A permanent address is a luxury not everyone enjoys in Majuli, the world’s largest river island. Annual floods and erosion force many to shift their houses every few years, some even earlier.
Bhakatram Das, 72, moved from his home in Samaguri village to Baghgaon a fortnight ago after the Brahmaputra submerged his house and land. This was the family’s third relocation since 2008.
“My bamboo and banana plants, which sustain my family of four, are all gone. I don’t have any land now. We can’t continue living like this,” he said.
A few hundred metres away, Gereli Das is also building her new residence with wood and bamboo. She, her husband and daughter are among dozens who lost their lands to erosion and were forced to shift this monsoon.
“We survive by planting rice and paddy. But this year we cannot cultivate paddy as all our land is gone,” said the 60-year-old, who has shifted her house twice in the past six years.
Floods and erosion are not new to Majuli. From 1246 sq km in 1971, it has shrunk to 650 sq km at present. The island and the cluster of islets near it, is still significant – 80 km long and 15 km wide.
The island itself shapes and reshapes with each floods, land mass eroded at one end is deposited elsewhere.
Of the 248 villages on the island, 166 have been earmarked as threatened. Since 2001, more than 3,000 families have lost their land to erosion and were forced to relocate. Embankments are still home to more than 2,000 families.
Majuli, the hub of neo-Vaishnavite culture and spirituality, spread by 15th century social-reformer Sankardev, also face problems of connectivity and infrastructure.
It can be reached only by ferries and boats during the day, the condition of roads is poor and the 100-bed sub-divisional hospital lacks specialists. There is no major educational institution or avenues for employment.
But the floods also make the island a farmers’ delight.
The nutrient-rich sediments deposited on the banks of Brahmaputra make Majuli a very fertile place, favourable for agriculture for the 170,000-odd residents.
But the island’s fate could change soon. The BJP-led governments in New Delhi and Dispur have launched a spate of plans and projects to transform Majuli through flood and erosion control measures.
On Thursday, a week after the island was declared the largest river island by the Guinness Book of World Records, the Assam government upgraded Majuli’s status from a sub-division to the state’s 35th district.
New chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who represents the island constituency in the state assembly, held a cabinet meeting in Majuli and announced the government’s determination to protect and develop it.
The cabinet decided to set up a centre for water resources to tackle floods and erosion. Construction of concrete roads all over the island was another decision taken at the meeting.
A cultural university and a post-graduate college are part of the state government’s Rs 1200-crore package for Majuli.
Talks are also on with World Bank and Asian Development Bank to fund an ambitious project to dredge the Brahmaputra and its tributaries and remove silt deposit which in turn would control flood and erosion.
“Construction of embankments, geo bags and tubes at erosion-prone areas and planting of grass with long roots, would control loss of land,” said Narsing Pawar, the island’s sub-divisional officer.
The Union government has already announced the construction of two bridges connecting two separate banks of the island. Also, a 121-km long national highway will be constructed to connect Majuli with two major towns — Jorhat and Lakhimpur.
The plans, when implemented, are expected to make access to Majuli much easier and bring tourists from within India and abroad to witness the island’s pristine beauty and also experience its art, culture and spirituality.
Preserving unique identity
Residents of Majuli, comprising mostly scheduled tribes and scheduled castes, are excited at the attention their island is getting at present. But there is also fear that connectivity and development may lead to the island losing its unique identity.
The ‘satras’ — Vasihnavite monasteries — whose numbers have reduced from 65 to 32 due to erosion, still practice and preach the plays, dances and spiritual ways professed by Sankardev over 500 years ago.
There is apprehension that unbridled rush of people from other areas could affect these practices which have remained unchanged for centuries.
“Connectivity has both positive and negative aspects. Majuli’s natural beauty and culture could get affected and we might end up like any other place,” said Hem Chandra Goswami, religious and administrative head of Samaguri ‘satra’, one of the biggest monasteries in the island.
Some feel lifestyles of the Mishing and Sonowal-Kachari tribals, who are dependent on the island’s soil and water resources, could get affected once Majuli is “transformed”.
Sonowal and his team has the task of ensuring that the likes of Bhakatram and Gereli get permanent addresses and there is controlled development while keeping Majuli’s culture and spirituality unadulterated.