The upcoming Assam state Assembly election is a high stakes one – both for the ruling Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, but especially for the latter. A victory in this election would bolster the BJP’s presence in the entire Northeastern region, thus far one of its weakest links. Hence, the party is leaving no stone unturned to win, including forming alliances with a number of regional parties to prevent the Congress from gaining power for the fourth successive term.
This election holds special significance for Majuli – a river island in the middle of the Brahmaputra river in Assam’s Jorhat district, which is believed to be one of the largest inhabited such islands in Asia. Majuli is where the incumbent Congress MLA Rajib Lochan Pegu – of the Mising community, the largest ethnic group on the island – is seeking a fourth successive term. His main competitor is Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP’s state president and its chief ministerial candidate, who is not from the island.
Faced with the crises of flooding, riverbank erosion, and deterioration of traditional rural livelihoods, the islanders, who number over 1.5 lakh, are hopeful at the prospect of electing the state’s next chief minister due to the perceived advantages of being a chief minister’s constituency (as if there there will be a magical turnaround of things). But how realistic are these hopes? What is Sonowal’s election manifesto? First, let us look at Majuli’s key challenges.
Majuli has been suffering from flooding and riverbank erosion for a long time. Every few years, a catastrophic flood caused by the breaching of its embankments inundates most of the island. Every year, low-intensity floods affect the riverside communities or those who live outside of the embankments. The damage caused by these floods to lives and livelihoods on the island is immense.
On top of it, ongoing riverbank erosion has been slowly and steadily eating up Majuli, leaving thousands of families homeless within the island and forcing thousands others to outmigrate. From a landmass of 1,255 sq km in 1901 (although this figure is contested since it was not based on scientific survey), the island was reduced to 751.31 sq km in 1917 (Survey of India report), and today it has an area of only 520.26 sq km (Brahmaputra Board report, 2011). Many places of historical significance, including several Sattras or Vaishnavite monasteries and dozens of villages have disappeared. Although riverbank erosion has rendered over 10,000 families homeless by now, only a handful have received rehabilitation from the state.
Overall, traditional rural livelihoods on the island are in deep crisis today. A sizeable agrarian population is switching to wage-labour, as are the communities that have lived off fishing for generations. Other forms of livelihoods such as pottery, livestock-rearing, and handicrafts are in a similar crisis due to the depletion of natural resources. A growing section of the youth is migrating to far-off cities in search of semi-skilled or unskilled labour. Thus, the island urgently needs the following: flood prevention, protection from erosion, strengthening of rural livelihoods, and employment opportunities. During his 15-year-long tenure, the incumbent MLA has made some attempts to address these crises, but they are not enough. The very existence of the island is in threat today, and that needs to be addressed foremost. In this context, it is important to see what promises his rival Sonowal makes to Majulians.
What Majuli really needs
The Tarun Gogoi-headed Congress government has largely failed to address the crises of flood and erosion. Its solutions have lacked both creativity and seriousness. Even though there is now enough research globally to show that the construction of embankments as flood control measures is counter productive, they are still central to Assam’s flood management system. It’s no wonder then that the flood situation in Majuli has worsened with time. The role of the Brahmaputra Board, a central agency, in checking riverbank erosion has been similar – inadequate measures, implementation flaws, corruption charges, and an overall failure in meeting its own goals, let alone the public’s demands.
So what does Sarbananda Sonowal have on offer for Majuli? Unfortunately, on all the important issues mentioned above, he’s hardly proposed any concrete plans. Instead, in classic BJP style (the party seems to be obsessed with huge projects) Sonowal has told voters that the BJP-led government at the Centre would construct several bridges over the Brahmaputra. According to the proposals, three of these bridges will be built on the northern bank to connect Majuli with Lakhimpur and will cost an estimated Rs 6,000 crore. These bridges are an old proposal that have been repackaged – work tenders for the projects have already been floated. Another massive bridge, estimated to cost Rs 10,000 crore, will be built on the southern bank to connect the island with Jorhat, a brand new proposal by the BJP. The Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping, Nitin Gadkari, has already laid the foundation of the Majuli-Jorhat bridge. The BJP reckons that these bridges will address the shortcomings of the existing ferry services, bring in more trade and commerce to the island, and connect the island with National Highway 52, which links Assam to Arunachal Pradesh. Understandably, there is excitement among the people of Majuli with regard to these proposals, and the media is playing an important role in building this euphoria. However, there are important questions to be answered. How will these bridges address the key challenges facing the island? Who will benefit the most from these projects? And is this infrastructure even necessary?
The proposed bridges may bring in some benefits to the island. But many questions – which are entirely overlooked in the current climate of euphoria – still need to be asked.
First, connectivity is not really a problem for the large majority of the island’s population who only occasionally leave the island. Whatever challenges they face in terms of connectivity could be better addressed by improving the ferry service itself, which will perhaps cost a fraction of the proposed Rs 16,000 crore budget for bridges. Additionally, the health infrastructure within the island needs to be improved urgently. This is a key reason why many people need to travel outside the island. Similarly, there has to be investment in the agricultural sector, and the rural economy as a whole. Only these – and not bridges – will bring long-lasting improvement to the island and benefit its marginalised sections. Connectivity with the outside can wait, but not the protection of home, land and livelihoods within the island. Unfortunately, issues like floods, erosion and rehabilitation are mundane matters for politicians, and are not attractive enough for election purposes.
Second, let us not forget the Bogibeel bridge experience in Dibrugarh. Back in 2002, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had laid its foundation stone. Fourteen years later, the bridge is still incomplete. What is the guarantee that the proposed bridges (not one, but all four of them) will be completed soon, if at all?
This brings in another issue. The Brahmaputra is a braided river with numerous channels that split and rejoin each other. This means it changes its course frequently thereby re-shaping the local geography in unpredictable ways. Given this factor, will these bridges still be relevant if and when they are completed in a decade or more from now? Given the current rate of erosion, how much of the island will remain by then? Have these issues been taken into consideration? Meanwhile, given an already huge investment into this project, will the government put in much-needed additional investments for flood and erosion control on the island? These are issues that the people of Majuli need to ask Sonowal and his party now.
Finally, and most importantly, who will benefit the most from the construction of such massive infrastructure? Based on previous experience, it is easy to assume that some of the major beneficiaries will include a lobby of contractors who will implement these projects, industries that will supply the materials, a group of engineers, politicians and their cronies, and a section of the local elite that is vying for tourism as a potential source of income within the island. No wonder then that this powerful section is hyping up the importance of the bridges for the island, thus creating an illusion of development, which the masses find persuasive. At this moment, one is reminded of the BJP’s promises of acche din in 2014, of which there is no sign yet.
The sooner Majulians overcome this euphoria, the better it is for them. Perhaps what is needed more urgently is serious introspection and conversations among local activists, intellectuals, sattradhikars, and the general public in Majuli so that they can come up with a people’s manifesto and present it to Sonowal and all other candidates contesting from the island. Only such a mobilisation will help protect the island – not the prospect of electing any future chief minister.
Mitul Baruah is a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University in New York, and a native of Majuli.