Majuli, said to be the largest inhabited river island in the world, has been shrinking for decades. Measured at 1,256 sq m by a government survey in 1891, it is only about 525 sq km today, with the Brahmaputra constantly eating into the landmass of the island, which is also the socio-cultural heart of Assam.
On December 30, Union Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari laid the foundation stone for an Rs-233.54-crore project to save the island, one that also looks at reclamation of lost landmass apart from preventing further shrinking due to riverbank erosion.
Problems & solutions
Part of the alluvial flood plains of the Brahmaputra, the island is formed of soil consisting mainly of silt deposits and lacking cohesion, making it susceptible to erosion, which has been a major problem since the huge earthquake of 1950. As per Survey of India topo-sheets and satellite imagery data, Majuli lost 206.7 sq km between 1949 and 2004.
The scheme for which Gadkari laid the foundation stone involves four components to be built: 27 km geo-bag bank revetment works in vulnerable reaches; RCC porcupine screens at 41 locations; a 3.50-km pilot channel to drain out floodwater; a sluice at Birinabari to stop the river from entering the island through a stream that runs east to west.
Though the Assam government built an embankment in the 1960s, it could offer only marginal protection as breaches continued in many places. It was on the request of Assam that the water resources ministry entrusted Brahmaputra Board the task of ‘Protection of Majuli Island from Flood and Erosion’ in 2003, which began in 2004. These works involved construction and strengthening of embankments, laying of RCC porcupine screens, and construction of spurs and dampeners to train the river away from the bank and also as pro-siltation measure.
Though the works did contain erosion in the most vulnerable reaches until 2007, fresh floods followed by massive bank erosion in 2007 once again led to severe shrinking of the island’s landmass. Majuli continued to suffer for the next seven years until, from 2014, the Brahmaputra Board took up fresh protection works, incurring about Rs 190 crore till November this year. Four boulder spurs have been completed and a fifth one at Salmara, one of the worst erosion-affected areas, is nearing completion. Five raised platforms have also been built and recently handed over to the district administration as temporary shelter to people during high floods.
While Majuli has started recovering lost landmass in the past few years — under the present scheme Brahmaputra Board executes the scheme as recommended by a team of experts — the island grew from 502 sq km in 2004 to 525 sq km in November 2017, the technical advisory committee of Brahmaputra Board constituted by the water resources ministry suggested earlier this year a few more measures to protect the gained landmass and arrest further erosion. As Gadkari unveiled the new protection schemes on the basis of a detailed project report for Rs 233.54 crore, the Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region has agreed to allocate Rs 207 crore of this, the rest coming from Brahmaputra Board itself.
Alongside new schemes to protect the island, the government has also launched major bank protection work in Nimatighat on the south bank, apart from protection measures in three locations downstream of the Bogibeel bridge between Dibrugarh and Dhemaji, whose construction too is suspected to have caused fresh erosion in upper Majuli.
The Assam government has been pressing for a UNESCO World Heritage Site tag for Majuli for more than two decades now. The centre for Vaishnavite art, culture, music and literature of Assam since the time of the 16th-century saint-reformer Sankaradeva, Majuli has gained added political significance after the assembly seat was won Sarbananda Sonowal on his way to becoming chief minister. Majuli was also elevated from a subdivision to district in June last year.
In 2006, the Assam government enacted the Majuli Cultural Landscape Region Act, under which the Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority, a statutory body, was set up for protection and propagation of its heritage resources. Also emerging as a major tourist destination after Kaziranga, Majuli may get a bridge link to Jorhat in the next few years. The foundation stone was laid by Gadkari in February 2016, ahead of Sonowal’s election.