Marooned by floods, Assam's dead get watery grave as land disappear

Guwahati: "I had no option. When they died, I spent the whole night looking at their bodies and thinking where I could perform the last rites. Eventually, I put the bodies in jute bags and threw them into the water." Helplessness writ large on his face, Chandra Kanta Rabha, 45, of Jonai in Assam's Dhemaji district recounted how his heart sank as mere hours after losing his family, he had to acquiesce to this decision.

Body of Umme Salma taken in a boat to Koriya Pahar in Boitamari Revenue Circle, Bongaigaon. Image courtesy 101Reporters

Body of Umme Salma taken in a boat to Koriya Pahar in Boitamari Revenue Circle, Bongaigaon. Image courtesy 101Reporters

His wife Padmawati and son Raju, all of 12, died of drowning in the raging Brahmaputra on 12 August. While they could not be saved, the villagers caught hold of their bodies floating in the water and set about looking for land to bury them. Only, there was none. Dhemaji has been one of the worst-affected districts in this year's floods, said to be most devastating in more than a decade. Scores of villages across the state are submerged after three waves of flood hit the northeastern state.

In Jonai, as in many other villages of the sub-division, there's no place to bury the dead. Rabha and his fellow villagers searched for a place for hours to bury the mother-son duo, but to no avail. With a heavy heart, they concluded their only option was to give their bodies to the river that claimed their lives.

Four days before them, the villagers of Chatpara in Bongaigaon district in western Assam ferried a dead body three kilometres across the Brahmaputra to reach a hillock to perform the last rites. A resident Umme Salma, 35, had breathed her last at the nearby Chalantapara Hospital. Much like the Jonai sub-division, this village too did not have any place left for burial. Salma's husband Abu Taher and a few villagers braved the overflowing river to get to the hillock, Korea Pahar.

Bongaigaon is one of the many districts in the state that face constant soil erosion. The annual floods during the monsoon not only disrupt life but also make it difficult for the villagers to bid a respectful final goodbye to their loved ones owing to a lack of a burial ground. While the village did have a graveyard, it was washed away in the 2012 floods. To tackle this, most houses in Chatpara would bury their loved ones in their backyards. The situation was such that every house had at least five-six graves. But now even this is not feasible.

"Dig two feet into the ground and water will start gushing out. We do not have a place to live in, how can you manage land for burial!" exclaimed Mohor Ali, a resident of Chatpara. He pointed to a piece of land that was once his paddy field but now is filled with water after the first wave of floods hit the village in July.

How graveyards die

The burial ground at Korea Pahar, where the residents of Chatpara bury their dead, is also fast receding. The residents recall how villagers in Nama Chatpara, an adjoining village, started losing their graveyard a decade ago.

"The floods that hit us 10 years ago washed away the entire kabristaan (burial ground). Can you imagine? The dead bodies of our ancestors gone!" said Mukhtar Hussain, a teacher at the village school. He said six years after the graveyard was washed away, the entire village of Nama Satpara was swallowed by the floods. That's when they started using the graveyard in Korea Pahar, he said.

He poignantly described how they look at the river every day and pray for it to recede. “The soil is getting softer with every passing day. Erosion has destroyed half of the villages in Boitamari [revenue circle] and the river is inching closer. Look at the road, the river will soon wash it away too,” he said apprehensively.

Located 185 kilometre from the state's capital of Guwahati, Boitamari is the worst-hit area in Bongaigaon district. Chatpara presently houses more than 2,200 people after the recent flood displaced 580 families. The biggest problem in the village now is that of erosion. In the months of May and June, the rising water level of Brahmaputra had displaced 50 villages in Boitamari revenue circle.

According to Kamila Khatun, the panchayat president of Chatpara, the river has washed away 2,000 bighas of land, displacing more than 70,000 people in the last five years. She said about 60 families have been living in the 1,480 bighas of land that was allotted to set up a paper mill in the village.

More than 40 percent of Assam is flood-prone and about 25 lakh people live on seasonal islands and sandbars, located amid rivers and their tributaries. Every year during floods, the gushing rivers chip off these almond-shaped islands from the tip and deposit sediments towards the back. Simply put, the floods displace the islands bit by bit. For the state's population living in these areas, these woes are a part and parcel of their existence. Living or dead, the flood gives no respite.

The author is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

Updated Date: Aug 30, 2017 17:26 PM

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