The Brahmaputra is part of a unique river system of Asia that gathers the waters from snow and rain from Tibet and western China, funnels them through a very narrow region and then, spreads them across the vast alluvial plains stretching from Bengal, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In this maelstrom of water and mud that is flushed out of Asia and spread across these alluvial plains are the seeds and germs of countless river islands that are born, grow, get eroded, die and vanish.
One such island is Majuli, in the Brahmaputra: the epicentre of Assamese culture and identity, incidentally, also the largest river island on the planet. At one point in time, Majuli stretched over 1200 square kilometres. Today, it is a mere 576 km. Thirty years of erosion and flooding by the gargantuan Brahmaputra has brought it the pitiful state that it is today. Flooding is an annual affair in the Majuli Island. The only way to probably stop it would require building effective embankments, but no embankment seems effective enough, when pitched against the fury of the Brahmaputra. Every year, property and livestock gets washed away; people are rendered homeless and lives are lost. No solution however, seems to work to relieve the tragedy-stricken people of this island.
The official body which looks to, or should we say, is supposed to look to the flood and erosion issues of Majuli is the Brahmaputra Board, an autonomous body, which was born out of Parliamentary legislations in 1980. But, so far, the fact that 80% of the island was submerged by the floods this year, points to the gross inefficiency of the Board and sheer ineffectiveness of any of its policies. Every person seems to have a different take on the situation: while the general opinion is mostly against the work of the Brahmaputra Board, some people do believe that the Board is helpless against the raging fury of the river. As a result, the issue right now is choosing which technology will actually work in this scary scenario.
Recently, the Assam Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognisance of the inadequate relief operations when a seven year old girl was swept away in the swirling waters. Adding this new tragic development to the fact that over one lakh people have lost their homes and that several lakhs worth of property has been washed away, does make the situation a lot more grim.
Following all this, Janaki Ballav Patnaik, the Assamese governor, made an aerial inspection of several flood stricken areas on 13th July, and issued a warning to the Brahmaputra Board, that they would be held completely responsible for any further floods in the southern part of Majuli. The governor later held a discussion with the district administration, and obtained the commitment from the chairperson of the Brahmaputra Board, and the Principal Secretary of the Government of Assam that they would be able to complete the work entrusted to them in the north and south banks of the Majuli respectively.
Five years earlier, the central government had formed a Standing Committee of Experts for Majuli Island. The Committee visited the island this year and made several recommendations to be implemented by the Brahmaputra Board to control the river. Under the three phase protection scheme that has thus been planned, Rs 180 crore is estimated to be spent.
Given the current situation – the sheer inefficiency of the Board, and the shambling measures taken by the authorities, the times ahead do not look good for the stricken villagers on the Island. However, it cannot be impressed further, that the island needs to be saved, and for that, radical moves need to be taken. The big question remains, what those moves really are?