[Photo Essay] Laika: In the belly of the Brahmaputra

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Laika is a village in the middle of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Every year, the rising waters of the Bramhaputra flood the village. But it wasn’t always like that. The first flood came in the summer of 1988. Before that, the Brahmaputra used to be 7 km away from the village. Since then the mighty river started getting wider and wider. And now it flows right beside the village on one side and the Dibru river, which is a tributary of the Brahmaputra, flows on the other side.

I was researching on the Bramhaputra floods and I had gone to Itanagar. On 4 September, I returned to Banderdewa (a small border town between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam), a little more confused then I was before. The water level in Dibru-Saikhowa suddenly rose on the night of 4 September. So I rushed to Tinsukia the next morning. On 6 September, I was at Guijan Ghat from where boats ply between Tinsukia and Dibru-Saikhowa. The Dibru river was flowing furiously so the normal ferry service had been suspended. For almost half an hour I tried to convince a boatman to take me to the other side and at last, dejected, I was starting to leave. That’s when I saw two flood-relief trucks drive towards the ghat. My hopes revived and I ran towards the spot where the trucks were unloading, only to be further dejected as the Circle Officer, who was overseeing the relief operations, rejected my request on the grounds that he didn’t want to be responsible for me. I went back to the jeep that would return to Tinsukia town, unable to understand why anyone had to take my responsibility.

I am an adult, a professional photo-journalist and I was even willing to write an application stating that I am responsible for what happens to me. As I sat there in the jeep contemplating all this, a middle-aged man approached me and introduced himself as Jagat Lagashu. He was the chief of Laika village. As it turned out, he was going to the other side with a boat load of cooperative food supplies and some villagers from Laika village. He told me that he had been observing how I had been trying to convince the circle officer and that he would be much obliged if I came with him to the village.

Laika is a collective of three small villages, Rigbi Laika, Phasidia Laika and Pomua Laika. It has a total population of about 6,000. When I was talking to the villagers, I understood why I may not have been allowed on the food-relief boat. According to the villagers, the total rice which was supplied as food relief was only 29 quintals. That amounts to about 920 grams per villager, a one-time delivery for the current year. The food that was being delivered in the name of relief was a complete joke, while the food grains rot in our godowns. I remember seeing, only a few weeks back, a photograph in an Assamese daily of sacks of potatoes rotting inside the godowns.

Ranjit Lagashu, a government ME school teacher in Laika explained to me the various problems the village has been facing since the last 20 years. For almost a decade since the area was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 1986, the state government denied the existence of human population within the sanctuary. All this while the people had been demanding better facilities or to be relocated, says Niranta Gohain, a local journalist. Lagashu remembers the time when the floods occured on rare occasions. Those days, floods were a boon for the agricultural community. The river brought in the ‘pulok soil’ (soil swept in by the river water), which is highly fertile. But over the years, the duration and frequency of the floods has increased. Now floods happen right before the harvest and the pulok soil covers up and destroys the mature crops. And if it does not rain after the flood waters have receded, the pulok soil which covers the crops and grassland does not get washed away.

On 7 September, I returned on the village boat that ferried the villagers to Guijan Ghat, where they sell what is left of their animals, milk and vegetables to buy food grains. A young boy in his twenties, Diganta was helping the boatman steer the motorized boat. After a while, when the boat got to clear water, he came and sat beside me. I was writing his name on my notebook and he was looking intently at my writing pad. As I wrote his surname as ‘Lagasu’, he corrected me saying that it is actually spelled Lagashu with a ‘h’. He said that until last year he used to study in Novadaya Vidlaya in Tinsukia. He was an athlete and had travelled to places like Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmadabad representing his school. He had to quit studies and sports as his family could not afford his schooling because the crops had failed consecutively for the last four years. He also told me that according to legend, the village was actually named by the British when they found a piece of debris of Sputnik II, the spacecraft that carried the first animal into orbit – Laika.

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