Aug 10, 2016

Fury to Friendships: Floods in Assam

Source : Morung Express


Last month I got a frantic call from an old friend in Longleng district of Nagaland asking, “How are the people in Assam coping with floods?”  I said situation is grim but people are battling hard. For us floods have been always a boon in Assam as it leaves alluvial layer of silvery silt which ensures a rich harvest for the season. But such promise of the floods has been broken by sand deposition and excessive land erosion in last few decades of floods in Assam. My own experience of floods is when our old house gets flooded every year during very heavy rains in Guwahati city and I float around to take refuge in another room.  Even though floods used to be rural phenomena, it has become a horrific urban reality in recent years in the context of Assam. Every year people keep aside clothes, food items and any other essentials including cash to donate for the flood affected population in different districts of Assam. Most of the election gimmicks are tried out with the flood affected people in different districts during this time. Most of the communities of Assam in flood prone districts of Dhemaji, Goalpara, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Barpeta, Nalbari, Jorhat, Golaghat, Nagaon and Morigaon have become resilient to coping with floods. Floods affect people differently. These days there is a growing trend of ignoring Assam floods as a national disaster by the national media and national Government authorities across social, television and print media. Floods in other parts of the country have either devastating impact or sudden impact which could be seen during Chennai, Jaipur and Uttarakhand floods. These areas are international tourist destinations and hubs of regional and national politics hence such places getting flooded makes it to the news channels and social media circles. But Rhinos, Buffaloes, Elephants, Deers, Monkeys dying and people living along the fringes of flood plains of Brahmaputra in Kaziranga, Manas, Pobitora, Dibru Saikhowa National Parks in Morigaon, Golaghat, Chirang, Barpeta, Baksa and Tinsukia districts does not bring votes, power and influence so such stories will not feature in National or International media.

In Majuli, people float on high raised bamboo stilts, banana stem rafts and in recent years on elevated platforms in makeshift relief camps but in Assam people do not show their angst, fury and discontents too easily. Resilience, tolerance and coping skills are ingrained into the psyche from a young age which becomes a regional trait during times of distress and disasters. The state has witnessed such diverse range of natural fury like earthquakes, erosion, floods and landslides apart from violent human induced disasters that people have become immune to such wraths in the last few years. It is an irony that such coping mechanisms and restraint is not regarded as human achievements while assessing the impact and outcome of perennial phenomenon like floods. Loss, grief and fury not only come with loss of human life during floods in Assam. It also penetrates into the social, psychological, emotional and cultural practices of the Assamese identity. Loss of implements, hand crated materials, textiles, livestock, fruit bearing trees, herbal plants, memories of common resources like ponds, lakes, wetlands, sandbars, forests, bridges, public and personal spaces can be devastating for any flood affected person in Assam.

Floods have immediate and long term impact of women and children in both rural and urban contexts. Mobility of women gets restricted with the imposition of relief camps and their work gets limited to unpaid care giving work which does not have any cash benefit. Most women gradually turn to door-to-door begging in urban areas of the nearest towns and cities where floods have affected. The post flood condition deteriorates further when children and at times women getting exploited in roadside relief camps. Most of the relief camps on the national highways become the last resort for flood affected families. Children sell fish, herbs, crabs, seasonal fruits in some pockets of flood affected highways. In Dhemaji, Majuli, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Vishwanath out-migration of adult males to IT hubs of India in Bangalore, Chennai, Kerala, Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad in low paying security personnel jobs is a result of perennial floods, soil erosion and sand deposition in fertile agricultural lands. In such situations the women become the temporary land and farm custodians without any major earning source. Weaving skills of women become crucial to suffice the survival needs in flood affected areas but such activities hardly have any consistent earning source. Even in relief camps cultural constructs and patriarchy limits women from becoming productive workforce during natural disasters like floods. In Majuli, cooking in relief camps are done by male prayer hall-keepers called namghoriyas but women have to cut vegetables, clean and wash utensils and take care of the children, elders and ailing persons without any monetary remuneration. In Kokrajhar district of Assam also women suffer the brunt of natural disasters where cooked food is served once a day. Mostly women do not claim any remuneration also because it is distress time and they adhere to the socially accepted norms.

While speaking to volunteers, relief workers and community based women leaders in flood affected areas of Assam, most of them shared their personal stories of trials and triumphs. Women activist Rubi Gogoi from Sonari in Sibsagar district of Assam experienced floods in Barpeta, Goalpara, Sonitpur and Morigaon districts through joint collaboration of a local women’s group called North East Network and Oxfam India. She shared about her dilemmas of distributing relief materials to all communities including every affected individual whether they were Muslim migrants or ethnic communities. She struck chords of dissent and instant friendships with the local women and co-workers during such relief work. Even when some of my old students at TISS Guwahati volunteered to go for relief work during the Goalpara floods in 2014, I could notice that students from across India got together to participate in relief work. Even though some students never sat together in the same class but during the floods, they lived together for days and distributed relief materials and supported the most marginalised communities in flood affected areas of Assam. In fact some students collected sanitary napkins from their hostels and went to distribute them in the flood affected areas. Floods in Assam did connect youths from Kerala, Manipur, Meghalaya, Delhi, Rajasthan, Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar and UP and such friendships amongst the young student volunteers and such friendships sowed the seeds of solidarity during the testing times of the state. Jamini Payeng from Majuli, Jorhat expressed her most heart warming experiences during floods. She shared about her association with communities in some of the most neglected pockets of mishing and deori inhabitant areas in Majuli when she shared some relief materials provided by AVARD NE and Oxfam in India in the 1990s. It was the first time that people received food packets, fresh clothes and basic utility kits for each family and sealed properly. There was a sense of dignity and respect for the flood affected communities which were established. She said those people still consider her as their friend in need even though she said that the materials were provided but external agencies. But for those community members, Jamini Payeng became their sole agent of survival during the floods. Even after almost 2 decades, Jamini remembers such friendships which grew during disasters. 

Human dignity cannot change with disasters. In recent years, people tend to send discarded and sub-standard materials and food items for the flood affected persons which is inhuman and unfortunate. Natural disasters cannot rob away the self-respect, inherent skills, well-being and the elixir for life for any affected community. The restoration, admiration, acceptance and inclusion of flood affected community lies with those who are not affected by such disaster. These are the very minor nuances of endearing friendships despite the fractured fury of floods in Assam.

Any person willing to support flood affected people in remote pockets of Majuli and other parts of Assam do write to


Samhita Barooah is a Researcher and Travel Writer

Source: Morung Express

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