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Guest Blog: The tomorrow that never was


ANSHU MESHACK | New Delhi, July 4, 2012 17:57
Tags : Assam floods | Sanjoy Ghosh | Majuli Island |

Assam FloodsOf the many ‘if-only’ thoughts haunting the 1.6 lakh residents of Majuli Island, ravaged by the Brahmaputra River and threatened with complete submergence by this year’s floods, perhaps a significant one is ‘If only Sanjoy Ghose was alive today’. But that is a hope extinguished fifteen years ago, on this day (July 4), with his abduction and murder by ULFA militants, on the very island that he struggled to save from obliteration.

News reports coming in last week sound the death knell, following submergence of 70 villages and complete washing away of 30 others. In the town of Jorhat, all ferry ghats have been closed for days, cutting off the only access to Majuli. Over 75,000 island residents are estimated to be camping in makeshift shelters. The temporary displacement is the least of their concerns; finding their land unfit for cultivation on return if the rains don’t stop soon is foremost.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Reports suggest that the island’s land mass is steadily eroding at an alarming rate of 7.4 every year. Official records show 9,566 families rendered homeless since 1969. Of these, 500 are said to have been rehabilitated. What of the thousands left out? And what of the ravaged island, recognized as the spiritual and cultural capital of Assam?

These questions, as relevant in the early 1990s as they are today, troubled a young development worker, Sanjoy Ghose, who, with a promising team of seven committed colleagues under the aegis of AVARD-NE (Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development – North-East) had set up base in April 1996 on the flood-ravaged impoverished island of Majuli.

Isolated by its peculiar geography as the world’s largest riverine island, Majuli faces threats from the increasing development in the large (and growing) towns in mainland Assam, just across the mighty Brahmaputra. Large embankments built to protect towns like Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Guwahati create a backlash that forces the mighty river to find other avenues to carry its enormous silt load. Each year, the river breaks through weak embankments, or overruns areas not embanked at all. Majuli, with a poor population and a weak political voice, falls in the latter category. With no embankments to protect it and not enough value attached to its impoverished communities, the people of Majuli have been facing the wrath of the river for decades now. “The erosion of Majuli will mean more than the loss of land, or of livelihood”, Sanjoy was to accurately assess, “but will mark the extinction of a way of life.”

The Oxford-educated Sanjoy, an alumnus of IRMA and Johns Hopkins University, chose the earthy approach that had served them well in their nine years in rural Rajasthan. Months of home-stays and in-depth study of the region and its people earned them the trust they needed to set about making a meaningful contribution. Recognizing that the incessantly hardworking agricultural communities had little sympathy, or support, from the state machinery and were rapidly going down a spiral of economic vulnerability, Sanjoy’s intent was, as he wrote, “to open up the space for voluntary action in society. Perhaps through a process of strengthening and supporting grassroots groups, and developing support institutions, we would be able to engender a process in which the needs of the people were met, as well as provide opportunities for young people to experiment with forms of constructive dissent – raising questions of State and society, as well as coming up with some answers.”

In little over a year, the team proved the naysayers wrong, making much progress. The turning point came in February 1997, when more than 30,000 man-days of labour (mostly woman-days in fact) were volunteered by the community, and an experimental stretch of 1.7 kilometers was protected from erosion using local wisdom and resources. The following year, this protected stretch of the island survived the floods, raising hopes and sending ripples of triumph through the people.

Sanjoy was to recount, “The effort was not simply to stop erosion, but also generate a sense of local participation, and interest, and create a belief that something can be done, even on a small scale,” he wrote. “If this succeeds, it would have saved a patch of land in Majuli from extinction, but more importantly, it will become a symbol of people’s cooperation and resistance for small communities struggling to survive everywhere.”

What the team, perhaps even the people themselves, failed to recognize, was the insecurity this self-reliance and sense of community ownership was creating among those who had been benefiting from status quo over the decades: the corrupt contractors and politicians, and worse, the banned militant group claiming to represent the people, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

Firm believers in the power of media to bring change, the team had been bringing out a newsletter-magazine in Assamese called Dweep Alok, offering information about government programs, how to access them, their budgets and expenses, case studies on their implementation, and so on. Inevitably, this led to the unearthing of scams. Coupled with the popular support that Sanjoy was receiving from the people, this did nothing to endear him to the powers that be. Then the threats started trickling in.

In late June 1997, Sanjoy wrote, “Even today, as I write, people are being threatened and warned off, and it has become difficult for us to work in this atmosphere of tension and fear. [People] want development and change, but are scared… People are fed up of the bandhs, the extortions, the killings and the kidnappings. It needs just one push more.”

The push did come, but not quite as expected. In the late evening of July 4, 1997, Sanjoy, returning home with a local AVARD member, was called to a discussion with ULFA members. He went willingly, hoping to clarify matters. Two days later, the young man accompanying Sanjoy returned, alone. Sanjoy was never heard of again. He was 37. It was to be another 12 years before the ULFA admitted to killing him. “A mistake,” its members conceded last May, 14 years after he went missing.

Over the years, the State has set up many institutions, launched many plans and projects to address the problem, sanctioning crores of rupees. The Brahmaputra Board in 2005; the Majuli Development Authority in 2007; a Planning Commission Project in early 2012; the Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority a month ago. Sanjoy’s initiative to have Majuli recognized as a World Heritage Site follows a similar trend: for the third time since 2004, India’s application to UNESCO was rejected earlier this year for being technically incomplete.

This year’s floods are said to be the worst in 14 years. The islanders recognize what they had lost back in 1997, but bitter regret is little consolation. What can be done to prevent this recurring? Sanjoy was struggling with this same question, as his last few writings show. “Unfortunately, the only answer seems to be embanking Majuli... If done well, it will prevent this annual cycle of loss of life and property: the savings from this alone would justify the cost in less than a decade. Secondly, a spur all around to prevent further erosion... How many floods will it take till we learn that too many people have drowned?”

Sixteen years on, the answers continue to elude. Sanjoy, Joy to all including his children, once wrote, “We [are] conscious of the spirit and power of the people, protected by the Brahmaputra.” Perhaps the mute, angry river and its people have the answers?

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017