Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal’s recent directive to the Revenue department to find unused land to rehabilitate erosion-hit families is a small if tentative step to confront a great scourge. The State government is seeking 3 bighas of land to each of the 30,000 families affected by river erosion in the State, including 8,000 such families in Majuli. This will be one of the reasons to conduct a land survey across the State, including unused land under tea estates. This apart, the CM has asked for assistance to build houses and supply of drinking water and fuel towards rehabilitating such families. But what the State needs, as part of a revamped and comprehensive land policy, is to tackle this problem in a ratiol way. It is a fact that thousands of erosion-hit families have given up hopes of ever getting rehabilitated, so callous and vel has been the State machinery. The paper work takes ages and ends up nowhere, leaving these families eking out uncertain livelihoods on chars, embankments and roadsides. As if this official neglect is not enough, the entire issue has got politicized and commulized over the years. Questions are asked whether erosion-hit families are indigenous, or illegal migrants of Bangladeshi origin. The assembly budget session this year too saw furious exchanges between members over the issue. Soon afterwards, there was a major flare-up between origil residents and settlers at Hiloikhunda char near Mayong in Morigaon district. Alleging that some of these migrants from Darrang and other parts of Morigaon district are people of suspect tiolity, the origil residents rue why they ever allowed them to settle ‘on humanitarian grounds’ in the first place. The fact that some political parties sought to make vote-banks out of these settlers by getting for them the benefits of government welfare schemes — has caused more heartburn among the origil residents.
Forgotten in this bitter strife is the tragedy of families suddenly rendered homeless and landless by raging rivers. While the floods grab headlines, the scourge of erosion draws little attention. Flood relief camps are set up to temporarily shelter the victims, who return home when the waters dry out. But there is no return for those whose lands have disappeared forever into rivers cutting their banks. What is more, the State-run camps do not remain open for such people thereafter, as erosion is not treated as a tural calamity. So where do these unfortute people go? They settle wherever they can — on embankments, forests, grazing lands, other government lands or along roadsides. For Revenue department officials to come and ascertain their loss of land, inform higher-ups and facilitate allotment of altertive land — is like asking for the moon. Anyone who has stepped into a Revenue office in this State to get even some routine work done by the kanungo, mandal or circle officer, knows what an ordeal it is. Almost nothing gets done without greasing palms from table to table. In such cesspits of corruption, what chance does a landless family have to ever make the government lend a helpful ear? It is estimated that there are 1,50,000 families like these in Assam. The State loses a whopping 80 square kilometers of land on average every year due to the depredations of its rivers. From 1950 to 2011, nearly 7.5 percent of the State’s area has been eroded away. The floods do their damage for 3-4 months a year, but erosion activities continue for twice as long. But let alone the Centre, when the State government itself deals with erosion in ad-hoc manner, there can be no hope for the erosion-hit. In 2011, a panel of experts from Assam and the US identified three primary reasons for the State’s chronic erosion problem — raising of the river bed due to sediment deposition (aggradation), braiding of rivers and huge water discharge. They suggested several measures like strategic dredging, setting up control points alongside riverbanks in regular intervals, strengthening embankments with various devices, state-of-the-art monitoring and modeling facilities, and creating a reliable database. While Chief Minister Sonowal has been strongly advocating dredging and other technological solutions, it is the work ethics of the Revenue department that needs a drastic overhaul in the short term.