It is a dismal cycle that repeats every year. Raging rivers and flash floods ravage large parts of Assam, sinking roads, eroding about 8,000 hectare of land and stranding thousands of people. Livelihoods suffer, sometimes for months, as road reconstruction lies entangled in the labyrinthine bureaucratic process. But along with this suffering also comes a riverine economy, sustained by many boat-owning families, linking people across the fragmented region.

Jamer Ali, a resident of Asigor village in Morigaon district, makes his living selling bangles and other accessories to girls and women. Every day, he travels to the neighbouring Burgaon village for business. But that is when the weather is congenial. For several months, as the road between the two villages lies inundated in waist-deep water because of floods, his business wanes. So he does what nearly everybody else in the region does. He falls back on boats to travel and get on with life.

One day recently, Ali and several others waited for a small boat to start, while its rower waited for longer queues to build on either side of the river. Ali is used to the delay. “At least, there is a boat,” he said, handing out the Rs 5 fare to the boat man. "Without it I am helpless."

Ecological mayhem

The Brahmaputra River runs across an area of 800 km in Assam, forming char sapori or sand bars as it goes. According to the 1992-'93 socio-economic survey of the region, there were 2,089 char villages at the time with a population of 16 lakh. A decade later, there were 162 more char villages and six lakh more people. Spread across 14 districts, char sapori together from a landmass of 3,608 sq km or 4.6% of Assam's total area.

These char villages suffer every year as erratic weather patterns, frequent flash floods and swollen rivers render basic resources scarce. About 90% of the villages population of the villages depends on boats for travel for the five months from mid-May to mid-October. The inland waterways authority, set up to transport cargo, is of no help.

Tendering of boats

Every year, the Pabokati panchayat  in Morigaon district calls for tenders for a boat transport system between Pabokati and Sitaguri. The two villages are separated by a small stream. Construction began on a bridge but was never completed. Rapid soil erosion left more earth under water, submerging fruit trees and houses. Today, the small stream has become a dangerous river.

The panchayat began issuing tenders in 2009, when it became obvious that the bridge would not be completed and the erosion would continue every monsoon, leaving flood waters standing for months.

This year, the bid was won by Mohammad Imrazul Islam, who hired two men to assist him. “I fortified my old boat and rented an engine for Rs 3,000 a month," he said. "I charge passengers Rs 5 for a ride, and we easily earn Rs 1,500 daily. Even after deducting the labour and diesel charges, I make a profit.” For schoolchildren, he adds, the ride is free.

About 50 people get onto Islam’s boat. Most of them standees, they hold on to one another for support whenever a wave lashes against the small vessel. Schoolchildren sit on the wooden boards stretching across the boat. Local traders bring bicycles loaded with large bags or bundles of hay. It is not uncommon to find goats in those large bags, slung across those bicycles.

Though vital for the region, the boat economy is not without problems. In one of the most tragic boat accidents in Assam, at least 100 people lost their lives in May 2012 when the overcrowded boat capsized in Brahmaputra in Dhubri district. Later that year, five children drowned when a boat capsized. They were on their way to school for an examination. Yet, without any other alternative, people continue to jump onto crowded boats.

“We know that roads will continue to collapse every year, even if repaired. We have the boat now and we should not complain,” said Momina Khatun, president of Pabhokati panchayat. Another resident of Pabhokati pointed to his banana tree and said, “I am lucky that my tree is still standing. Without its large stalks that we use as rafts, we would be left stranded for four months of the year.”

Resigned to destruction

The river islandsof Majuli has suffered the maximum soil erosion from the floods. Sandwiched between Lakhimpur and Jorhat districts, it is accessible through 10 ghats. The biggest of these ghats is Kamlabari, with maximum traffic to and from Majuli.

Bharoti Das, who lives across Kamlabari ghat, has witness its growth. In her childhood, she says, small boats ferried people and now large ferries carry SUVs and trucks. “When I was a child, the ferry rate was Rs 2," she said. "Today it is Rs 20. They charge up to Rs 1,200 for trucks.”

For several days every year, Majuli is isolated from the rest of the world because the waters are too rough to be navigated. It had been a week since the last showers in Majuli, yet on the day this reporter arrived there, a cigarette and confectionary shop made of bamboo on the edge of the Kamlabari ghat was sucked into the water. Nothing from it could be saved. “Such incidents shock people, especially those about to embark on a ferry ride,"   said Bharoti, whose brother owned the shop. "But we have to shrug them off if we have to get on with our lives.”