Such a disaster did not happen in the recent history of Meghalaya, perhaps even when the territory was under Assam. The official death toll in the floods and landslides across the state already came close to three dozen, a figure only people of neighbouring Assam are used to. For an outsider, Meghalaya does not seem to be vulnerable to floods. That is the reason why government money is often spent – the outcome may be questionable – only on extravagant earthquake and fire drills in this region. Like the common people, have the authorities too forgotten that the state has vast plain areas on its three sides – north, west and south. While the Khasi-Jaintia Hills does not share much of the plain areas, Garo Hills has a huge plain belt bordering Assam in the north and west and Bangladesh in the south. The state machinery failed to respond promptly to a Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) warning issued four days before the catastrophe hit the state.
The MHA communiqué, issued on September 19, quoted an Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) report that forecast ‘heavy to very heavy rainfall’ at a few places with ‘extremely heavy’ falls at isolated places in Meghalaya, Assam, Sikkim and sub-Himalayan West Bengal during the next two days. The MHA had also asked the state governments concerned to ‘keep a close watch, monitor the situation in their areas regularly and take appropriate precautionary measures’. Now, should the public deduce that the state government downplayed the warning thinking that what harm the rains would do to the ‘Abode of Clouds’? Thinking that for them is fair because two months ago the government was crying for Central funds to combat ‘draught-like’ situation in the same Garo Hills region. There might be different answers from the authorities as well on the matter – ‘we received the communiqué late’.
It is so far not known whether chief minister Mukul Sangma was aware of the MHA warning. He had gone to New Delhi in preparation of the scheduled signing of a peace agreement with two Garo militant outfits, according to an official version. He drew applauds by rushing back to the state before the meeting to inspect the flood situation. Although it was too late to act as over two dozen lives were already lost, the government can compensate now at least by speeding up the relief and rehabilitation.
(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on September 24, 2014)