By Ratnadip Choudhury
IT WAS a bright August afternoon and Deben Bora, 65, was happy to see the ripening sugarcane. After toiling hard in the field, he came back home a little earlier than usual. He felt he would be able to repay his loan with a bumper crop. At midnight, he heard a loud rumble. He ran out and watched in horror as the mighty Brahmaputra washed away 5 hectares of his fertile land. “In front of my eyes, the Brahmaputra took away my land once again. My last crop is gone,” recalls Bora, sitting on the bank of the red river in Majuli’s Padumani village in Assam.
In the past 15 years, Bora has seen the river eat into his land thrice. Each time, he shifted to safer ground, started life from scratch, only to endure Brahmaputra’s fury.
Bora’s fate is shared by almost 10,000 families in Majuli, Asia’s largest human-inhabited river island. (It had a population of 1.53 lakh, as per 2001 Census). The island, located in Jorhat district, has been hit by floods since 1950, when an 8.6 earthquake changed the course of the Brahmaputra. The island has been reduced to 514 sq km from 1,244 sq km in 1950, according to state government figures.
“Majuli is known for its 600-year-old Vaishnavaite Satriya culture and its biodiversity. Delhi is trying to get World Heritage Site status for the island,” says Rudra Sharma, 76, a local resident. “It will be an honour but we would prefer to see the prime minister wake up and see the farmers’ plight. They are left with no land and the state government has done nothing.”
According to state government records, 9,566 families in Majuli have been rendered homeless since 1969 due to sustained erosion. The government claims to have provided rehabilitation to 500 families, a tacit admission that the rest have been left to fend for themselves. Over the years, these families tried to restart their lives, but fell victim to the Brahmaputra’s rage. “The river is just 400 m away from the makeshift hut where my family lives. We don’t have money to migrate elsewhere. Someday, we will die here without food,” laments Bora.
Entrepreneur Debobrat Bhatt adds, “Middle-class people went on to buy land elsewhere when the erosion started. Politicians have houses in Delhi. It is the peasants and tribals who are at peril.”
Alarmed by the erosion, the Centre assigned the Brahmaputra Board — a statutory body set up by the Centre to tackle the perennial floods in the Northeast — to carry out anti-erosion projects such as filling breaches and strengthening embankments. Work began in 2005 with the Centre sanctioning Rs 56.7 crore for the first phase. Initially, the board was given six years. Now it has been extended to 2014.
“In the past 15 years, I have lost almost 20 bighas due to erosion, I have never seen any Brahmaputra Board official or minister come here to take stock of the situation. When I went to meet the officials, they turned me away,” says Bora.
The government apathy towards Majuli is evident from the fact that the review of the protection programme is still not on the Centre or state’s priority list. In a recent report tabled in Parliament, the standing committee of the water resources ministry took serious note of inordinate delay in the projects. “The problem with the board is that it lacks experts. There’s also a nexus between officials, contractors and local politicians on tenders and work orders,” says a member of the Brahmaputra Board on the condition of anonymity.
That Sinking Feeling
The surface area of Majuli river island has shrunk by half in the past 60 years
Frustrated by the official apathy, local youth Manoj Borah lodged a PIL in the Gauhati High Court. The court imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 each on the board and the ministry for their lackadaisical attitude. But it seems that the government is yet to learn its lesson. “Even after being warned by the court, the government did not act. This just goes to show their attitude towards Majuli,” says Borah, the petitioner.
He claims that the total number of displaced families is 15,000. “If the Centre does an independent survey then the figure of displaced would be far more than what the Assam government claims,” he says.
If his claims are true, then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who hails from Jorhat district, is in for testing times. “Majuli is our pride. As Gogoi is from Jorhat we thought he would understand our plight but he has failed to do so. Many people have left Majuli for Jorhat, Dergaon and Teok,” says local resident Nripen Borgohain.
Adds Ananta Saikia, the headman of Kordoiguri village in Majuli: “The problem is that we cannot address such a major issue at the local level. On top of it, the board and government officials are inaccessible.”
MEANWHILE, KRISHAK Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), which has a strong presence in the area, has upped the ante against the government. “The issue is not only erosion. There is no development. Only some areas have roads and power. The rest of Majuli is still in the dark,” says KMSS worker Pobonta Saikia. “India is an agrarian society but farmers here are becoming landless, homeless and penniless. If the government doesn’t step in, farmers will have no option but to commit suicide.”
Majuli’s farmers cultivate rice, sugarcane, mustard and vegetables. Due to the acute shortage of land, farmers are finding it tough to cultivate crops and repay loans. “Brahmaputra is merciless. But our government can at least help us with rehabilitation and compensation. I have to repay Rs 80,000 but I’m landless. How will I manage?” asks Sindhuram Saikia, 52. He had 85 bighas in 1975. Now he has no land and works as a labourer for others instead.
His fears are echoed by Bharat Saikia, 55. “My family had 200 bighas in Ahutguri. Now I’m left with five. We have had to shift houses five times. How long can we fight against an indomitable river if the government doesn’t come to our rescue?” he asks.
As the sun goes down, an eerie silence grips the island as the last ferry from Majuli prepares to leave for the other side. Parikhit Saikia, a photojournalist who has extensively worked in Majuli, has the last word: “Majuli would soon become an example of how well-to-do farmers have turned into beggars and refugees.”
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.