Dharmendra Pegu, 39 (Khanapara Reserved Forest)
Displaced from Dhemaji by erosion caused by Brahmaputra
For Dharmendra Pegu, a katha of land in the Khanapara reserved forest in Guwahati has been home for about a year. And he is not sure how long he will stay here.
Pegu has been moving homes for the past 18 years, his village, Namoni Arkep in Assam’s Dhemaji district, being gradually eaten by the erosion caused by the Brahmaputra. Floods, massive sand deposits on homesteads and paddy fields, and continuous river-bank erosion have rendered at least 485 families of five villages including Namoni Arkep without a home or land. Pegu’s last portion of ancestral land was gulped by the river in the August floods.
Even in the past few months, Pegu has shifted several times until he occupied — encroached — a part of Khanapara reserved forest. Over 180 families, most from his area, a few from Kokrajhar and Kamrup districts, have settled here over the past few years. “We have also become part of a movement to get land patta for hundreds of such landless families uprooted by disasters who are currently living in hills and forests of Guwahati,” says Pegu, who finds odd jobs every day to make ends meet. Back in his village, he worked at a primary school.
When it came to leaving, he had little to take with him:
His son and sister
Pegu brought his 5-year-old son Mriganka along with him to join his wife Rinu who shifted to Guwahati two years ago to work with an NGO. Mriganka has just enrolled in the nursery class of an English-medium school. “I don’t know how long we will have to wait for our patta. But I want our son to be rich when he grows up. I don’t want him to face the kind of tragedy we faced when the river took away our ancestral land bigha after bigha,” he says.
He also got his youngest sister Mridula. A Class XII pass, she had trained in house-keeping and now works as a salesgirl for
Rs 3,000 month at a boutique in Guwahati. “What will she do there where we have nothing left?” asks Pegu. His father, who till a few years ago owned over 50 bighas of land, is “now left looking at the river”, he says. Another unmarried sister, Sontora, decided to stay back with their ageing parents in the makeshift house they have put up on the banks of the Brahmaputra.
When the Brahmaputra in 2008 first flooded his village and left behind a 10-feet-deep sand deposit, he managed to dig the sand and recover belongings, like utensils, bicycles and some furniture. He packed all the belongings this time and put them on a boat to take them to Guwahati. “But then the floods happened, and our boat capsized, drowning all our belongings,” says Pegu.
When Rinu shifted to Guwahati, she brought with her her weaving skill and the traditional loom used by the Mising tribal community to which the family belongs. “My parents’ village Bogorigaon, like that of my husband’s, is now in the middle of the river. All I could bring with me apart from my BA certificate is my weaving skill that I had picked up from my mother. I saved some money while working with an NGO and bought a Mising loom from the village,” she says. Rinu weaves three to four pairs of ege-gasor (a kind of garment) every month, which fetches on an average Rs 15,000 per pair in the city market.
“Having experienced floods every year, we were used to saving our land papers, educational certificates, ration cards and voter identity cards. Now we have to acquire fresh ration cards in Guwahati,” says Pegu. The couple have got their voter identity address transferred to the city “because we want to continue to exercise our democratic rights”.