Guwahati: A blanket ban on mechanised country boats since 11 September has left thousands of families stranded, in many cases separated from each other, in the char (sandbar) areas along the banks of the Brahmaputra. Known as bhutbhutis, these single engine country boats lacking basic safety features like life jackets, constitute the only available lifeline for around 31 million people spread across 14 districts and 2000 villages dotting the 3608 square kilometres sandbar area. With the region reeling under severe floods as it is, this latest ban following the death of two persons, with another two reported missing in north Guwahati, has left thousands of char villages without the only source of transportation for people and essential commodities to reach them.
“I had come to the town to sell vegetables on Tuesday,” said Rahim Ali, a vegetable vendor who comes into Dhubri town every morning from his village Dewanir Khuwa, in a bhutbhuti. “When we heard about the ban, I stayed back in Golakganj hoping that the ban would be lifted in a day or two. But I have not been able to return home. My children must be hungry. They also cannot come to town. We are stuck and separated.”
It is a common tale being heard not just in Dhubri but in other areas of Assam as well. According to the 2011 Census, Dhubri has the highest number of char areas consisting of 480 villages. The Brahmaputra, before entering Bangladesh, flows through this district, home to other unknown and unheard of char villages like Banshi, Purar Char, Nateenirnalaga, Brinda Khaowa, Saitanmari, Kalaibari, Sultamari and Majherchar. Hundreds of villagers have been stuck in these places for close to a week waiting for a boat take them into town, their only source of livelihood, as are the many stranded on the town side waiting for a boat to take them home.
But there are a few boatmen defying the ban. “We have to keep running the boat services,” said Abdul Gani, a boatman at the Bahadurghat river port in Dhubri district, barely 50 metres from the deputy commissioner’s office. “People have to go to work, buy food for their children. Otherwise how will they survive?” asked Abdul Gani, whose overcrowded boat was about to leave the port for the char areas.
The administration has said the ban will be in place till it is able to replace the single engine country boats with double engine ones, but is silent on the plight of villagers stranded in different villages and towns for the past five days. “Most of these areas do not even have roads,” said Illias Rahman Sarkar, a social activist in the district. “How can you blanket ban the bhutbhuti services? A ban seldom solves a problem. You cannot keep a community under house arrest.” Illias Sarkar explained that even in areas where there are roads, these are unusable due to the floods. “Even the Border Security Force and Police still use the bhutbhutis to patrol the Brahmaputra,” Illias pointed out, emphasising that the government should immediately provide safety jackets in these boats.
How vital these bhutbhutis are for these char village families was highlighted by Reshma Khatun from Majherchar village, a 19-year-old student of Dhubri College, while getting into a boat in Bahadurghat. “How will we survive if we do not take these bhutbhutis?,” asked Reshma, one of the countless students from these villages, for whom the bhutbhutis are the only means of getting to their school or college in the towns. “We were stuck in the char for four days. Today, after a wait of two hours and 25 minutes, I found this boat and attended my classes,” said Reshma.
The Dhubri district administration’s response was typically bureaucratic. “We are facing some problem because of the ban on boats,” admitted Anant Lal Gyani, Deputy Commissioner of Dhubri. “We will list and review all double engine boats and recommend that these be allowed. If the government approves, we will continue the service.”
How much time that will take was not mentioned, even as more districts report similar tales of separation and hardship. Like Nalbari district, where several people were seen waiting for a bhutbhuti at Mukalmuwa port, which is used by thousands of villagers to get to their homes in the char areas of Kurihamari, Bhangnamari, Kalarchar, Bhangonmari etc. One such hopeful is 21-year old Nurul Islam, a daily wage worker in Guwahati, 64 kilometres away. “I came to Guwahati a week back,” said Nurul Islam. “I took a bus till Nalbari, but now I am stranded here. I need to go to Kurihamari char.”
A similar situation is seen in Goalpara district and its Kacharighat area, from where boats ply between Goalpara and Baghbor char area of Barpeta. Since the ban, empty boats can be seen parked alongside empty shops situated nearby. Usman Gani, a farmer from Baghbor char, who found himself stuck in Kacharighat, said: “The port has been closed for the past eight days. I had taken a patient from Baghbor and am now unable to return. I have no money left.” Nurul Ali, also waiting at the port said, “In the morning, the char people come to the towns to sell vegetable, milk and poultry. On that income, we buy rice and go back to the villages. But all this has stopped for the past one week. I have no idea how to survive.”
Tinsukia district saw hundreds of students protest in front of the deputy commissioner's office demanding that the bhutbhuti service be restarted, especially from Guijaan to Laika where villagers in Rigbi and Phasidiya are facing food scarcity because of the boat ban. “We have ten pregnant women in this village,” said Sukreswar Tanti, a 50-year-old farmer of Rigbi village. “If the boat service does not start in a day or two, we will face a big problem.”
With inputs from Epul Hussain from Goalpara and Shah Alauddin Ahmed from Nalbari
(Syeda Ambia Zahan is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com)
Updated Date: Sep 16, 2018 16:45 PM