A Letter From Silchar, Assam: Down a town, on a boat with a body

Nine days after Silchar saw its worst flood, water lies stagnant, power supply is still out at some places, officials are struggling with rescue, and people have questions over if things will ever change.

Every resident of Silchar has a story of the “bejaan jol”, or the big flood, that hit the south Assam town on June 20.

“(The water was) Up to my waist,” says the taxi-driver, driving us from the airport to the town. “It came up to my neck,” says the manager at our hotel. The project officer at the Cachar district disaster management, our third stop, holds up his left arm and says: “This high, for seven days.”

Nine days after the deluge hit, the main road that cuts through the heart of Silchar— the second-most populous town in Assam — is choked with traffic, its sidewalks teeming with pedestrians, and its restaurants open, as are shops that sell chunky earrings.

That an unprecedented flood, which most describe as “worst in their memory”, had submerged the road a few days back, is hard to imagine at first glance. But the signs are everywhere: in the big trucks with banners that read ‘on flood relief duty’, in the marks the water has left on boundary walls, in the shop fronts that have furniture stacked on top of each other, in the white-canopied medical camps. And in the conversations.

Officials admit that in the beginning, there was a complete sense of “helplessness”. “The scale of the disaster was too big. There were not enough boats, not enough manpower,” says a district disaster management official. “The water increased suddenly. People have not experienced that before, and neither have we.”

At Fatak Bazaar, the wholesale market that is the commercial nerve centre of three Barak Valley districts, a man recounts to bystanders his close shave with a “gang of thieves”, who tried to rob his home during the flood. At Maya Hotel, one of the town’s oldest restaurants, famous for its Sylheti-style fish curry, the cashier can’t help recalling, as he accepts payment from customers: “Ki bejaan jol!… What big waters!”

Residents say the water came “first slowly, then suddenly” on the afternoon of June 20, following a suspected breach at the Bethukandi embankment along the Barak river the previous day.

In a matter of hours, the river — which flows through Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam before entering Bangladesh — came rushing into the town, and in some cases, reached up to the first floors of buildings.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in July 2022. Full article here.