It is estimated that 30 lakh people have been displaced by erosion in 50 years in Assam, yet apart from Majuli, there has been little focus on environmental migration and the suffering of flood and erosion survivors, especially when they belong to the char chaporis
The impact of climate change has been more disastrous in developing countries due to high dependency on climate sensitive livelihoods like rain-fed agriculture and forestry. Various researchers have established that the larger burden of climate change disproportionately falls on the developing countries of the global south due to limited opportunities and choices, small land holdings and lack of access to a market. Within countries, the marginalized groups have limited resources and capacity to adapt and are hence the most vulnerable.
Numerous studies have also shown the impact of climate change and glacial ice melt in the Himalayas and Tibet that triggers floods and river bank erosion in Northeast India and Bangladesh. A majority of the research has focused on bank erosion, rainfall pattern, drainage discharge of the Brahmaputra River, geomorphic changes in the river basin and the impact of the 1950 earthquake on settlements and fluvial pattern of the river. But such climate induced displacement of people has also forced communities coping with it in Assam to migrate to cities and neighboring urban centers for livelihood. Also, in both academic and popular spaces, most discussions are limited to the Majuli River Island. But there are at least 2251 villages in 299 Gaon Panchayats with an estimated population of 25 lakhs living in the char and chapori areas in the entire course of the river Brahmaputra.
Brahmaputra River: the Youngest and the Most Volatile
Among various major braided rivers in the world, the Brahmaputra River is one of the largest and the most active geomorphologically. A braided channel is characterized by numerous chars and mid-channel sandbars which separate the flow into several channels, and they tend to widen the river through bank erosion. This process of river widening and sediment becoming available from eroding banks would enhance the continued building of sandbars. As a result, clusters of sandbars could eventually merge to form larger and more permanent islands, or chars, and the abandonment of any outflanking channel can convert islands into attached chars. The development and abandonment of channels is a very common phenomenon in a braided river like the Brahmaputra. A river becomes braided when the incoming sediment load exceeds the sediment-carrying capacity of the flow, resulting in an aggrading channel bed characterized by islands, locally known as chars, and sandbars. These chars and chaporis on the river bank are very prone to flood and erosion.
Though there is constant erosion on the bank of the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries, the extent of flood and erosion is naturally higher in char and chaporis than in the plains. Since the height of the char is never greater than the height of the highest flood, the chars are prone to devastating flood and erosion. There is no data on the level of devastation in char areas or the plight of the flood and erosion affected char dwellers. However, a series of micro studies conducted by a few researchers’ revealed massive destruction and displacement of char dwellers. The findings of one of such micro study conducted in Barpeta district revealed that during 1989-98 when no high intensity flood was reported in Assam, 45% of the total households were affected by flood and 51% of the total land was washed away by erosion in the surveyed char areas. Another study conducted by the same researcher in another char area for a period of 25 years (1980-2004) revealed that 77% of the surveyed households were affected by erosion and 94% of their land was lost.
A Dibrugarh University study reports that from the 1950 earthquake to 2015, a total of 2500 square kilometers of land has been lost due to flood and erosion. It is proportionate to the whole of Delhi, which is 1500 square kms, and four times the size of Mumbai. As per official estimates, only in Kalgachiyaa revenue circle and Janiya sub division in Barpeta District, 58 villages, inhabited by at least 1415 households had been wiped out by river erosion in only ten years, i.e from 2000 to 2010.
Erosion, a Bigger Problem than Flood
Erosion is a bigger problem than floods in Assam. However, the issue of erosion has been neglected by the government as well as other stakeholders. According to an official report, the river Brahmaputra eroded 4, 29, 657 hectares of prime agricultural land. Roughly, 7% of the land in the plains has been eroded between 1951-2000. The Mahanirman Calcutta Research Group (MCRG)’s study estimated that 30 lakh people have been displaced by erosion in 50 years (ibid).
Constitutionally, flood and erosion is neither a Central subject nor a State one. It is also not listed in the concurrent list. Water is a State subject, but nowhere is ‘flood and erosion’ mentioned. Erosion is not included in the guideline for disaster relief fund of the State Government either. The State Government considers it as a subject under the Water Resource Department. But there are numerous studies that show that frequency and intensity of flood in the last few decades have increased due to a change in global climate, and thus it necessitates more mileage.
Erosion has not only affected the people of Bengal origin Muslims but also many indigenous communities, for example, the Mishing community is one of the worst affected indigenous communities of Assam who have been devastated by annual flood and erosion. But most of the effected people are Bengal origin Muslims who had settled in the char areas and river banks in the British era. Many of the erosion induced internally displaced persons have settled in forest areas. However, in addition to displacement, the erosion induced Muslim IDPs face unique and brutal forms of discrimination and prejudice. The erosion not only erodes their land but also affects their rights, entitlements and dignity. Their identity is doubted and they are presumed to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Internal migration from one place to another or one district to another due to forced displacement amounts to identifying them as illegal. This construction of identity in a most pejorative manner has been dehumanizing the erosion induced internally displaced community of char-chapori areas in Assam.
The mainstream media has been silent on both, the suffering of flood and erosion victims and on the issue of environmental migration apart from a few scattered stories on human trafficking. Proper highlighting of the issue of rehabilitation of flood and erosion victims is missing from the media scenario. On the other hand, the media has created a narrative about the char dweller in a negative overtone through continuous reporting with the same ‘constructed other’ perspective. Many a times, media houses have gone ahead and accused them of ‘land grabbing’ with erosion as an excuse.
Environmental Migration, the Core Issue
But what needs be realized is that such politics around the constructed others is obscuring the grave issue of environmental migration and agricultural self-reliance of Assam. The ‘flood retreat agriculture’ in river banks and particularly char and chapori areas are the main food baskets of Assam. Erosion is not only making millions homeless but also reducing arable land and low cost traditional agricultural systems.
The issue of environmental migration has been hidden and ignored because most of the effected people are from the category of ‘constructed others’. The issue had come to light to some extent in the last flood when a few tribal villages in upper Assam eroded and villagers tried to encroach on forest land where people from another community was already residing.
It is important to know how the established legal and judicial processes have been overridden to satisfy the popular rhetoric of ‘Bangladeshi’ many times. A few days back in Majuli, migrant workers were arrested tagging them as ‘Bangladeshis’. Later on, all official documents proved such claims faulty. But what remained untold are the reasons of such interstate migration. And such untold facts also keep the grave reality of environmental degradation and mounting danger of increasing erosion in hundreds of other places other than the Majuli river island because of the identity of the erosion induced internally displaced persons.
The rehabilitation of erosion affected families and allocation of land patta to char dwellers have been a long standing demand of people living in the char chapori areas of Assam. Previous governments had seemed to take steps to provide land patta to the char dwellers and rehabilitation to the erosion induced IDPs. In 2003, the government notified all the district authorities to process land settlement in char areas of Assam. In 2006, another circular was sent to the district authorities seeking a list of erosion affected families to provide land and rehabilitation grants. Similar schemes were again instituted in 2015 to provide rehabilitation to erosion induced IDPs. But none of the notifications and circulars has progressed to practical implementation; rather, it has simply remained as a promise.
Written by Angshuman Sarma