Treacherous river: How the Brahmaputra is eroding away lives and livelihoods in Assam

Ceaseless erosion and annual flooding, and the state’s failure to tackle either, have pushed entire communities into despair.

BySupriti David
Treacherous river: How the Brahmaputra is eroding away lives and livelihoods in Assam
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Every year, like clockwork, images of Assam drowning in the swollen Brahmaputra flood the Indian media. Every year, the response to the disaster is reduced to a statistical exercise, the tabulation of lives and livelihoods lost, crops and wildlife consumed. Sometimes ecological devastation as both cause and consequence of the disaster enters the discourse. But the stories of ordinary people who bear the brunt are rarely told. Or, when told, they are forgotten as soon as the news cycle moves on. Another year rolls around and the story is repeated.

It’s almost the same elsewhere in India: the human suffering and how it’s tied to economic and ecological causes and consequences of a calamity is often overshadowed by a focus on statistics and debates seeking to assign blame.

To help rectify this, Newslaundry travelled in Assam and Bengal to get a sense of how the lives of common folk have been upturned by two of the deadliest natural disasters to hit the country in 2020 – the Brahmaputra floods and the cyclone Amphan – which together took at least 221 lives.

In Assam, where floods devastate usually the same marginalised people year after year, we visited the six worst-affected districts, covering about 1,300 km along both banks of the Brahmaputra as well as the world’s largest river island, Majuli. In Bengal, we focussed the coverage on the Sundarbans, the mangrove delta wrecked by Amphan.

In the northeastern state, one of the major problems facing the disaster-hit people is river erosion and the resultant landlessness.

Assam has lost 4,270 sq km of land – more than Goa’s total area – to river erosion since 1950, and 2,500 villages have been wiped out. At least 3,800 sq km of the eroded land was “highly productive farmland”, according to a draft report prepared five years ago by the state’s environment department, which identified continuous changes in the Brahmaputra’s course as a key reason.

The report pointed out that “costs associated with both flooding and the erosion of land have been rising as it has also triggered migration, causing conflict over land…and posed a threat to general economic development”.

Yet, it is only this year that erosion has been pushed to be considered a natural calamity, so that populations affected by it are entitled to state compensation. “Funds allocated under the Disaster Damage Repairing Scheme do not reach the erosion-affected people,” according to a report in NENow. In fact, the state government does not even have “any account of the number of displaced people, especially in lower Assam”.

To get a picture of how erosion has wrecked the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, take the example of Hesuli Pothar, a village of about 90 families in Dhemaji district towards the border with Arunachal Pradesh.

The highway from North Lakhimpur to Dhemaji.

The highway from North Lakhimpur to Dhemaji.

Tucked away a 25-minute drive away from the highway to Arunachal, Hesuli has been ravaged by ever intensifying floods in the past six years. It shows: damaged houses and barren silted farmlands punctuate the village’s lush green landscape of paddy fields. For a people dependent for livelihood primarily on agriculture, the loss of farmland has landed a heavy blow.

Komola Devi stands in front of her damaged home and farmland in Hesuli.

Komola Devi stands in front of her damaged home and farmland in Hesuli.

“You see this river? Here’s where my land was,” rued Rekha Gogoi, 34, a member of the local panchayat, nodding in the direction of a stream that cuts through the fields. It has newly branched off the Jiadhal river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, in a phenomenon known as braiding.

“There’s no trace of my field anymore. This arm of the Jiadhal river has washed it all away. It came through our village only this year. I feel sick every time I look at it. We have a little land left across the river, but there are patches of sand there where nothing grows. It has been months since this happened but we still haven’t been able to come to terms with it.”

Hesuli’s villagers have built a bridge over the new stream to reach their fields on the other side.

Hesuli’s villagers have built a bridge over the new stream to reach their fields on the other side.

The new stream hasn’t just washed away Rekha’s farmland, it has made future uncertain for her family. “We were completely dependent on this land. We would grow food for ourselves and to sell in the market. Now that it’s gone I don’t know what we will do. I have two daughters, aged nine and 12, to raise and educate. So, we have to find some solution for their sake.”

Paddy fields across the stream are only partly silted and, hence, cultivable for now, but the farmland along the near bank will be barren for at least two years given the amount of silt and sand deposited by the floods.

Rekha Gogoi near the stream that has consumed her farmland.

Rekha Gogoi near the stream that has consumed her farmland.

Once, there was a silver lining to the floods: the fertile silt they left behind replenished the fields. Now, in significant part because of climate change, the silt is mostly sand.

“Our trees are starting to dry up as well, especially bamboo,” Rekha said. “We used to grow bamboo we needed in our village but for the last few years we have been buying it from outside. Our trees and crops are not suited to this sandy soil.”

The precarious situation of Hesuli’s villagers is no accident of nature. For at least four years, they have pleaded with the administration to repair an upstream embankment on the Jiadhal. But to no avail. This year, the river tore through the embankment, submerging the village and birthing a new stream.

“If the embankment is fixed, it will save about 40 villages in this area from being flooded so severely every year. Also, this new stream will be diverted and the soil will get rejuvenated in a few years. But there has been no response from the government so far. We live in fear that one day our entire village will be washed away,” Rekha said.

Assam has a network of 423 embankments built over the last six decades, but nearly 300 are past their use-by date and can no longer withstand the surging waters. At least 180 of the embankments were breached this year alone.

Hesuli’s women gather near the unwanted addition to their village.

Hesuli’s women gather near the unwanted addition to their village.

Nearly 150 km km away in Gohpur district, Pradeep Mili has lived what Rekha only fears. Pradeep, 34, resides in Borphalang village with his father, wife, and two children. The family was compelled to move to Borphalang in 2008, when their ancestral village, Lohitmukh, 17 km away in Sonitpur district, was washed away by the flooded Brahmaputra.

Pradeep Mili’s farmland is underwater for half the year.

Pradeep Mili’s farmland is underwater for half the year.

“There were around 600 of us in Lohitmukh. A few of us moved to this village but I don’t know what happened to most of the people, many of whom I grew up with, after the village was washed away. It was right on the bank of the Brahmaputra. In the flood season, we would always stay alert since there was nobody to tell us when the river would suddenly grow fierce. Every year it would take a little piece of our land and then, almost overnight, we lost everything.”

Pradeep and his family arrived in Borphalang with just the clothes on their backs. They were put up by some families in the village for a few months, until Pradeep had made enough, mostly working odd jobs, to buy a piece of land. But living in Borphalang came at a price.

“This village is underwater for six months. For three of those months we have to leave our home and live in a tent on the embankment. I cannot work my land either, so I sell our chicken and goats, and do odd jobs to make ends meet. My house is submerged within two days of the flooding, so I must remain vigilant constantly, especially at night. I don’t trust the river, there’s no telling when it will take everything away again.”

Pradeep Mili’s home is closer to the river than others and is, thus, more severely flooded.

Pradeep Mili’s home is closer to the river than others and is, thus, more severely flooded.

His seemingly perpetual tussle with the river has taken a heavy emotional toll. “How do I even put it in words? I live in a constant state of stress. All that remains of my ancestral village is sand, my animals die every year, my farm is barely cultivable. There’s a heaviness on my chest I can’t get rid of. I have to deal with loss every year,” Pradeep said. “But what use is talking about it? It is not like we will get any help from the government.”

People hit by natural calamities in Assam are entitled to be compensated for the loss of homes, fields, and livelihoods. A family that loses its home in the floods is entitled to Rs 95,100 from the State Disaster Response Fund, for example, and a farmer should get Rs 12,200 per hectare to desilt their farmland. Similarly, fisherfolk are meant to receive Rs 1,500 a month under the PM Matsya Sampada Yojana during the “lean period”, from April 1 to July 1, when fish breed and they are not allowed to work. A scheme to compensate fisherfolk for loss of work in the flood months as well is on the anvil, according to Rakesh Kumar, secretary of the fishery department.

In reality, few people receive any compensation, mainly because their claims are mired in bureaucratic red tape.

The lack of state support means it’s a hard life for Pradeep in Borphalang. But he can’t afford to leave. “I would rather stay here than be landless,” he explained.

He may be fighting a losing battle. The Brahmaputra is eroding more land by the year, according to the 2015 draft report. “Continuous braiding and accompanying erosion has expanded the river bed area significantly,” the report noted, “from around 3,870 km estimated between 1916 and 1928 to 6,080 km in 2006.”

Another government report pointed out that “the width of Brahmaputra has increased up to 15 km at some places due to bank erosion”. It has also constantly braided and changed its path.

Ceaseless erosion of the river banks has profound ecological and economic consequences, of course, but in Biswanath Ghat Puroni Gaon, it threatens cultural heritage as well. Several of the temples that this village in Biswanath district is famous for sit precariously on the edge of the river, as do a few houses. It seems only a matter of time before the rest of the bank is eroded and the structures are washed away.

A temple and a house at Biswanath Ghat Puroni Gaon that are precariously perched on the bank.

A temple and a house at Biswanath Ghat Puroni Gaon that are precariously perched on the bank.

Most of the houses lie beyond the usual flood line, but the river is inching closer and turning more hostile. “The floodwaters rise further and further every year,” said Tritho Das, 35, who has lived in the village all his life. “We have also noticed that the island in the middle of the river and our own bank are being eroded, bit by bit. The river is widening and siltation is increasing, making it shallower and muddier than it used to be.”

Fishermen at Biswanath Ghat Puroni.

Fishermen at Biswanath Ghat Puroni.

This is alarming for the villagers, most of whom are engaged in fishing for livelihood. In fact, nearly 80 percent of them depend on the river for both food and income.

Tritho Das has fished in the Brahmaputra for 17 years, as his father and grandfather did before him. The river is his sole source of livelihood. He cannot fish during the flood months and is not permitted to during the “lean period”. For loss of work during the lean period, the fisherfolk are due compensation, but neither Tritho nor his father has ever receivd it.

Tritho Das and fellow villager Nipen Das depend entirely on the river for livelihood.

Tritho Das and fellow villager Nipen Das depend entirely on the river for livelihood.

“The loss of depth, at least in this area, means the quantity and size of the fish has declined a lot over the years,” he said. “We get only small fish now, and the daily catch fetches just about Rs 200 as against Rs 600 in the past. It’s the same kind of fish but they are smaller as the bigger fish seek out deeper waters. Most go into the Kaziranga National Park area. It is just across from us but we aren’t allowed to fish there.”

Fishermen say the Kaziranga National Park’s rangers unfairly dictate where they can or cannot fish.

Fishermen say the Kaziranga National Park’s rangers unfairly dictate where they can or cannot fish.

In Dokhimpath Koibotro too, fisherfolk whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the encroaching river haven’t received any help from the government. Dokhimpath Koibotro is a village on the edge of the Majuli river island, which has shrunk from about 800 sq km about a century ago to less than half the size. In fact, onboard the ferry to Majuli from Nimati Ghat in Jorhat, the erosion along the Brahmaputra island is clearly visible.

Signs of erosion are clearly visible along Jorhat Ghat, above, and Majuli.

Signs of erosion are clearly visible along Jorhat Ghat, above, and Majuli.

Diganto Das, 48, from Dokhimpath Koibotro, is a witness to the damage erosion has caused to the island and its people. “Over the years, Majuli has shrunk because of erosion. If erosion continues at this same rate, which it will, where will we live? Majuli isn’t one or two villages, there are hundreds of villages here. Where will we all go? When floods wash away our houses, we get no help from the government to rebuild them. How can we blindly trust that they will rehabilitate us properly in the future?”

Diganto’s neighbour, Phukan Das, 52, who is a fisherman as well, has to pay for rebuilding his home every year. It’s a struggle every time, not least because he can’t fish for several months every year and the compensation he’s entitled to is never paid.

“Our houses are made of only mud, wood and bamboo and they are washed away every year when there are floods,” he said. “And it takes 50,000-60,000 rupees to rebuild a house.”

Phukan Das untangles his fishing net.

Phukan Das untangles his fishing net.

Pralap Pegu, a farmer in Borphalang, hasn’t ever been compensated either. “Despite taking my bank account number every year, the government has never once compensated me. The relief material doesn’t reach us either. I tried working a job in the town for a while because the money was better, but I had to return to look after my family, animals and my home during the six months that our village is under water.”

Pralap Pegu with his cattle.

Pralap Pegu with his cattle.

If the government only helped the village develop an irrigation system, it would make life easier for them, Pralap said. Then they could work their land in winter when it isn’t underwater. And getting drinking water during the flood season, when the wells and borewells are submerged, would fulfil their “essential need”.

In 2005, Diganto saw a neighbouring village, home to about 2,000 people, get washed away entirely, and he fears Dokhimpath Koibotro Gaon may be next. “People whose houses were washed away built changs along the raised roads,” he said, referring to bamboo stilt houses. “When floods arrive, they take their belongings and cattle to the embankment and wait it out. There has not even been a whisper about rehabilitation for those people. At least 70 villages on Majuli have been decimated by erosion and most of the villagers don’t or can’t afford to leave the island. So while the island is shrinking, the population either remains the same or increases.”

A bamboo stilt house on Majuli.

A bamboo stilt house on Majuli.

Where sand meets farmland. The river is consuming more of Majuli every passing year.

Where sand meets farmland. The river is consuming more of Majuli every passing year.

Has he thought about leaving the island which is shrinking before his own eyes? Diganto laughed. “This is my birthplace. All my ancestors were born here,” he said. “And even if I wanted to leave, there is no way I could. I don’t have the money to just walk into Jorhat town and buy a piece of land. I have to take all my struggles in stride and survive. This is my land, and I shall die here.”

Pictures by Supriti David.

This is the first story in a five-part series on the disastrous consequences of the Assam floods and the Amphan cyclone in Bengal.

This story is part of the NL Sena project which 43 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Aditya Deuskar, Deshapriya Debesh, John Abraham, Aditi Prabha, Rohit Unnimadhavan, Abhishek Daevil, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next project, ‘Love Jihad’: Myth vs Reality, and help keep news free and independent.

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