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Vanishing Assam

  • Published at 10:12 pm May 20th, 2018
  • Last updated at 09:55 pm May 23rd, 2018
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

7.4 percent of Assam’s land has been eroded by the river Brahmaputra. We travel to Mandiain Lower Assam’s Barpeta district, one of the worst erosion affected areas, to access the situation on the ground

‘we didn’t know about the newborn river that had sprouted
 from the chest of a nearby mountain;
 we didn’t know it was one million times
 stronger than a bomb called Fat Man;’

 - My grandmother tells me about the earthquake in 1950
 By AruniKashyap

The Assam Earthquake of 1950 changed the course of the river Brahmaputra or BurlungButhur as it is called by the Mishings, forever. The earthquake was unprecedented; it was the 6th largest earthquake of all time and the waters of the river Brahmaputra rose as high as seven feet, raining down sand, mud, trees and debris of all kinds. Whole villages were washed away, large forest areas were swamped and property worth $25 million was destroyed. The Himalayas, from which the river originates, are geologically young and still in the process of settling down. 

“The river is a free domain, it is bound to erode some areas, and in the process of eroding, the materials it gathers has to be deposited somewhere. Wherever there is the possibility, new landforms are being created. The Brahmaputra Valley has been formed because of sedimentation by various rivers coming into the area over the last 2 million years. However, the problem of erosion and floods has become more severe since the 1950 earthquake. Tremendous changes in landscape and hill forms have led to downstream areas being eroded at regular intervals. A large part of Dibrugarh has been eroded, and if you look closer to home, Palashbari in Guwahati has also been eroded. 

Our approach has been short-term and unsustainable so far; we didn’t have the resources and technology, and this work is beyond the state’s abilities. The Government of India has to work at an international level,” observes DulalGoswami, retired professor and former HOD, Department of Geography, Gauhati University. 

Paharpur: A daily struggle to survive

As we made our way on a public bus to Mandia in Barpeta district of Lower Assam, we realized the roads were getting progressively worse.The landscape was lush and green on both sides of the road, marked irregularly with ponds with large fishing nets, waiting in anticipation. From Mandia to Paharpur, the only way to travel further ahead was via a motorcycle, or at best, an e-rickshaw. We decided to stick to the former and as the vehicle trudged forward on the rocky, sandy dirt-road, it mimicked the ebb and flow of the river in its sudden lows and highs. 

'The ferocity of the floods in the past 10 years has shaken even the spirits of the hardy people living on the chars' । Mehedi Hasan

After a ride of close to an hour, we were rewarded with our first view of the river Beki.We could see the swirling waters moving in large circles in the middle, and we were told this is how sand and other debris is carried forward by the river. We were at PaharpurKatoli village under Bamundongra Panchayat, Mandia Block in Barpeta District, where the erosion-affected people had built huts in small clusters. The walls of these huts werenot made of mud, but of strips of CGI (corrugated galvanised iron) sheets held together by iron screws; an innovation by the local people that ensures their homes are as tenacious as the people themselves. When the river Brahmaputra enriches the banks with silt, they grow jute, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, bitter gourd and other vegetables. And, when it washes away whole villages and all that is left of the chars are sandy soil where your feet sinks in at every step, they grow peanuts, and dals (lentils) of various kinds - masoor, matimah and mugu,or the dhumchabush, for firewood. Yet, the ferocity of the floods in the past 10 years has even shaken even the spirits of the hardy people living on the chars, small sandbars on the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries,of Assam, as they are forced to build their homes again and again.

Erosion has intensified over the last 3 years  

The year 2017 saw the worst floods in Assam in over 10 years.  The floods had claimed more than 87 lives and affected the livelihoods of more than 1.7 million people last year, and the worst affected are naturally the people living on the chars. Erosion is at its peak during the rainy months of May-August. Sometimes in one year, the chars are eroded thrice in a row. During these yearly episodes of floods, the community moves to high grounds such as embankments. “We put up tents where we live alongside our ducks, goats, chickens and cows, for close to three months. All we do then is wait… for the water to recede. The river used to take rest for a few years and begin again, but since three years now, the river has been relentless in its destruction. Last year has been the most destructive. We had lost entire villages to the river. Food is mostly provided for by the villagers themselves as Government aid is irregular and often late. And, because we live in such close proximity to each other, man and animal both, infectious diseases abound. Children too lose precious months of school. Many of us don’t send our children back because what is the point, the teachers are irregular and there are frequent floods,” says OmelaKhatun, whose eldest is a girl aged 15 years. The middle offspring is a boy who studies in class eight and the youngest is a girl who studies in the sixth standard. Their village of origin was Kanchanpur under Bamundongra Panchayat, Mandia Block in Barpeta District, which is under the waters of the Beki now. The school has been relocated to a nearby house now, and the two younger children infrequently go to school. 

'We put up tents where we live alongside our ducks, goats, chickens and cows, for close to three months. All we do then is wait… for the water to recede' । Mehedi Hasan

Schools remain closed half the year

SamiranNesa, aged 50, can’t recollect how many times her home has been washed away. ‘It is better to die than to lose a home. “Gharnora ne mora, noraarmoraekkothai,” says she with bitterness. ZulekhaKhatoon works as a domestic help whenever she can find work. Her older sons are grown up and have moved away to Guwahati to find work. She is now left with a child of around 5-6 years. When I ask her if he goes to school, her reply is caustic, “Here, being a daily-wage labourer is what he can be at best. With the school remaining closed half the year, what is the point?”We could find only one young woman who had passed her BA from among the women who had set up homes along the embankment. RuniaKhatoon who had studied at the MandiaAnchalikMahavidyalaya has now been sitting at home for the last 3-4 years, unable to find a job. 

“She is too educated to get a groom now,” says her neighbour. Few girls study beyond their class 10 matriculation exam. The literacy rate in the chars has stayed well below the 15% mark post Independence and has marginally increased to 19% according to a recent report by the Directorate of Char Areas Development.

Motilal Pathak is a teacher at the Bamundongra Higher Secondary school. KobindraNath Das, Hajal Kumar Das also teach at the same school. When we ask them about the low literacy rate, they replied, “The river is now half a kilometre away from our school, but it was at least 5kms away 20 years ago. We have seen so many schools submerged in our own lifetimes. In our school, we have 1000 students, but there has been no recruitment after retirement for many years now. We have only 19 full time teachers. At the higher secondary level, there are only two teachers. No one wants to come here to teach…’

The river is a free domain, it is bound to erode some areas, and in the process of eroding, the materials it gathers has to be deposited somewhere । Mehedi Hasan

A cycle of exclusion

“We can’t sleep at night for fear of erosion, the sound of earth falling apart and being washed away keeps us vigilant, awake at night. If you listen carefully, you will hear it even now…but at night it is especially intense,” says BakatunNesa, a middle-aged mother of two married girls, who lives alone. Her home has been washed away five times by the river, and now she has built it again in Paharpur. “My husband is a daily wage labourer in Guwahati. Now he is here, helping families unscrew their tin houses in a nearby village. That way, he also makes a little money. I am scared to let him go away now,” says Bakatun. Most women we spoke to feared for their lives and their families, especially as the men were away, in towns as near as Guwahati, to as far as Chennai and Kerala. With arable land becoming scarce, a self-sufficient community is now being driven to trickle into nearby towns, and often looked at suspiciously as ‘illegal’ immigrants. Recently, in Majuli in Upper Assam, local All Assam Students Union leaders had rounded up suspected Bangladeshis and given them up to the police, only to be later released for there was little evidence to back their claims. “Just because we are Muslims of Bengal-origin doesn’t mean we have to be looked at suspiciously. With our lands being washed away and our children deprived of an education because of the floods and erratic teachers, what choice do we have but to toil as daily wage workers in larger towns?” asks Ataur Rahman, a teacher at PaharpurKatoli LP school. The LP school has had to shift four times because of erosion and is the same school whose photos went viral on social media last year as the teachers and some students were seen hoisting the Indian flag in chest-deep water on Independence Day.  When asked about the reason for this display of ‘Indianness’, he replies, “We have five Independence fighters from this area, yet we are looked at with suspicion. All of us have submitted documents for NRC (National Register of Citizens), but we don’t know if they will still treat us as Bangladeshis. We have many fears.” For the people of Paharpur and erstwhile Kanchanpur, it is daily battle for survival, not only against nature but also a State that views them with suspicion.

Nasreen Habib is the editor of Eclectic NorthEast magazine. This story was first published in Eclectic Northeast.