Tinsukia: Pinku Moran, 35, is a farmer from Thapabari under the Sadiya Legislative Assembly Constituency in the Tinsukia district. He waited for 15 years for the local MLA to fix his village’s roads. But as his constituency goes to polls on March 27, Moran and around 1000 farmers, dependent on lemon cultivation, have resolved to vote against the incumbent BJP MLA Bolin Chetia.
Chetia was among 30 legislators led by the present health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who jumped from the Congress (I) ship and joined Bhartiya Janata Party in 2015.
Chetia, who belongs to the Moran community, got overwhelming support in the previous elections as a BJP candidate. Using the Congress-led Tarun Gogoi government’s ‘failure’ in bringing development to his region, Chetia won the Sadiya seat by more than 6,500 votes beating a rival Congress candidate. In his three terms as an MLA representing Sadiya in the State Assembly, Chetia secured the highest votes in his third term as a BJP candidate as compared to the first two terms as a Congress candidate. His supporters say that he remains helpful in this year’s election as his old rival, Jagadish Bhuyan, is standing from the constituency on an Asom Jatiya Parishad ticket. In 2006, Chetia beat Bhuyan albeit with a narrow margin of fewer than 2500 votes. Congress and other independent candidates are also in the electoral fray.
To his advantage, the Bhupen Hazarika Setu, known as Dhola-Sadiya bridge over Lohit river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, built during his tenure connecting Sadiya town with remote South bank still has few backers. Bulbul Mahout, 45, a progressive farmer from Thapabari on the bank Noa Dehing river counts the Dhola Sadiya bridge as an important communication link that connects two distinct parts of the Sadiya constituency. But his praise ends with the bridge.
Erosion and drought
“Sadiya is known for its agriculture. We grow chemical-free paddy and lemons on the rich loamy soils drained by rivers like Noa Dehing and Lohit. More than jobs, if he strengthened the market linkages for the farm produce, we would have been able to sustain ourselves even during monsoon floods or COVID-19 lockdown. But he was focussed more on protecting and expanding his own businesses than working for the development of the region,” says Mahaut.
Pinku Moran rues that he is now left with less than 10 bighas of the lemon crop from his original 40 bigha lemon farming. “Noa Dehing continues to erode our farmland and the only road that connects our farms. The embankment promised over 15 years back to safeguard our crops is only on paper. I don’t think our people will vote Chetia this time,” says Moran.
Documents accessed by a local unit of All Moran Students Union show that more than Rs 25 crore was sanctioned for the protection of Thapabari and several other villages through embankments and bunds in 2013. “Do you see any road here? Or an embankment?” asks Ripunjoy Moran, the local secretary of All Moran Students’ Union. “The local MLA is answerable for this. In the coming elections, people will not spare him. We waited for far too long,” says Ripunjoy.
For his part, in the run-up to the elections, Chetia went around inaugurating Kala Kristi Kendras in his constituency. Kala Kristi Kendras are centres for the cultural expression of the communities. In other areas, he distributed power tillers and cash prizes in Adivasi dominated areas of the constituency as a part of a statewide push by the BJP government to woo Adivasi voters towards the party. Chetia’s plans have partly worked with several old Congress hands from the Adivasi community joining BJP. At the same time, his push towards more inclusivity has resulted in the erosion of support from his own community. One of the most important demands of the residents of Thapabari and surrounding 10 to 12 villages along Noa Dehing was to be counted as revenue land. On average, 92,000 lemons leave the farms for the markets as far as Jorhat, 230-odd kilometres from here with each lemon taking only 15 to 25 days to mature, say the farmers.
“Thapabari and other villages are beyond the imagination of the state administration. They are non-cadastral as they are not part of the revenue village even as they continue to generate revenue for the locals here. We feel that half of our problems would be resolved if they are included as cadastral villages. This would pave way for us to apply for the schemes and regularize our lands,” says Ripunjoy.
Even with close to 1 lakh lemons being produced from the region on a daily basis, farmers like Pinku Moran or Jayanta Neog and several others had to dump mature produce on the road during the COVID-19 lockdown. “We would get Rs 4 to Rs 5 for a lemon, which fell to 40 paise as the lockdown started in March when lemons should be in high demand. During the peak of the lockdown, no buyers came so we had to dump the lemons,” says Jayanta Neog, cultivating over 45 hectares. Neog adds that the situation has improved over time, but zero rainfall during the winter months got lemon farmer scrambling for water supply.
“January and February we expected rains but this year we did not receive a single drop. Those who had access to bore well managed to survive this dry spell. If there were irrigation facilities like bunds, which would mean diverting a portion of water for irrigation from Noa Dehing or other smaller rivers, there would have been a good harvest,” says Pinku Moran.
Monsoons on the other hand end up submerging almost the entire Thapabari and surrounding villages. “The last monsoon floods submerged vast swathes of lemon cultivation. The lone primary school became the shelter from close to 50 families who could not manage to find the higher ground,” says Biswajeet Moran. Farmers estimate that productivity dipped from 5000 to 6000 lemons per day during the lean period.
Off the Map
Biswajeet has family living across Noa Dehing in Simanta Tengapani, a village on the border of Arunachal Pradesh’s Namsai district. Close to 70 families in Simanta Tengapani rely on a single boat to ferry themselves and their goods for Rs 30 per crossing. “Lemon farmers there are making huge losses. We were hoping that Bolin Chetia would have done something about the plight of these people almost cut off from everything but nothing came for us,” says Biswajeet. Last year, before the lockdown people, built a bamboo bridge connecting Simanta Tengapani with the rest of Assam and named it after popular Assamese pop star, Zubin Garg. However, during lockdown with people crossing the inter-state boundaries to Arunachal Pradesh, authorities tore up the bridge.
Incidentally despite these hardships and losses, farmers from this region celebrate the Geographical Indication tag that Kaji Lemon received in 2020. “Here the farmers cultivate the seedless Kaji Lemon which is only found in Assam. Based on the juice, smell, zero-chemical content, round-the-year production, its seedless qualities, this lemon received a GI tag aimed to boost sale and provide solid benefits,” says Sikha Deka, a scientist at the Citrus Research Centre in Tinsukia.
Deka along with her colleagues was instrumental in bringing lemon cultivation to these parts around 10 years ago. These scientists formed a committee for 540 farmers from the region. “Lemon cultivation suffered a massive setback due to COVID-19 and apathy of our local leaders. People here are unhappy with the leaders. With their support, we wouldn’t have faced crores of rupees in losses this year. We want the government to promote the produce from this land,” says Niren Moran, General secretary of the Lemon farmers’ committee.
According to the Directorate of Land Records and Surveys, Assam close to 1030 villages are been considered non-cadastral. With the survey of these lands yet to be completed, adding these villages to the revenue map would have boosted the productivity of the state and protected millions of farmers.