In Majuli, living on the edge

A man walks on the embankment encircling the Majuli island to protect it from annual floods.

Padmadhar Kalita lost his home twice, in 1983 and 2004, due to erosion caused by the Brahmaputra. After living for three years on an embankment with his eight-member family, Kalita, a farmer, was given a plot of land by villagers at Purana Satra Bamun Gaon in Majuli, the largest inhabited river island in the world, in eastern Assam.

“Where will I go now, sir?” asked Kalita, 55, pointing to the Brahmaputra less than 200 metres away from his home, still causing erosion. After losing his five bigha of cropland due to erosion, Kalita learnt carpentry to run his family. “We have to take shelter on the embankment for three-four months almost every year during floods. We just rely on the ration from the government as we find no job during floods,” Kalita said.

The story of his neighbours, Dharmeswar Bora and Jagannath Bora, is no different. They too had to shift their homes and spend years on the embankment. And just when they are trying to settle down, the Brahmaputra has come rushing towards them. “The Brahmaputra has eroded nearly 3 km of land in the past 5-6 years,” Bhani Kalita, Jagannatha’s wife, said.

Nearly 100 households in this village are facing the imminent threat of erosion in this year’s floods (June to September), which wreak havoc in Majuli almost every year. “Flood problem has reduced after about half of Majuli was encircled with an embankment. But for those like us who are living outside the embankment and closer to the Brahmaputra, there is not much difference. We have learnt to live with floods, but are scared of erosion,” Bora said. 

“Government’s effort to check erosion by putting geo-bags on the river banks has not helped much. Look how the geo-bags are about to go into the river. The methods used are not working at all. There is no use of wasting public money like this. Instead, the government can give the money to us to buy land,” he said. Bora and his son, Monoj, once used to sell his agriculture produce but erosion forced them to be daily wagers after losing their cropland in the Brahmaputra. “It really pains when we live like refugees on the embankment,” he said.

The situation in neighbouring villages like Polashani, Kankurika, Jalukbari, Kalita Gaon, Alimur, Kaibarta Gaon, Kolakhowa and many more are almost similar.

With floods and river bank erosion in the Himalayan region, including Assam, increasing due to the melting of glaciers triggered by global warming, the distress and joblessness have shattered the lives of about 50% of nearly 1.6 lakh residents in Majuli. 

The fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that the flow of rivers such as the Brahmaputra was already changing in volume and intensity due to global warming. Frequent and intense floods trigger more soil erosion, destroying around 8,000 hectares of land along the Brahmaputra ever year. Sand casting causes massive destruction on the agricultural potential of the land.

Millions of people in India, a majority in Assam, and Bangladesh depend on the Brahmaputra as a direct source of livelihood. While a recent study has identified Assam as the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change among the 12 Himalayan states, it is already one of the most flood-prone areas of the world, with 40% of its entire geographical area flooded yearly.

Rituraj Phukan, a climate change activist based in Assam, said while the rest of the country was suffering from unprecedented water crisis and drought, abundance was a problem in the Brahmaputra valley.

“The accelerated glacial melting in the eastern Himalayan region will increase downstream water flow, worsening floods and river-bank erosion along rivers like the Brahmaputra. Places like Majuli are already bearing the brunt of such an impact. In the long-term, we will have to be prepared for water scarcity as the glacial flow dries up and rainfall becomes unpredictable,” he said. “Restoration of natural resources like native forests, wetlands and grasslands in the Northeast is important to reduce impact of climate change.”

Eroding geography

The increasing problem of erosion has, in fact, reduced Majuli’s geography from 1,245.3 sq km in 1950 to 703.16 sq km at present. A report of Assam State Disaster Management Authority says over 16,600 bighas of the island’s land was eroded by the Brahmaputra between 2001 and 2018. “This year, we had to shift eight families from Bonoria Sapori (sand bar) to Dhoni Sapori. Erosion is a constant problem here,” said Papori Baruah, field officer of district disaster management authority, Majuli.

As the erosion-affected families take shelter in government land, they are not considered eligible under flood compensation scheme as erosion has not yet been accepted as a calamity eligible for compensation under National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF). Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was elected from Majuli in 2016, in his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 12, requested the latter to include erosion in NDRF. 

“We are now carrying out a survey to identify the vacant government land for allotment to those who lost their land. Already 326 families have been provided with the same just before the Lok Sabha elections,” circle officer (revenue), Majuli, Ajit Kumar Sarma told DH. 

Urban migration 

As erosion takes away cropland and sources of traditional livelihood of those living close to the Brahmaputra, young boys in Majuli are moving out to places like Hyderabad and Bengaluru for jobs as private security guards.

Dipak, son of a farmer at Sonaribari village moved to Hyderabad last year and is working as a security guard earning Rs 14,000 per month. “We were a well-off farmer family in the village. But erosion has reduced us to such a low,” Dipak’s mother, Bogi Das, 65, said.

At least 10 youths from this village left for Hyderabad in search of jobs. “Many from Majuli are working in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Kerala after losing their cropland to erosion. There are no other jobs here,” Manash Hazarika, a local political leader said. 

(This story is being published as part of IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Program)

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