On a recent trip to Majuli to shoot a documentary, wiped out by the unbearable sun with no sign of rain for days, my cinematographer friend teased me: “I thought we came here to shoot the flood?” He made this remark because unlike what was in the news – the devastating floods in Assam – Majuli appeared to be rather dry to him and the flooded areas on the riverside not shoot-worthy. He was right in so far as the conventional understanding of flood went – houses submerged, roads and bridges washed away, and loss of lives, humans and animals. Indeed, none of these was the case in Majuli. Did it mean that Majuli wasn’t affected by flood this season? What counts for flood damages and how do we show them? In what follows, I argue that we need a re-conceptualization of flood if we truly want to address the socio-ecological crises wrought by flood in Assam and elsewhere in the country.
‘We had our best times before embankments were built’
I have discussed elsewhere how the embankments in Assam, ostensibly a flood-control measure, have instead rendered people much more vulnerable to flooding. To recapitulate, the embankments have created a distinct spatiality of vulnerabilities by dividing the landscape into two different zones – inside and outside. While areas inside embankments (which I also call the countryside) may be spared of annual flooding, for areas outside of embankments (which I also refer to as the riverside), flood has become a permanent feature of the landscape, since the embankments have now closed off the natural outlets of monsoonal floodwater.
Even in the countryside, purportedly protected by the embankments, floods, however irregular, have become far more catastrophic now, since they occur through embankment breaching, which wreaks havoc. It is however the low-intensity, persistent flooding in the riverside that often goes unnoticed. No wonder that for my cinematographer friend, flood in Majuli was invisible.
The case of Salmora village best explains this phenomenon of “invisible” yet persistent flooding. One of the largest villages in Majuli, Salmora is located outside embankments, right on the bank of the mighty Brahmaputra. Roughly 60 years ago, an embankment separated the village from the river. Once that embankment got washed away and erosion took away huge chunks of Salmora’s land, the village moved inward. Another embankment was built, which, too, was washed away by the mid-1970s. As if no lessons were learned from the previous two episodes, an embankment was built for the third time, this time by keeping the entire village outside of it.
Today, sandwiched between an embankment and the river, for the people of Salmora, flood is not seasonal but a permanent part of their life. As soon as the Brahmaputra begins to swell up, floodwater reaches riverside villages like Salmora and stays there for long. So constant has flood become in the Salmora landscape that over the years, the entire village has switched to stilt houses, otherwise uncharacteristic of non-Mising villages in Majuli.
The flooding in villages like Salmora can be called “everyday flood,” which occurs quietly, persists on the land for long, and is hardly paid attention to. Everyday floods are not cataclysmic events, but they still destabilize people’s life in many ways. Salmora is a potter’s village and one of the main challenges facing this community is the scarcity of clay due to the steady process of riverbank erosion.
Flooding has made matters worse for them. Because of the long spell of flood every year, the community is increasingly facing a space crunch for their kilns as well as for the drying of firewood and potteries. Flood has also affected the process of digging and storing of clay. In a nutshell, everyday flood has been destroying the economy of the potter community slowly but steadily, although it has largely gone unnoticed by policymakers and the media.
Even for agrarian communities in the riverside areas, this phenomenon of everyday flood has rendered their farmlands unusable, as they are under water for several months a year. For the state, this may not be of much concern, as farmlands outside of embankments are categorized as “char anchal,” which does not generate any revenue. Yet for the rural folks, these meager landholdings are invaluable for their survival. As for the impact of embankments in the inside zone, the following quote from villager in Majuli sums it up well:
We had our best time before the mathauris (embankment) were built. Everything used to be ubhainadi (abundant): food grains, fish, and all other essentials. But ever since the embankments came up, our fields stopped receiving timely water and alluvium. This has destroyed our agriculture. The embankments have also severed our ponds and beels from the river, thus depriving them of both freshwater and fish. Moreover, floods now wreak havoc on the island, as they are mostly flash floods occurring due to embankment breaching, which was not the case earlier. Before, the floodwater used to come in gracefully and recede sooner.
When the wetlands dry up…
The conventional flood control measures such as embankments and cognate infrastructures have created a separation between water and land, or between the river and human habitat. This separation has had adverse impacts on local ecologies in the Brahmaputra floodplains. In Majuli, for instance, the wetlands are the biggest casualty of this separation. Historically, Majuli has been full of wetlands of a wide variety such as beel, jaan, dubi, hola, ghuli and so on. There were over two hundreds of these wetlands on the island, including some legendary ones that dated back to the medieval period and were part of the island’s folklore. Because of the twin processes of flooding and erosion, many of these wetlands have now disappeared. The existing ones, on the other hand, are highly degraded today, as the embankments have severed their connection with the river. A case in point is the iconic Tuni river. A natural anabranch of the Brahmaputra, the Tuni river once flowed through the center of the island, replenishing a large number of beels along its course. Today however, this river has almost turned into a morasuti (dead channel), chocked with water hyacinth and household and urban wastes. The embankments have ruptured the hydrological cycle on the island with serious ecological consequences. (Image 11)
The degradation of the wetlands has also been a big blow to the fishing communities in Majuli, particularly the Kaivartas and the Misings, whose traditional livelihoods are now in deep crisis. With fishing becoming increasingly unviable, many erstwhile fishermen from these communities are taking up all kinds of odd jobs (including kawadi or scrap collection!) to make their ends meet. Again, these issues have never made it to the news nor are they so earth-shattering that they would touch the conscience of the policymakers and the local elites. So, a “slow disaster” persists, producing an uneven geography of vulnerability on the island. Just so my reader understands the perversity of the crisis, let me present to you an irony: the fish markets in Majuli now sell more fish coming from Andhra Pradesh and UP than locally sourced. Indeed, some of the tiny roadside fish markets in many erstwhile fishing villages do not sell local fish at all!
The so-called “development” projects, too, have amplified people’s flood-vulnerability. We seem to have somehow equated development with infrastructure, resulting in endless construction activities in both urban and rural areas. A lot of these infrastructures have actually become a cause of serious concern for riparian communities, especially because they are often designed without paying any heed to the integrity of the river and the environment as a whole. And the embankments are not alone in this. In Majuli, the concrete roads and bridges have also come to obstruct the natural courses of the rivers and streams. Sometimes, such infrastructures are built by filling up beels and dubis (wetlands), thereby reconfiguring the natural landscape. All of these have rendered the island much more susceptible to flooding.
What I have shown in this article is that flood is not simply about its catastrophic manifestation during monsoon, which makes it to the news, as it should. Rather, for many communities in Majuli and the Brahmaputra Valley in general, flood is a condition that affects them throughout the year. It has re-shaped their lives and the meaning of life. We need a re-conceptualization of flood if we want to protect lives and livelihoods of people living in the Brahmaputra floodplains. We need to pay enough attention to everyday flood. We need to consider flood as a permanent disaster, not seasonal, and that would require incorporating concerns of flood and flood-vulnerability into our development planning. Let’s talk about flood round the year and not only in the monsoon.
Mitul Baruah teaches at Ashoka University. Views are personal.
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