Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Environment, Headlines

Erosion Threatens an Island Culture

MAJULI, India, Dec 7 2011 (IPS) - Majuli island on the Brahmaputra river in the eastern Indian state of Assam is quickly losing its landmass to erosion. Majuli has long been regarded as one of the largest inhabited river islands in the world along with Ilha de Marajo of Brazil.

At Neamtighat on way to Majuli.  Credit: Ranjita Biswas/IPS.

At Neamtighat on way to Majuli. Credit: Ranjita Biswas/IPS.

On a balmy November day the island is overflowing with people. Ferries from the Neamatighat river port carrying people, motorbikes and cars are jam-packed. It is the time of the Raas festival, because Majuli is a seat of Vaishnavite culture (dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu) since the Middle Ages. Choir singing, percussion (dhol) displays and dramatic performances about Vishnu draw big crowds.

At the centre of activity are the satras (monasteries) where inductees to the Vaishnav cult live, some strictly celibate, some with families. One can feel the overwhelming influence of Sankardev, the spiritual leader who brought Vaishnavite culture to Assam, with a mantra of egalitarianism in a caste-ridden society.

To a visitor, Majuli seems caught in a time-warp, quite distinct from rapidly globalising India with its malls and consumer culture. Most of the roads are at best dirt roads. The gurus in charge of each satra and their followers live a simple life; agriculture is their main occupation. The people of the Misimi tribe who live peacefully with the local Assamese continue their age-old livelihoods of agriculture and weaving.

But despite this seemingly idyllic way of life, all is not well in Majuli. Erosion by the mighty Brahmaputra river has eaten away a large portion of the island, forcing many of the satras to relocate to mainland Assam. Many fear that if Majuli ultimately disappears into the river, priceless artifacts ensconced in the satras will be lost, along with an entire culture.

Records of the Revenue Department of the Government of Assam clearly show the declining land mass of Majuli with 1,246 sq km in 1950, 875 sq km in 1997 and just 480 sq km in 2001.

Ruplekha Borah, who teaches at Assam Agricultural University in Jorhat, the gateway to Majuli, tels IPS: “Many from the well-to-do section of Majuli have shifted to Jorhat fearing the future of Majuli. They have bought land here and much of the construction work you see in the town can be traced to them. Education for children and better infrastructure are also causing people to move out of Majuli.”

Kanak Bharali, 61, an inmate of Auniatoi Satra agrees, “When I was a child this place was double its size. Yes, people have shifted to towns like Golaghat, Dhemaji, Jorhat.”

Majuli is remembered as the island where social activist Sanjoy Ghose tried to introduce development work, mobilising people to join in the effort; he was murdered by cadres of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in 1997; his body was never found.

Majuli’s erosion is part of the wider problem of regular flooding of the Assam valley through which the Brahmaputra flows. At different times different methods have been adopted to contain the river which originates in Tibet and is variously known there as the Tsangpo, Siang and Dihong, before it joins two other rivers originating in the Himalayas – the Lohit and Dibong – on the border of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and becomes known as the Brahmaputra.

The river then flows into Bangladesh, taking the name of Jamuna. With many other tributaries joining it, the river brings huge amounts of silt into the valley. The riverbed has risen considerably through the years. Experts point out that the river is ‘braided’ and ever-shifting, and solutions such as dredging are impractical considering the river runs 650 km in Assam.

Old-timer Binoy Dowrah of Dibrugarh town where the river is perhaps at its widest, recalls how the great earthquake in the region in 1950 contributed to raising the riverbed. In Dibrugarh it was raised by at least three metres, and flooding and erosion ensued. Repelling spurs were constructed afterwards to contain the erosion in Dibrugarh.

In Majuli one can see dykes in porcupine style constructed along some parts of the riverbank. This is one of the methods used by the water resources department of the state government to contain the river. Plans are also afoot to construct land-spurs with boulders and stones to contain Majuli’s erosion, Nibaran Baruah, director of design at the Water Resources Department (WRD) tells IPS. “The major problem is siltation of the river and we have to adopt a long-term policy. The huge financial outlay needed for this is a problem too.”

“A long-term policy is a must to contain erosion and flooding by the Brahmaputra,” agrees Mriganka Deka, assistant executive engineer at WRD. Among the suggestions by experts is a proper reforestation programme in the upper reaches. Deka cites China’s reforestation programme in the catchment area of the Huang-ho for about 2,906 km. “However, this would need international cooperation.”

The other suggestions are construction of multi-purpose reservoirs for excess water, construction of anti- erosion embankments, and prediction of floods. Meanwhile the Asian Development Bank is putting around 114 million dollars into the Assam Integrated Flood and River Bank Erosion Risk Management Project, which is estimated to cost 142 million dollars.

Finally, political will is required to solve the problem, say many who have observed floods in Assam almost every other monsoon.

Meanwhile, allaying fears of disintegration due to erosion and flooding, the state government is planning to have Majuli listed as a world heritage site.

Inhabitants of Majuli like Kanak Bharali believe that “Majuli won’t die. If one side of the island goes there’s another sandbank rising on the other side. Soon there will be plants and trees and people will shift there. The Brahmaputra never lets us down.”

 
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