The Old Man River
Escaping Brahmaputra’s fury
By Furquan Ameen Siddiqui
Rooftops in the riverA man paddles a boat near submerged houses on the Brahmaputra east of Gauhati, on July 26, 2016. By late July, flooding in Assam had forced more than two lakh people out of their homes and into relief camps. (Anupam Nath / AP Photo)

t’s been a month that the flood waters receded in the northeastern state of Assam, but 35-year-old Anwara Khatoon and her family have been living in a one-room shelter built on an elevated mud platform, to escape flooding. Khatoon was one of hundreds of people stranded on a patch of a river island they call Tapajuli Pathar, located close to the river Brahmaputra in lower Assam’s Barpeta district.

Her husband, Shahjahan Ali, recalls how one morning in mid-July he woke up to find the river Beki (a tributary of Brahmaputra) dangerously close to his house, eroding the bank. Panic-stricken, the family decided to move. “It was pouring that day. We couldn’t even shout for help,” says Ali. “We shifted our belongings to a house nearby, but after a while we realised that it wouldn’t survive the angry waves either.”

By noon, the river had swept away the two houses, their farm land and the family’s prized possession — a cow. With no land left to rebuild a house or cultivate, the two families are at the mercy of others. Tapajuli lost 54 houses this year.

Almost an annual ritual, flood waters of Brahmaputra ravaged Assam again. By July 29, floods had affected more than 1.8 million people across the state and resulted in over 30 deaths. Of the 35 districts, 22 were under water, and 4,90,142 people had taken shelter in the relief camps, according to a report by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA).

Islands in the Brahmaputra Drown Every Year
The sandy islands, or chars, in the Brahmaputra disappear every year beneath the monsoon floods. Thousands of people who live and farm on the chars must flee to higher ground, abandoning their homes to the muddy flood waters.
Satellite imagery of the Brahmaputra near , every month from 2013 to 2016
Source: NASA Worldview

In the same fateful week, flood waters in Atowar Rahman’s tin-roofed house rose to touch his knees. In the already confined space of his house, the kitchen — its utensils, gas stove and a cylinder — occupied a wooden cot in one corner, while two other cots placed on top of each other, kept his wife and children dry. Rahman, who became a father just a few months ago, was doing all he could to keep his newborn son away from the slowly rising waters.

“Thankfully, the flood water didn’t hold for long this time. Our house was flooded for around 15 days. Otherwise, on an average, our area is flooded for over one or two months,” says Rahman.

This was not even the first wave of floods this year. Pre-monsoon floods in April and May already disrupted life in upper Assam. Human interference, including dam projects upstream, and the changing climate threaten to amplify the river’s impact.

The increasingly frequent and intense floods force thousands to migrate from the river, changing human settlement patterns. In some places, displacement has even led to conflict. Ethnic friction in lower Assam, especially in the region bordering the autonomous Bodoland regions, can be traced to migration. The displaced — often Bengali-speaking Muslims — are assumed to be illegal immigrants from bordering Bangladesh. In the raging debate on illegal immigration, what is often ignored is the role played by the revered one — the river Brahmaputra.

The history of floods and the nature of the river go back to August 15, 1950, when a severe earthquake altered the course and bed levels of many rivers, especially raising the bed level of Brahmaputra in upper Assam.

Since the 1950s, according to some estimates, major floods have struck Assam around 25 times. The government puts the figure at about 15. In the past five years, floods have ravaged the state every single year.

Assam’s Monsoon Floods are Unpredictable
In Assam, monsoon rains cause destructive flooding every year. But it is impossible to predict when the destruction will occur. Over the past five years, the worst of the flooding has occurred at different times.
Daily count of   between July and September, since 2012
Note: ASDMA counts an affected village as a village where a house has been flooded. Crop area affected and people affected are also calculated based upon the number of flooded houses.

Of the 2,880 km journey, the mighty Brahmaputra covers — from its origin in the Himalayas in southern Tibet till it merges in the Bay of Bengal sea in Bangladesh — most of its journey as “Tsangpo.” Known as “Brahmaputra” after it enters India from Arunachal Pradesh, with the foothills of the Himalayas to its north and the Khasi and Garo hills to its south, the river then flows down the plains of Assam. It covers a distance of 916 km in India.

The river is feared as much as it is loved. The famous Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika wrote about the old man river, the Burha Luit (another name for Brahmaputra), as he called it in his song. He rebuked the river for indifference to people’s sufferings.

Just like it brings prosperity to millions, it takes prosperity away from others. Writing about the floods, Assamese singer Jayanta Hazarika sang, “Oh the maddening floods of Luit, where are you heading this time? Whom are you chasing again with the frightening sound of your waves?”

A boat on the flooded Brahmaputra carries relief materials to Majuli, on July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/ Anupam Nath)

Rahman and his fellow villagers are a part of an economy that remains largely rural and agrarian. The river is central to the creation of livelihoods. About 87 percent of the total land available in the state is for agricultural cultivation, which mostly falls under the Brahmaputra river basin. Agriculture and related activities make up about one-fourth of the state economy.

Despite unseasonal floods and dry spells, the Economic Survey of Assam 2014-15 reveals that the “agriculture sector continues to support more than 75 precent population of the state directly or indirectly… providing employment to about 50 percent of the total workforce.”

The world-class tea grown in the region also owes its existence to the river’s fertile basin. Estates in Assam produce more than half of the tea produced in India, and about 17 percent of the workers of Assam are engaged in the tea industry.

In the dry season, the landscape around the course of Brahmaputra holds a different look. The flood plains expose an intricate network of roads and paths leading to the human settlements, raised at level much higher than the paddy fields — which regularly get inundated — so that they remain accessible even when water rises to several feet.

Floods and displacement — temporary or permanent — are a way of life. People have developed methods to deal with the situation, including raised hand pumps and houses on stilts.

When we had visited in February and March — from Dhemaji to Dhubri — accessing some of the remote villages meant travelling on different modes of transport. It took us an hour of scooter ride to reach the nearest river bank. Then, after a long wait for a small boat, we hauled the scooter onto the boat to get to an island. These islands are locally known as char.

Boats are a lifeline for the people in chars. Small, motorised ferries are their only connection to the outside world. A boat on its way to Tapajuli Pathar in Barpeta. (Furquan Ameen Siddiqui / Hindustan Times)

The Tapajuli Pathar in Barpeta is formed by two tributaries of Brahmaputra. The flood-prone char, inhabited by over 1,800 Bengali-speaking Muslims, is one of the most backward areas of Assam.

According to the Jhai Foundation, a non-profit that works in char areas, one of the most backward villages in Assam is Barpeta’s Uttar Godhani, where literacy rate is just seven per cent. “In such places, the only option for health care are people such as Rahman, who runs a medicine shop,” says Abdul Kalam Azad of the foundation.

In a place where people lack even basic shelter or avenues for livelihood, health care and education take a back seat.

“We lose our crops to river, predominantly rice and jute, when the floods are early,” says 60-year-old Noor Mohammad. “In my lifetime, I’ve seen the river take away my house at least 10 times, and every time we have constructed a new one.” The level of water, according to Mohammad, sometimes goes up to six or seven feet. “We either move to the platform or wait it out on the roof. If the animals don’t fit, rafts made of banana plants keep them from drowning,” he says.

Mohammad Ali Hossain, 18, with his father Noor Mohammad, 60, at their one-room tenement in Tapajuli Pathar. Hossain works as a construction labourer in the city and returns home during the crop season. (Furquan Ameen Siddiqui / Hindustan Times)

Forced by abject poverty and lack of public facilities, every family has sent at least one of its members to faraway cities such as Bengaluru, Delhi and Chennai. “Almost all the young men in this village work as urban labour, working primarily as construction labour in the cities,” says 18-year-old Mohammad Ali Hossain. “I earn around Rs.8,000 to 9,000 per month in the city and save around half of it. We work on the farms when at home, but spend around six to eight months outside the state.” Hossain and his three brothers work in the city and fund the youngest one’s education in the hope that he’ll pull the family out of poverty.

Far away, in the upper part of the river in Dhemaji’s Simen Chapori, Kamal Basumatary has a similar tale. Basumatary lives with his family in a bamboo hut alongside a road that used to go to his village. Now it leads to the river.

About 120 families from four villages were displaced last year during the floods and have been living on the roadside since. “It [Brahmaputra] was around 1.5 kms from its current position now,” says 60-year-old Basumatary, an ethnic Bodo. “In just a year, it took the whole chunk away. We farmed on the little bit of land we had. Now we work as manual labourers in the city.”

Last year, around 120 families were displaced permanently after the river eroded four villages in Dhemaji’s Simen Chapori. The families set up temporary, tin-roofed hutments on the land leased from the village community. (Furquan Ameen Siddiqui / Hindustan Times)

People in this part migrate to other states too, to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi to look for work. The women leave to work as house helps. Basumatary’s daughter was sent to a government official’s house in Arunachal Pradesh to work as a help. Basumatary’s neighbour told us how agents from Delhi came offering her two daughters similar work.

The cycle of devastation continues in dry season, too. Large chunks of land crumble from the edges into the river. Erosion is another problem that people in Assam have to deal with.

In 2010, then-revenue minister Bhumidhar Barman claimed in the state assembly that erosion had become more dangerous than floods. Five years later, in the assembly, he said that 36,981 houses were eroded in the past five years. In the 15 districts that he mentioned, 880 villages were eroded completely while 67 were eroded partially. The districts of Dhubri, Jorhat and Barpeta, according to him, were affected the worst. Most of the char villages are located in these districts.

The total area eroded since 1950 is approximately 4,270 square kilometres, about seven percent of the land in the state’s 17 riverine districts. Majuli, one of the largest river islands, has shrunk from 1,256 square kilometres in 1891 to about 421 square kilometres today.

Faiz Ali lives in Bashani char, an island accessible by land during the dry season. In February, we rode on a motorcycle on white sand on the riverbed from Dhubri to reach to 45-year-old Ali’s house, where he worked on his paddy field. Ali, a Bengali-speaking Muslim, claimed that he lost about 10 bighas of land last year alone.

Villagers walk to their village near the Bangladesh border from Dhubri town. People who can’t afford to take a jeep to their villages walk for 10-15 kms on the river bed to reach home. (Furquan Ameen Siddiqui / Hindustan Times)

In Kamrup district’s Kathalguri char, 40-year-old Aamir Ali was gathering his belongings from a bamboo hut that was falling apart. Surrounded by the river, the char is accessible only by boat. “My house was right there,” Aamir says pointing towards the crumbling edge. “The river took it away around two months ago.”

Why do people stay in these places despite the constant fear of displacement? “Kot jabo? (Where will we go?),” says a Tapajuli villager. “It is so expensive outside to purchase a land. A small piece of land costs upward of Rs.3-5 lakhs. Where will we find that kind of money? A lot of people have left already, whoever managed to earn some money. Only the poor remain here.”

According to the state government, the Brahmaputra basin is more than 70,000 square kilometres, the flood-prone area of the state is around 31,500 square kilometres, and the average annual area affected by flood is 9,310 square kilometres — roughly three times the area of Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai combined.

Erosion, according to DC Goswami, former professor at Gauhati University’s Department of Environmental Science, has always been an issue. But so many factors contribute to the erosion it is difficult to tell if it has increased.

“However, high-magnitude floods are more capable of causing high-intensity erosion,” says Goswami. “This would worsen the already grim situation caused by annual flooding.”

What does it mean at a time when the climate around the world is changing rapidly? For the uneducated villagers, it has meant frequent, erratic or intense rainfall. Some say that the monsoon flood seasons that were usually predictable have changed and become more volatile.

High-intensity rainfalls in the past few years have resulted in flash floods in Brahmaputra tributaries such as the Manas (seen here) and Beki. Sudden high-magnitude floods have resulted in widespread sand deposition and erosion. (Furquan Ameen Siddiqui / Hindustan Times)

The state government in its draft report on climate change, however, paints a grimmer picture. A report titled “Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change (2015-2020)” predicts a rise in floods by more than 25 percent in the southern parts of Assam. Drought will also increase by more than 75 percent. And extreme rainfall might increase from five percent to as much as 38 percent.

When I met joint secretary Nandita Hazarika at the ASDMA office in February, she shared her concerns about the erratic rainfall. “Earlier, we had two to three spates of floods, but now we are witnessing four and even five phases, starting as early as April till October,” says Hazarika.

Climate change, she says, is one of the major concerns, and the disaster authority has undertaken projects, in collaboration with the Earth Institute of Columbia University and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi and Guwahati, to study patterns and create an early warning system. The projects, says Hazarika, haven’t progressed as expected.

The climate change report emphasises the possibility of flash floods caused by cloud bursts. In 2004, two intense cloud bursts of unprecedented intensity — one in the western Meghalaya hills and the other in western Arunachal Pradesh — produced devastating flash floods in the Goalpara and Sonitpur districts. In June 2008, rainfall on the hills of Arunachal killed at least 20 people and displaced more than 10,000. In 2014 and 2015, similar flash floods struck the hills of Meghalaya.

“Our understanding of the global climate change model is good, but when it comes to local climate, our efforts are not enough,” says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “Our knowledge is mostly based on experiences of people. It is going to get worse, but by how much, no one knows.”

Two years ago, when I visited Kokrajhar, to an area bordering Dhubri, a Bodo friend pointed out men constructing bamboo huts on paddy fields. He wanted to show me how ‘Bangladeshis’ are rapidly taking the land that belongs to Bodos, a tribal community living in Assam’s Bodoland districts. The conflict between Bodos and outsiders (often Bengali-speaking Muslims, assumed to be Bangladeshis) has been simmering since the early ’80s and has led to deadly riots.

In a report released in January 2015, the Asian Centre for Human Rights claimed that there were over 3,00,000 internally displaced persons in Assam, the highest in the world during 2014. The report blamed the killing of over 80 people by Bodo militants in December 2014. More than 150 people were killed in the violence of 2012 and 2014, in Bodo areas.

The climate change report mentions these developments in the region, too. It notes that “the social disruption and costs associated with both flooding and the erosion of land have been rising as it has also triggered migrations, causing conflict over land, social and communal tensions.” The conflict in Bodoland is one such example.

Bangladeshi villagers watch an Indian Border Security Force patrol boat on the Brahmaputra River along the India-Bangladesh border in Assam, on Sept. 3, 2016. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has sought help from the central government in sealing the border, one of the core issues of the ruling BJP's election campaign in Assam. (Anupam Nath / AP Photo)

To understand the situation better, I met Arupjyoti Saikia, a historian at Guwahati’s Indian Institute of Technology. Saikia, who has studied the migration and encroachment in the hills surrounding Guwahati, suggests that migration is a consequence of the agrarian economy crisis Assam is going through.

“The people from the char-chaporis were the invisible people of Assam, often ignored and overlooked,” says Saikia. “The loss in agricultural land has brought them in direct conflict with the people in urban centres. It has made them ‘visible’. This phenomenon, rural to urban migration, has led to this raging debate of identity.”

Identity politics has plagued Assam for over three decades and is exploited every election. The Asom Gana Parishad seized power in 1985 with its anti-foreigner agitation, and the new government led by Bharatiya Janata Party came with similar promises of expelling illegal foreigners. The target of such campaigns is often the Bengali-speaking Muslims, whose identity differs from the dominant Assamese identity.

In an effort to identify illegal immigrants, the state even launched a program of identifying genuine voters. People who couldn’t convince the state of their Indianness were marked D-voters, or Doubtful voters. D-voters not just lose their voting rights, but are expected to prove their Indian identity before special Foreigners Tribunals in the state. The state puts the current figure of D-voters at 1,36,448.

Though the estimates vary, D-voters are concentrated in the districts of Sonitpur, Dhubri and Barpeta, the districts most prone to flooding and erosion.

On August 13, a heated argument took place in the Assam assembly after the BJP MLAs raised the issue of evicting suspected Bangladeshis from government land. Congress MLA Sherman Ali contested, saying the encroachers had been displaced by erosion over the years. He demanded the rehabilitation of about 1,30,000 displaced families. Targeting Ali, a BJP MLA alleged that not only the state but the House, too, was flooded by illegal Bangladeshis.

Indian Border Security Force personnel patrol by the banks of the Brahmaputra near the India-Bangladesh border in Assam. Thousands of people have been displaced because of flooding and erosion, exacerbating an already contentious political issue. (Anupam Nath / AP Photo)

Are the floods misunderstood in these parts? To understand recurring devastation, perhaps the river needs to be understood in terms of climate change, erosion, floods, and migration patterns — and not reported with shock and surprise each year.

And it doesn’t just affect the rural population. “We have seen what happened in the Mumbai floods in July 2005, Surat in August 2006, Srinagar in September 2014, Chennai in December 2015. If people think that cities are safe, they are living in a fool’s paradise,” says Thakkar. “Particularly when dealing with a river like Brahmaputra that constantly changes character.”

According to Thakkar, these are just beginning of warnings. “Only when we are faced with a situation, we react but we like to ignore it rest of the year. It’s like an elephant in the room. We don’t want to acknowledge it,” he says.

Over the telephone from Tapajuli, Atowar says life goes on as usual after the flood waters receded. Even though he has become used to this life, his newborn child, he said, will need to understand nature. “I pray that my children don’t have to go through this, live a life like mine,” says Rahman. The villagers had told me earlier that no one could say how long the char will survive. It could be gone by next year or stay there for generations, only the river can tell.

This research was partly supported by the HICAP Grant Programme for journalists. Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP) is implemented jointly by ICIMOD, CICERO and GRID-Arendal in collaboration with local partners and is funded by the Governments of Norway and Sweden.

Web production and graphics by Harry Stevens and Abhinash Kumar Jha. Editing by Dhrubo Jyoti and Harry Stevens. Additional research by Harry Stevens, Anand Katakam and Aparna Alluri.