In July, the Brahmaputra breached 100 metre of a new state of art embankment in Assam, submerging hundreds of villages in Lakhimpur. The flood waters, as they recede, dump sand on the farmlands, frustrating farmers and ending their livelihoods.

Till 2006, Redinath Dolai, in his mid-thirties, from Matmora village in Dhakuakhana block of Lakhimpur district in Assam was happy farmer harvesting enough grains from his 100 bighas (33 acres) of fertile land. He could boast of famous Assam rice varieties like Sali, Ahu, Joha, etc., and a reasonable productivity of 4 quintals per bigha. But after 2007 monsoon, his once fertile land came under 5-13 feet of sand with only tree tops in sight and the tree trunks buried under the sand. Few more feet of sand may be deposited this monsoon too, thanks to the lethargic administration!

A virtual sand dune burying twisted bridge sections in the ferocious Jiadhal river's basin. Jiadhal is a tributary of the Brahmaputra river. Pic: Surekha Sule.

Each year, the flood causes heavy erosion of the Brahmaputra embankments in Matmora but in 2007 monsoon, the mighty river breached 200 metres of crucial embankment in Matmora flooding entire Lakhimpur district and also Majuli island. The receding water left behind up to 13 feet sand all over Matmora turning its fertile land into a virtual sand dune.

Two crucial years have been lost without plugging the breach. Since then, the state government commissioned a Malaysian firm to develop a 5 km-stretch of embankment that had breached, using the latest geo-fabric technology. But the work could not be completed on time allegedly due to intervention of the state Water Resource Department and the district administration. As noted earlier, this July, Brahmaputra breached the new embankment submerging hundreds of villages in Lakhimpur.

Dipen Hazorika, Rubul Pegu, Prafull Dolai, Paroma Dolai and such 500 Mishing farmers from five villages under Matmora Gram Panchayat have met with the same fate as Redinath Dolai, for the past two years. There is complete loss of livelihood. The Mishings are one of Assam’s major tribal communities. They have an autonomous council too.

On top of this recurring calamity of erosion every year, sand deposition is the latest catastrophe. It is blamed on the corrupt system of repair and maintenance of Brahmaputra embankments and civil works undertaken upstream in Arunachal Pradesh.

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This part of the Brahmaputra valley in upper Assam has already been suffering from land erosion problems. Rabindra Pegu – a lecturer in Dhakuwakhana college recalls shifting to Gogamukh town in Dhemaji district in 1998 when his village Jhanji got completely washed away in Brahmaputra flood waters. The first Mishing school set up by his father in 1936 in Jhanji village under Matmora Gram Panchayat, went under water.

Now on top of this recurring calamity of erosion every year, the sand deposition is the latest catastrophe. It is blamed on the corrupt system of repair and maintenance of Brahmaputra embankments and the civil works undertaken on development projects upstream in Arunachal Pradesh.

Jeopardising people’s lives and property

As a flood mitigation measure, Assam constructed some 423 embankments along Brahmaputra and its tributaries. According to an Indian Express (4 Sept 2008) report, 295 out of 423 embankments have crossed their ‘expiry dates’ and have lost their 25 years of ‘efficacy’ many years ago. Various kinds of patchworks under the name of repair and maintenance take place but with lot of irregularities. Last year 12 engineers were suspended for faulty construction of a crucial embankment at Matmora which caused devastating floods that deposited sand.

Bamboo houses on raised platform. Pic: Surekha Sule.

Matmora’s people are skeptical about the efficacy of repaired embankments as only a year old repaired embankment had breached in 2007 and now even the state of art embankment gave away to Brahmaputra’s fury. The Union Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) had sanctioned Rs.142 crores for this breach repair at Matmora making it a pilot project using the latest geo fabric tube technology. However, because of the model code of conduct during the recent Lok Sabha elections, this along with all other flood preventive projects got stalled ensuring yet another year of devastating flood. The work did commence after the elections, but it could not be completed before the monsoon. Matmora reported fresh breaches and floods this season too.

Lower Subansiri Hydro-project

Why is there a spate of sand deposition on such a massive scale? Civil works undertaken on various development projects such as roads, dams, hydro-power projects upstream of Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh are the cause for sand floods in the upper Assam valley districts of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur, say people and organisations working here. (This has not been scientifically established yet, and officials in Arunachal deny this over informal conversations.)

For instance, dam construction at Gerukamukh at the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh for 2000 MW Lower Subansiri hydro power project is slated to be completed by 2012 at a cost of Rs.6285 crores. The mammoth site (See photo) -- with chiseled hill sides as a result of extensive extraction of boulders; clearance for roads; cement-sand all over the site for massive construction work -- bears testimony to the people’s fear about impending disasters of deposition of sand washed away from this site by the rain and flood.

Subansiri – the largest tributary of the Brahmaputra enters plains of Assam through a narrow gorge near Gerukhamukh. Subansiri, though maintains stable course in hills, becomes unstable as it enters Assam’s alluvial plains. People here in Dhemaji keep referring to the catastrophic floods of 1950 during the great Assam earthquake of magnitude 8.6 when extensive landslides blocked Subansiri. Not withstanding the pressure of swelling water, the natural dams had burst, engulfing entire region in Dhemaji and north Lakhimpur leaving 536 dead. What guarantee the human-made dam can provide against nature’s fury of such magnitude, quips apprehensively Keshoba Krishna Chatradhara, in his late 20s, Secretary of People’s Movement for Subansiri Brahmaputra Valley (PMSBV).

PMSBV has been spearheading the agitation against the Lower Subansiri hydro-power project and demanding stoppage of work till the expert committee completes the study to assess the impact of this project on the people of downstream areas. However, the work resumed even when the study was at the initial stages by the committee comprising experts from Guwahati University, Guwahati IIT and Dibrugarh University. To somewhat legitimise the project, the government gave environmental clearance to this biggest hydro power project of the country in December 2008. PMSBV says that this Enviromental Impact Assessment (EIA) mentions only 77 families will be affected which is a mockery.

Arunachal Pradesh accounts for one third of India’s hydro-power potential of 1,48,000 MW and just 1 per cent of this potential has been realised so far. More devastation may be ahead. In 2007, Arunachal Pradesh signed 39 MoUs to generate 24,471 MW hydropower, with NHPC, NEEPCO, Reliance Energy, Jayprakash Associates, GMR Energy and several others. “Arunachal Pradesh is awarding hydroelectric projects to private companies at the breakneck speed of one every nine days without proper scrutiny” said the environmental magazine Down to Earth.

Says Shripad Dharmadikary in an earlier article on this publication ( “… the capacity that Arunachal wants to add in the next ten years or so, is just less than the total hydropower capacity added in the whole country in 60 years of independence. Unfortunately, as has been the case with much of the dam building in the country, many serious questions have been left unanswered and massive negative impacts have been ignored.”

Shifting River Jiadhal

Another major problem of upper Assam Valley is rivers shifting courses like Jiadhal, also known as Kumotiya, in Bordoloni block of Dhemaji district.

The official website of the district describes the river Jiadhal as carrying heavy silt load from the catchment area during the flood season and depositing the silt on its bed in the plains. “Due to this fact, the riverbed has risen up considerably. As a result the river follows a braided pattern and its width is more than 3 km. in some of the reaches. The river is very much aggrading in nature. This is why the river has a tendency to shift its course towards the left bank” says the website. (

Traveling along a dry Jiadhal in March, we saw huge boulders of heavy steel railway bridges just fallen around in a mass of twisted steel sections. “This river (Jiadhal) looks quite deceptive now and almost dry. But by May, it will be in spate and has tremendously strong currents to even wash away strong iron railway bridges” says Dr Partha J Das, 35, Head, WATCH (Water, Climate and Hazard) Programme, AARANYAK (A Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of India) based in Guwahati. We saw at least five sites of Jiadhal’s various courses and which course it will take each flood season is quite unpredictable. Das lives in Guwahati and has been with Aaranyak for a few years now.

The Jiadhal river basin too has heavy sand deposition problem since 2007 due to breach in embankment. This ferocious river carried 15 truck loads of sand and silt every minute, that year, says Das. Sand deposition completely changed the morphology of this area with all wet lands, deep water gorges, riverine area with aquatic grasses and lots of water bodies – all gone forever and people lost their farming and fishery. The 2007 flood deposited sand 10-12 feet bringing deep structures to the level of the road.

“In this devastation too, people see a ray of hope. May be the river did what they wanted. It filled the deep areas and gave them the field. It may take years for natural reclamation. But if the sand keeps depositing again and again, then there is no hope”, says Das.

How are people coping?

With complete loss of traditional livelihood, how people are coping up with the situation and what options are available to them? These questions are raised by Das who is studying people, their predicament, their views and opinion on the way out of this impasse. It may be noted here that unlike many other development agencies which prescribe the solution and then intervene without consulting people, Dr Partha Das and his team stay with and work among the affected communities, listen to them carefully and support what people think best for themselves.

Salmora village on Majuli island (one of the biggest islands in the course of Brahmaputra) is a potters’ village where earthen pots are made without a potters’ wheel! The art has run for generations here and is traced back to Mohenjodaro time, says Das. But how it traveled to this corner of the country is not known. Now struck by the disaster of sand deposition, this Mishing village has made pottery their main occupation.

Ketki Samowa demonstrated earthen pot making without a potter’s wheel and says she learnt the craft from her mother. Ketki lives with her husband, two sons, two daughter-in-laws and three little grand-children. This Mishing family had to abandon their village as Brahmaputra kept advancing and lost their farm land. Here in Salmora, there is sand all over and they live in a bamboo hut built over a raised platform. The soil of the quality that can mold into pots is extracted from the river bank digging 15-20 feet deep.

Women make various kinds of pots for storing water, making curd, storing food etc which are in great demand in towns along River Brahmaputra. The piles of pots and bicycles are loaded on the boats and Ketki’s husband along with other men sails in the boat to different towns on the banks of Brahmaputra over a month or two. At the town, they sling pots on bicycles and peddle through the streets selling pots for Rs.15-25 each.

Beautiful Mekhala and Chadar displayed by women weavers. Pic: Surekha Sule.

Traditionally, women in Assam weave all the fabric required for the household. This weaving skill is now coming to the rescue when farming and fishing is ruined due to sand deposition as was observed in Matmora. Nabakant Pegu heads a joint family of seven brothers who own 160 bigha land. Once a well off family which produced everything except salt and kerosene, now has nothing to grow in sand filled farms.

“I go numb thinking what lies ahead!” Says Amulya Pegu, Nabakant’s brother, “We may have to wait for 10-20 years before starting harvesting grains and even potato, bamboo or any horticultural crop is not possible next 4-5 years.”

However, women weave beautiful traditional fabric like gamachha, mekhala-chadar, mebo-galu, gero, shawls, etc. And intervention in terms of marketing can help these communities survive. Pig rearing is another occupation, Rabindra thinks, can be undertaken with the government support.

Kanmai Sandikoi in Bordoloni says now their boys are migrating to Kerala to work in rubber plantation or to work as casual labourer in Mumbai and Kolkata. Her brother Jintu went to Lakhimpur in search of work and was lucky to land in job in a company. Otherwise, they all go for NREGS work or road construction work and sometimes if they are lucky, they get logs floating down the river. Most of the households belong to Ahom in Bordoloni and some are tea-tribals who were originally zabua or munda communities from Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand brought by Britishers to work in their tea gardens.

As part of AARANYAK’s project related to the climate change adaptation, Das is studying, in selected river basins in Assam, the changing flood and drought patterns and documenting community’s coping practices, people’s traditional knowledge related to flood management, early warning of rains and floods, food storage, folk medicine, etc., mainly using the participatory rural appraisal (PRA) methodology.