Ananda Payeng, 56, a Mishing tribal, has been living in a makeshift house by the Kamalabari-ghat Road for the past 16 years, ever since the unpredictable Brahmaputra took away his seven bighas of land, bit by bit, over a span of four years. Alimur village, which had over 70 Mishing tribal families till 1999, has entirely disappeared. And all those families now live in makeshift houses on the roadside.
“Every year we hear of some rehabilitation scheme. It becomes louder during the elections. But nothing has happened in the last 16 years,” said Payeng, who now works as a daily wager in various villages, while his wife Numoli weaves cloth.
“This time too, political parties are talking about giving us land and houses. But we stopped believing them long ago,” said his neighbour Arun Chandra Pamegam, 59.
Rajumoni Taye, a matriculate tribal woman of the now nonexistent Kaniajan village, has been living on the road-cum-embankment near Bhogpur Satra for 11 years. “The landless people of Kaniajan had traditionally voted for the AGP. Thus, even if some people in some other parts of the island may have got IAY houses and other benefits, we have been denied simply because of our affiliation,” she alleged.
Thanks to unabated erosion, the area of Majuli island in the Brahmaputra has shrunk from over 1,200 sq km in 1901 to about 540 sq km now. “Over 9,600 families, most of them Mishing, have lost their homesteads and farmland since 1975, the year from when erosion has become a very big problem,” said local journalist Bipul Saikia. Over 100 villages big and small — Alimur, Nam-Batiyamari, Opar Batiyamari, Kaniajan, Sumoimai, Nam-Sonowal – have disappeared in the last four decades, he said.
Majuli has suddenly become a VIP constituency since the BJP fielded its state president and chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal here. “In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Sonowal had polled nearly 47,000 votes with a clear lead of 27,000 over the Congress. With Narendra Modi becoming the first ever PM to visit Majuli last week, Sonowal will certainly win with a huge margin,” said his campaign manager Hem Chandra Doley.
The NDA government had only about a month ago laid the foundation stone for a bridge connecting Majuli with Jorhat. Sonowal, who has organised several youth and sports activities here in the past two years, has also vowed to make Majuli a global tourist destination.
“Yes, erosion has been Majuli’s biggest problem, and we have not been able to do much. But then Majuli’s pucca road length has increased from 10 km in 2001 to 250 km in 15 years,” said local Congress president Hiteswar Bora. “The Congress government built 17 RCC bridges, set up a 100-bed hospital and a sports complex, schools and colleges have got funds for better buildings, hundreds of high-school girls have got bicycles, hundreds of farmers have got power tillers and tractors.” The Congress is also telling people about Modi’s unfulfilled promises of 2014. “We are also telling people about price rise,” Bora added.
Many college students and young voters said they want a change. “Why should the same people be there for 15 years? Modi is impressive, and so is Sonowal. Moreover, Sonowal is going to be the chief minister,” said Monisha Saikia, a BA fourth-semester student of Majuli College. “With no bridge to Majuli, we cannot take an emergency patient to Jorhat because boats don’t ply after sunset,” said her classmate Binita Patir.
The seat has been traditionally held by Mishing tribals while Sonowal belongs to another tribe, Sonowal Kachari, and hails not from Majuli but from Dibrugarh. The seat has 43,000 Mishing voters — a potentially decisive bank in an electorate of 1.14 lakh — but that does not assure Rajib Lochan Pegu, the sitting Congress MLA and a Mishing, of victory this time. In the first place, not all Mishings vote en bloc. Again, two more candidates from the same community have threatened to split the Mishing vote. The BJP for its part is looking at the 47,000 non-tribal votes, as also the 24,000 SC votes, most of whom had voted for Sonowal in 2014.
“But I don’t think Majulials will vote on such lines,” said Haridev Goswami, the Garamur Saru-satra satradhikar who had hit headlines last year by breaking a tradition of celibacy. “People are talking about development. Majuli wants better roads, hospitals that have doctors, schools that have teachers. No party is talking about a daily helicopter service to Jorhat.”