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Flooding in India’s Northeast Reveals Weakness of the Act East Policy

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Flooding in India’s Northeast Reveals Weakness of the Act East Policy

The historic floods show that India’s Act East Policy urgently needs to deal with disaster mitigation and resilience.

Flooding in India’s Northeast Reveals Weakness of the Act East Policy

Flood affected people walk to safer places from their marooned Tarabari village, west of Gauhati, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Monday, June 20, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

This year, Northeast India, especially Assam and Meghalaya, faced one of its worst floods in living memory. Entire roads and bridges have been washed away. Thousands of villages were inundated, and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. In Assam alone, the floods and attendant landslides have affected more than 3.1 million people so far, with more than 150 dead.

Incessant rains didn’t even spare the region’s biggest city, Guwahati, where arterial roads went under water, stopping traffic and economic activity for days, and landslides killed at least four people. Silchar, in Barak Valley, remained heavily inundated for days in what became the most severe flood that the southern Assam city has seen in many decades.

Forget about state roads; the deluge has inundated national highways cutting through Assam. As if to add a tinge of circumstantial humor in the unending despair, locals in Rangia were seen casting their fishing nets on the submerged National Highway 31. National Highway 6, which connects Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, and southern Assam with the rest of India, remained cut off for days. This affected interstate traffic through Meghalaya. Several bridges were also washed away.

The floods and ensuing landslides washed away the railway station at Haflong, located in the hilly and remote Dima Hasao district. The railway network in this area was once a success story in intra-regional connectivity in Northeast India and was even positioned as one of the prospective link routes to Myanmar and Bangladesh. This year’s deluge cut it off from even the neighboring Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura.

Floods are an annual event in this part of the country, but this year’s iteration was particularly overwhelming. It is a jarring reminder that building infrastructure in Northeast India is redundant and even counterproductive if it isn’t accompanied by a comprehensive strategy to build resilience. This is a fact that India’s Act East Policy – the upgraded iteration of India’s Look East Policy, which aims to “develop” the Northeast as a gateway to Southeast Asia – patently overlooks.

Obsession With Infrastructure

Flood mitigation and disaster risk reduction should be at the center of any major infrastructure drive in an ecologically and geomorphologically vulnerable region like the Northeast. That should be common sense for policy planners and donors; yet, it isn’t. The much-touted Act East Policy is a prime example of this.

Since the upgrade by the Narendra Modi government in 2014, the Act East Policy has obsessively focused on connectivity and physical infrastructure. This is driven by the core objective of creating seamless west-east linkages from mainland India to Southeast Asia through Northeast India. To this end, New Delhi remained notionally focused on building highways and bridges in the region, which were to be eventually extended beyond the eastern international borders.

This created a certain path dependency on physical infrastructure as the primary driver of “development.” In fact, it ossified the belief among policy circles that “development” simply means building infrastructure. In many ways, this is rooted in a very orthodox, utilitarian gaze of looking at Northeast India as nothing more than a means to an end – a mere bridge to another promised land.

The Act East Policy took this idea forward to transform the Northeast into an integrated economic space. This means “developing” the region so that it can become an effective bridgehead to the ASEAN region. Big ticket connectivity projects, such as the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP), the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway Project, and the Rhi-Tiddim Road Project came back to focus.

What was absent in this blinding push for “development” and “connectivity” was a single, existential aspect of life in the Northeast – resilience. Here, “resilience” has a two-fold meaning – resilience of infrastructure and resilience of communities. Both are distinct, but also have bearing on one another.

Need for a Resilience-Centric Framework

First, any connectivity infrastructure that passes through the Northeast needs to be more resilient to floods than usual. It has to be comprehensively disaster-proof. This would mean building resilient infrastructure, rather than just infrastructure. There is almost no talk about this within the Act East Policy, which risks reducing its infrastructure push into a costly and even pointless affair.

Second, there has to be a pointed focus on creating infrastructure that is sensitive to local geomorphological dynamics and community needs, so that they don’t end up worsening the conditions for or consequences of annual floods.

As environment experts and ecologists Arupjyoti Saikia and Jagdish Krishnaswamy recently noted in The Indian Express, the “engineered and planned landscape” in Assam has rendered its floodplains more vulnerable to deluges. They further argue that “construction projects that impede the movement of water and sediment across the floodplain must be reconsidered.”

Beyond this, it is a fact that infrastructure affects vulnerable communities in ways that can progressively chip away at their resilience. Large-scale highway and bridge projects often end up displacing local communities from their original places of residence. These displacement drives almost always adversely affect their capacity to deal with natural disasters. For instance, when resettled arbitrarily or hastily, communities that were never exposed to floods before may suddenly become vulnerable.

In that sense, infrastructure programs in the Northeast need to be highly context-sensitive. In the Northeast, this “context” is made up of an intricate set of endemic and emerging parameters – ecological vulnerability, geomorphological shifts, annual floods, agrarian patterns, social friction, and climate change. There is little to suggest that the Act East Policy’s infrastructure push recognizes these complex realities.

Lack of Institutional Attention

Discussions on disaster mitigation within the connectivity and development narratives for the Northeast are either afterthoughts or institutionally framed in non-specific terms.

For instance, in his speech at a February 2021 event on the Act East Policy and India-Japan cooperation, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, only mentioned “disaster management” somewhere toward the end, clubbing it with “urban planning” in a lone sentence. On May 28 this year, in his inaugural speech at the NADI Asian Confluence River Conclave in Guwahati, a major event hinged on the Act East Policy’s logic and aims, Jaishankar made no mention of “floods” – even though the deluge had already begun in the Northeast.

The India-Japan cooperative framework for the Northeast, which is currently driven by their joint Act East Forum (AEF), does touch upon resilience and disaster mitigation. The “India-Japan Sustainable Development Initiative for the North Eastern Region of India,” signed by both countries during Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s India visit in March, has a section dedicated to “Disaster Resilience” and talks about “pursuing resilient connectivity.” There was also the usual expression of sympathy and solidarity by Tokyo for those affected by this year’s deluge.

While this is a solid reference point for the Act East Policy, here again, the focus is limited to protecting the infrastructure itself, rather than the communities around it (or those affected by it). There is also a preoccupation with emergency measures, rather than long-term mitigation.

Further, one of the priority action areas for the AEF is expansion of hydropower projects in the Northeast. This essentially means more dams breaking the region’s rivers. One doesn’t need to be a hydrologist to see the treacherous relationship between dams and floods in the Northeast. The reckless manner in which dams and reservoirs are operated in the region has directly caused floods, as Saikia and Krishnaswamy also point out. Moreover, dams in one state often exacerbate floods in downstream states, which is made worse by an absolute lack of inter-state coordination.

Fresh Approach Needed

International donor agencies that are closely involved in building infrastructure in the Northeast, such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency, should push the Indian government to foreground resilience and mitigation within the overall connectivity blueprint. They should mobilize parallel funding for structural and non-structural flood mitigation measures to ensure that their highways and bridges don’t weaken local capacities to deal with floods.

In fact, all funders of connectivity projects must go beyond the traditional Environment Impact Assessment model and adopt a more wholesome, context-sensitive framework to understand how their projects could affect the floodplains and vulnerable local communities in the region.

Natural forces cannot be tamed, but communities can be equipped to preempt large-scale disasters (such as mega-floods) and thus, prepare better. The Act East Policy, in its current form, doesn’t even attempt to do this.

This year’s floods should be a wake-up call for those at the helm of taking this policy forward. If it doesn’t adapt itself to the evolving geological, ecological and sociopolitical vulnerabilities of Northeast India, including climate change, the Act East Policy risks turning into a tool for industrialized exploitation and destruction of this complex region.