Assam's Majuli quandary: Will district status end existential crisis of world's largest river island? - Firstpost
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Assam's Majuli quandary: Will district status end existential crisis of world's largest river island?


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Not a surprising, repetitive and monotonous monologue if you happen to call someone over the mobile phone in Assam's newest district — Majuli.

Situated 400 kilometres east of the state’s main city of Guwahati, Assam's brand new district is a classic example of geographical remoteness, communication bottlenecks, infrastructural impediments and unreliable mobile connectivity. Despite being in the grip of backwardness for so long, it is perhaps the need for a tangible and sanguine answer to the existential crisis from which the island suffers that requires a quicker remedy than better amenities.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal chairing a cabinet meeting in the new district of Majuli on 8 September, 2016. Image courtesy Sonowal's Facebook page

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal chairing a cabinet meeting in the new district of Majuli on 8 September, 2016. Image courtesy Sonowal's Facebook page

Flanked by the swirling waters of the mighty Brahmaputra, Majuli, which recently wore a feather in its hat as the largest riverine island in the world, on Thursday wore another as the country's first island district. The island celebrated the move by the Sarbanada Sonowal government by lighting earthen lamps and by doing nam praxanga (religious hymns) at namghars (Assamese place of worship). But from April to July, when the monsoon was at its ferocious worst and the Brahmaputra at maddening spate, these same people offered prayers on the banks of the river to spare them.

According to PTI, Majuli covers an area of around 880 square kilometres but perennial erosion has led to the losing of one-third of its area over the past 30 to 40 years. The island has an estimated population of 1,60,000 people.

As the nerve centre of Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture, preserving the teachings, music, art and dance forms and literature preached by the 15th century saint and scholar Srimanta Sankardev and his disciple Sri Sri Madhavdev, Majuli is the very essence of the greater Assamese society. Known for its Satras (neo-Vaishnavite institutions) that strictly follow the Ekasarana Dharma norms, the fear of the island vanishing is real as many of them have opened alternative campuses in and around Jorhat on the southern bank of the river.

Leading Satras like the Sri Sri Auniati Satra and the Dakhinpat Satra are examples that now have alternative compounds in Kaliapani and Sotai respectively.

"Erosion and flood problems are the biggest challenges. In fact, more than the floods it is the erosion. The chief minister has directed that the Brahmaputra Board and the Water Resources Department would be housed together in a single complex here so that this can function as a command and control centre during floods. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank would also be approached to fund flood and erosion mitigation programmes as announced by the chief minister," Pallav Gopal Jha, who took charge as the first deputy commissioner of Majuli on Thursday, told Firstpost.

Waters of the flooded Brahmaputra river enters the premises of the Rengam Industrial Women Co-operative Society Ltd in Majuli. Image courtesy Raju Gam/Amar Majuli

Waters of the flooded Brahmaputra river enters the premises of the Rengam Industrial Women Co-operative Society Ltd in Majuli. Image courtesy Raju Gam/Amar Majuli

"We can't imagine Majuli vanishing from the map. The claims by different scientific journals that the island will disappear in the future need to be checked for accuracy. With time, science and technology will develop even more and we can better protect the island," the deputy commissioner said.

Jha, incidentally has the unique experience of becoming the first deputy commissioner of a newly formed district twice, as he headed the Biswanath district prior to his posting in Majuli. He listed out the challenges that he faces in Majuli, Assam's 35th district.

"Starting a new district is always a challenges. There are connectivity issues, developmental challenges, infrastructure problems which would be slowly taken care of. My approach is regional development. The chief minister has directed all ministries to help Majuli as much as possible. In fact, there was a Cabinet meeting which was held on Thursday in Majuli. Thrust is also upon getting Majuli recognised as a Unesco world heritage site, which I believe will get a boost after the recent recognition by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest river island in the world. The focus is on having the tourism aspect here much more organised," Jha said.

"To expedite works we are on the process of upgrading all offices to district level across all departments," he said.

Only connected by ferries to Nimati Ghat in Jorhat that ply between 8 am to 4 pm, communication has been a massive challenge for people in Majuli. During monsoon, even this service stops as the Brahmaputra invariably flows over the danger mark. The internal roads in Majuli are a tale of utter distress and miseries.

"There are bridges in the pipeline which would connect the island with the southern and northern banks of Brahmaputra. The rural roads needs to be strengthened. The condition is slightly better on the Lakhimpur (district on the northern bank) side," he said.

Majuli College principal, Debajit Saikia while expressing satisfaction that the sub-division is now upgraded to a district, stressed that geographical security is a must.

"The government must now ensure that the people get the benefits of a full-fledged district as soon as possible. People are elated that Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the establishment of a government college in Majuli very soon. This will greatly serve the cause of higher education in the island particularly the bright students. But all said and done won't be fruitful if the government fails to protect Majuli from floods and erosion in particular. This is the foremost priority. This is the only way to secure the cultural capital of Assam. So many people have been rendered homeless because of flood and erosion and are living on embankments. The government must do something quickly do rehabilitate these people," Saikia said.

The announcement as a new district has indeed ignited hope among the people in other crucial aspects of life as well like employment and agriculture, which is the main occupation of among a large section of people in the river island.

People in Majuli lighting earthen lamps to welcome the decision of the Assam government to accord district status to the world's largest river island. Image courtesy Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal's Facebook page

People in Majuli lighting earthen lamps to welcome the decision of the Assam government to accord district status to the world's largest river island. Image courtesy Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal's Facebook page

"We no longer would have to go to Jorhat even for a signature soon. We are running a small cooperative called Rengam for women weavers affected by erosion. This is their livelihood. Till now we would have to go Jorhat, the earlier headquarters of Jorhat district as Majuli was a sub-division for any kind of approval. We hope the announced educational institutions including the proposed university on culture would generate employment for the educated unemployed here. As we are practicing an Israeli drip-irrigation technology and organic farming on pilot basis, we hope more funds would pour in after Majuli has become a district," said a non-governmental organisation's — Amar Majuli (Our Majuli) — senior field coordinator, Raju Gam.

Gam also insisted that improvement of internal roads is an immediate requirement as large portions are hardly motorable even during winter leave alone the monsoons.

There is little doubt that Majuli holds immense importance in the lives of every Assamese for its cultural contributions to the state.

"I am a culturally sensitive person. I believe 35 of the Satras are active now. I will meet all the Satradhikars and understand their needs and answer any queries," said deputy commissioner Jha.

SriSri Pitambar Dev Goswami, who heads the much revered Sri Sri Auniati Satra in Majuli, called the announcement a huge leap forward.

"It was a historic announcement made by the government. It would eventually connect Majuli with the outside world which it has been missing so far. We hope there would be no further wastage of money and time in communication. Bridges must be made quickly. However, without the spurs being strengthened all these announcements would be futile. Majuli has to exist first otherwise declaring it a district would be meaningless," SriSri Goswami told Firstpost from Majuli.

We can't imagine Majuli vanishing from the map. The claims by different scientific journals that the island will disappear in the future need to be checked for accuracy. With time, science and technology will develop even more and we can better protect the island

Majuli has to go miles to make life comfortable and safe for its residents.

According to the Census 2011, out of 31,732 households, only 168 (0.53 percent) got tap water from a treated sources while 68 households (0.21 percent) got it from untreated source. A majority of them — 6,520 (20.55 percent) — got it from tube wells. The situation on lighting is also nothing to be proud of. Out of 31,732 households, 6,889 (21.71 percent) used electricity for lighting while a whopping 23,899 (75.32 percent) depended on kerosene. A total of 828 (2.61 percent) households used solar energy. Public sanitation is a major concern in the island district as 30,491 (96.09 households) as per the Census 2011 has no facility of drainage system.

A common medium of entertainment like the television is a luxury in Majuli. Out of 31,732 households, 5,214 (16.43 percent) own a TV set while 10,902 (34.36 percent) depend on the radio. A paltry 232 (0.73 percent) own a computer or laptop with internet while 1,713 (5.4 percent) households have a computer or a laptop without an internet connection.

Basic amenities can be improved with time but it is existential crisis that lurks fear in the heart of a Majuli resident. Singer Bhupen Hazarika has aptly questioned the fury of the river despite the sufferings of the people in one of his immortal songs Bistirna Parore. It's not mere providence that Majuli was accorded its district status on the 90th birthday of the Sudhakantha, as Hazarika is popularly known in Assam.

First Published On : Sep 9, 2016 15:11 IST

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