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Majuli Needs a Leader

Posted by Dharamjeet Kumar (dharamjeet.kumar14@apu.edu.in) on December 16th, 2016 in 2016-17, Clinton Fellowship Blog

Imagine this, a nice comfortable house with a backyard for some gardening. Then a bigger farm to produce enough for self-consumption as well as selling some to bear the living expenditure for rest of the year. But what if I say that each time you wake up in morning, you will find losing half a meter of land on a daily basis? Think how peaceful the sleep in the following night will be. This is the situation of Karatipar panchayat of Majuli. But the sleep here is still peaceful. Also, in general the land around the river bank is getting eroded at a fast rate in Majuli island. A man who lost about 25 bighas (1 bigha in Assam is equivalent to about 0.3 acre) of land from a total of 30 bighas in the last 10 years says: “During the peak rainy season when I return back to field from a day break, I find meters of my farm land has dissolved into water. While during the rainy season the erosion is highest, but everyday some part is being eroded”.

The cement pillars in the pictures is used to shield the land sides open to the river using nuts and bolts. This is just one example of inefficient effort from the government which can't guard the land even for one season of flood.

The cement pillars in the pictures is used to shield the land sides open to river using nuts and bolts. People often use this example to point out the inefficient attempts being made to prevent erosion. These are unable to defend the land even for one season of flood and collapses to the ground like this.

December is a special month for Majuli as it pays tribute to its beloved leader Sanjoy Ghosh (7 December 1959 – 4 July 1997) on his birth anniversary. 19 years ago while working for community empowerment in Majuli,  he was abducted by ULFA (an insurgent group) and then we lost him forever. One of the best parts of my work here with the community is that I get to hear a lot of narratives of Sanjoy, which are just a treat for the ear. One common narrative that you will hear is that the Majuli would have been something else had he lived till today. People visualizes the leader in their own way while narrating.  They talk about his unshaven beard, habit of one meal a day, etc.  A person said Majuli got its name popular in world only after Sanjoy got killed here. In his small work duration in Majuli, which was a little more than a year, he was able to bring some significant development in this part. He mobilized huge volunteer labour contribution for successful conservation experimentation on a land stretch of about one and half kilometres using just the local knowledge of conservation. Community believes that It was this attempt that disgruntled the commanding lobby of contractor and involved in government’s conservation program that led to his abduction and death. There has been a huge public investment in the previous decade to protect the land, however, the outcome has been largely insignificant. Report suggest to layers of corruption in the conservation programs of Majuli (Corruption in Majuli projects, Uma corroborates, 2015).  Majuli has lost more than 70% of its total area in the last century. The rate of erosion has only increased in the last couple of decades. The villagers still believes that the traditional practice of land conservation through the use of bamboos can still be instrumental. But it seems it is only possible if we have another Sanjoy in Majuli who can motivate and mobilize the community to take the conservation responsibility into their own hands.

In an exercise to understand the village better, I along with the students of Kaziranga university were trying to enlist the major issues in the village as what the community feels.

In an exercise to understand the village better, I along with the students of Kaziranga University were trying to enlist the majoy issues in the village according to the community.

Last month has been very eventful. With the help of students of social work coming from Kaziranga, a local university, I was a able to conduct in-depth participatory research in few of the villages to understand the need and the problems in these villages. Working with them as a team for almost a month helped me overcome the language barrier for some time. Land conservation is indeed the major need of the community here, but in lack of my competencies in conservation practice and also the legacy of Sanjoy’s leadership, I feel discouraged to initiate this in the beginning.

Weaving holds a important part in people’s living here. I, along with the community, decided to work for the development of handicraft business practiced in these villages. While researching the market, it was easily convincing that the handloom garments produced here have great potential. In many other districts of Assam, handloom is practiced as a major livelihood activity. It is a part of culture and heritage and one of the largest economic activities after agriculture in the state. With the involvement of a chain of middlemen, these products are not just being sold in the local market of Assam, but there is also in great demand in the international market. However, as the chain of middlemen is big, the price paid to the ultimate producers is much less than its selling price. Also, the scale of production happening in these villages is too low to have a regular trading partner. I met with few people who have been working with weavers in Assam and also with some big businessmen of handicrafts. They shared the biggest challenge of working in a place like Majuli is to get the people motivated to work for themselves. Being a flood prone area and also having a majority of the population poor, the people here have developed a habit of receiving things for free. During floods, they get some relief material from various organizations, and for the whole year they receive some food grains from the state’s public distribution scheme. This will be a challenge for next coming month, to get the people trust and motivate them to improve their livelihoods by themselves.

References

  1. Corruption In Majuli Projects, Uma Corroborates. (2015, December). Retrieved December 2016, from The Sentinel: http://www.sentinelassam.com/mainnews/story.php?sec=1&subsec=0&id=249929&dtP=2015-12-23&ppr=1#.WFOHGaIafDc
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Living with Floods

Originally Posted by Dharamjeet Kumar (dharamjeet.kumar14@apu.edu.in) on November 16th, 2016 in 2016-17, Clinton Fellowship Blog

I have lived in 14 states of India before coming to Assam and it was my first opportunity to enter into the north-east frontiers of the country. Assam is like an entrance to a group of states which follows a culture and possess natural heritage which is much different from the rest of the country. Serving as an entrance to a new world, Assam welcomes you with all warmth. Having lived in different other states, I have never experienced such kind of warmth and forthcoming nature in the communities.

Some happy faces from the first meeting with the community in Majuli

Few happy faces from the first meeting with the community in Majuli

 

I am placed with an NGO called North-East Affected Areas Development Society (NEADS) in Jorhat, Assam, in the north-east part of India. NEADS is involved in multiple domains of development. However, much of its resources are channeled on disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response. Assam is a flood affected state where flood is almost an annual phenomenon.

My host NGO offered me various projects to which I can contribute, however, they left it up to me to decide which one to start first. Using this freedom, I chose a much beautiful one of all their work site. I am beginning my work here on a river island called Majuli island. It’s the world biggest human inhabited river island surrounded by river Brahmaputra on one side and river Subansiri on the other. The rich diversity of communities inhabiting here along with dense green surrounding makes it one of the most beautiful places on the earth. However, with the beauty the nature also brings crisis in this area almost every year in the form of heavy floods. The flood carries serious consequences on people’s economy and health. Over the previous century the island has lost more than 70% of its total area due to regular erosion happening along the river banks.

A bridge made from bamboo

Bamboo Bridge

The “Mishing community”, which is tribal community, constitutes a major population on this island. I discovered through various studies and also through interactions with them about their history, living patterns, livelihood, etc. Traditionally they used to live around the banks of the river. Fishing, cultivation and weaving were their major activities for their livelihood. They continue to do so, however, earning the livelihood with this has became only difficult with time. They say flood was never a curse then. It used to bring rich soil deposits in the banks and recharge the ground water. The scale of floods those times was also not very severe. They built their houses with bamboo on a height to be secure during floods. They continue to live in such houses even now. But the severity of floods is increasing every year. Now they prefer vacating their houses during peak floods as many times it has collapsed. Then, water now takes longer time to leave from their fields. This has led to reduction in the cultivation period and the productivity as well. Most of them have lost a substantial part of their farmland due to erosion.

The

The ‘Mahaang (Bamboo) Houses’ of  Mishing Community

During my initial visits there, I used to wonder why one would continue to live in an area while knowing that there will be flood every year. Living with this continuous threat of losing the wealth generated during the year could be frustrating and can also make one pessimistic about earning better. But this logic of a rationalist got smashed when I spent a day with a Mishing family in their house. There was hardly anything in the house which one will feel fear of losing. This bamboo house was built on a height of about seven feet, supported by bamboos. Inside the house it was poorly lighted but had everything for a good sleep. Beneath the house they have their handloom which comprises of a charkha and weaving device made of bamboo. They just earn enough to meet their living needs. I was surprised when they said they don’t even take the things which don’t need but which would be provided by the government for free. As most of them fall below the poverty line, they are entitled to get a fixed quantity of free rice, wheat flour and kerosene oil under the public distribution scheme. They say they only take rice out of all because the other things they don’t use. I asked them why can’t they sell those things which they don’t use but could be easily sold thereon adding a support to their expenditures. Their response was overwhelming. They said many other communities often don’t get these things because of under-supply, thus, they leave it for them. With this you realize what kind of satisfaction with life you need when you live in such difficult areas.

Over the time I will be working with the weavers here. Almost all the households do handloom and only the women in the houses are involved in this. I would try to improve the market access of the garments that they make. There are two justifications for this work. First, talking to many of them I found their expenditure on health is high as situation post floods has serious consequences on their health due to water borne diseases. The increase in income will help them meet those expenditures. Secondly, the garments made by them are extremely beautiful and carry a culture which is not much known and the world should know about it. With the speed at which this island is reducing, there is a threat of extinction of this culture.

Women is making

Woman is making ‘Mekhela Sador’ – a traditional wear of Aasamese women – using hand-loom.