On July 4, 1997, Sanjoy was abducted from the riverine island of Majuli, by ULFA militants.

 





At the river’s mercy


CHETNA VERMA

In the night with each clap of thunder and raindrop

We lie half awake, listening to the echoes of our heart

Wondering what will be left of our land and our lives in the morning.

--- Sanjoy Ghose

In the mid-1990s, sitting on the embankment of the world’s largest riverine island – Majuli in Assam — Sanjoy Ghose, a visionary and committed development worker could sense the catastrophe the island was bowing out to. Today is 15 long years since he was abducted and murdered by the ULFA militants. The situation in Majuli has only worsened since, erasing not just the land but every effort invested by him and his team of seven committed colleagues at AVARD-NE (Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development – North-East) who decided to work in this unique but utterly disadvantaged geographical region.

Yearly ordeal:Majuli residents move to safer place during 2009 floods.

Travelling and researching extensively in the region, Sanjoy figured early on that the islanders, living within the furious Brahmaputra with no support from either government or nature, did not necessarily expect dusk to be followed by a dawn. Worse, seeing the fury of the floods this year, there is little predictability about when the sun will go down forever on Majuli and its inhabitants.

Majuli Island has been bearing the brunt of climate change, with every year seeing a paramount shift in the intensity with which the river takes revenge on the hapless islanders for constricting its voluminous silt load by engulfing the land. Every year there are floods in Majuli and large amounts of land are just disappearing under the river, never to surface again. Majuli had a total area of 1,250 sq km, but having lost significantly to erosion it had an area of merely 421.65 sq km in 2001.

Today, the threats of the past are transpiring to become real once again. The roaring waters this year have submerged around 70 villages, erasing 30 others from the records. The displaced population of over 75,000 islanders is estimated to be camping in makeshift shelters. Though, thankfully, there is little loss of life as people have come to understand and live with the phenomenon, there is great deal of loss of livelihoods as the land after the floods become infertile for agriculture – the main source of livelihood on Majuli. A major chunk of the workforce here is directly engaged in agriculture and only a few in services, fishing and livestock rearing.

Sanjoy was amazed to see that agriculture in these parts was a truly organic process. No fertilizer, no pesticides, just the natural warmth of the river, land, earth and the sun. Flooding, erosion and siltation impede the growth in agricultural output, affecting agri income.

During Sanjoy’s home stays on Majuli, farmers explained the intricacies to him, “Floods we’ve learned to live with, but the loss of the land which nurtured us made survival difficult. What we need is erosion control, not flood control.”

Some things never change:Majuli flood victim this year

Sanjoy was aware that working here was going to be a tough task as the natural disadvantaged were exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure, with no interest shown by the government (which was satisfied with just providing one kilogram of rice per head) or the local politicians (who never seemed to take this as an issue in their campaigns). Sanjoy, with the experience of nine years of work in the rural and most backward villages of Rajasthan, believed the participation of the communities to be vital for any initiative directed towards bringing a change, for there was much to learn from their traditional wisdom and innovation. However, in a situation as impossible as Majuli’s, how could people be expected to generate the confidence to be innovative when their basic needs were not being met? Yet, the team was determined to bring them together and give them the platform to work towards their own benefit.

Seeing AVARD-NE’s relief work during the floods where they called for equal participation from the villagers (for the first time ever the communities were asked for their opinion), the team received the help, co-operation and love of the people. This was amply demonstrated through their voluntary participation in saving Majuli from river bank erosion when, in January 1996, more than a dozen voluntary organisations came together to try and work out an indigenous low cost solution to the problem of erosion.

Twenty one groups in all volunteered. AVARD-NE’s effort was not simply to stop erosion, but also generate a sense of local participation, and create a belief that something can be done, even if on a small scale.

This belief came true between February and April of that year, when approximately 30,000 man-days of labour were contributed by men, women and children, to save their island from erosion. A year later, most of the experimental area survived the monsoons, becoming a symbol of people’s co-operation.

Today, people have left their traditional livelihood in their fight for survival. Many have given up hope and migrated to other parts of Assam owing to lack of employment opportunities and acute poverty. Sanjoy wanted the communities to become independent and work for themselves. The reality today is far removed from this ideal. And yet, the optimism that Sanjoy infused keeps alive a belief.

(Charkha Features)

 

This day, 15 years ago, Sanjoy Ghose was abducted by ULFA while working closely with the community for the development of Majuli Islands, Assam. Once again today, the area faces an existential threat due to the ongoing floods...

 

Source : http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/article3600273.ece

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