D. N. Bezboruah
This year’s rains and floods have been particularly severe in Assam—not only in terms of the actual rainfall, but more in terms of the damage and inundation they have caused. Many more families have had to leave their homesteads and seek shelter on roads and highways, and the erosion caused by rivers has been alarming in many parts of Assam. It is not just the Brahmaputra that has been responsible for the frightening erosion of land, but its tributaries as well. And there is precious little that the government and the people seem to have done about it.
The very sight of severe land erosion takes me back to the major earthquake of 1950 and its effects on our State—some of it almost instantaneous. I recall how the tremors of the 1950 earthquake went on for days together. Not having experienced the earthquake of 1897 (about which I had heard from my grandfather), I regard the 1950 earthquake as the mother of all earthquakes. It was an earthquake that changed the course of the Brahmaputra and caused severe erosion in places. No one can forget how the river nibbled away Dibrugarh town with such speed and ferocity that about half of the town disappeared within days. Several days went by before the government woke up to the need of having to do something fast to save the rest of the town. Even the belated action was able to save a substantial part of the town. And the action of building protective piers and barricades went on for several years.
The difference between the erosion of 1950 and the present erosion is that there is very little visible action today in spite of the fact that the erosion by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries is probably far more widespread than the erosion that we had experienced in 1950. The Erosion in Majuli, once the world’s largest river island, has been alarming, and there have been repeated failures to have Majuli included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list due to imperfect preparation of the three proposals submitted so far. The proposals submitted at the 28th session of the World Heritage Committee convention held at Suzhou, Chi in 2004, the 30th session at Vinius, Lithuania in 2006 and 36th session at St Petersburg, Russia held in 2012 were all rejected or referred back due to lack of details. In other words, in eight years we have failed to put up a proposal for Majuli being nomited as one of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites merely because we have not been able to present something that is not lacking in details and is acceptable to the UNESCO. People who do not lack in bombast and exaggerated self-esteem seem to be woefully lacking in their ability to put out a proposal that is acceptable to the UNESCO—despite three attempts.
The erosion caused by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries is indeed a major cause of worry—especially in view of the government’s failure to take urgent preventive measures to save people’s homesteads. There are touching scenes on television of people pulling down their own homes in order to save whatever is possible for the time when they rebuild elsewhere again. In none of these efforts is there any sign of help from government agencies to people in real distress due to tural calamities. And having watched some of these touching happenings on television, I could not help turning to the metaphorical erosion also affecting our society.
It is not just a case of rivers eroding river banks that we have to worry about. Something far more frightening is happening to our society. There has been alarming erosion of human effort, application and commitment in what we are expected to do largely because of the erosion of human values that we seem to have ceased to worry about. So pronounced is the lack of commitment to what needs to be done collectively, that I cannot help wondering whether we are waiting for someone else to come and do our work for us. This is not at all surprising when we think of the diverse ways in which we mage to pass on to others what is really our own responsibility. The culture of farming every responsibility out on contract has taken deep roots in a society that is unwilling to do any work by itself even for sheer survival. What is really happening is that we have so procrastited on what needs to be done that more often than not we are not even aware of what needs to be done and how we should go about it. Put in another form, there is a pronounced tendency to avoid what we have to do mainly because we have never taken the trouble to learn how to do things. This gives rise not only to avoidable frustration over fairly simple day-to-day matters of problem solving, but also to a crippling sense of idequacy and the resulting inferiority complex that we attempt to hide beneath all kinds of pretexts.
Having seen what physical erosion caused by a river can do to a town in a matter of days in 1950, I shudder to think of what the metaphorical erosion that I am talking about can do to our collective psyche at about the same speed or even faster. The one major difference between the literal or physical kind of erosion and the metaphorical one is that the physical one is something that ture unleashes on us—something we have no way of anticipating. Once the erosion manifests itself, we sometimes have difficult and very expensive ways of preventing it, though not always. In any case, such a task ought to be taken over by the government instead of being left to individuals and village groups. The metaphorical kind of erosion I am talking about is a very different kettle of fish. It is eminently preventable because its genesis is within ourselves, but the erosion takes place nonetheless because we prefer to do nothing to prevent it. One metaphorical form of erosion arises from our reluctance to do anything to equip ourselves to prevent the erosion. At one level it is taking place because there is no dearth of people who are trying to convince us that our own culture, our language, our food habits are inferior to those of others and that, therefore, we would do better to live up with the Joneses from another culture and speaking another language. It is the kind of erosion being constantly unleashed at us by manufacturers and advertisers and those desperately trying to turn us into conspicuous consumers. They succeed most of the time because quite often we suspend our ability to reason in favour of a far easier mode of living—doing what everyone else is doing. There are others who have succeeded eminently in convincing them that everything indigenous is inferior and they would be better off jettisoning their own culture and language—in favour of even poor English. Once someone has failed to resist such consumerist illusions, the metaphorical erosion I am talking about has already taken place and the rest of the journey is a rapid downhill one. People who have got used to doing nothing on their own (including thinking for themselves) are perhaps quite happy to be victims of a sort of erosion that is rather pleasurable on the whole.
The other form of powerful metaphorical erosion is what is what arises from alcoholism. Nobody is really complaining about the odd drink or two in the evening. But we need to be concerned about what is happening in a State that has the highest unemployment rate and where frustration and want have already begun the process of material and psychological erosion. It is in this kind of a situation that alcohol speeds up the process of erosion by creating illusions that people can do without. The worst kind of illusion that alcohol helps to create (for fairly long spells of inebriation) is that one can escape one’s problems by forgetting about them. Since this is the course of action calculated to aggravate matters by taking away all positive action, it constitutes the worst form of iction in the face of the kind of ruinous metaphorical erosion. All said and done, we live in a State where there is virtually no help against both forms of erosion. When the river nibbles away its shore near where you live, it becomes your own duty to save whatever is possible of your homestead so that it can all be used when you set up a home again. The government will not help you even when it should. But when one shuts one’s eyes to the erosion that takes place in the mind and even becomes a party to it, there is really no one who can help. The help must come from within.