Editor's note: The people of Assam have been affected to varying degrees by the floods. Some have no homes to return while leading their lives in inadequately-equipped relief camps, while others try to restart their lives all over again with whatever little is left behind by floods at their homes. This is the first in a three-part series on how various people in the state are coping with the floods.
Sitting in the verandah of Odalguri Middle English School (Udalguri is a different district, Odalguri is a village in Chirang district), 23-year-old Nurul Islam recalls how three years ago he lost everything he owned.
"There was a massive flood in the Aie river. I swam across an overflowing river and found shelter in Odalguri," he said with a faraway look in his eye.
Islam and 157 families of Chaurabari village took shelter in the relief camp at the Madulipara Lower Primary School in No. 1 Chaurabari village for the next eight months.
When floodwater receded and these people went back to their homeland to rebuild their lives they were left shell-shocked.
"There was no sign of any village. The flood had erased the whole of Chaurabari village," said Nurul. Along with Chaurabari, the villages of Choto Amguri and Sanyashibari, which fall under Bijni and Sidli revenue circles of Chirang district, had also been washed away. About 300 families were left homeless and, more importantly, without an identity proof.
"My ration card, PAN card, voter identity card, land documents etc. were all gone. In one sweep, I had nothing to prove that I am Nurul Islam, a resident of Assam. That I am an Indian," he said.
The villagers had left Chaurabari soon after the riots in 2012 and stayed in relief camps in Odalguri. Soon after the riots, there were also floods in the region during the same time, which had apparently submerged their lands. When the situation calmed down after eight months and villagers returned to Chaurabari, they found nothing. They have no clue whether the documents were burnt down by miscreants during the riots or floodwaters swept them away.
The fear of being left without an identity card is strong in the state, particularly among the minority class. With a heavy presence of security forces and routine reports of illegal immigrants sneaking in from Bangladesh, the villagers hold their government-issued identity card close.
Before the raging floods swallowed whole villages, these areas also witnessed massive bloodbath during the 2012 riots between the Bodos and alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The violence also resulted in large-scale displacement of people from these areas for security reasons.
"Since 2012, more than 300 families have been living in the relief camp of Odalguri village set up by the district administration of Chirang. Now that the flood has taken way the riot-affected villages, a total of 1,160 people have been living on the government land without any place to go. These people have made some makeshift huts in these lands," said Abul Halim, the village head of Odalguri.
According to the findings of an interim report by Committee for Protection of Land Rights of Indigenous People headed by former chief election commissioner of India Harishankar Brahma, there are hundreds and thousands of indigenous landholders who even after 53 years of completion of the last survey and settlement operations in 1964 are yet to get their land record.
Assam has been facing the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh since Independence. Telling a Bangladeshi immigrant from the state's Bengali-speaking minority community is a tough job because of linguistic and cultural similarities.
In the floods that ravaged the state in 2013, the No. 1 Chaurabari village was wiped out by river Aie. Thousands of people took shelter in the government land of Odalguri, next to the village in Bijni revenue circle. By 2016, four more villages — Chaurabari, Sanyashibari, Choto Amguri and Madulipara — all located in the Bijni revenue circle in Chirang district in western Assam, were washed away in the floods.
According to the report of Asian Centre for Human Rights, Assam has the highest number of internally displaced people in the year 2014. With the process of National Registration of Citizenship (NRC) under process, many people belonging to the minority community in Assam spends days with fear of losing citizenship.
Rulie Phukan, a social scientist and a research fellow at Tata Institute of Social Science, said, "The internally displaced communities have settled in recognised and unrecognised forest villages and some settled near the river areas, for instance, river Aie in Chirang and Bongaigaon. The government agents had denied protection to the internally displaced, for which they have not returned to their old settlements."
A hapless lot
Most of these people living on sandbars of western Assam have been victims of not just floods but also violence. Settling in relief camps and thereafter nearby government land, these people do not have any documents to prove they owned land earlier.
Ibrahim, Ali, a victim of ethnic violence and floods, who currently teaches science in the Odalguri Middle English School, said, "At first, violence displaced my house and now the flood has taken our land. Our biggest fear is being branded as illegal immigrants. Many of us do not have any document [anymore] to prove our citizenship and we do not have land pattas [title deed to a property] as well."
The villages that were wiped out by Aie in Sidli and Bijni revenue circles are yet to be enlisted by the respective revenue circles. The setters in the month of July approached the local MLA Kamal Shing Narzary of Bijni constituency to enlist the affected villages in those areas.
"In July we had approached Kamal Shing Narzary with an application, requesting him to enlist the villages that were wiped out from the map of Assam during the floods. Though he said he had taken up the matter with the deputy commissioner's office, no team has come for surveying the damage," Ali said.
At the same time, Gokul Brahma, sub-divisional officer of Bijni, said the process of enlisting of villages has been initiated. Though there is no digitised data on how many people are displaced, he said they would look into doing so. According to him, 135 villages in Bijni sub-division have been fully or partially affected by the flood.
He said a flagship measure to provide relief to the displaced people has been initiated in 13 districts of the state. Further, he said 505 households have been damaged in Chirang and the government would enlist the people and provide them relief soon.
Watch this space for the second part of the series on Wednesday.
(The author is a Guwahati based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
Published Date: Oct 10, 2017 16:38 PM | Updated Date: Oct 11, 2017 22:25 PM