Chars and Chaporis mostly comprise the riverine areas of the Brahmaputra river - formed either in the heart of the river or on its banks - and are inhabited by different groups of people. Considered among the most fertile lands in the state, these chars are suitable for cultivation of different crops. Sugarcane fields covering vast stretches of char land are a common sight in Sontali char under Mahtoli Panchayat of Boko Development Block in lower Assam's Kamrup district.

Looking at their tall, full-grown and ready to harvest sugarcane crop, Jabeda Khatun and Md. Azahar Ali of Sontali Char felt contented - their worries were gone, at least for some days. The couple with three children has cultivated sugarcane on a plot of two bighas (nearly 6.5 bighas constitute a hectare) through use of family labour alone. The weather god was favourable during the year, the crop was not attacked by diseases unknown to them, and that enabled the family to finally earn Rs. 80,000 from the crop.

It was now time to harvest sugarcane in Sontali Char - just a few days before Eid-Uj-Zoha, and obviously the char wore a festive look. Everyone was busy talking about money that they were expecting from the crop to plan the festival celebration.

Like most other char-dwellers, Jabeda and Azahar too, made a wise decision nearly 10 years back, of shifting to the commercially viable sugarcane crop from the traditional practice of rice cultivation. For char dwellers, rice cultivation has grown increasingly non-remunerative over the years due to rising input costs, hike in the price of diesel needed for shallow tube-wells to irrigate the farm land and absence of minimum support prices. But with sugarcane it has been different.

Due to geographical isolation from the mainland, chars are considered the most backward areas in Assam. Around 67.88 per cent people are BPL families. Char lands are severely prone to constant erosion, making it a precarious existence for the people here. (Pic: A view of Sontali char. Credit: Ratna Talukdar)

 •  Swallowed by the river
 •  Life in no man's land When the sugarcane stems mature, local traders come to inspect the sugarcane fields and negotiate a price with the grower. This time it was Rs.40,000 per bigha of crop. The traders themselves harvest the crop and transport it to the nearby market relieving the farmers of added burdens of harvesting and marketing their products. Sugarcane, thus, has become one of the most sought-after commercially viable crops for hundreds of farmers living in different chars in Kamrup district.

As they wait for the imminent fortune, each member of Azahar's family starts to place his longstanding demands before the family-head, making it difficult for him to prioritize the needs. Not surprisingly, this is the story of most of sugarcane cultivators living in the char at this moment. One could simply put it down as the success story of how these downtrodden families living in fragile lands either on the banks or on the lap of the river have been able to survive, against all odds - constant erosion of their lands, non-remunerative agricultural practices and climate change, and all this without any help from concerned authorities for guidance or support from financial institutions.

Ground realities

Behind this apparent success story, however, are other facets of reality. Azahar and Jabeda call themselves farmers, as they traditionally belong to a farmer's family. But they are actually a landless couple; their agricultural land has been eroded by the mighty river Brahmaputra years back. The couple now owns only two and half katha (five katha of land constitute one bigha) of land in the char, which is not sufficient even for settlement.

The single-room structure they inhabit - lacking even the most basic amenities such as a proper floor, separate cooking-shed, bathroom and toilet (the family relies on an unhygienic pot-hole latrine) or furniture - is in itself sufficient to portray how vulnerable their life is in the char. The only visible property the family possesses, perhaps, is the hand-pump they have inside their campus.

As the family does not have any cultivable land of their own, Azahar has to pay Rs.5000 per bigha, per year, in advance to the owner of the land on which he cultivates sugarcane. In addition, he invests Rs.8000 in making the field ready for the crop. Thus, although he gets Rs.40,000 per bigha, in practice the one-year crop fetches the family only Rs.27,000; that too, if the crop does not fail due to adverse conditions like attack of disease, bad weather or annual floods.

"Even if the crop fails we must pay the land tax of Rs.5000 to the owner and invest the required money in manure," says Jabeda, explaining how difficult life in the char actually is. To meet ends, her husband manages to earn some money repairing hand-pumps in different households in the char. But the earning through such small ventures is meagre considering the overall pathetic conditions of families living there. Azahar's family holds a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card, but hardly ever receives ration under the public distribution scheme which forces them to procure rice from the open market at Rs.25 a kg.

During his ten-year experience of sugarcane cultivation in Sontali Char, which is hardly 70 kilometers off Guwahati, no agriculture field extension workers have ever made visits to the field, adds Azahar. Neither has his name been enlisted for any agricultural training programme.

Jabeda khatun and Md Azahar Ali in front of their sugarcane cultivation.
(Pic: Ratna Talukdar)

Living and leaving

In the Brahmaputra basin, the char areas extend over 3608 sq km, or 4.6 per cent of the geographical area of Assam. These areas are distributed across 23 sub-divisions of 14 districts. There are 2251 villages in 299 Gaon Panchayats and 59 Development Blocks. In most of the char areas, although families have been living for ages, land patta has not been given to the inhabitants on the grounds of the fragility of the geography. The combined char population in Assam would be around 25 lakhs.

Due to geographical isolation from the mainland, chars are considered the most backward areas in Assam. Around 68 per cent of the people here are Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Char lands are severely prone to constant erosion, making it a precarious existence for the people here; they survive haphazardly in small plots of lands leading an uncertain life. Most of them have to frequently change their settlements owing to erosion. Normally, it is observed that when a portion of land is eroded away by the river, another portion is simultaneously created in some nearby area due to deposition of the silt. Families displaced due to erosion prefer to settle down in the newly created chars. However it takes almost 3-4 years to settle down in these newly created lands.

The density of population in char areas is much higher at 690 per sq. km. against the state average of 340 per sq. km. Although the state government has a number of agriculture, dairy, veterinary and cottage industry schemes for uplift of life of char people under the Directorate of Char Areas Development, these schemes hardly reach them.

Char areas also lack in basic infrastructure like health, education and connectivity. There are only 1852 lower primary schools, 574 middle schools, 218 high schools, 8 higher secondary schools and 18 colleges to cater to the education needs of close to 25 lakh people. Health infrastructure too is highly inadequate with the existence of only 52 Primary Health Centres and 132 health sub-centers. Road connectivity is poor and the government ferry service is highly inadequate. Most of the chars do not have electricity.

A study conducted under the Media Fellowship Programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Majher Char, Chalakura and Pholimari chars of Dhubri district and Sontali and Khetrapara Chars of Kamrup district has revealed that severe habitat destruction, acute livelihood crisis, impact of adverse climate change and low productivity of traditional agricultural practices have made people in large-numbers leave these chars and migrate to city areas in search of jobs. The study has also revealed that lack of intervention from government and institutional support to help them survive has made the situation on the ground worse.

In that sense, the tale of Jabeda and Azahar's relative prosperity cannot really be said to be representative of all the families living in the char. Most of Azahar's friends have already migrated to areas in or around cities like Guwahati, in search of petty jobs but somehow, a few like him have remained in the char, just because they have a plot of land to erect their own house and could manage to acquire some land for cultivation.

Many other char-dwellers in Sontali consider Azahar among the more fortunate ones as he was able to get financial help from his family to invest the initial money required for cultivation. Others like 27-year-old Nur Haque Ali have to migrate to Guwahati and work in the coal depot to earn a tiny amount of Rs.20 per tonne for loading and unloading of coal from trucks. Nur is not at all happy with his work considering the serious long term health risks involved in the job, but then he has no alternative.

Like Nur, Abdul Lotif (50), a father of four, has sent two of his sons to work as construction labourers. "Our family used to have 22 bighas of agricultural land, where we cultivated cash crops like jute apart from rice cultivation. The river was then seven kilometers away from our habitation. The land hungry river has eaten the entire land and made me rely solely on the earnings of my two sons," says Abdul, pointing to the river which is now less than half a kilometre away from his house. He has a ration card and receives only three litres of kerosene oil each month from it.

During the period of field visits in September and October, it was revealed that people tend to migrate with their entire families to urban areas only when the river robs them of everything, leaving no option for them to continue living in the char, as life post migration is often even more vulnerable than their earlier lives on the char.

The Khetrapara char of Kamrup district for instance, originally had five villages - Kaladiya, Deuridoba, Khetrapara, Balagoan I and Balagaon II. Of these villages, while Balagaon II was completely devoured by the river 16 years back during a heavy flood, others too have seen severe erosion over the years. Most of these families continue to survive on embankments in Chaygaon Developmental Blocks, without any support over the years. However, due to increasing congestion in the embankments, a section of them have to permanently migrate to cities where they are destined to lead a life fraught with uncertainty.

Given the very low level of education among char people, which is only 19.3 per cent, it becomes very difficult for the char dwellers to manage a decent job in the cities. The meagre earning of the migrant members become the sole source of income for those in the family left behind in the chars. All that they manage to earn is spent on survival, and barely anything on the quest for a better life.

An interesting fact observed during the field trips to these chars is that the socio-economic conditions are better in those areas where the women engage in income-generating activities like beedi-making, incense stick making and low-cost decorative jute products making,. These women earn little out of these works - hardly Rs 22 a day, after putting in eight hours of labour on a typical day. But even so, each family has at least three women on average and their accumulated income ensures that they can utilise it to purchase the required rice from the market; thus, they can use the income of the male members for buying other much needed products like solar plates at subsidized rates, galvanized tin-sheets to construct their folding houses and other necessities.

In view of these realities, migration of char dwellers can be checked only if the government comes forward to help the farmers with a support system. This must include minimum support prices for agricultural produce, regular and foolproof supply of essential commodities through PDS, creation of irrigation facilities, establishment of residential schools for the children of char dwelling families, promotion of alternative income-generating avenues to reduce pressure on char land.

"As char land is very fertile and suitable for surgarcane, mustard seeds, etc. the government could ensure that agriculture or horticulture officials and field workers visit the farmers to guide them in scientific cultivation of the right crop so as to increase productivity. Besides, the government could also provide financial assistance to char youth to set up micro and medium scale industrial units like mustard seed expelling units, food processing units or even set up sugar industries closer to the sugarcane growing centres like Sontali chars. Such support systems can go a long way in dispelling the adversity of life in the char regions and ushering in prosperity," says Kadam Ali, a social activist of the area.