I have lived in 14 states of India before coming to Assam and it was my first opportunity to enter into the north-east frontiers of the country. Assam is like an entrance to a group of states which follows a culture and possess natural heritage which is much different from the rest of the country. Serving as an entrance to a new world, Assam welcomes you with all warmth. Having lived in different other states, I have never experienced such kind of warmth and forthcoming nature in the communities.
I am placed with an NGO called North-East Affected Areas Development Society (NEADS) in Jorhat, Assam, in the north-east part of India. NEADS is involved in multiple domains of development. However, much of its resources are channeled on disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response. Assam is a flood affected state where flood is almost an annual phenomenon.
My host NGO offered me various projects to which I can contribute, however, they left it up to me to decide which one to start first. Using this freedom, I chose a much beautiful one of all their work site. I am beginning my work here on a river island called Majuli island. It’s the world biggest human inhabited river island surrounded by river Brahmaputra on one side and river Subansiri on the other. The rich diversity of communities inhabiting here along with dense green surrounding makes it one of the most beautiful places on the earth. However, with the beauty the nature also brings crisis in this area almost every year in the form of heavy floods. The flood carries serious consequences on people’s economy and health. Over the previous century the island has lost more than 70% of its total area due to regular erosion happening along the river banks.
The “Mishing community”, which is tribal community, constitutes a major population on this island. I discovered through various studies and also through interactions with them about their history, living patterns, livelihood, etc. Traditionally they used to live around the banks of the river. Fishing, cultivation and weaving were their major activities for their livelihood. They continue to do so, however, earning the livelihood with this has became only difficult with time. They say flood was never a curse then. It used to bring rich soil deposits in the banks and recharge the ground water. The scale of floods those times was also not very severe. They built their houses with bamboo on a height to be secure during floods. They continue to live in such houses even now. But the severity of floods is increasing every year. Now they prefer vacating their houses during peak floods as many times it has collapsed. Then, water now takes longer time to leave from their fields. This has led to reduction in the cultivation period and the productivity as well. Most of them have lost a substantial part of their farmland due to erosion.
During my initial visits there, I used to wonder why one would continue to live in an area while knowing that there will be flood every year. Living with this continuous threat of losing the wealth generated during the year could be frustrating and can also make one pessimistic about earning better. But this logic of a rationalist got smashed when I spent a day with a Mishing family in their house. There was hardly anything in the house which one will feel fear of losing. This bamboo house was built on a height of about seven feet, supported by bamboos. Inside the house it was poorly lighted but had everything for a good sleep. Beneath the house they have their handloom which comprises of a charkha and weaving device made of bamboo. They just earn enough to meet their living needs. I was surprised when they said they don’t even take the things which don’t need but which would be provided by the government for free. As most of them fall below the poverty line, they are entitled to get a fixed quantity of free rice, wheat flour and kerosene oil under the public distribution scheme. They say they only take rice out of all because the other things they don’t use. I asked them why can’t they sell those things which they don’t use but could be easily sold thereon adding a support to their expenditures. Their response was overwhelming. They said many other communities often don’t get these things because of under-supply, thus, they leave it for them. With this you realize what kind of satisfaction with life you need when you live in such difficult areas.
Over the time I will be working with the weavers here. Almost all the households do handloom and only the women in the houses are involved in this. I would try to improve the market access of the garments that they make. There are two justifications for this work. First, talking to many of them I found their expenditure on health is high as situation post floods has serious consequences on their health due to water borne diseases. The increase in income will help them meet those expenditures. Secondly, the garments made by them are extremely beautiful and carry a culture which is not much known and the world should know about it. With the speed at which this island is reducing, there is a threat of extinction of this culture.