People of Dhemaji district in Assam are familiar with floods for the geographical position of the place and the forceful streamflow of the rivers coming down from the eastern Himalayas of Arunachal. The communities affected by recurrent floods in Dhemaji are trying to coexist with floods by combining modern concepts and tools with the traditional knowledge percolated down to them by their ancestors. Here is a brief account of efforts in the making of resilient communities in Dhemaji.
Guwahati, January 15: Dhemaji is one of the worst flood-affected districts of Assam. Apart from the mighty Brahmaputra, twenty-six tributaries criss-cross Dhemaji including Jiadhol, Aai and the largest tributary Subansiri. Dhemaji makes an excellent case for studying fluvial geomorphology. This place had seen floods from time immemorial but the flooding pattern and the time have drastically changed over the years which has become increasingly devastating, especially after 1984 onwards. From June to July Dhemaji reels under water when 60-75% of this rural district gets submerged. Erratic flooding happens for almost six months in Dhemaji. This year, the entire Assam saw 63% more rainfall during March, April and May and Dhemaji was devastated as ever much early.
Apart from the geomorphic process and climatic condition, there are many other reasons for the erratic rainfall patterns and consequent floods. Ravindranath, lovingly called Guruji who set up Rural Volunteers Centre at Silapathar in 1989 to serve the communities ravaged by flood and who is also an Ashoka fellow from 2007 said, ‘The devastation of floods are increasing as the river beds are rising and no technology is being used to address the phenomena. Soil works on the hills for development activities along with massive deforestation, and boulder mining are responsible for the increasing amount of deposition of sand and debris on the agricultural lands. The riverfront management has been a total failure too. The need of the hour is techniques and tools to make sustainable communities and more and more proactive actions.’
‘People here carry some traditional knowledge of coexisting with floods through their lifestyle. The population density in Assam is 374 per square kilometer but in Dhemaji it is sparse, only 212 per square kilometer. That is probably one of the main reasons why the loss of life and livestock is less in Dhemaji even in recurring waves of floods’, Mr. Luit Goswami, the director of RVC said regarding the community's knowledge of resilience.
Mr. Luit Goswami, director of RVC
He cited an example that -the villages in Dhemaji have always had a raised piece of land (GAU-BHETI meaning platform for the cows) for their domestic animals. Domestic animals normally go there for grazing. During floods, the animals automatically go following the habit and take shelter there. People normally take shelter in the temporary relief camps (generally in schools) and the river embankments (the highest place) and sometimes on these raised platforms along with the domestic animals when their homes and homesteads get submerged in flood.
The tube well at Medhipamua constructed by RVC with the assistance of UNICEF on a raised platform constructed by the village community through MNREGA
‘Now, many organizations and government departments including us have converged to take that traditional community knowledge forward with some add-on to help build resilient communities and village systems’, said Goswami.
The sanitary block at Medhipamua constructed by RVC with the assistance of UNICEF on a raised platform constructed by the village community through MNREGA
While talking about the utility of the raised platforms, Bhadra Doley of Medhipamua village said, ‘During the stays in shelter camps drinking water, sanitation and hygiene are major issues. Hence, the community and many other organizations are coming together to ease the situation.’
These raised platforms are constructed firmly at least one meter higher than the village road (constructed by the Assam Public Works Department), or the highest point of the last flood is considered to raise it even more. It is for the villagers who want to stay in the village when their homes get inundated. These raised platforms are now equipped with Child Friendly Space (CFS), sanitary blocks, and tube wells to help people live somehow in a manageable way during the watery woes.
‘The platform is normally constructed by the panchayat through MNREGA and the construction of sanitary blocks and the raised hand pump is done by Public Health Engineering Department. Through the advocacy of UNICEF eighteen departments including the Village Community, Gaon Panchayat, and NGOs have come together to implement the concept of Child Friendly Space (CFS)on these in order to convert them into one-point contact locations during disasters and during the last three years fifty-one of such constructions were completed,' added Luit Goswami.
Jonali Hazong, the Anganwadi worker of Ajarbari village, under Muktiar GP of Sisibargaon Development Block said, ‘I normally work for 4 hours in the Anganwadi Centre, but during the floods, I have to spend 8 to 12 hours on this CFS looking after children and their wellbeing.’
The concept of CFS was initially experimented with temporary structures built of bamboo and tarpaulin in safe locations where during disasters like floods children can be protected from any kind of physical harm and psychological distress. RVC spearheaded the concept of implementing it. The role of the community is central in the selection of the site, facilitators, and construction. In 2017, the District Disaster Management Authority piloted CFS in several flood relief camps at Dhemaji and Majuli with support from RVC and under the technical guidance of UNICEF. Besides the institutional education, children can access the basic services provided by the AWC and ASHA workers there. CFSs were envisaged as a platform for integrated service delivery to children during difficult times. Assam Disaster Management Authorities have already framed a guideline on the operationalization of CFS which has become an integral part of the relief camp management process.
Jonali Hazong with community members of Ajarbari village
CFS facilitates many activities at the village level. ‘ The Village Health and Nutrition Day (VHND) is held on time, the ASHA comes to meet the children for immunization rounds and to check the pregnant women, the teachers too come for some hours so that the learning and development of children may be continued somehow,’ said Jonali who spends long hours telling stories and playing various games with children to keep them safe and protected.
The raised platform with the CFS at Ajarbari
‘The raised platform at Azarbari gaon was initially constructed with the money received from the 14th Finance Commission in 2014 by Mishing Autonomos Council,’ informed Paramananda Pegu and Lal Bahadur Chetry, the president and secretary of Muktiar GP respectively. RVC got the extension and flooring work of the CFS done by collaborating with the State Institute of Panchayat and Rural Development(SIPRD). Likewise the raised platform at Medhipamua was built by the village community through MNREGA and UNICEF provided assistance to RVC to build the hand-pump and sanitary block on the raised platform.
The raised platform at Ajarbari where vegetables are grown by the community for difficult times
The other resilience-building activities done through collaboration and convergence of various agencies are - taking up of risk-informed Gaon Panchayat Development Planning(GPDP) process for which PRIs are being empowered, training of PRIs for adopting disaster-resilient designs for structures and other matters, mentoring of GPs for incorporating risk-informed guidance, implementation of resilience programme for school children in collaboration with Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, and also the capacity building of communities to enhance their flood preparedness according to the disaster risk reduction roadmap of the state of Assam.
Some children in Ajarbari village
Bijay Pait, a villager told, ‘I had to build my house three times. Do you understand the pain of building it again and again! ’ It is interesting to note that the house design under the PMRY scheme is the same for all. But, these villagers have begun constructing stilt houses under the PMRY scheme which is more appropriate for their situation. Suggestions and consideration are underway to include the stilt house design within the PMRY Scheme.
Jainath Hazong of Ajarbari is the advisor of the Village Disaster Management Committee. Goswami informed that every village has a community-based Village Disaster Management Committee that works for emergency situations. Considering its utility, the government is also planning to have Village Land and Disaster Management Committees in the near future. Every village has a contingency fund with the contribution of the villagers to help anyone in the village in case of an emergency.
‘In 2020, three villages were washed out. It was one of the worst nightmares we had experienced’, said Bonti Gahain Borah, the Secretary of Gramya Unnayan Mancha and a Pashumitra who works for the veterinary department at the village level. She said, ‘During floods, people and the animals are compelled to put up together at the same place. Imagine, men, women, children, cows, goats, pigs, and hens all together there! We get fodder for animals from the department but that is not enough. The villagers have a habit of storing the hay at home after the harvest. The silage and hay stored at homes make the animals live through the depressing times.’
Bonti Gohain Borah, the secretary at Gramya Unnayan Mancha, a CBO and a Pashumitra under Murkong Selek Tribal Development Block
But, as the aftermath of floods displacement, unsafe migration, internal conflict, and many other evils creep into the villages gradually as slow-paced monsters. Khagendra Doley of Medhipanuma village informed that from the nineteen eighty onwards No1 and 2 Sonarighat, Dighalipaam, Medipamua, Sumonia, Kusermukh, Burisuti Deurighat in these seven villages the number of families have reduced from about 600 to 400. People leave their own villages in search of better places to live. The displacement happens from village to village, area to area. Many women and children are left behind in the village as the men are compelled to go out in search of earnings to feed their families.
The newlywed young woman at Medhipamua Bismita Kardong’s husband has gone to work outside the state for earning. Padmawati Doley, a mother of two (2 and 6 years of age) had to send her husband to Bengaluru to work in a glass factory, he can come home only once a year. Someone’s son, someone’s husband, someone’s father, or brothers are compelled to leave the village to earn by doing any petty job as they cannot grow normal paddy in time. There is flood for about six months, only the other six months are left for them to do any agricultural activity. As an alternative, they are switching over to the cultivation of deep water paddy (Bao dhan) and winter crops like potato, cabbage, green peas, french beans, and mustard.
Earlier, there was only silt after a flood which was needed for cultivation. In the last few years the rivers have changed as they keep changing their path and the paddy fields are turning into barren lands for the deposition of sand instead of silt. Along with dwelling houses and roads, many public buildings like schools, offices, temples, and acres and acres of paddy fields were buried by sand and debris after floods. It will take more than 25 years to become the land cultivable somehow.
Bhadra Doley, Raghab Doley, and Deep Jimey of Medhipamua said, ‘Though we have shifted to winter crops there is no irrigation system in the village. The few showers of rain required for the crops are erratic now. There was no shower at all this time and hence, crop production suffered. Mere shifting of crops will not help if we do not get the minimum supports like irrigation or other scientific methods and ways.’
The ASHA and ANM provide tremendous services to the villagers as the sub-center is about two to three kilometers away and the PHC is about forty kilometers from the village. The ASHA keeps a boat ready for emergencies and beds are booked in the PHC in advance for pregnant women during the floods.
One can see that all the households have a boat in front of their houses. Every man, woman, and elder children know how to row a boat, a life skill inculcated to get along with nature and also to survive amidst the wrath of nature.
The evening sky on the way back from Ajarbari
The evening was setting in as we returned from Medhipamua and Ajarbari villages after meeting the villagers which were part of a field visit organized by UNICEF for the members of South Asian Women in Media from northeast India. The atmosphere inside the vehicle we travelled in was pensive as the images of those men, women, and children kept on lingering in the mind. We looked back at the distant silent villages that slowly sunk into the dusk. Are these provisions and arrangements sufficient enough? Will these villagers be able to face much more havocs to be caused by the impending floods, climate crisis, and other man-made calamities in days to come?