Majuli: A hungry river and a succumbing island

Erosion in Majuli, a large island on the Brahmaputra, has left scores of people bereft of livelihoods and hope. While the government has spent crores on anti-erosion measures, it hasn't helped much.
A boatman looks at the vast and furious Brahmaputra
A boatman looks at the vast and furious Brahmaputra

Brahmaputra is the highest siltation-carrying river in the world, and controlling erosion is not easy. Because of its characteristics, it does not have a parallel with any other river in the world. Mythologically also, the Brahmaputra has always been a disturbed river, highly meandering, says Gunajeet Kashyap (ACS), Election Officer, Majuli. While many also regard the river as nature’s playground with shifting courses and meandering channels defining its very character, most would agree that the river in full spate is fierce, to say the least. 

Majuli is a large island on the Brahmaputra in Assam. Once ranked as the largest river island in the world, Majuli today has lost this position owing to severe erosion by the river. Originally 1265 sq km, today the island has lost about a third of its landmass and only about 525 sq km of land remains stable. The island is culturally and spiritually significant and has been proposed as a World Heritage site. While the government has been trying to control erosion through different structural measures and crores of money, much of it is temporary and the people continue living in limbo as huge chunks of earth continue to fall into the river. 

 

 

Majuli is a large river island in the Brahmaputra, India's biggest and world's third largest river. Once ranked as the largest river island in the world, Majuli today has lost this position owing to severe erosion. The island is culturally and spiritually significant and has been proposed as a World Heritage site.

 

 

Majuli is the seat of Vaishnavite culture that began in the 16th century in Assam by Srimanta Sankardev, a religious and social reformer. He established Sattras (Vaishnavite monastery) for sharing religious discourses in Majuli. Though initially 65, now only 22 remain in the island. Others have moved out while a few others have relocated to other locations within Majuli due to excessive erosion eating away their lands. The photo above is that of Samaguri Sattra. 'Bhaona', a traditional play enacted during Raas Lila Festival entails the wearing of special handmade masks. The artist above is demonstrating the character of the famous demon 'Pootna'.

 

 

Originally 1265 sq km, the island is down by almost a third as only 525 sq km remains now. There used to be 3 Mouzas in Majuli- Kamalabari, Salmora and Ahotoguri. With the river continuously gobbling large tracts of land, Ahotoguri Mouza has completely disappeared while only a small portion of Salmora remains apart from Kamalabari.

 

 

With farm lands lost to the river, scores of people live on the embankments. "We had about 10 bigha land. In 1943, my village first eroded and from then on we have been moving inwards to different locations. Its been many years now, we are living on the embankment. Our village was called Khorahola then and we can this space, Khorahola now", narrates Dhalu Das, a farmer who turned into a daily-wage earner. He, like many other families who came here rears cattle to support his family among other jobs. "We are somehow making our ends meet, there is no hope of ever progressing to a better lifestyle", he exclaims sadly.

 

 

Cattle rearers lose many of their prized animals when they leave them for tending on the 'char' areas (small sand bars emerging from the river). Should there be floods at night, many of cattle are already gone by the time one gets there to rescue them.

 

 

Women doubly disadvantaged: "We tie our children to our chests and move towards the embankment. Such times when the water comes gnawing at you are difficult to imagine. No toilets, and water everywhere. Where will you relieve yourself?" complains Patoli Das of Khorhola village, Majuli.

 

 

Is climate change adding fuel to the fire? Women of Khorhola village say that the 'Chang' (temporary raised bamboo platforms built during floods) used to be built at a height of about 1.5 feet about 10-15 years back. Now they are built at about a height of 3 feet to keep people safe.

 

 

Clay: A cause of erosion or source of livelihood? The Salmora area is inhabited mostly by potters who practice a unique form of traditional hand-beaten pottery. This is also one of the most heavily eroded areas of the island.

 

 

This form of pottery is also unique because the process of crafting is done only by the women while men are involved in the selling of the pots. While the Brahmaputra Board blames constant pulling out of clay for pottery as one of the reasons for erosion, the locals are in a fix. Will the art give in to the hungry river?

 

 

To move away or not? And where?: "We earn our bread by selling these pots. Till the pots are dry, we can't leave the house. Eight houses in this place are on the edge of the river bank and the river could eat in anytime", says Bharali, a potter from Salmora. The government had given them some space a little distance away, but others people have occupied it for farming.

 

 

Silt laden Porcupines: Majuli has gained about 24.67 sq km of land due to anti-erosion interventions carried out by the Brahmaputra Board as informed by concerned officials. A whopping Rs 275 crores has been spent on these measures over 10 years in three phases.

 

 

 

 

The article was compiled from inputs gathered at the Media Workshop on 'Adaptation to climate change in the Brahmaputra Basin' organised by Centre for Environment Education (CEE), The Third Pole under the Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme (IHCAP) of the Swiss Development and Cooperation in Jorhat, Assam.

View more photos of Majuli.

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