I hear echoes of wailing
O’ foreigner friend, ill-fated
– Bhupen Hazarika, ‘Chameli Memsahib’
Environment has played an important role in human history. From the rise and fall of empires to trade, wars and conquests, the changing pattern of the environment has shaped the course of the story of the people of the earth. In this story, water has played the most important role. Cities were formed around sources of water and civilizations were destroyed by water. Water has caused the most massive recorded displacements and loss. In India today, as thousands struggle to prove their citizenship, many have been reduced to the status of climate refugees because erosion or floods have swept their lands.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register that will contain the names of Indian citizens. After the census of 1951, a NRC was prepared by making a record of particulars of all the individuals specified during the Census of 1951.
Now NRC is updated in Assam to include the names of those people (or their families) who appeared in the National Register of Citizens of 1951, or else in one of the Electoral Rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, or in some of the other acceptable documents issued up to midnight of March 24, 1971, which would demonstrate their existence in Assam or in any part of India on or before March 24, 1971.
Almost two million people did not make it to the final list, and the tribunals declared them foreigners stripping them of their citizenship rights and privileges. They now face the risk of being detained or deported.
Assam’s topographic uniqueness makes it prone to floods; the mighty Brahmaputra carries with itself a huge amount of water and sediments. Assam also lies in a high-risk seismic zone; this means that landslides are common, and they push soil and debris into the water. This, in turn, raises the level of the sea bed and reduces the water-carrying capacity of the river. Large parts of Assam lie in a meteorological zone that is marked by surplus rainfall. A large amount of rain in a relatively short time makes it difficult to control floods. The Brahmaputra flows through a narrow valley, and there are forests on either side, but the rest of the low-lying area is used for farming. If the river overflows, as it occasionally does, the water spills over and gushes to reach these narrow pieces of land. From steep slopes, the water streams out to the heavily populated plains.
Thousands are affected, and yet, hardly do the floods make a national headline. They suffer the loss of lives, animals, land, homes and livelihood. Additionally, this time, many might have lost their right to claim to Indian citizenship.
As the officials were in the final stages of hearing claims and objections for citizenship, floods stuck Assam and flood rescue workers struggled to evacuate people from the homes as they refused to leave without their documents. Parvesh Kumar, a National Disaster Response Force officer in Morigaon district, says, “There is huge flood water and strong current in the Brahmaputra. Water is entering the villages first, and we are tasked with this challenging operation to evacuate people. When we go to bring them, almost everyone carries a bunch of papers: their NRC documents. People are ready to leave everything but not their NRC file.”
When the final list of NRC came out, almost 1.9 million people’s documents were found to be incomplete, and they had 120 days to file an appeal before the Foreign Tribunal. Many had submitted their land documents.
The NRC Assam had an option where people had to show pre-land ownership documents with links to the ancestor, who figures in the document as the owner. Thus, old documents have become the key to establishing citizenship. If these documents are missing, or have small mistakes, or if the land itself does not exist anymore, there can be a serious problem.
In the year 2017, the government of Assam made a rule that those whose land had been lost due to erosion will no longer have to pay taxes. So, those who submitted land ownership records of eroded land cannot prove anything. This effectively means that these people are now climate refugees and effectively ‘foreigners’ if they fail to give proof through any other documents.
Earth’s climate is changing at a rate faster than most scientific studies predicted. For some, like the affected people in Assam, this change could bring disaster. It is time that we understand that mayhem climate change can bring about and force people to leave their homes. Most of those settled on the bank of river Brahmaputra and its tributaries—these immigrants are the victims of flood and erosion, which make them homeless and landless. People displaced by climate need protection and assistance, and it is time we all come together to protect them and increase their resilience. Climate change will not spare anyone, and knowledge and working together might be the only thing that saves us.