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Thu23Oct2014

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Lost island

Text and photographs by Shailendra Yashwant

Erosion is causing huge chunks of Majuli to literally fall off into the Brahmaputra. The island’s landmass is down by a fourth. The people quietly rebuild their lives over and over, watching the government’s futile efforts to manage the disaster and knowing that we must work with nature, not against it

Aerial view of the Brahmaputra

Aerial view of the Brahmaputra

On October 28 this year, from a plane between Guwahati and Jorhat, I witnessed  firsthand how  the Brahmaputra river,  reddish-brown and silt-laden, braided with hundreds of sandbars and islands, snakes its way through a  web of channels , creating a terrain of constantly mutating boundaries.

The 2,900-km-long river originates in Tibet as the Tsangpo, flows through Arunachal Pradesh as the Siang, and becomes the mighty Brahmaputra in the Assamese plains before draining into Bangladesh as the Jumna. It is prone to catastrophic flooding every year when the Himalayan snowmelt combines with wanton monsoon downpours. By September this year the river had swollen and flooded thrice, leaving a trail of destruction and displacement three times worse than last year.

Amongst the worst-affected was the riverine island of Majuli, considered the cradle of the Ahom civilisation, fountainhead of neo-Vaishnavism and my final destination for this leg of my journey across the Northeast.

The flood waters had receded and the gigantic ever-shifting sandbars had once again changed the topography so quickly that what I saw did not match what Google Earth displayed on my tablet as the area's latest satellite image. Nimatighat, the jetty for the ferry to Majuli, has changed its landing location thrice in three months as large chunks of banks constantly fall into the river.

Fresh erosion at Nimatighat, the ferry jetty on the Jorhat side
Fresh erosion at Nimatighat, the ferry jetty on the Jorhat side

From the overcrowded ferry manoeuvring to avoid the shifting sands, I saw up-close how the river slices through land, constantly eroding from one bank to deposit on another without design or purpose. Erosion is worst at this time, after the floods, just before the winter sets in, when highly saturated sediment brought by the floods combines with strong undercurrents in the Brahmaputra to erode vast stretches of the island’s landmass.

Originally, the island was a narrow and long piece of land called Majuli (land in the middle of two parallel rivers) that had the Brahmaputra flowing in the north and the Burhidihing flowing in the south, till they met at Lakhu. Frequent earthquakes between 1661-1696 set the stage for a catastrophic 15 -day  flood in 1750  which led to the Brahmaputra splitting into two anabranches—one flowing along the original channel and the other flowing along the Burhidihing channel -- and the Majuli island was re-formed.

According to records, in 1800 the total area of Majuli was 1,150 sq km and it is reported that about 33% of this landmass eroded in the latter half of the 20th century. At the Jorhat library, a map by A J Mefat Mills of the British East India Company shows Majuli’s land mass at 1,246 sq km in 1853. The 1993 maps made by the Brahmaputra Board show only 880 sq km as the total landmass.

According to scientists, excessive sediment discharge, the main cause of the constant erosion of Majuli, is due to frequent low-magnitude seismic disturbances in combination with deforestation in the upper catchment area of the river basins. The Subhansiri and other tributaries bring enormous amounts of silt to the Brahmaputra in the flood season. The average discharge of the river is about 19,300 cubic metres per second and during floods can reach over 100,000 cubic metres per second. This humungous quantity of silt travelling at high velocity gets deposited in the bed of the river, causing aggravation and braiding of the river, resulting in bank erosion and loss of land.

Having arrived safely on the other side three hours later, I discovered that the last flood washed away entire portions of roads at 49 places on the island. The condition of 25 places has remained beyond repair till now. The flood also washed away as many as 15 culverts and the approaches of seven concrete bridges. The PWD department and local people have somehow managed to repair 41  of the washed-away roads  by building temporary bamboo bridges. All of which I had to cross to reach the circuit house in Garamur, the administrative capital of the island and my staging camp for the next few days.

Next day at crack of dawn, 3.40 am to be precise, I stepped out to find that the island mainly consists of lowlands, swamps, sand flats, riverine tributaries, channels and wetlands, dominated by rice fields and speckled with Chinese fishing nets. I saw doves, ducks, pelicans, whistling teals, greater and lesser adjutant storks and black-necked cranes. Organic agro-farming was clearly the mainstay of the island’s economy and primary occupation of most of the 1.70 lakh islanders, mostly of the Mising, Deori and Sonowal Kachari tribes. I had also read that pisciculture, boatmaking, dairying, pottery and sericulture constitute a few of the minor economic activities.

Drawn by the sound of drums, I wandered into the Garamur Satra, one of the more important Vaishnavite monasteries of Majuli, where I was received by the head priest Satradhikar Haridev Goswami who shared his concern about the future of the Satras.

He told me how Shrimant Shankardeva , a 16th-century social reformer who preached the monotheist form of Hinduism called Vaishnavism,  established monasteries and hermitages known as Satras on Majuli. The island soon became the leading centre of Vaishnavism , the main religion of Assam. These Satras or monasteries are today considered the treasure house of Satriya culture and home to the Satriya dance and traditional Bhaona  (mask) theatre. There were 65 such monasteries, but only 31 of them have managed to withstand nature’s fury. Even their survival is at stake as the island shrinks and its edges fall into the river.

A few days before my arrival, the main Satras of Majoli had organised a special day-long prayer to ask Brahmaputra Baba, the only male river in an all-female river country, to spare Majuli.  “Since 1991, over 35 villages have been washed away. Surveys show that 15-20 years from now, Majuli would cease to exist. So many Satras have already been moved out of the island, it will soon be the end of the Ahom civilisation. More than the vagaries of nature, locals blame Majuli’s misery on mismanagement and misappropriation of funds by the water resources (formerly flood control) department and the Brahmaputra Board that was set up in 1980. We don't want their solutions, which is why the Satras were seeking the direct intervention of the gods. Only the gods can save Majuli is what people have begun to believe these days,"  Haridev Goswami concluded and left to join the morning aarti.

I saw the remains of the infamous 'porcupines', the original anti-erosion measures mooted by the Brahmaputra Board, long, snaking structures made of cement poles that were placed along the riverside to arrest and redirect the fury of the river during floods. These porcupines are a big joke amongst the local population and I could see why: at most places they lie in ruins as a useless reminder of a series of bad ideas that the government keeps trying to impose on the island. This is why when the islanders refer to a waste of time and money they simply call it a 'porcupine idea'.

Fresh erosion at Nimatighat, the ferry jetty on the Jorhat side
Porcupine walls: A waste of time and money

Jamini Payeng, a national awardwinning weaver of the Mising tribe, invited me to her Chang ghar in Adorkhoban Mising village, a settlement of those displaced by the floods of 2007. The Chang ghar, a bamboo house on stilts, is designed to keep out flood waters and animals. “And if it does get swept away in the floods, it is very easy to reconstruct. The Misings have very few belongings as it is,” says Jamini, who has lost her home to floods four times, as she shows me around the village.

“The floods we have seen in the last 10-15 years are not natural floods, they are artificial floods caused by the building of ill-planned embankments that are blocking the free and natural flow of water on the island. We can also tell from the heavy siltation and floating debris and trees, that heavy deforestation in Arunachal Pradesh and the dam-building activity on the Subansiri are causing this flood and heavy release of silt and sand. We don’t need science. We need eyes. The government can see, but it cannot understand. The river is not a problem, the people are.” Jamini’s anger is justifiable when I see the miserable Misings rebuilding their lives over and over again.

She took me to see the rest of her relatives, who have not yet moved from their post-flood temporary shelter along the embankment of the road east of the island. I lost her there to a mob of petitioners and relatives, demanding to know the status of potential resettlement areas, land kathas and relief schemes of the government. This year the flood has affected almost 33,000 families of 240 villages in the river, according to newspaper reports.  Crops worth almost Rs 25 crore, mainly from rice fields on 2,200 hectares, had been washed away.

Jamini’s journey from being a flood-affected youngster to an entrepreneur and activist is an interesting one. In the mid-’90s, prominent activist Sanjay Ghose spotted her on a ferry and invited her to join his team that had begun development work on the island, calling themselves AVARD-NE (Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development – North-East). She went to Rajasthan to learn the fundamentals of rural development with Urmul, and discovered a market for the traditional Mising weavers. She came back to help Sanjay and also set up a Mising women’s cooperative to make and market Mising saris, shawls and stoles. Today she runs a shop in Kamlabari with a friend and fights for the rights of Mising people with the government, the Satras and the contractor lobbies.

Fresh erosion at Nimatighat, the ferry jetty on the Jorhat side
Jamini Payeng with a Mising weaver

We went to see one of Sanjay’s initiatives, a 1.7 km-long, 30-degree experimental flood-and-erosion-resistant slope to halt erosion at Pohardiya. She tells me proudly that villagers joined his effort and offered voluntary labour for 30,000 person-days to build the bund that has survived the worst of the fury of the Brahmaputra. Unfortunately, Sanjay’s work drew the attention of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a separatist group from Assam, which abducted and killed him in 1997.  A dastardly act that is mourned by many on the island. “ULFA is still running extortion rackets,” Jamini laughs, “but the operation is getting smaller as the island gets smaller. But the bund is back in the spotlight with officials revisiting it after the last floods for possible replication. If they do, and if it does arrest erosion, it would be the ultimate testimony to Sanjay’s selfless dreams,” she hopes.

I met a visibly tired Laya Madhuri, the Senior Divisional Officer (SDO), highest governmental authority of the island, at her home late in the evening after she had finished a day-long inspection tour of the flood-affected areas. She was melancholic about the state of affairs and was well aware that the state, despite doing its best, was unable to deliver enough and in time. Her priority was getting the roads fixed to allow smooth movement of relief materials and then the terrible business of identifying land for the displaced, convincing them to move and helping them start all over again. The big fix for the island, the comprehensive development plan mooted under the Majuli cultural landscape regional Act of 2006, was neither her priority nor in her immediate purview, understandably, but  she did concede that unless long-term measures  were undertaken as soon as possible, the loss of land and life will worsen every year. She was particularly concerned about the lack of land to rehabilitate the rising number of displaced islanders.

Amongst the very few long-term measures proposed is one from Jorhat-based NGO, Core Professional Group for the Brahmaputra (CPGB) led by Dr Arvind Phukan, a former professor of  Alaska University, USA. Sustainable Design Solutions for the Mitigation of Flooding and River Bank Erosion on the Majuli Island proposes to work with nature where possible instead of going against it and take appropriate measures at a level that is appropriate to the local problem, taking into consideration efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

The structural measures suggested by the Group for the purpose include dredging the river, installation of bend weirs, spurs, dykes, ripraps of boulders, A-Jack concrete units , articulated concrete blocks, gabions, concrete lining, anchored bulkhead of tie-back steel sheet piles, stream cut-off structures and grade-control structures. On the non-structural approach, it proposes erosion  control measures through strategic plantation of native plant species and site-specific or condition-specific land management. The proposal has been submitted to the union water resources ministry. Copies have been submitted to the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER), Inland Waterways Authority of India and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

Sankusiddha Nath, a 17-year-old student and general secretary of Majuli College students union, dreams of a bridge to Majuli. "It will bring development. It will help bring heavy machinery needed for island protection measures. It will help export our organic rice and milk and vegetables to the world. Our students can go to colleges in Jorhat. Our people can work on the mainland and return home every day. And when the final deluge arrives, it will give the residents a chance to flee and save their lives, and let Brahmaputra Baba engulf what was his to begin with," he says with utter seriousness.

 I watch a Mising man drag his fishing basket in a marshy channel, the sky turns electric pink, a gaggle of geese lands in a bheel, a dolphin leaps out of the river, an old woman lights a diya. Sankusiddha whispers, "Sir, do you realise how meagre is man's brains and brawn, science and building prowess compared to the might of nature? Adaptation might be humbling but maybe it is too late for mitigation after all."  The river meanwhile silently churns its mysterious channels to break, bond, bind and break again.

Infochange News & Features, November 2012