It was a sleepless night followed by a morning of frantic calls. As the Barak river threatened to enter the first floor of her apartment in Cachar district’s Silchar town, a nine-month pregnant Udeshna Debroy and her mother were rescued by an NDRF team on Tuesday afternoon.
“It has been traumatic to say the least. We thought that being on the first floor made us safe,” said Nirupam Dutta, Debroy’s husband. “But when water reached our staircase, we knew this was no ordinary flood.”
In the last 24 hours, all of Silchar — southern Assam’s biggest town and the gateway to the three Barak valley districts — has been submerged in water unlike “ever before in its history”.
“It stopped raining last evening, but literally every inch of the town is under water — not a single establishment or home is safe,” said resident Pranabananda Das, who is a journalist with a local Bengali daily.
On Tuesday, as floods continued to ravage Assam, seven more people died, taking the death toll this year to 88.
Nearly 55 lakh people have been affected in 32 of the 36 districts of the state so far. Over two lakh people are in relief shelters. Experts said the geographical spread of the current wave of floods was unprecedented — several areas where flooding isn’t usually very acute lay submerged.
Silchar is one such place. While the city is plagued by intermittent flash floods owing to its bowl-shaped topography cut by the Barak river, it has rarely ever seen flooding of this year’s magnitude.
Joydeep Biswas, a resident, called the prevailing situation “horrific”. “I remember big floods in the 1980s but this year’s is by far the fiercest. No electricity, no water — our stocks of everything essential are depleting,” he said.
Another resident, Kunal Banik, who lives close to the Barak river, woke up Tuesday morning to find the ground floor of his house entirely submerged. “We began shifting all our furniture to the first floor — there is head-high water on the floor and I am among the town’s lucky 20 per cent because I have a higher floor to go to.”
Residents said the water came “suddenly” Monday afternoon. Like in other parts of Assam, incessant rains had inundated Silchar too, but the situation took a critical turn in the last 24 hours.
The culprit is a breach at the Bethukandi embankment along the Barak river. The breach sent waters of the river rushing in and submerging the town overnight.
On Tuesday, as the situation turned grim, the Centre dispatched four teams of NDRF by air from Bhubaneswar to aid rescue operations. “Our top priorities at this hour are rescuing marooned people and providing relief materials to the affected,” said Parimal Suklabaidya, Dholai legislator and also the Minister for Transport, Fisheries and Excise.
However, the scale of the problem is such that even rescue and relief has become a tough challenge for the district administration. “The town is inundated and there are too many stranded people…we are focusing on evacuation, and then [providing] relief with the boats on hand that have been pooled from the paramilitary forces,” said Cachar Deputy Commissioner Keerthi Jalli.
Other disaster management officials said that the lack of boats was a major problem and that the administration had to resort to “country boats”. Strong currents, however, were pushing away these boats, making rescue even more challenging.
In most parts of the town, there has been no electricity, drinking water or mobile network. “In the last few days, it was the rain but coupled with the embankment breach, it is a disaster,” said Dipankar Mishra, who owns a cyber cafe in the town’s Shillongpatty area.
Locals allege that the embankment was broken in May during the first spell of rains this season. “The river had entered the town and then itself most of the water had accumulated in a natural reservoir near the embankment called Mahisha Beel. Even after the river level had gone down, the reservoir’s sluice gates were not opened for the water to be drained into the river,” said Das, adding that the local residents dug up a pathway so the water had on way to escape. “Now it is the same way through which the water is coming back in.”
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Cachar SP Raman Dhillon said the breach was no longer a concern because the incessant rainfall had led to water going over the embankment into the town. “River carries water from Manipur and Mizoram too. It has been raining in two states as well so you have to take those factors into account,” she said.
Meanwhile, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma Tuesday visited two flood relief camps in Nalbari district to take stock of the situation. Other districts such as Barpeta, Nagaon, Darrang, Bajali, among others continue to reel under flood waters. In UNESCO world heritage site Kaziranga National Park, 42 out of 233 camps are currently inundated, and eight animals are dead. A team from the Centre is expected to visit Assam and Meghalaya to assess the damage.