DHUBRI: Residents of Brahmaputra's river islets in Assam's Dhubri district bordering Bangladesh have realised that they are counted only as votes.
Learning to live with the recurring floods, the islets' residents — many of whom are alleged to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — believe that nothing is permanent in the river islets or 'chars' due to Brahmaputra's annual surge in monsoon.
Ahmed Sheikh of Birsingherchar islet south of Dhubri town, said, "In the chars, we build houses made of tin. It's very hot inside but cheap to rebuild after the floods. Being poor people, we can't afford to build strong structures. Also, heavy buildings will collapse in the soft soil."
The only things permanent in the islets are the boats, fishing nets, the plough and the spirit to carry on. Mostly engaged in fishing and farming for a livelihood, the residents of the islets take utmost care to repair their family boats which rescue them every year when flood water submerges their lands.
Delawar Hussain of Aminerchar islet southwest of Dhubri town said, "Almost every year we are rendered homeless during monsoon and have to either take shelter in the 'mainland' near Dhubri town or search for newer destinations in the islets. Many times we return to find our houses beyond repair after the floods. We either have to rebuild them or move to new areas."
"Ferrying humans is easy during floods but transporting livestock is difficult because of which many of us sell our cattle during Eid because of approaching monsoon," he added.
With Bangladesh at a stone's throw, where beef costs Rs 500-Rs 700 every kilogram, selling off cattle before monsoon also helps the residents sustain through the rains. With a porous riverine border, many of the islets' residents may also be involved in cattle smuggling.
According to the dominant narrative of temporary shelters in islets, elected representatives also don't think beyond giving temporary relief. "Char residents demand that something be done. But, we can't build RCC embankments in chars as the river changes its course every year. While the river submerges an area, it gives rise to another piece of land somewhere else. So, people who lost their houses move to that new land. Char residents don't think of living in one area for more than two years," said Mohoruddin Sheikh, president of Falimari Gram Panchayat which has around 10 villages with 35,000 population. Half of the 10 villages are revenue villages and the other half are river islets.
Sheikh, said, "Besides giving food for flood-affected people and their livestock, we attempt to divert the current of Brahmaputra away from the chars by establishing rows of bamboo embankments. But, we know that such temporary measures won't work."
What can possibly work in protecting from the annual deluge of Brahmaputra is strong continuous embankments. Sheikh said, "We had demanded a 20 kilometer-long road-cum-bund from Patharghat in Gauripur town to Zila Parishad office in Dhubri town. The bund would protect a lot of villages and prevent them from getting cut off. The project was estimated to be worth around Rs 56 crore but later estimation was hiked to Rs 100 crore. If the bund is not created, subsequent floods would break into Dhubri town as well."
However, many of the flood victims are vexed with verbal assurances and know where their power lies. Mohammad Atif Hussain of Dhubirchar islet said, "We hear assurances of politicians during elections but don't see them during floods. Hence, we have decided to boycott the next elections and will mobilise people in mosques to not vote. Probably then, administration would listen to us."
Residents of islets lying near the border of Bangladesh don't even have the option of boycotting votes in protest against government apathy. "Voters ID cards are the proof of our Indian nationality and voting during elections is like giving attendance of presence on Indian soil. We definitely have to vote in each and every election," said Mohammad Kader (name changed), a resident of Muthakhowa part II islet near the border.
Receiving no or scant relief, many want answers from the government. "We heard that Modi gave Rs 2,500 crore. But, we did not receive even plastic sheets. We got only some rice and husk for our cattle. Where is all the money going?" said Shoaib Ali of Moslabari islet.