleman et al. 2020; Varadarajan 2020).    

Flood and its Impact

Flood is immensely painful and leaves unequal effects on different social groups. The impact is all the more devastating on the people who are abysmally poor and marginalised. About 75% people of Assam are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture [3]. Destruction of the standing crops due to floods brings penury to hundreds and thousands of people in the state (Saikia 2019). The flood-affected areas, especially the chars of Assam, showcase a gloomy picture. Flood is so deadly that it inundates everything, including homes, paddy fields, schools, roads, and burial/funeral grounds. Bridges and roads are washed away in many instances, which severely disrupts road communications in the state.

When water inundates people's houses, they shift to makeshift camps, primarily on embankments or higher grounds.   In such makeshift camps privacy of people, especially that of women, is compromised. Defecation of the victim, especially of women, is a significant issue during floods because everything, including the toilet, remains inundated during the flood. People have no access to necessities such as drinking water, food and even a place to sleep or rest. People in Assam mostly get their drinking water from tube wells or wells.

In most cases, tube wells or wells are entirely inundated, and the state leaves the affected people with no option but to drink the muddy and polluted flood water. In some instances, the water the flood-affected masses drink is unclean and unhygienic to the extent that dead bodies of livestock can be seen floating in and around the drinking water sources. In char areas during a natural disaster, people often hardly find space for even the burial of dead bodies. Many face scarcity of jobs and food, leading to hunger (Hussain 2022). Consequent to such awful developments, divergent infections and water-borne diseases surface among the people, not to mention quality medical attention is a distant cry for most of them. Many people survive, while some die without any accountability.

The flood-induced complications are not only limited to human beings but also livestock and wild-lives. Scores of endangered rhinoceroses die every year due to the flood in the Kaziranga national park. Countless families lose their livestock during the flood. In Assam, many people are dependent on fish farming. During the flood, fishes from ponds move out due to overflowing. This results in heavy losses to the owners. Tonkeshwar Gogoi, a farmer in distress belonging to Mridongpara village of Tinsukia district, says,

“I took some loan from the informal financial sector and invested about 1.5 lakh rupees in my pond. I was primarily dependent on fish farming. This year all the fish are gone because of the flood. The land I farmed is also washed away, and now I do not know what to do.” [4]

These losses are irreversible, and the sense of victimhood is very difficult to comprehend if not experienced or seen personally. Though every year, flood pushes many thousands into the deep trench of poverty, in 2022, it rendered heavy losses to the people and economy of the state. Recently, in 2020  the effect of the flood was highly catastrophic, for the pandemic situation was already taking a severe toll on the economy and livelihood of people, especially the underprivileged. Flood brings a series of miseries along with it. River-bank erosion is one of the most devastating elements that surface with the rising water level. After the earthquake of 1950, river-bank erosions have ominously increased in Assam[5]. River-bank erosion occurs not only during the flood but also during winter when rainfall is relatively low in Assam. In 2020, though by September flood situation was somewhat subsidised in Assam, in a village called Koriyoni Nepaligaon of Tezpur district, the Jiyabharali river eroded more than hundred Bigha farmland, 25 homes along with hundreds of trees [6]. Another place, Rohmoriya, in the Dibrugarh district, has witnessed persistent erosion (See Lahiri and Borgohain 2011). These incidents of river bank erosion are not isolated and are commonplace in many places, especially in the state's char (mid-channel bars) areas. 

Displacement and IDPs

In many cases, people get displaced multiple times a year and several more times during their lifetime. For instance, Fuleshwari Bora a 67 years old lady from sobansiri gunahoti area of the Lakhimpur district, claimed that she got displaced sixth time in her life because of the flood [7]. Many a time, villages vanish overnight due to river bank erosion. These recurrent river-bank erosions in the state have displaced thousands of people, and the number is continuously increasing. Till date, the government has not shown any willingness to rehabilitate the internally displaced persons (IDPs) induced by river-bank erosion. Displacement is harrowing. According to Cernea (2000), displacement brings a series of risks, including— homelessness, landlessness, joblessness, food insecurity, marginalisation, loss of access to common property and services and social disarticulation. In the context of Assam, such displacements risk one's citizenship, especially when the displaced person belongs to Miya ethnic group. 

While all the risks that emanate from displacement are vexatious, landlessness is the most challenging for the marginalised people dependent on agriculture. Government hardly allots land patta to the landless people of the state, a consequence of which Assam has emerged as a state with a massive army of landless people. The number of landless people in the state is extraordinarily high, not for the government does not have land to allot to the landless people. However, the priority of the government is misplaced. For instance, the government has allotted land to Baba Ramdev in at least two places in the state. In the Chirang district of western Assam alone, more than 3800 hectares of land were given to the Patanjali trust of Ramdev [8].  In another instance, Baba Ramdev's Patanjali was given at least 150 acres of land in the Sonitpur district of Assam [9]. These examples of land allocations to capitalists signify that landless people of Assam have remained landless not because of the scarcity of land but because of the government's apathy to help its needy people. The government's indifference is due to different reasons, including stereotyping and discrimination. Not to mention, these landless people mostly belong to marginalised groups who cannot even voice their plights.

Displacement and citizenship

While landlessness brings a whole range of complications to the IDPs, the Miya Muslims of western Assam face an additional problem that surfaces with displacement—i.e. the problem of citizenship. When these IDPs of western Assam, especially from chars, migrate to different places of eastern Assam to eke out a living, those IDPs are harassed, stereotyped and prejudiced as "illegal immigrants" or as "Bangladeshis" (Chakraborty 2012; Siddique 2019). Chauvinists and a significant section of majoritarian political elites, among others, regularly do take part in this process of stereotyping in Assam. A significant section of electronic and print media partners in this atrocious practice of targeting and vilifying the Miya ethnic group of Assam. For Instance, Assam Tribune, the leading English newspaper of Assam, carried out a report on August 25 2020, titled, "Illegal migrants encroach upon thousands of bighas of land in Sonitpur district." [10]. The report claims that “nearly 10,000 suspected Bangladeshis have settled in many isles (locally known as tapu or char) of the river Brahmaputra in Barchala LAC [11]”. The crucial question on the report is, on what basis the newspaper termed the people as “suspected Bangladeshis”? Did they check the citizenship paper of the concerned people before terming the IDPs as “Bangladeshis”? The answer is no. This is a typical example of how fabricated narratives are constructed to label  Miya ethnic groups as “illegal Bangladeshis” or "illegal immigrants". It would not be out of place to mention that the media in Assam is acting like a wholesome propaganda machinery. This has been continuing in Assam for some decades. The trend of terming flood-induced IDPs of Assam as “suspected Bangladeshis" by the media has been creating animosity and division between different social groups in the state. Misleading reports of this kind influenced many and have significantly contributed to the emergence of the exclusionary and disgraceful mechanism, namely the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam.  

Recurring catastrophe

Experts link the great earthquake of 1950 with the recurrent flood scenario of the state. The Brahmaputra changed its direction and nature drastically after the earthquake. In 2014, Rashtriya Barh Ayog stated that 31,500 sq. km of the land of Assam is under flood-affected area, which is about 39.58 per cent of the state's total area [12].  In 2020, about 30 districts out of 33 districts were affected. Every year many people die in the periodic flood; the only thing that varies is the death toll. An official statement puts that more than people have lost their lives due to the flood in 2020 [13]. According to a report by Indian Express on August 4 2020, the death of children counts for 44.5% in the flood of that year in  Assam [14].  In 2004 alone, 497 people died in the catastrophic flood. Though this natural disaster comes every year, but the devastation was extremely high in 1954, 1962, 1972, 1977, 1984, 1988, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 [15]. The intensity of the flood was very high in these years. In 2020  alone, about 56, 89,584 people faced the brunt of the natural calamity. In the case of the flash flood that occurred on October 8 2004, and on September 22 2015, in the Bolbola region located in the Goalpara district of western Assam, about 300 people were killed. This place is witnessing repeated flash floods due to a railway track obstructing the natural drainage of Brahmaputra from the Garo hills (Gogoi 2020).

Dams and embankments

To resolve and meet the flood problem, the government has taken some “Structural” and “Non-structural” measures. The structural measures include Embankments, Dams and Reservoirs, Natural Detention basins, Channel Improvement, Catchment area treatment/ afforestation etc. The non-structural measures include Flood forecasting and warning, Regulation of reservoirs, flood Insurance etc. (See The Flood Hazard Atlas for Assam state, 1998-2015). Some measures, such as building dams and embankments, are controversial, while others are not adequately implemented on the ground.

Dams in Assam are especially criticised because the region is located in a seismologically sensitive zone, and big dams can have devastating effects downstream (see Saikia 2019). In many instances, dams contribute to the worsening of the flood situation in the state. The damages caused by the flood increased manifold owing to the sudden release of a huge amount of water from different dams in eastern Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan etc. A huge amount of water released from the Kuricchu dam of Bhutan often leaves many areas under the Barpeta and Baksha district of western Assam severely inundated. The early warning system mostly does not reach the people when they need it most [16].

Habibur Rahman never thought he would lose everything in the flood and erosion. The Aie river almost completely shattered his family's economy, peace and stability. The fate of Habibur and fellow villagers suddenly changed because an embankment was newly constructed to divert the course of the Aie river upstream in order to protect the Bongaigaon Refinery (BGR) from the Aie river. Though the refinery is located several kilometres from the river, there is a high risk to the refinery from the river bank erosion of Aie river and its potential change of course. The embankment took place at the cost of the lives and properties of marginalised villagers[17]. As a consequence, some villages, including Nepalpara, Patabari, Deborbil, Motherpur and Tulsijhura of Chirang district, were wholly or partially washed away with the change of course of the river. In another instance, Dibrugarh city is shielded from flood, many claims, to safeguard the tea gardens and industries.      

Embankments are constructed to prevent destruction by floods in certain areas while exposing others to vulnerability. The idea of embankments is borrowed from the colonial government (Saikia 2015). The state has constructed about 4473.82 Km long embankments so far [18]. Many such embankments are built weak and are mostly in bad shape because of the widespread corruption associated with the construction of these embankments. Maintenance of the embankments is abysmal. Experts suggest that building embankments are not among the long-term solutions to prevent flood, nonetheless, the embankments have remained a distinct element to fight against the menace of the flood. The question that arises is, if embankments cannot effectively control flood, then why does the government spend hundreds and thousands of rupees in constructing the embankments? Many in the state argue that the embankments are continuing because it allows the contractors and a section of politicians to carry out unabated corruption. Politicians of various strata, some engineers, and other higher officials allegedly benefit from such massive projects of embankment making and maintenance. Constructing embankments is even helpful to politicians during elections (Saikia 2015).

In many cases, embankments are washed away and cause sudden havoc in areas that are supposed to get protection from it. Wiping out of an embankment also means wiping out of millions of rupees [19]. In most cases new grants are allotted to rebuild these damaged embankments. Though embankments have remained under question by many, but during flood, in the absence of any high ground, people and their livestock take shelter on the embankments. These embankments function as roads in many villages of Assam even today. Crops such as rice, and various lentils are dried on the embankments. These lead one to believe that embankments are at times useful, in the absence of other effective measures. In some other instances, it is seen that embankments are constructed to marginalise the marginalised communities further in order to protect the capitalists.  


Flood is one of the most critical problems Assam has been facing for decades, and flood-induced destruction is increasing every year. As per a report of an Economic survey Assam loses 200 crore rupees every year due to the flood [20]. But for the political parties who fight and win elections, flood and erosion have never been the central issue in the elections. At the most, it remains a marginalised issue. Most of the state's people and prominent civil societies are also okay with this kind of politics. Not only this, none of the fundamental issues that require attention, such as healthcare, education, employment, roads and communication, infrastructure and transportation, landlessness, become the major issue in the elections. Mostly, the elections are contested in the state on the issue of identity and on “illegal immigrants” (Choudhury 2020). This has kept the state seriously underdeveloped and millions of people under sustained pain and penury. These are misplaced priorities and need to be corrected in order to construct and perceive a better and more progressive society and economy in the state.       

Way Forward


 Flood and river bank erosion are a deadly menace for millions of people, specifically for the marginalised population in Assam. Assam can only progress with solving the perennial flood problem of the state. This paper shows how the natural disaster and the resultant internal displacements of people have been used to fan the exclusionary politics of citizenship in Assam. This is a very complex problem, and to resolve the problem, serious engagement is required from the government and people for a significantly long time. Though the state hitherto declared various schemes to fight the flood, most could be more effective or better implemented. The problem of flood in the state is not going to end anytime soon, and therefore the government must take measures to help people prepare at least to meet and co-exist with flood. One such measure could be constructing high grounds for people in severely flood-affected areas, keeping the natural waterways clear. This will save people from losing homes time and again. Another measure can be the building of houses in high platforms. These are not possible without the intervention and support from the government. Of course, a proper feasibility study must be carried out scientifically before implementing anything. However, the government should stop spending money in regressive events like Namami Brahmaputra, for these helps in no way in fighting the flood.

Likewise, landlessness should unquestionably be considered one of our time's most serious issues. The government must allot land pattas to the landless and implement a proper rehabilitation policy. Like many places of India, we must recognise that discrimination against various marginalised social groups, especially the Miya ethnic group, is staggering in Assam. These discriminations are not only visible in the instances of government employment and economic opportunities but also in the time of allotting land pattas or delivering government reliefs. Suppose land pattas are distributed in the future. In that case, it should be ensured that the selection and allocation process is discrimination and prejudice free, which has surfaced as a major evil in the society of Assam. Special focus must be given by the government, its officials, and civil society to construct, ensure and sustain a discrimination-free society in the state. It is difficult in a state like Assam, and it will surely need time; nonetheless, at least we can identify the glaring evil of discrimination and make a beginning.



We are indebted to the anonymous referee for her/his valuable comments.
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