What if you lost your home every year?

Hundreds of thousands of people in Assam do. And they get little government help to pick up the pieces year after year.

BySupriti David
What if you lost your home every year?
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In 2020, the annual floods in Assam affected at least 56 lakh people, one way or another. To put that in perspective, that is more people than the entire population of Finland.

Astounding as that number is, it barely conveys how the floods devastate individual lives and communities. It cannot capture what it’s like living in a place that’s inundated for half the year. What it’s like having to abandon your home and live in a tent for months on end. What it’s like being unable to cultivate the farm that is your sole source of sustenance. What it’s like helplessly watching your land being eroded away, a handful at a time. What it’s like rebuilding your life only to be uprooted again, and again.

So, in this second part of our series on the human cost of the floods, we tell the stories of the mostly marginalised people whose lives and livelihoods are yearly ruined by the floods. They are from across the six districts that are the worst affected by the floods.

Seventeen of Assam’s 34 districts are considered “severely flood affected” areas and, as estimated by the National Commission on Floods, 1.05 crore of its people live in flood-prone areas. According to the Flood Hazard Atlas, prepared by the National Remote Sensing Centre of the ISRO, some 28.75 percent of the state’s landmass, 22.54 lakh hectares in all, went underwater at some point between 1998 and 2015.

Nearly 40 percent of Assam is floodplain so floods are inevitable when the Brahmaputra and its tributaries swell up in the rainy season, from May to September. But because the floods can’t be prevented does not mean that their devastating effects can’t be mitigated. Only the Assam government has done little about it. While it has built some embankments and improved flood forecasting, the government admits that “no long-term measures have been implemented so far to mitigate the flood and erosion problems”. The usefulness of the existing embankments is debatable, especially since they are poorly maintained. At least 180 of the over 400 embankments were breached this year alone.

As a result, every year, hundreds of homes are partially or fully destroyed. Lokhima Baruah, 32, lost her home when the overflowing Jiadhal river, a tributary of Brahmaputra, braided through her Hesuli village, Dhemaji, in May 2020, inundating her home and farmland. For six months, Lokhima, her husband and their two sons, aged 7 and 12, have been forced to live in a makeshift chang, or a bamboo stilt house, beside what remained of their home.

“My heart aches talking about it,” she said, breaking down. “We have been living in the chang for six months now, through rain and floodwaters, and our life has been incredibly difficult. All that was left of our house was the foundation and that too is damaged. We are trying to repair the house on a daily wage but it is taking time. We depend on farming for livelihood but the floods destroyed our standing crop and all that is left now is sand.”

Lokhima Baruah outside her damaged house.

Lokhima Baruah outside her damaged house.

Initially, after the floods had made her home unlivable, she did not know “where to go, where to store the belongings we had somehow saved, even where to sleep”. “I felt completely lost,” she added. “Eventually, with the help of the villagers, we were able to build this chang. We had to make dolongs, bamboo bridges, to enter the chang because floodwaters were everywhere.”

The family applied for government relief to rebuild their home, in vain.

For a fully destroyed house, a family is entitled to a compensation of Rs 95,100 from the State Disaster Response Fund. For a partially damaged pucca house the amount is Rs 5,200, for a partially damaged kutcha house it’s Rs 3,200, for a hut Rs 4,100. But most of the affected people we spoke with said they never received any compensation.

A makeshift bamboo bridge called dolong connects Lokhima Baruah’s chang to the bathroom.

A makeshift bamboo bridge called dolong connects Lokhima Baruah’s chang to the bathroom.

Today, as the family pick up the pieces of their lives, Lokhima worries for her children. With the pandemic shutting down schools, she tried getting them to study at home, only to realise “the makeshift chang didn’t offer a conducive environment for their learning”. “I have been sending them for tuitions for the past month but I don’t know for how long I can afford to pay,” she said. “Running a home on a daily wage is hard enough.”

Lokhima Baruah’s kitchen is dangerously close to a hole in the chang’s floor.

Lokhima Baruah’s kitchen is dangerously close to a hole in the chang’s floor.

Going to school was no easy task even before the pandemic. Most local schools go underwater for several months during the flood season, and those that don’t may be too far away to reach safely. The nearest “safe” school to Hesuli, home to 94 families, is 9 km away, and it’s a treacherous journey to get there after the floods hit.

“We ferry the children in a boat to the main road, from where the school van takes them. They are dropped back at the road after school and we bring them home in the boat,” explained Koneshwar Chetia, 52. “They have to dress and undress on the road so their uniforms don’t get dirty riding in the boat. It’s difficult for them to study at home given the stress all around because of the floods, but they have to do it anyway. If the school gives them homework, it is expected to be completed regardless of the flood situation. It’s difficult, but they have to manage somehow.”

It is worse for children in Japang, a village of 1,400 households about 160 km away in Jorhat district. They can’t go to school at all for three months after the floods hit, mostly for want for a boat. Sandwiched between the Brahmaputra and Jhanji rivers, the island’s only link to the mainland is a boat service operated by a lone local boatman, who stops it as soon as the river starts to overflow. There’s no bridge connecting it to the mainland.

“Once the floods arrive, even the thought of studying seems far-fetched,” said Janto Taik, 19, an undergraduate student at the Jorhat College. “Our minds are focused only on saving our home and cows. I cannot afford to leave all this behind and go to school. After the floodwaters recede, we have to help the family clear away carcases of dead cattle, among other things. It takes at least a month for normalcy to return.”

Janto Taik at his family’s paddy field.

Janto Taik at his family’s paddy field.

In 2017, Janto lost all his books in the floods just a few weeks before his class 11 final exams. “I was able to buy new books just before the exams, otherwise I wouldn’t have passed,” he recalled. “I wish the government would set up hostels for students from backward areas such as ours, so that it’s easier for us to complete our education. Even if they help with only transportation or reduce our fees, it would be a burden lifted off my family.”

There’s hardly a family in Japang that doesn’t want to educate their children, according to Dipika Tau, mother to two children aged 10 and 13. “We want our children to be better people, of course, and live better lives. But when my entire life is dictated by the floods, how do I focus on raising my children right? Because we are born in a backward area, our children are set up to fail from the start,” she said. “There is not even a bridge to connect us to the mainland. Our children’s education is severely harmed by the floods. And without a good education how will they ever find good jobs?”

Children of Japang play on sandy land that goes underwater for four months of the year.

Children of Japang play on sandy land that goes underwater for four months of the year.

Moreover, the denial of compensation or relief from the government for loss of possessions and livelihoods in the flood season has made it harder over the years for farmers and fisherfolk alike to pay for their children’s education. Some have felt compelled to take loans which they are now struggling to repay.

Sometimes the government does provide relief material – rice, pulses, salt, mainly – to the flood-affected people, but many of them have no way of navigating floodwaters to collect it. In Japang, for example, the villagers only get relief from local NGOs, and only once the floods start ebbing.

In Assam, as explained in the first part of this series, people hit by natural calamities are entitled to compensation for damage to homes, farms, and livelihoods, but few ever get anything.

As Dipika Tau, a resident of Japang, put it, “At election time, they make us fill forms telling us that they will give us new land and money to repair our houses, but nothing ever comes of it. We have to pay for repairing the damage out of our own pockets. The government hasn’t come up with a long-term solution. Since even our basic demand for a bridge to connect us to the mainland hasn’t been accepted for years, I don’t know how long it will take for any financial relief to reach us, if they provide it at all.”

To pile on the misery, the floods also make uncertain the availability of safe drinking water, electricity and nutritious food for the villagers. In the dry season, Japang gets its drinking water from “water holes”; it is not feasible to dig borewells in sandy areas. In the flood months, they simply boil the carcass-filled floodwater, Dipika said, which often leads to people falling sick. Sometimes, they receive clean water from NGOs conducting “relief drives”.

“It’s also difficult to feed cattle regularly during the flood months. To get grass and food for cattle, you have to travel far, sometimes across the river. So, if you don’t have a boat there’s very little you can do to save the cattle from starving to death. Also, there has to be a man in the house. A lot of men live outside the village. They don’t or can’t return during the floods, leaving women to fend for their families. Having a man around lessens the likelihood of the cattle dying.”

Indeed, in these parts, few things are more valuable than a boat. Whether it’s to take a woman in labour to hospital or ferry cattle to higher ground after the floods arrive or even collect drinking water from NGO workers, a boat is essential. But most villagers cannot afford one.

Boats at Biswanath Ghat Puroni, above, and Gohpur.

Boats at Biswanath Ghat Puroni, above, and Gohpur.

A water hole in Japang village.

A water hole in Japang village.

In Dokhimpath Koibotro, a village of about 400 families on Majuli island, for example, there are only 15-20 boats. The rest make do with rafts made from banana tree stems, said Diganto Das, 48.

“Our village stays underwater for at least six months of the year and the water marks stay on our walls throughout the year. We cannot leave the island because the ferry doesn’t operate during that period, and it is too dangerous to cross by boat,” he said. “Something as routine as going to the bathroom becomes difficult. We have to resort to going out in a boat and defecating in the floodwater, and then we have to bathe in the same water. Our lives come to a standstill.”

Going to the nearest town to find a minimum wage job when the villagers cannot fish or farm because of the floods isn’t often possible either.

For women in Hesuli, there’s the added stress of managing menstruation. “There is no place to sit and just get a moment’s rest,” said a middle-aged mother of one who asked not to be named. “If we want to take a bath to feel better, we have to do it in the floodwaters and we come out covered in dirt and sand. We can’t eat or sleep when we need to, I mean how can you when there is water flowing through your home? It is very painful to do anything.”

Women in Hesuli.

Women in Hesuli.

Problems don’t end once the floodwaters recede. Stench from dead cattle and fear of disease continue to hang heavy in the air. This is why Nilakhi Das, 27, leaves her Biswanath Ghat Puroni home for four months of the floods every year: she fears for her 4-year-old boy.

Nilakhi Das with her child.

Nilakhi Das with her child.

“My house is flooded every year and the water rises up to my knees. The entire area stinks afterwards, there’s mud and garbage everywhere which makes my son very sick. If the house is not cleaned properly he ends up with fever, cough, sometimes diarrhoea, and starts vomiting. And if he were to fall into the floodwaters by mistake, he would definitely drown. So, I can’t live here during those months,” she said. “I go to my mother’s village, which is 20 km away, and only return when the house is dry and thoroughly cleaned.”

Nilakhi Das points to a mark left by the floodwaters on her wall.

Nilakhi Das points to a mark left by the floodwaters on her wall.

Lokhima Baruah in Hesuli.

Lokhima Baruah in Hesuli.

This, then, is what it means for people in Assam to be “affected” by the floods: surviving the calamity in a fundamental sense of the word, year after year.

In Hesuli, Lokhima often wonders how her life could be without constant floods. “I think about it often,” she said, “about what it would be like to live without floods constantly looming over my life, how it would be not having to think about mere survival. I think about where I would go but the details bring me back to reality. Where would I go?”

Pictures by Supriti David.

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

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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