A Summer by the Mighty Brahmaputra - Some Reflections

-Mitul Baruah, PhD Student in Geography 

Last summer, I spent two and a half months in Assam, India conducting pre-dissertation fieldwork. I spent most of the summer in Majuli – Asia’s largest human-inhabited river island located in the middle of the Brahmaputra. It was a highly productive summer in terms of establishing contacts, understanding the issues and the area well, and sharpening my research focus. Yet at the same time, the misery and wretchedness of the people affected by erosion that I witnessed in the island was outrageously depressing. Incessant riverbank erosion has reduced the island from 1250 sq. km. in 1950 to less than 500 sq. km. today and displaced more than 10,000 families within the island who have not yet been resettled.

Despite being a native of Majuli, it was my first visit to some of the areas/communities that are worst affected by riverbank erosion. For the people of Bagh Gaon, Samaguri and Sumoi Mari villages, displacement has become a permanent feature of their lives. In last two decades, these communities have moved to three different places, each time becoming more impoverished, more forgotten by the state, and getting much closer to the river, and thus more prone to erosion. For the people of Salmora village, once famous for their unique craft of pottery (i.e. without using a potter’s wheel), riverbank erosion has also meant an erosion of their culture and dignity. In the absence of adequate state support for protection or rehabilitation, a large section of this artisan community has either become wage-laborer or migrated to places where pottery is impossible due to lack of suitable soil.

In one instance, a portion of a village – along with its pukka (concrete) school building – was eroded away as I stood next to it talking to the villagers. Later I heard that the remaining portion of the village was also eroded overnight turning about 50 families into refugees. In yet another instance, I came across an entire community that has been camping on the road (embankment, to be precise) since last year without any support from the state.

The citizens of Majuli can be best described as “forgotten casualties” of a “slow violence.” It’s a case of absolute violation of Human Rights. The issue at stake, however, is how to ensure that the neoliberal Indian state protects the fundamental rights of its own citizens. The case of Majuli calls for an alternative politics – one that is radical and liberatory.