With Majuli becoming the newest district of Assam on Thursday, there is an upsurge of joy, pride and great expectations among its denizens. In a bid to impart high symbolism to the occasion, Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal will chair a cabinet meet in Majuli to mark its elevation. This is the first time a cabinet meeting is being held outside Dispur; its agenda will be to draw up a viable, time-bound road map to protect, develop and promote Majuli. The decision to upgrade Majuli from a subdivision and police district to a full-fledged administrative district was taken during the BJP-led alliance government’s first cabinet meeting itself in June last. At that time, the government had said that the days of Majuli residents taking a boat every time they needed to approach the district administration at Jorhat, will soon be a thing of the past. Having elected the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate to the assembly, it was but a matter of time for Majuli-dwellers’ long-standing demand to be fulfilled. Now that Majuli has become Assam’s 35th district, the hope is that its administration based therein will be in the frontline of the struggle to save the river island.
Back in 1891, Majuli sprawled over 1,250 sq kms. It has lost one-third that area to shrink to 880 sq kms, but is still the world’s largest river island as certified recently by Guinness World Records. Last month in Guwahati, a Water Resources department initiative saw experts brainstorming about how to mage the Brahmaputra, with the existential threat to Majuli figuring prominently in their deliberations. Some suggested more conventiol measures to stabilize riverbanks and check erosion with geo-bags, spars porcupine screens and other means. Others suggested altertive technologies and a judicious mix of ‘hard and soft engineering’. Chief Minister Sonowal’s call to dredge the Brahmaputra bed left many experts unimpressed, with some advising that until a sufficient knowledge base about the river is built up, ‘uncertain intervention’ should not be considered. However, the CM’s move to set up an office of the Brahmaputra Board at Majuli is welcome, so that it gets to see at first hand the flaws, irregularities and idequacies of its flood protection measures. While Majuli’s protection assumes top priority, making the newborn district economically viable will require coordited action across several fronts. Promoting its unique Vaishvite heritage and riverine ecosystem on the tourism front needs a massive push, but not at the cost of spoiling its pristine character. Closely related to this is connectivity, with the CM Sonowal recently urging Railways Minister of State Rajen Gohain to get going on a railway bridge connecting Majuli from Dhakuakha in Lakhimpur.
During the assembly poll campaign, the BJP had promised as many as four bridges for the river island — three from Lakhimpur on the North Bank and one from Jorhat side. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has already laid the foundation of the estimated Rs 10,000 crore Majuli-Jorhat bridge early this year. These bridges will end Majuli’s isolation, though when these would materialize is another matter. The Brahmaputra is formidable at this stretch, switching channels rapidly and eroding with great force. It is ending Majuli’s economic isolation that cannot be put off any longer, or else its youth will keep migrating elsewhere while its farmers and fishermen will continue to join the ranks of daily-wagers. The challenge of bootstrapping the island’s agrarian economy and building up a viable cottage industry base should be taken up in right earnest. Other forms of livelihood like livestock-rearing, handicrafts and pottery too need effective government support. Another serious problem is woeful healthcare conditions there, for which Majuli dwellers have to rush to ‘the mainland’. Above all, newborn Majuli district needs adequate and committed manpower to get its administration up and running soon. Considering how the seven newly formed districts during the previous Congress government have been languishing without proper infrastructure and staff, this will require pressure from the very top, the Chief Minister himself.