Doesn’t it send chills up your spine to even imagine how life would have been like if you had to sleep every night with the fear that the next morning, your house and the land beneath it could just be swept away by the mighty Brahmaputra? Imagine living when everything- settlement, financial stability, occupation and emotional well-being- has been snatched away by the river. Imagine Majuli, and the people living on the edge of its ever receding land boundary.
The world’s largest inhabited riverine island and the seat of Assam’s neo-Vaishnavite movement, Majuli, cries in sorrow as the Brahmaputra washes away its land mass. And the saddest part of the soil erosion problem in Majuli is that, it is no longer a mere geographical or environmental problem. It has spread its venom on the social, economic and political milieu of the island. It has rendered the people homeless, landless and penniless; it has made daily wage labourers out of villagers who were once self-sufficient cultivators or potters. More importantly, the huge extents up to which the erosion has spread, makes us ponder on what all do we lose, if we lose Majuli?
To say the least, we lose way too much if we lose Majuli. Starting from the religious and cultural heritage of the Satras- the rich cultural presentations, the mask-making tradition of Samuguri Satra, the centuries old scriptures, objects of historical importance- up to the indigenous traditions of pot and boat making, everything will be gone forever, if Majuli is devoured by the Brahmaputra.
Majuli is a beautiful and serene place with a subtle yet omnipresent trace of its rich cultural heritage. The people are kind and helpful; the ponds hold clear water, the pastures are green and the weather is humid. In the evenings, as the cool breeze from the river blows away the day’s weariness, fishermen spread out their nets and the atmosphere is punctuated with sounds of dhol, khol and taal, emanating from the different Naamghars of the subdivision.
Majuli’s once land area of 1250 sq kms, is now reduced to 484.34 sq kms (as of 2008 data). According to an academic research paper on Majuli’s erosion problem by M.K.Dutta of Jorhat Engineering College, the primary cause for erosion in Majuli is the ‘extremely braided nature of the Brahmaputra coupled with silt and sand strata of the banks’. The paper also states that the erosion in Majuli started off after the 1950 earthquake of magnitude 8.6 Richter and became intense after the devastating flood of 1954. “Nearly 1200 families affected by erosion and flood in the island have been residing either on the Dyke or on the P.W.D roads since the last 25-30 years”, wrote Dhrubajitt Saikia in his 2004 article Majuli’s Cry For Survival published in The Assam Tribune. The number has increased at a great rate since then, and in 2012, Tehelka’s Ratnadip Choudhury wrote, “Almost 10,000 families in Majuli have turned into refugees in the last four decades” in his article To Majuli with Tears.
The Mising tribe constitutes more than 40% of Majuli’s population, and they have also been bearing the brunt of the Brahmaputra’s fury since the last 50-60 years. In a Mising village near Kamalabari town, I met up with Umakant Taku, a vocal critique of the erosion management by the government in Majuli. Explaining the plight of the Mising people in Majuli, he said, “Mising people have always stayed just by the river, and that’s why in Majuli they have suffered the worst due to soil erosion. Mising people, all over the island, have been displaced a number of times, and many of them have even shifted to places outside the island. The Mising villages in Salmora were the first affected, sometime in 1950. Then the Mising villages near the Dakhinpat Satra suffered miserably in 60s, then Sumuimari villages and then finally the Kamalabari Lakhraj area.”
I asked what could be a possible solution to this menace, to which he made a fist, banged the table, and said, “Our most important demand is that we need permanent settlement. The government is very eager to provide help in the form of food supply, but what we need is proper permanent rehabilitation.”
My travels through Majuli took me to Salmora- the home of the kumars- a community traditionally associated with pottery making by hand. This has been the primary occupation of these people since ages and that’s why, to get an easy access to clay soil- the primary raw material for making the pots, they have always inhabited the river banks.
However, post 1950, when soil erosion started in Majuli in a massive way, these people have gradually lost their lands and houses, a number of times. Most of the kumar families have shifted and rebuilt their houses in safer places around 7 times in the last 10-15 years.
Luhit Samua, a kumar from Salmora, who had recently lost his house to erosion, said, “We had approximately 6 nals of land between our house and the Brahmaputra. In one night the Brahmaputra ate up around 2 nals, and then within the next three days, it devoured our house.”
After that, Luhit, along with his wife and three children, built a temporary house near the spur and shifted there. He continued, “With the establishment of the spur, our pot-making business has almost stopped. Had it been going on, we would have been financially a little well-off.”
He went on to explain that the establishment of the spur sort of marks the end of pottery business for them- because they cannot dig for the clay soil now. But at the same time, neither can they move away from the spur, because that would mean placing themselves at the mouth of the hungry river. He continues, “Though we have heard from the authorities that clay soil would be managed for us from somewhere else, there is no development on that front yet.”
The Navajyoti Hari Mandir, a Naamghar in Salmora lies in ruins. The Brahmaputra has eroded the land mass touching the rear side of the Naamghar and it’s just a matter of few days before it took away the entire Naamghar along its current. Fearing this loss, the authorities have themselves pounded down the structure and shifted everything other than the concrete pillars to a safer location within the village.
As I was scrutinising the remnants of the erstwhile Naamghar, an elderly lady, who lived nearby, came up to me and said, “Every year as the river washes away our house, we move a little bit inside. In the last two years, the river has come about 2 kilometres towards our village.”
Other than Salmora, the villages surrounding the Begenati Satra and Bhogpur Satra have faced the hazards of soil erosion for a long time now. The situation here is such that these two Satras themselves face immediate threat of destruction, because just on the opposite side of the main road beside which these two Satras are situated, land has been eroded off at staggering rate. I met Bhabananda Deba Goswami, Satradhikar of the Begenati Satra, to ask a few questions regarding the imminent threat caused by erosion to the Satra. He questioned exasperatedly, “In 2009, when the Brahmaputra came 3 kms towards our Satra in just 15 days, was the government sleeping?” He explained that there was complete apathy from the Government and other organisations responsible for securing Majuli against the devastating effects of soil erosion.
Near the Bhogpur Satra, I met Mohinanda Payeng, a Mising cultivator whom erosion has rendered occupation-less and landless. His tryst with the erosion began in around 1999, when it took away his land and house. From then on, his family has been pushed inside bit by bit over the years; and now he resides in a single-room hatched up bamboo house less than 200 metres away from the river bank. His sister-in-law, who is an Aganwadi worker, takes his 6 year old daughter to the nearby government school and his aged brother spends his time by making traditional fishing equipments while he does all the odd daily wage work available to make both ends meet for the family.
I walked up the bamboo stairs of Payeng’s house and what greeted me was not only a grim picture of the lives of people ruined by erosion, but also a heartrending story of hope and survival against the miserable conditions laid out by Mother Nature and, aggravated by the government’s inaction. Their humble belongings- few clothes, two torn textbooks of the little girl, some utensils, fishing equipments made of bamboo and cane, a trunk, a bedding (neatly tied up during the day) and a tin roof of an earlier house- were arranged along the sides of the bamboo structure and sunlight peeked in through the lined bamboo sticks forming the basement of the house.
In the course of my interaction, Payeng explained that in their now drowned village, there used to be no scarcity of any necessary items and they could sustain themselves very well. People in Majuli have never been worried about floods, because through the ages, they have accepted it as a part of their lives. Payeng said, “The water would come, and it would go. Our crops would flourish thereafter.”
Even though Majuli continues to be passed off as an exotic tourist destination in the flashy pages of travel magazines, but the events which are actually unfurling out there are grave. If the administration and other organisations do not come forward to take steps on war footing, Assam might end up losing one of the most significant storehouses of its cultural, spiritual and geographical wealth and heritage.
This article was published in The Assam Tribune on October 27, 2013.