Residents of Majidbhita Char in Barpeta district of Assam have been shifting from one place to another due to land erosion, depriving them of their livelihood and agriculture. By Anup Sharma Muslim Miah finds it difficult to remember how many times he has built a home for his family.
A resident of Majidbhita Char, or a river island, in Assam’s Barpeta district, the 70-year-old Miah has been shifting from one place to another with his family for years due to erosion of the river banks and creation of chars. These chars keep shifting or changing shape with the mood of the river.
Erosion has been a perennial problem for river Brahmaputra and its tributaries such as Beki in Assam. Char-dwellers say what has changed is the rate at which we are loosing our lands for more than a decade now.
Experts attribute this to climate change. UK-based website, Carbon Brief said that most of the areas in Assam including Guwahati has already become warmer by 1.3 degrees Celsius and it is projected to be warmer between 1.4 C to 4.8 C by 2100.
The climate projections of the Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change also indicate that there is likely to be an increase in extreme rain fall events by five to 38 per cent with respect to base line. The report further projected that drought weeks are going to rise, with Southern districts showing marginal reduction in drought weeks but rest of the district showing an increase by more than 75 per cent. Floods are going to rise by more than 25 per cent in the southern parts of Assam.
“I have built too many makeshift houses to remember. Our lives depend on the water of the river. I have been in Majidbhita for the last 10 years but I don’t know how long we can live here. The river has become hungrier for land, eating away the large chunks of earth around our homes in the past few years. If this place is eroded, we would have to shift somewhere else,” Miah, a farmer like his father and grandfather, said.
Members of his family learnt to live with the floods since they began cultivating the fertile char in the Beki river years ago. But times have changed. “Earlier, we could predict the floods but now there is no pattern. Sometime there are three waves of floods, sometimes more now. The tides erode the edges of our land very fast depriving us of our only livelihood, agriculture. If the land goes under water, there is no point in living here,” he said.
The 70-year-old farmer said that he had about 50 bighas of land to cultivate when he was young. He now has 12 bighas on the char that he has been living on for the past 10 years during which he lost his house several times due to erosion.
“I grow rice, lentils, mustard, vegetables and the like on my plot. But productivity has reduced along with the cultivation area probably due to the change in weather. Sometimes, the weather is too dry and sometimes it rains too much,” he said.
Some distance away from Majidbhita, the people of Balapara Char in Barpeta district face the same problem. Rahim Khan, a resident, lost his cultivable land and houses several times due to erosion. Khan has not heard of climate change but he is certain that his condition would not have been so bad had the river not eaten up his land that his forefathers cultivated and lived a good life on.
While these people have been living at the mercy of nature for ages, their plight has become more miserable in recent times due to unpredictable climatic conditions that have severely affected their lives and livelihood.
Once wealthy, Khan has become a marginal farmer due to erosion. He now works on the fields of others in the village to earn a minimum share of the paddy as his wage. His three sons left farming and now work as daily-wage labourers in the nearby towns, earning Rs 250-300 per day.
“I owned 32 bighas of land here. The land was fertile and the production was good before the river ate it up. We grew three crops every year of paddy, lentils, mustard, jute and vegetables. Land here is so fertile that one does not need to care much for the crops. What I earn now is not sufficient to run a large family like ours. My sons have been forced to do low-paying non-farm activities. What can we do? This is our fate,” Khan said, blaming the river.
Miah and Khan are among 25 lakh people living on an estimated 2,251 chars that dot the entire river system in Assam. They have been hit hard by the changing climatic conditions that have affected the hydrological pattern of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, forcing them to relocate — within a char or away from the river banks.
According to data provided by the Assam government during the session of the 126-member Legislative Assembly in October 2018, a total 4.27 lakh hectares of land have been lost due to erosion in Assam. Former Minister of Assam Water Resources, Keshab Mahanta told the House that an average of 8,000 square km land is eroded by Brahmaputra and its tributaries every year.
“The change in temperature and rainfall pattern in the Northeast indicates that climate change has impacted Assam and other parts of the region along with the rest of the world. This change in the rainfall pattern has led to the recent volatility of the rivers. The Himalayas are also fragile and more rainfall triggers their erosion. Besides, the Northeast is located in Seismic Zone V and hence, witnesses regular seismic activity, which also leads to erosion,” said Partha Jyoti Das, who heads the water, climate and hazard division of Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based biodiversity and conservation organisation.
(The story is written as part of a fellowship offered by climate cell of Assam Science, Technology and Environment Council.)