24 September 2013
A tale of river-borne erosion in Assam.
It was a fine morning in Rohmoria. Everything seemed calm and quiet. We were walking along the bank of the river Brahmaputra whilst away in the distance, tiny little boats were slowly growing bigger: they were returning home with their morning catch. It is, one would say, the seamless everyday of any river bank in Assam. But this is Rohmoria.An area in Dibrugarh district of Assam, Rohmoria struggles for its existence against the scourge of river-borne erosion and flooding. Year after year, like an impassioned lover, the hungry tides of the Brahmaputra embrace large swathes of cultivable land, homes, wetland and jungle. It shrouds the monuments of its misdeeds, as if erasing evidence of its guilt: No one, not even the people of that area could show you any sign of the Brahmaputra’s sabotage. A deserted police station however, illustrates the dilemmas facing the people of Rohmoria. Abandoned long ago in anticipation of its destruction, the lone structure makes clear the cynicism of a state which is more concerned with its apparatus than its people.An eroding dialogueRiver-borne erosion in Rohmoria and its surrounds has a long history. Following the earthquake of 1950, significant portions of Assam’s river banks have been affected by the Brahmaputra. In 1979 a major portion of the road that connected Tinsukia and Dibrugarh town through the Rohmoria area collapsed into the river, transforming a well-connected provincial hub into a hinterland overnight, and evoking the many anxieties that come with this unwanted designation. Whilst Rohmoria’s bachelors lament the possibilities of luring a bride to the area, issues deeper than connectivity and courting prospects are evident. Rohmoria is still a rich place, though opportunities are limited now. With fertile land and abundant water resources, people can live a life of dignity. But suddenly, in one go, they can also lose everything. The anticipation of loss and displaced existence haunts Rohmorians every time the monsoons start pouring in Assam.After a protracted struggle of resistance and protest, government officials started to come to Rohmoria. With their cynicism, technology fetishism and a thorough distrust for the ‘primitive’ village folks, very little has been achieved through ‘dialogue’. Rather, the hypocrisy of the officials soon entered the lore of the Rohmoria resistance. A visit by the then sub-divisional officer is emblematic. Upon entering Rohmoria, a huge crowd gathered around the officer. After asking about the depth of the river, a man in the crowd replied that it would be approximately a person’s height. The officer asked him sharply, “How do you know that?” To the officer’s surprise, the man shouted, “Oi, let’s throw him down, so that he himself can measure the depth!” The officer immediately stepped backwards, as if the people were literally going to throw him down to the depths of the Brahmaputra.One of my friends still remembers an incident when we once travelled together to that area. We were talking to some people standing on the river bank, when a man showing the current of the river moving frantically in front of us remarked that this time the flood would be much bigger than the previous year. Taken aback, my friend asked him, “How do you know that?” The man replied with a smile, “I do not know. But I can tell you for sure that this time the flood will be much bigger than the last time.”Local knowledge concerning the river is, however, routinely ignored by respective government departments and their officers. Dipunjay Gohain, the present secretary of Rohmoria Ban O Khonia Protirodh Sangram Mancha (RBOKPSM), the body that is leading the movement, told me once, “the government departments think that we are illiterate people – that we have no knowledge about the river. This river is our home; we know each and every current of it, their change of direction and so on. They have taken a satellite picture of its currents one day and lecture us about their knowledge of the river. What if the currents change the very next day?”In a desperate attempt to protect their land and homes, the RBOKPSM organised efforts to divert the current of the river with very little help from the government. Since 1998, bamboo and wooden spurs have been erected as anti-erosion devices along segments of the river by concerned residents. On 31 March 2000 however, Bolu Gohain, a school teacher, died, buried under a heap of soil while raising a spur in defiance of the Brahmaputra. Bolu Gohain’s home still stands in Rohmoria, though no one can guarantee that it will survive the thrashing blows of the coming monsoon. At just 150 metres from the river, it trembles.The anti-erosion movement has always faced problems. Unlike any other displacement caused by natural disaster, the loss suffered by Rohmorians is not abrupt: people can anticipate their fate. Initially, this provides a catalyst for organisation and activism. As once-vocal activists lose their homes, however, they become mute spectators, no longer holding a stake in the struggle. In most cases, they migrate to other areas in search of land and livelihood. By each monsoon’s end, a large swathe of the Rohmorian resistance is decimated, forced into exile by the raging torrents of the Brahmaputra. In a democracy of numbers, the weight of people counts for everything.Though the anticipation of displacement should provide opportunities to organise rehabilitation programs, there is almost no initiative from the administration. Occasionally, at the local level, small plots of land may be allotted to those at the mercy of the river, though in almost all cases this land can be used only for residential purposes. Though it is tempting to suggest that the state’s neglect indicates a contemptuous attitude toward its rural population, the story is not so simple.The difficulties of good governanceIn Assam, the state has been forced to negotiate deftly with a population steeped in the art of ‘not being governed’. Given the pervasive presence of competing nationalisms, the reluctance of state officials to guarantee the human security of Assam’s citizens is, in a bizarrely rendered logic, a necessary mutation that ensures the state’s survival. In a region prone to identity-based conflicts, however, it is apparent that the logistical apparatus of the state is required in order to mitigate the frictions caused by disorganised resettlement schemes. Travelling through various Muslim and Bodo villages in lower Assam, the question of erosion-induced migration is a constant theme in conversations with locals. Indeed, many argue that ad-hoc community resettlements were a major contributor to the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts’ (BTAD) violence of last year.
In a traditionally Bodo village in Uttor Dolguri, Chirang district, a man related a story that made clear the mistrust and apprehension: “the situation was good here earlier” he lamented…
“they (Muslims) were just one or two villages on the other side of the river. They used to work in our fields. But in the last five to ten years, a huge population showed up on the other side of the river. What to do? The poor fellows are displaced by river bank erosion. The other side is now full with them, they have become a majority in the area. If a fight broke out with any one of them for any trivial reason, we have to mind that they are the majority here. We became a minority in our own land.”
Unlike the Assamese and Bodo chauvinists, fortunately he was not talking about the ‘Bangladeshis’. But in the euphoric discourse of citizenship and nationalism, these Muslims could become ‘foreigners’ in no time.
Brahmaputra Gorakhoniya Sthaiyee Protirodh Andolon Samity (BGSPAS), a body mainly operating in the Dhuburi, Borpeta and South Kamrup areas of lower Assam, is facing acute problems for this reason. Unlike Rohmoria which is in the so-called ‘mainland’, these areas are actually on the chars (riverine silt island) of the Brahmaputra. The chars are relatively permanent structures on the Brahmaputra – they usually develop within eight to ten years and are used by one or two generations. When it erodes, people find another char for habitation. Sometimes, acute erosion leads people to migrate to areas of the mainland where they find themselves, once again, living precariously. Former secretary of BGSPAS, Jamaludin Ahmed – who himself lives in a char under the Dhuburi district – told me during the time of the BTAD violence, “See, we call desh the area where we live. If a child migrates to the nearby city for education, his mother would tell her neighbour he is in bidesh. So fragile is our habitations that we are neither in bidesh (foreign) nor swadesh (nation).”
In reality, however, this localised, somewhat temporal understanding of ‘desh’ and ‘bidesh’ is not only dear to the ‘Muslims’ of these areas. The ‘indigenous’ communities also subscribe to this notion. Indeed, anyone who has knowledge of the early colonial initiative to commodify land in Assam, would certainly recount the regime’s effort to tame the unruly ‘indigenous’ peasantry, and have them hold a piece of land for at least 10 consecutive years. Unlike sub-nationalist narratives which construct ‘immigrant Muslims’ as land-hungry nomadic peasants, in reality, and in most of the cases, when they migrate to the mainland they have to forego their earlier connection with agriculture and become daily-wage earners or petty traders. Their connection with agricultural work can only be maintained if they become sharecroppers and, from sharecropping, become a lord of their own land. To achieve this is rare.
Land, identity and the erosion economy
In Upper Assam, where Rohmoria is located, the impact of land shortages on notions of identity are acute. In the nationalist discourse, if you are a Bangladeshi-origin Muslim, working or settling in the neighbourhood of ‘indigenous’ communities as a result of river-borne erosion, you are labeled a ‘foreigner’ in your own country. The story is much the same for members of ‘indigenous’ communities forced from their traditional lands to nearby settlements. Due to colonial-era initiatives, a substantial section of land in Upper Assam is in the hands of tea plantations and oil companies whose holdings far outstrip their production needs. As a result of this, and in the wake of the influx of entrepreneurs to the region caused by the ‘small tea garden movement’ of the late 1970s, viable land for migrants became almost non-existent in upper Assam.
In border areas such as Assam-Nagaland and Assam-Meghalaya, migration as a result of river-borne erosion provides similar challenges. With giant tea plantations and unauthorised coal mines occupying much of the landscape, migrants have often been forced to settle in state forests. Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS) started to organise these people when the government of Assam came to evict them in the early 2000s. Despite the fact that forest officials, security forces and insurgent groups had consumed everything that could be sold as a commodity in the forests, they were evicted. The cruelty of doing so, when the state had done little to protect against river-borne erosion (or implement viable resettlement schemes) is hard to escape.
Rather predictably, nature imagined as commodity has a uniquely inspiring effect on the government’s response to erosion problems. Indeed, in protecting property – particularly tea plantations, oil rigs, and ryotwari lands – the colonial initiative of creating embankments (which was later adopted by post-colonial governments) had a devastating effect on the ecosystem of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. In later stages, in the relatively underdeveloped economy of Assam, embankments became one of the major sources of income for a large amount of people. The beneficiaries were mostly ‘indigenous’ contractors who were employed by the government to construct embankments by the rivers, despite the negative environmental consequences. The practice (conveniently for the contractors) became so ubiquitous, that the only possible solution to flood and erosion problems was to build more embankments. Indeed, even when the building of an embankment caused the flooding of another area, the construction of an embankment in the newly flooded area would be touted as the solution.
Sanjoy Ghosh, an activist who tried to control the flood and erosion problem of Majuli, the biggest river island on the Brahmaputra, was killed on 4 July 1997 by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) who labeled him a RAW agent. At the time, rumours circulated that he was killed by the contractor lobby, who anticipated that Ghosh may resolve the flood problem permanently in Majuli. Though rumour does not constitute fact, it nonetheless indicates the economic interests tied to river-borne erosion.
In the 1950s, just after India achieved its independence and the 1950 earthquake changed the fate of the Brahmaputra, an important event occurred. Kolong – a tributary of the Brahmaputra – had been dammed, flooding the only important town in middle Assam, Nagaon. Mahim Bora, a gifted storyteller wrote about this event in a story appropriately titled Ekhon Nadir Mrityut (On the Death of a River). Bora vividly described the resulting environmental degradation and the trouble faced by thousands of people who made their livelihood from the Kolong. It is perhaps darkly ironic that the issue in 21st Century Rohmoria is one of neglect rather than state hubris.
The anti-erosion drive is still going in Rohmoria. In fact, Rohmoria succeeded in pressuring Oil India Limited (OIL), which has a rig in that area, to raise pipe-based dampeners. OIL reneged on its promise. Instead of raising 360 dampeners as promised, after raising just 10 dampeners OIL dumped the project, enraging Romhorians, who, through public protest, disallowed OIL from operating the rig indefinitely. Perhaps the greatest success was that the state was forced to heed their message. Last year, after fierce lobbying, Rohmoria got a 2.5 km geobag embankment, which is still surviving the tides of the river. They need another nine kilometres of fortification, meaning that Rohmoria’s struggle is far from over.
In a political tradition like India’s, where the state cares about its apparatus first, and its citizens second, Rohmoria is comparatively fortunate. In its vicinity, OIL has a rig relatively close to national highway 37, the blockade of which drew the attention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006. Other communities, however, are not so fortunate. They do not have oil rigs or national highways to block. Their struggles are vulnerable to the fatal curse of official indifference. For the communities of Assam, it will indeed be a challenge to engage with the state in a way that ensures their future survival.~ Ankur Tamuli Phukan is a PhD fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and is active in various social movements in Assam.