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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Modi to survey flood devastation in Assam amid controversy

The Indian prime minister's visit to the state on Tuesday comes after opponents accused him of favouring his home state of Gujarat - which has also been hit by flooding — for its political value ahead of elections there later this year

An Indian girl and her brother travel by raft to cross floodwaters in the Assam village of Murkata on July 6, 2017. Biju Boro / AFP
An Indian girl and her brother travel by raft to cross floodwaters in the Assam village of Murkata on July 6, 2017. Biju Boro / AFP

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi will survey the devastation across the northeastern state of Assam this week, nearly two months after swollen, rain-fed rivers began to wreak havoc, taking lives and damaging property.

At least 82 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced or affected by the floods in Assam, according to media reports quoting the state government, while tens of thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed. Roughly 26,000 houses in 29 of Assam’s 32 districts have also been damaged, the state government said, noting 29.4 billion rupees (Dh1.7bn) worth of destruction.

Mr Modi’s visit to Assam on Tuesday comes in the wake of controversy with opponents accusing him of favouring his home state of Gujarat for its political value ahead of elections in the state later this year.

Gujarat, too, has been affected by major floods which were triggered by heavy rainfall beginning on July 14 — almost six weeks after the flooding began in Assam. More than 120 people have been killed in Gujarat.

After surveying the affected area in Gujarat on Tuesday last week, the prime minister announced a relief package of 5 billion rupees (Dh286.3m) for the state, 20,000 rupees to the families who have lost loved ones, and 50,000 rupees to those who were injured.

Unlike Assam, which faces torrential rain every summer because of the monsoon and the state’s proximity to the Bay of Bengal, Gujarat rarely has flooding. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, the average rainfall for July stands at 291 millimetres. This year, however, the city has received 828.2 millimetres, according to the national meteorological department.

On the day of the prime minister’s trip to Gujarat, Assam’s former chief minister, Tarun Gogoi — a member of the Congress party, the rival of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — tweeted that Mr Modi “never visited & his [government] has not released adequate funds for Assam”.

“Both Gujarat and Assam should have got aid. But election-bound states matter more. BJP calculates to help people on the basis of votes,” Gaurav Gogoi, an Assam parliamentarian and the son of Tarun Gogoi, said on Twitter on Thursday.

However, Assam’s chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal — a member of the BJP part — said that Mr Modi and his senior ministers had been in constant communication with him since the flooding, and criticised recent statements made by Mr Gogoi.

“During the 2012 flood, people will remember that Mr Tarun Gogoi was away in the United States, rather than [being] in Assam to oversee flood relief,” Mr Sonowal told The Hindu newspaper.

Until Mr Modi announced on Saturday his upcoming visit to Assam, the highest-ranking government officials who had travelled to the state to assess the flood damage were seven mid-level bureaucrats, who visited between Tuesday and Friday last week. The bureaucrats included water and infrastructure engineers, a finance ministry official, and an expert in the development of sugar cane — one of Assam’s principal crops.

The team concluded that the floods had caused “very profound and large-scale” damage across the state. But the team’s visit to Assam was too little, too late, according to Akhil Gogoi, an activist and the president of a farmers’ organisation in Assam.

“The government has sent a team now, when the water has started receding. What will they see and assess now,” he said on Thursday.

“The prime minister often delivers emotional dialogues regarding Assam and the north-east. But he should have considered the case of Assam when the state was witnessing one of [its] worst floods.”

On Friday, Mr Modi’s government instituted a scheme of payment — similar to the one announced for Gujarat — for those who were injured or lost relatives in the floods in Assam. But no aid package has as yet been announced to help revive the state’s infrastructure.

Clear skies over the north-east since Monday have mitigated floodwater levels in Assam somewhat. Around 2,000 people in six districts remain in relief camps, however, and livelihoods and residences still remain destroyed or in disrepair.

Skymet, a New Delhi-based weather forecasting service, also predicted that rain would abate over Gujarat by Wednesday.

A low-pressure weather system that had formed over the neighbouring state of Rajasthan “is likely to weaken and move westward, [so] it is expected that the rainfall intensity will reduce over Gujarat region”, Jatin Singh, the founder and chief executive of Skymet, said on Saturday.

“The floods situation across the affected area is also likely to improve.”