Assam’s monsoon desert


A sand-savaged house in village Matmora. Note the 'windowized' door in the middle.

MONSOON TURNED his fertile fields into a desert in a tad more than a decade. Now Phaniram Phukan feels deserted by democracy.

Phukan has lost 14 bighas (201,600 sq ft) of paddy field in village Mothadang to flood-induced sand since 1998. The process accelerated after the work on a rail-cum-road bridge across the Brahmaputra nearby started in 2004-05.

Jeebakanta Chekanidhara of village Missamari and Bireswar Hajong of village Nalbari Hajong also lost 10 and 16 bighas. They are among 1.5 lakh farmers in northeastern Assam’s Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts who lost 15,000 hectares out of a total 124,000 ha of farmland.

North Lakhimpur, the Lakhimpur district headquarters 390 km northeast of Guwahati, is the nerve centre of Assam’s ‘monsoon desert’ comprising six assembly constituencies in Dhemaji and Lakhimpur. The Congress holds five of these while the sixth — Jonai that has the most voters (232,669) — is with an Independent named Bhuban Pegu.

Monsoon desert refers to the transformation of fertile rain-fed areas into unproductive sandy expanses. Environment experts and geologists attributed this phenomenon to large-scale deforestation in Arunachal Pradesh, haphazard construction in Assam and fragile embankments along a network of rivers led by the Brahmaputra.

Sand beneath her feet.

A slew of hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh aren’t yet a cause of desertification. But locals, sensitized by several anti-dam organizations, fear the worst once some of the 168 dams are commissioned to produce 45,000 MW of electricity.

The Congress in Assam, perceived as soft toward the government of the same party in Arunachal Pradesh on the issue of dams, has become a punching bag in these parts. “The Assam government should have been sensitive to the threat the dams pose to life and livelihoods,” said Johan Doley, chief of an anti-dam tribal organization.

But locals realize the other parties are no better, and are likely to pursue the dams for the commission they entail besides power. “Sadly, the leadership here has ignored the issue of dams and desertification. They only thing they talk about are embankments, which again has many interests involved,” says Ravindranath of River Basin Friends, a NGO.

Embankments exude corruption in Assam. Almost all of them are fragile despite Rs 95-120 crore provided annually for maintenance. The most expensive one (Rs 140 crore) at Matmora under Dhokhuakhana constituency was washed away in July 2009. Consequence: Matmora and four other villages, once mustard-rich, were silted so bad that soil scientists don’t see them growing crops for at least 10 years.

The lone voice against the dams and desertification is that of Pegu. “We are because of the people. If they perish, we will too,” said the legislator seeking reelection from the Jonai seat. Some non-Congress parties have also begun to sing his tune, giving the likes of Phukan and Chekanidhara hope against hope.

“Democracy deserted us, but we can’t desert democracy,” said Phukan. “We will vote for a return to the good old times. Baaki bhagabanor hatot (the rest is up to god).”

Electors in the six assembly constituencies — Bihpuria, Dhakuakhana, Dhemaji, Jonai, Lakhimpur and Naoboicha — spanning the monsoon desert exercised their franchise on 4 April 2011. God help them!

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About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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