Development Debates, Disaster and Assam

Prashant’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

Image 1: Aerial view of the Brahmaputra. [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]
As we embrace the ideas of development to embark upon the journey of change one needs to thoroughly understand the inherent debates. The role of traditional knowledge systems, communities and people science is to be assessed. In conversation with the founder of North East Affected Area Development Society (NEADS) Mr. Girin Chetia, I got an opportunity to understand these debates in the region. Mr. Chetia has been working in the social work domain since 1976. NEADS was set up in 1985 and was registered in 1987 in a small village of Dhekiakhowa on the outskirts of Jorhat. It is interesting to delve into his knowledge and the work undertaken by NEADS to solicit an understanding of the grassroots work ensued for decades. The attempt is to assimilate the correlation and difference between the different stakeholders in the area of development. Through the prism of grassroots work I try to weave a narrative around development and bottoms-up learning. The information is based on my discussion with Mr. Chetia, field experiences and literature review on challenges posed by disaster in Assam.

Image 2: Flood water in the island of Majuli. [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]
Finance as the Driver for Development?

In 1976, Mr. Girin Chetia was part of a participatory study to understand the nature of rural banks by the National Institute of Bank Management (NIBM – it is a national nodal agency for banks based in Pune). They were asked as part of the project to choose an area that had poor infrastructure, where people were living in poverty and “considered” underdeveloped. As part of the project they had to motivate the poor of the poorest for bank loans. As a customary practice the rickshaw pullers would borrow from the Mahajan (money lenders). They would pay Rs 5 a day to the money lender and were earning a modest amount of 50 paisa a day. The loan to the rickshaw pullers was assured by the bank on the recommendation of the fellow. The loan amount was fairly small. The state government had assured the banks of repayment in case of default by the rickshaw puller.

Mr. Chetia asserts that: “In the initial days, we were of the understanding that if the people get the money, they will develop. In a matter of a year we learnt about the deeper causes of developmental debates and underlining issues.”

The loans were good as reported by the banks since they got the monthly installment and full loan repayment on time. After three months, most of the rickshaw pullers were able to pay back the debts to the bank. After six months, the rickshaw pullers came to the fellow with applications for new loans. They suggested that the bank will approve the loan in case you recommend us. The rickshaw pullers who had managed to pay of debts wanted a second loan for another rickshaw. On further inquiry from the fellow, the rickshaw pullers shared that they would lease the second rickshaw to the poor and charge them Rs 5 on a day to day basis.

Mr. Chetia inquired from the rickshaw puller: “What if they do not pay you back?”

The rickshaw pullers shared that they have to, as they would be with them the whole day. Over a period of time, he shared how the rickshaw pullers did manage to secure a second loan and invest in a new rickshaw. The locals who were now indebted to other rickshaw pullers came to him and shared how the Mahajan was better who would not harass them by following them on the street and demanding more income in case they had a better earning on a given day. The relationships within the community were turned head on and the feeling of community was lost.

This learning raised questions on the ideas of development using money. Introducing the elements of finance capital poses behavioural and social challenges. The ideas of community development vs. individual development could now be looked upon as two different conceptualisations. Also the nature of intra community exploitation was also an aspect which would have to be evaluated as we seek development. The ability to introduce finance yet deprive the community from learning to understand the associated impact is a concern. Could a consistent engagement inculcating conscientization principles be looked at? This then entails elements of one who educates and one who gets educated as proposed by Paulo Freire in his seminal work Pedagogy of Oppressed. The work to be done with the community is multifold and demands persistence. Hence the need for a grassroots level cadre that understands the field and works with the people.

Green Revolution and Its Impact?

Mr. Girin Chetia travelled to Punjab and Haryana and discussed the idea of green revolution on the life of the people. This was an attempt to understand the significance of modern practices (e.g. mechanised equipment, High Yield Varieties of seeds and sufficient irrigation) oriented agriculture as a development approach for North East. As per his experience the benefits concentrated on the prosperous farmers and rich landowners. The higher the landholding, the more the benefits that were accrued by the people. He shared that during those decades of the 1980s, the Punjabis living in North East were more prosperous to the people living in Punjab. The sharing of the fruits of the green revolution among all the sections was questionable.

Vandana Shiva, in her seminal work on the green revolution, has shared similar sentiments on the approach that we have ensued towards development:

From pre-neolithic times, it is argued, societal groups have always lived in environments too poor to satisfy their material needs. Nature has thus been seen as a source of economic scarcity, scarcity has been seen as a source of conflict over scarce resources, and conflicts have in turn been seen as a source of violence. (Shiva, p. 13-14)

The idea of scarcity that we have propagated has led to differing ideas of use of resource. The conflict between communities within the polity who look at the same resource from different points of view. The urban versus the rural and local versus the global. The nature of introducing development to multiply benefits for those disconnected with local ecosystems has also led to conflict. Introduction of technology in ecosystems with history of shared living with humans was the beginning, which now seems irreversible.

Mr. Chetia asserts that “We are not going to take the contract of development for the community”. We can act as facilitators for the process and cannot take upon us to ensure it anyhow.

The discussion around these conflicts also bring about a sense of responsibility and ownership to desist. The community should realise that they should do something for themselves. This can be related to the discussion around building a village based cadre.

Engineering Solutions as the Driver for Development?

The discussion on the development as a model imported from the developed nations of America and Europe also took shape. The shaping up of engineering marvels which will propel the engines of development. Disaster has been part of the North East from centuries ago. It has been part of the cultural and historical narrative of the area. People have been facing the natural disaster for long and have a good understanding on the impact as well. They never had the concept of grand designing in housing. Mishing housing is the best example of flood resistant design in the world.

Mr. Chetia jokingly shares how the department concerned has changed from “Flood Control” to “Flood Management” which reflects the apathy of the administrative and engineering approach to challenges from nature. He informs how notions of control has been overawed by the rising intensity of nature.

The debates on controlling the water on hilltops by means of dams has also been a cause of concern. There have been thousands of kilometres of embankments in Bihar and Assam. This has served no purpose with both the states falling prey to grave disasters due to flooding in 2017.

As P.J. Saikia notes, “The total length of embankments in Assam is 4448 km as stated in a debate in the Legislative Assembly of Assam in 1998. Even though the present length of embankments is not known, it is very clear that the state of Assam continues to construct of newer embankments”. (n.p.)

According to D.K. Mishra, the state of Bihar has a total embankment length of 3440 kms:

Capitulating to political expediency, Indian technocrats, who had supported an 80-year policy of not tampering with a river’s natural drainage, adopted artificial embanking as the solution. So, who are the 3,440 kilometres of Bihar’s embankments protecting? A breach becomes an event, but what of the annual floods which inundate populations living within the embankments? (Padmanabhan, n.p.)

The national highway policy defines the status of roads as one which should be above the floodplain and flood mark. It is interesting that with the rising number of National Highways (four-way road) constructions coming up in Assam, more hurdles are set up for the water. The reluctance to amends the policy denies the opportunity to flood waters to cross over these highways. It would create havoc for the people.

Erosion is the worst for the community living in and around the low land areas:

Rohmoria, in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra river in Assam, is severely affected by river-borne erosion. Efforts to get government help in combating this erosion passed through different stages of peaceful agitation and ultimately took a political character. People’s resistance used oil blockade as an effective means of getting government attention. Unfortunately, the state’s response has mostly been ad hoc and geared towards temporary measures to lift the oil blockade. (Borgohain and Lahiri, p. 31)

Though even today erosion is not considered a reason for disaster for the flood prone areas.

People’s Science is the Way Forward?

People were happy to grow for their needs and the ideas of marketing were missing. In the Mishing village they were able to work around 8-10 feet of floods. They were able to carry on work as usual. There are paddy cultivation practices which have adjusted to the timings of the floods. As B.N. Bordoloi noted in his ethnographic study in 1987: 

The Mishings are habituated to settled cultivation. Ahu cultivation occupies an important place among the Mishings. Ahu is widely grown by the Mishings. The Mishings also cultivate mustard seeds, potatoes, pulses, bananas etc. Now-a-days, Sali paddy cultivation has also become popular among the Mishing. (page unknown)

The houses of the people of the Mishing tribe in highland areas. The use of bamboo and bamboo wraps for housing is a traditional practice. The sowing of banana wraps, tamul, lemon etc in the kitchen gardens is a frequent practice among households. The culture of barter which facilitates the easy exchange for food was a practice followed in villages. It help them sustain the times of distress by non dependence on cash. The ability to plan the agricultural practices as per the state of the water in the low lying areas has been for centuries.

The use of light wood to make husking machines was a practice that was developed by the people. The lighter wood would enable the floating of the equipment during the floods rather than sinking down. It enabled them to carry on with the process even during floods.

Mishing women are the best weavers in the region. It is an age old practice and carries on even during the floods. The practice of weaving supplanted the household income by reducing the household income spent on clothes. The women were able to prepare the needful for all members of the family.

The people at the household level know how to row boats. The children were happy to row boats to go to school. The ability to adjust the daily schedules was for long till the intensity and frequency by human induced reasons took precedence.

In the flood prone areas in the tribal communities, livestock have been a part of the economy of the household for long. The livestock have been important assets for the women – milch cows, goat, pig, hen, duck etc. There should be scientific intervention to support the sustained and economical use of livestock for household.

Image 3: Water logging in Majuli, people using boats to cross over. [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]

Finding how to develop “organic leadership” has been a constant endeavor. One can build communities who stand up to fight up for rights and issues, but there are challenges. The anti social elements with vested interests spoil the overall effort. They tend to act as roadblocks in the way to set up and develop organic leadership. Development rate when it comes to people centric development is very slow. Most of the times, a sense of frustration comes over due to the longing for change. We intend to aim at the level of a village and let it on the people to expand it to other villages. This would be the method that can be looked upon as people centred.

Development actors’ “Ego” is one of the bigger threats to the idea of working towards the better of the people. The road that the development actors are leading us on is prone to tragedies. The terrains in Assam have a deep connection to the river networks that criss-cross through the state. For centuries, these river systems have changed the topography of the lands of Assam. The river and people connection has been evolving dynamically over the years. The needs of development have setup vicious cycles of interference in this meaningful and harmonious relationship. The importance of people driven ideas from the other regions and nations has been on the back burner to the needs of the industrial groupings across the region.

“Being a human being we have to develop, so we are suffering”. – Mr. Girin Chetia.


  1. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.
  2. Shiva, Vandana. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. 1991. Lexington, UP of Kentucky, 2016.
  3. Mishra, Dinesh Kumar. Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters. Dehradun: People’s Science Institute, 2008.
  4. Padmanabhan, Chitra. “Embankments – Or Should We Say Entombments?” The Hindu, 19 Sept 2008. Web.
  5. Borgohain, Julia, and Siddhartha Kumar Lahiri. “Rohmoria’s Challenge: Natural Disasters, Popular Protests and State Apathy”. Economic and Political Weekly 46.2 (Jan 2011): 31-35. JSTOR.
  6. Bordoloi, B. N. Tribes of Assam: Part 1. Assam: Tribal Research Institute, 1987.
  7. Saikia, Parag Jyoti. “Matmora (Assam) Geo-tube Embankment on Brahmaputra: State Glorifies, but No End to Peoples’ Sufferings after Three Years of Construction”. SANDRP: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. 6 May 2014. Web.


  • prashantanand

    Prashant has a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Delhi. It is one of Prashant's goals to enable and capacitate people for a sustainable livelihood in accordance with the local ecology. He feels that the current systems in place have not been able to provide the marginal sections of the society their rights. Instead, there has been a sense of exploitation of the people and the ecological systems. This need inspires Prashant to work towards human development in order to build a just and equitable society. Prashant's Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

Prashant has a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Delhi. It is one of Prashant's goals to enable and capacitate people for a sustainable livelihood in accordance with the local ecology. He feels that the current systems in place have not been able to provide the marginal sections of the society their rights. Instead, there has been a sense of exploitation of the people and the ecological systems. This need inspires Prashant to work towards human development in order to build a just and equitable society.

Prashant's Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

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