Written by Aranyak Saikia
Assam has lost 4.27 lakh hectares of land in the last 70 years. This land was lost not to border disputes or encroachments, but to its lifeline — the Brahmaputra. The mighty, mercurial river eats away large swathes of land every year.
Among the many assignments as an Assistant Commissioner of a flood-prone district in Assam, I get the opportunity to visit and evaluate the extent of this erosion. On one June morning, along with Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) officials, we made our way through rugged roads saddled between lush, green paddy fields, typical of rural Assam. In this journey of over two hours starting from the district headquarters in Nagaon, we descended from paved, metalled roads of the highway to the kaccha roads of the interior. Only a heavy vehicle like the Mahindra Bolero could negotiate the latter half of the terrain.
On the banks of the Kopili river, one of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra, the Gaon Burha (village headman) pointed us to the ground just below — massive chunks of rock, soil and mud were being swept away by the steady currents of the river. A year ago, the river bank was about 10 metres from where we were standing. We interviewed the landowner. Once upon a time, all of it was his, he said.
The bank opposite was increasingly getting exposed. In a way, the river’s course was slightly getting displaced towards our side of the bank. The ‘exposed’ areas were under the river till recently, and are therefore, not myadi or private lands as per revenue records. The irony is that these ‘new’ lands are now government or khas lands. Thus, as more myadi land gets swept away, more state-owned khas lands emerge. While we have the numbers for land lost to erosion, the data on how much khas land is getting added is patchy at best.
This is a phenomenon playing out through the state. The most spectacular example is, of course, the erosion of Majuli, the world’s largest riverine island. It has lost nearly half its area in the last 50 years. But there are many more instances of less visible erosion, of land quietly getting washed away by the river.
While the national narrative is largely-focused on the floods in Assam, it is this erosion by the river systems that is masquerading as the silent killer. While a combination of natural and man-made factors have exacerbated the crisis, it is the impact on people’s lives that is a cause of consternation.
As people get uprooted from their lands, they lose the most important asset they have. The landlessness makes them vulnerable and they are forced to migrate. Many of these displaced families now ‘encroach’ on government lands. Some of them move into the protected forests or wildlife sanctuaries. While undocumented migration has been a historical problem in Assam, today a large fraction of the encroachments are also by families, uprooted by erosion.
The Government of Assam has taken several steps over the years to deal with this massive humanitarian and ecological crisis. Geo-bags, geo-tubes and porcupines dot large stretches of flood-prone banks across the state. In 2015, the Assam Legislative Assembly passed a resolution to recognise river erosion as a ‘disaster’ under State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) and NDRF guidelines. The state government’s revenue and disaster management department has notified erosion as a state specific disaster in 2015.
The new Government Land Policy of 2019 has given preference for settlement and allotment of land to indigenous families, driven landless by erosion. Interestingly, the Assam Land Requisition and Acquisition Act, 1964 provides for acquisition and requisition of land for anti-erosion works and for settling of families displaced by erosion.
In the long term, the strategy will have to focus on erosion mitigation measures such as increasing the vegetation cover around erosion-prone banks through local and endemic plant varieties. This needs to be augmented by people’s participation and capacity building to improvise agriculture practices and land husbandry. For instance, farmers can be incentivised to cover the barren soil with crop residue, which improves soil retention. Soil stabilisers and tackifiers can also be looked into. Even smaller networks of canals and check dams can be considered depending upon environmental and engineering feasibility. International cooperation and knowledge transfer will play a key role here.
While the measures have just begun, it is prudent that greater focus is given on this issue. The disaster management paradigm around erosion needs to be integrated into the broader framework of river and land conservation. Erosion of prime agricultural and homestead land will continue to be one of the key, urgent challenges facing the development administration of the state — and that is a reality we must address sooner than later.
(The writer is an IAS Officer currently posted as Assistant Commissioner in Nagaon district of Assam. Views are personal.)