Assam has lost 4.27 lakh hectares of land over the past 70 years. This land was lost not because of border disputes or encroachments, but because of its lifeline – the Brahmaputra. The mighty Mercury River eats away at vast expanses of land every year.
Among the many missions as deputy commissioner of a flood-prone neighborhood in Assam, I have the opportunity to visit and assess the extent of this erosion. One morning in June, with officials from the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), we drove through rugged roads between lush, green paddy fields typical of rural Assam. During this more than two hour journey from the district headquarters in Nagaon, we descended the paved and tarred roads of the highway to the kaccha roads of the interior. Only a heavy vehicle like the Mahindra Bolero could negotiate the second half of the pitch.
On the banks of the Kopili River, one of the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra, the Gaon Burha (village chief) pointed out to us the ground just below – massive chunks of rock, dirt and mud were being washed away by the currents. constants of the river. A year ago the river bank was about 10 meters from where we were. We interviewed the owner. Once upon a time, it was all his, he said.
The bank opposite was more and more exposed. In a way, the course of the river was moving slightly towards our side of the shore. The “exposed” areas were under the river until recently, so are not myadi or private land according to income records. The irony is that these “new” lands are now government or khas lands. So, as more and more myadi lands are swept away, more and more state-owned kha lands emerge. Although we have the figures for land lost due to erosion, the data on the amount of kha land added is patchy at best.
It is a phenomenon that is played out across the state. The most spectacular example is of course the erosion of Majuli, the largest river island in the world. It has lost almost half of its area over the past 50 years. But there are many more examples of less visible erosion, of land washed away quietly by the river.
While the national narrative is largely focused on the flooding in Assam, it is this erosion by river systems that masquerades as the silent killer. While a combination of natural and man-made factors exacerbated the crisis, it is the impact on people’s lives that is a cause for dismay.
As people are uprooted from their land, they lose their most important asset. The lack of land makes them vulnerable and they are forced to migrate. Many of these displaced families are now “encroaching” on government land. Some of them settle in protected forests or wildlife reserves. While undocumented migration has been a historical problem in Assam, today much of the encroachment is also by families, uprooted by erosion.
The government of Assam has taken several steps over the years to address this massive humanitarian and ecological crisis. Geo-bags, geo-tubes and porcupines dot vast expanses of flood-prone shoreline across the state. In 2015, the Assam Legislature passed a resolution recognizing river erosion as a “disaster” under guidelines from the National Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) and NDRF. The state government’s revenue and disaster management department declared erosion as a state-specific disaster in 2015.
The government’s new land policy of 2019 gave preference to colonization and the allocation of land to indigenous families, landless due to erosion. It is interesting to note that the Assam Land Requisition and Acquisition Act, 1964 provides for the acquisition and requisition of land for erosion control works and for the settlement of families displaced by erosion.
In the long term, the strategy should focus on erosion mitigation measures such as increasing vegetation cover around erosion-prone banks using local and endemic plant varieties. This must be reinforced by the participation of the populations and capacity building to improvise agricultural practices and land use. For example, farmers can be encouraged to cover sterile soil with crop residues, which improves soil retention. Soil stabilizers and tackifiers may also be considered. Even smaller networks of canals and control dams may be considered depending on environmental and technical feasibility. International cooperation and knowledge transfer will play a key role here.
Although the measurements have only just started, it is prudent to focus more on this issue. The paradigm of disaster management around erosion needs to be integrated into the larger framework of river and land conservation. The erosion of prime farmland and family properties will continue to be one of the main pressing challenges facing the state development administration – and it is a reality that we must address as of today. as soon as possible.
(The author is an IAS officer currently assigned as deputy commissioner in the Nagaon district of Assam. Opinions are personal.)