Monsoon in Assam creates moods of both joy and grief for its people.
Being a primarily agricultural state, the farmers of the region are largely dependent on the rains for cultivation. After all, the flood water rejuvenates the agricultural fields through the deposition of fertile silt.
On the other hand, the 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 33 lakh people have been affected by the floods.
However, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the issue has failed to grab the headlines. In the national dailies, this issue only finds a neglected corner.
Since my childhood, not a single monsoon has passed without floods being spoken about or heard of. At the local level, media and political parties create a hue and cry to grab a 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 view of the real picture.
Hence, I enrolled as an intern with a local NGO called Jhai Foundation, which specialises in disaster risk-reduction interventions in flood-affected char areas (temporary riverine sandbars or temporary river islands). I got the opportunity to visit the five worst-affected districts – that too during the peak of the 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-week-long adventurous journey in a small char village called Mazidbhita in Barpeta district. In those 15 days, I managed to get a glimpse of the harsh reality of the flood-affected areas and its inhabitants.
Most of the villages I visited were regularly affected by annual floods. In fact, the floods hit some of the villages twice or even 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 for their losses. In some of the villages, there is a complete absence of any government machinery.
While visiting the second district during our trip, we reached Bhalukaguri – one of the worst-affected villages in Lakhimpur district at dusk. As we could not go inside the village, we had to arrange an interview with the 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 the administration hadn’t initiated any relief and rehabilitation measures till then, the officer anticipated backlash from the flood-affected tribal people and refused to accompany us.
It showed the anger and hostility of the flood-affected people towards the government. However, once the people discovered that we were independent researchers and not associated with the government, their hostility transformed into warm hospitality. In fact, they even arranged food and drinks for us even under those deplorable conditions.
These villages remain cut off from the outside world for two to three months due to floods every year. The lives of the villagers 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 these circumstances). In such cases, they have to be content by consuming only a handful of rice a day.
Often they have to wander to distant, non flood-affected areas in search of hand-pumps, tube-wells or other sources of drinking water. In case they fail to find one, they are forced to resort to drinking flood water.
In many flood-affected villages, we couldn’t find a single toilet. The few villages where toilets had been constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission were inundated by flood water. It was a traumatising to see that the water bodies where the victims were defecating were also being used as source of drinking water and cooking.
Healthcare in the affected areas is another massive problem for the people. In recent years, science may have made great progress in the field of medicine – but people in these areas are deprived of the benefits of these recent developments. Most of them still follow traditional practices – some of which are effective while the others are quite harmful.
When we enquired about the healthcare facilities in the flood-affected Deorighat village in Dhemaji district, the person 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 – and in case of fever, a fried onion paste is applied on the forehead. A strip of chloroquine tablets or a pouch of ORS are luxuries for them, even after 70 years of the country’s independence.
There is a health centre near the village – but the doctor is hardly available during the time of floods. The villagers lamented – “We have even arranged electricity in our health care centre but the doctor always comes up with a new excuse not to come. So our people have lost faith in the primary healthcare centre.” It is not that these people are aversive to modern medical facilities – but they are left with no other option but to rely on their traditional remedies when medical assistance is not easily accessible to them.
Assam boasts of a literacy rate of 73.18% (according to the 2011 census) – but the schools in the flood-affected areas remain suspended for two to three months as they remain submerged under 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, declare and promote the students to a higher class, 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. Many of them wanted to get into professions like acting, photography, writing, etc. However, they also said that under such circumstances – in which they cannot attend their schools and 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.
Consequently, they mainly work as daily wage labourers or seasonal labourers in glass, car or steel manufacturing industries. During the monsoon season, they migrate from the flood-affected regions to metropolitan areas and return back during winter. Some of them even migrate to far-flung areas like Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and other cities. Various investigative reports have also found that these flood affected areas are also prominent sites of human trafficking.
My experience in the char villages in Barpeta district was an eye-opener for me. At first glance, I could not distinguish the main course of the river as it had overflowed its banks. The chars are only temporary sandbars which are created over time with the deposition of sediments. However, these are not permanent – and during floods, the water might wipe them out any time.
The people residing in these areas lead a very harsh life—from being regularly displaced to being economically deprived and politically victimised. The government aid in their hours of distress is very minimal. Moreover, the tendency to brand these vulnerable people as ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ adds to their woes even further. The situation is especially bad for Bengali-speaking Muslims.
However, despite all these stories of suffering and pain, there are some initiatives and interventions by some organisations which gave me some hope. I could figure out that the 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. And Jhai Foundation (the organisation I interned with) has been working on creating a model for the development of the char areas – focusing on disaster-resilient shelters, organic homestead gardens and ‘floating classes’ for flood-affected children.
The author is a student in the Department of History, Ramjas College, University of Delhi. He hails from Assam’s Jorhat district.