Monsoon in Assam creates a scenario of both joy and grief for its people. Being primarily an agricultural state, the farmers of the region are largely dependent on the rains for cultivation. The flood water rejuvenates the agricultural fields through the deposition of fertile silt.
The perennial showers continue for months both in the hills and the valley which cause the Brahmaputra along with its numerous tributaries to overflow their banks and flood the entire region. This year, 25 districts and more than 32 lakh of people have been affected by flood and over hundred people have lost their lives. However, the issue unfortunately and unsurprisingly fails to grab the national limelight. In the national dailies, this issue only finds a neglected corner.
Since my childhood, not a single monsoon has passed without the issue of flood being spoken or heard of. At the local level, media and political parties create hue and cry to grab a gentle following but their tune changes once the flood subsides. For them, the issue of flood is a traditional and a seasonal one and often the ‘tragedy’ is used to push their agenda. This is what made me curious to visit some flood affected areas and get a hold of the real picture.
Hence, I enrolled as an intern with a local NGO named Jhai Foundation which specializes on disaster risk reduction interventions in flood affected char areas which are temporary riverine sandbars or temporary river islands. I got the opportunity to visit five worst affected districts, that too during the peak of devastating flood. I was part of a team to document the traditional flood coping practices of the affected people.
I started from Majuli, the only river island district in the country and concluded the two weeks long adventurous journey in a small char village called Mazidbhita in Barpeta district. In these fifteen days, I managed to get a glimpse of the harsh reality of the flood affected areas and the inhabitants.
Most of the villages I visited were regularly affected by annual flood. Flood hits some of the villages twice or sometimes thrice a year. Regular loss of crops and human lives has rendered the villagers helpless and has dwarfed their socio-economic prospects. They hardly receive any relief or rehabilitation against their losses. In some of the villages, there is complete absence of government machinery.
In the second district of the trip, we reached Bholukaguri, one of the worst affected villages in Lakhimpur district at dusk and could not go inside the village and had to arrange an interview with village headman on the road itself. Mistaking us to be government officials the village headman asked us to visit his village. He insisted, “Ahise jetia banpani saboi laagibo” [As you have come this far, you must witness our plight].
We requested the local field officer of the disaster management department to accompany us. But since (till we visited the area) the administration didn’t initiate any relief and rehabilitation intervention, the officer anticipated backlash from the flood affected tribal people and refused to accompany us. It reveals the anger and hostility of the flood affected people towards the government. However, once the people had discovered that we were not from the government but were independent researchers, their hostility transformed into warm hospitality as they arranged food and drinks for us even under those deplorable conditions.
These villages could remain cut off from the outside world for two to three months due to flood every year. The lives become so miserable that sometimes they cannot even manage a proper meal which usually consists of some rice and vegetables (meat or fish or lentils are a far cry in those circumstances) and have to be content by consuming only a handful of rice a day.
In search of hand pumps or tube wells or other sources to collect drinking water, they have to wander off to distant places that are not affected by flood. In case they fail to find a source, they are forced to resort to drinking flood water. In many flood affected villages, we couldn’t find a single sanitary toilet; the few villages where toilets were constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission were inundated by flood water. It was a traumatizing experience to feel that the water bodies where the victims were defecating were being used as source of drinking and cooking water.
Health care in the affected areas is another massive problem for the people. In recent years modern science has made great progress in the field of medicine but the people of these areas are deprived of the benefits of these recent developments. Most of them still follow traditional practices; some of which are effective but some are harmful too. In one of the accounts from a flood affected village, Deorighat, in the district of Dhemaji, when enquired about the health care facilities, the interviewee replied: “We have our traditional healers; some of our people also resort to prayers as the primary solution.” They use household remedies like Manimuni [Indian pennywort] or Amla [Indian gooseberry] in case of stomach problems; a fried paste of onion is applied on the forehead in case of fever etc. A strip of Chloroquine tablet or a pouch of ORS is luxury even after 70 years of country’s independence.There is a health center near the village but the doctor is hardly available during the flood season. The villagers lamented: “We have even arranged electricity in our health care centre but the doctor would always come up with a new excuse not to come. So our people have lost faith in the primary health care centre.”
Assam boasts of a literacy rate of 73.18% but the schools in the flood-affected areas remain suspended for two to three months as they remain submerged in water. In all the villages we visited in the five districts, all the schools had been damaged in some way or the other because of flood or erosion. Moreover, once the flood waters recede, the compensation process takes more than a month due to which the students end up suffering months of academic loss. Even if the school authorities or the state education board may draw up results, declaring and promoting the students’ academic standards, the meaning of education is rendered completely null and void.
While talking to the teenagers about what they wish to do, they gave some interesting replies that included professions like acting, photography, writing etc. They said that under such circumstances in which they cannot attend their schools along with the regular loss of agriculture, they are left with no option but to move out of their villages in search of employment to support their families.They mainly work as daily wage labourers or seasonal industrial labourer in glass, car or steel manufacturing industries. So during the monsoon season, there is migration from the flood affected regions to metropolitan areas and come back during winter. Some of them migrate to far-flung areas including Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and other metros. Various investigative reports have found that these flood affected areas are also fertile ground for human trafficking.
The experience in the char villages in Barpeta district was an eye opener for me. At the first glance, I could not differentiate the main course of the river as it had overflowed its banks. The chars are temporary sandbars which are created over time with the deposition of sediments by the river. These are not permanent and during flood the water might wipe them out any time. The people residing in those areas lead a very harsh life—from being regularly displaced to economically deprived and also politically victimized. The government aid in their hours of distress is very minimal. Moreover, the tendency to brand these vulnerable people as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” further adds to their woes. Such is the time now that if a Bengali speaking Muslim is to appear anywhere in Assam, he or she would be regarded with suspicion without any second thought, and if he is to wear a skull cap with a lungi then that would serve as the final nail on his coffin.
However, despite all these stories of suffering and pain, there are some initiatives and interventions by some organisations which showed me some ray of hope. I could figure out that, people of Assam have started to find a way out and become flood resilient. In Majuli district, people have started exploring innovative and flood resilient livelihood options like cage culture for fish farming, floating garden for vegetable cultivation, etc. Jhai Foundation, the organization which I interned in has been working on to create a model for development of the char areas focusing on disaster resilient shelter, organic homestead garden and floating classes for flood affected children.