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Reminiscence of 1950’s Assam Earthquake and Subansiri’s flood


APR 13, 2013: It was the morning of August 15, 1950. While the entire country was celebrating the 3rd Independence Day of India, the earth shook suddenly in the northeast region. It was an earthquake at a magnitude of 8.7 in the Richter scale which created undelineable devastation at several parts of the region. In that earthquake, in a massive landslide occurred in the hills near Dulungmukh, the Subansiri, a principal north bank tributary of the Brahmaputra was entirely blocked. Due to the blockade the water level receded largely in the downstream and the river bed almost dried up. Though the people saw the landslides from the downstream, they did not know the actual reason behind the drying up of the river. The riverine people gladly became busy in fishing in the swallow stagnant water of the river. The government tried to warn the people by distributing leaflets using helicopter about the blockade of the river and the possible impending disaster, but the people did not pay any heed towards this early warning. Due to the heavy pressure of the water in the reservoir, the blockade burst after three days on August 18, 1950 and the water rolled down in huge sunk. The high-rise rolling water washed out everything in the downstream. Only few people could somehow survive in the immediate downstream.

 The Anand Bazaar Patrika (September 9, 1950) stated, in that devastation about 800 people died or were missing. Among these 800, 351 were from the north bank and the rest were from the East bank, the rescue workers stated. According to a report of the Press Trust of India (PTI), the Miri, the Galongs, the Adis, the Daflas, Abors were highly affected in the devastation and only 17, from the community of Ghasi Miri could survive. In its editorial, The Hindu (August 21, 1950) wrote, ”What has been described as the second fiercest of earthquakes record by man-made machines so far has rocked Eastern Tibet and Assam. From the report coming in after the partial re-establishment of the disrupt communications, it is clear that there has been, in addition to much loss of property, some loss of life too and Islands have disappeared into the Brahmaputra. The rumblings of the first, tremendous shocks are still felt and heard. The movement of the 1897 Assam’ quake was vertical and such is likely to be the case this time too.” The Economic Times (Kolkata edition, January 3, 2005) wrote, “The seven Northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur considered by seismologists as sixth major earthquake prone belt in the world, experienced worst jolts measuring 8.7 in the Richter scale in 1897 killing 1,600 people. Assam had experienced a massive tremor measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale on August 15, 1950 that claimed some 15,000 lives.” But the report did not state how many people died in the Great Subansiri flood.

Late Dinanath Chutia of Lathia village who experienced the flood once told this correspondent that after the quake the discharge in the river was almost nil. ”We have seen the denuded hills due to the landslide and from our distance the landslide portions were looked like some huge animals. When the water rolled down on August 18, 1950, submerging the high rise places, the only alternative was the tall trees to save life. Those who could not climb drowned in to death. Some of the survivors sheltered on trees without food and water for 2-3 days.” He added that casualties were low in the far downstream areas as the flood water spread and receded there. He also told he wanted to forget this brutal incident like a nightmare.

File photo: Tangom Nicktor, in his own stilt house at Durpai village under Kanko circle of West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Monoj Gogoi. Clicked in 2012.

This is the story of Tangom Niktor, a centenarian, how he survived in the fierce flood. Tangom Niktor, who did not know his actual age, now lives in a house of a distant relative in Durpai village under Kangko circle of West Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh proudly told, ”I’m a man from the Mahatma Gandhi’s era.” He delineated his experience of the 1950’s flood, “The flood was an incident of 1950. In our village there were about 50 ladders (stilted houses), all were washed out. In my 25 member family I lost my wife, my children and everyone.” When he was asked he told, ” When I was drowning I grasped a piece of wood, which length may be 15 feet, in the water and the heavy current carried me downward. Thus I reached Tingiri village, which may be 20 km in the down and survived. There I found a girl (whom later Niktor accepted as his sister) who did not have even a piece cloth on her body, I gave her only my gamucha (towel).” When Niktor was flowing in the water he thought he was the only the man who drowned but when he survived he saw the no one survived in the village except him. He was still haunted by the memories of the 1950’s catastrophic flood. When this correspondent offered him an Assamese traditional gamucha, Niktor, who became deaf and feeble now due to his age, told, ” What shall I do with this piece of cloth, I need some money”.

A neighbouring woman told that Niktor now could not eat hard food like rice; he needed some soft foods which his family could not provide. She also told that Niktor was not caring much by his present family.

The naturally created blockade brought huge devastation to the entire downstream areas of the Subansiri. The flood changed the riverine ecology and the geomorphology. The channel of the river sifted around 5 km west from its original channel. Now the people think that if the 116 metre dam of the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project burst either for engineering lacunae or for natural disaster, similar situation will occur in the downstream areas of the project.

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