GUWAHATI: Amid the current surge of attention to the northeast’s ecological ills, flood veterans here take pains to correct the nuances of ‘mainland’ India’s understanding of the problem. Beta, soil erosion, not floods, is the greater problem, they say.
To people whose awareness comes from newspaper photographs, what’s the difference? Floods are seasonal but erosion occurs throughout the year. Here’s some perspective: Since 1954, Assam has lost 4.3 lakh hectares of land to erosion, which is 7 per cent of the state’s area. Or to use a more accessible yardstick, land seven times the size of Mumbai.
Majuli in eastern Assam, Mukalmua and Goalpara in southern Assam and Morigaon in central Assam are the most erosion-prone areas in the Brahmaputra valley. Locally, Majuli is known as a sweet-water river island in the Brahmaputra. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was an expanse of 1,250 sq km. For years, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized it as the largest river island in the world. Even by that record-keeper’s reckoning, it was an expanse of 880 sq km. When last measured in 2014, it had shrunk to 352 sq km. Its name persists in the Guinness Book more as a notion than as a reality.
A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the nation’s attention to the northeast, Assam government officials said the focus is welcome but it’s important to know the nuances. “When there’s a flood, people migrate to safer places and return home when the water recedes,” said a senior Assam government official, asking not to be named. “But soil erosion takes away their homes and land and triggers mass displacement. There’s no coping with that.”
According to him, the greater dimension of the problem of displacement is social and cultural.
“When erosion-affected people from lower Assam migrate to upper Assam, it feeds social unrest. If they are Muslims, it stokes suspicion that they are illegal Bangladeshi migrants,” he elaborated.
Indeed, there is a large Bengali-speaking population in lower Assam, many of them settled rather too close to the Brahmaputra. When they lose their homes and hearths, they cannot but migrate. Migration gives rise to attendant social problems. Take trafficking for instance. A whole environment of transporting people to greener pastures arises, leading to trafficking of children, women, workers, etc.
Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has always maintained that erosion is Assam’s greater problem, not floods.
According to the National Flood Commission of India, about 40 per cent Assam’s area – close to 32 lakh hectares – is flood-prone, and therefore, vulnerable to erosion. Of this, around 10 lakh hectares get affected directly and frequently. Each year, an average of 80 sq km is claimed by the Brahmaputra and its 103 tributaries. At any given time in the wet season, 2500 villages and five million people living there are vulnerable.