Living with Floods: Building Livelihood in Assam

Dharamjeet Kumar

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows

I have lived in 14 states of India before coming to Assam and it was my first opportunity to enter into the north-east frontiers of the country. Assam is like an entrance to a group of states which follow a culture and possess natural heritage which is very different from the rest of the country. Serving as an entrance to a new world, Assam welcomed me with all warmth. Having lived in other states, I have never experienced such kind of warmth and forthcoming nature in the communities.

I am working with an NGO called North-East Affected Areas Development Society (NEADS) in Jorhat, Assam. NEADS is involved in multiple domains of development. However, much of its resources are channeled on disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response. Assam is a flood affected state where floods are almost an annual phenomenon.

Some happy faces during my first meeting with the community in Majuli.

My host NGO offered me various projects to which I can contribute, however, they left it up to me to decide which ones to start first. Using this freedom, I began my work here on a river island called Majuli Island. It’s the world biggest human inhabited river island surrounded by river Brahmaputra on one side and river Subansiri on the other. The rich diversity of communities inhabiting here along with dense green surroundings makes it one of the most beautiful places on the earth. However, with the beauty the nature also brings crisis in this area almost every year in the form of heavy floods. The floods carry serious consequences on people’s economy and health. Over the previous century, the island has lost more than 70% of its total area due to regular erosion along the river banks.

Walking on a bridge made from bamboo.

The Mishing community, which is tribal community, constitutes the major population on this island. I discovered through various studies and also through personal interactions about their history, living patterns, livelihood, etc. Traditionally, they used to live around the banks of the river. Fishing, cultivation and weaving were major sources for their livelihood. They continue to do so, however, earning a livelihood with this has become increasingly difficult with time amidst a changing environment. In early years, the occasional flood used to bring rich soil deposits in the banks and recharge the ground water. To adapt, they built their houses with bamboo on a height to be secure during floods. They continue to live in such houses even now. But the severity of floods is increasing each year. Now they prefer vacating their houses during peak floods as they are no longer safe and often collapse. With flood levels and frequency rising, this has led to reduction in the cultivation period and the productivity of their traditional crops as well. Most of them have lost a substantial part of their farmland due to erosion.

The mahaang, or bamboo, houses of the Mishing community.

During my initial visits here, I wondered why anyone would continue to live in an area while knowing that there will be flooding every year. Wouldn’t living with this constant threat of losing the wealth generated during the year be too frustrating and make one pessimistic about earning better in the future? This assumption got smashed when I spent a day with a Mishing family in their house of bamboo, built on a height of about seven feet. I realized that there was hardly anything in the house that one would fear of losing. While there was everything to provide for shelter, there wasn’t much of value otherwise. Beneath the house, they kept their handloom comprised of charkha and a weaving device made of bamboo. I found that they just earn enough to meet their living needs. I was surprised when they told me that they don’t even take the things provided by the government for free if they don’t need them. As most of them fall below the poverty line, they are entitled to get a fixed quantity of free rice, wheat flour and kerosene oil under the public distribution scheme. When I asked them why they don’t take the goods they don’t need and sell them to earn extra money to help with their expenditures, their response surprised me. They said many other communities often don’t get these things because of under-supply, and therefore, they leave it for them. I was overwhelmed by their humbleness, realizing what kind of satisfaction with life you need when living in such difficult areas.

Part of my assignment is working with the weavers here, trying to improve the market access of the garments they make. Almost all households do handloom and usually only the women are involved in this. There are two major reasons why this work is so important. Firstly, talking to many of the women, I found their expenditure on health is exceedingly high as floods cause water-borne diseases. The increase in income through handloom will help them to meet those expenditures. Secondly, the garments made by them are extremely beautiful, steeped in tradition, and carry a culture which is not well-known outside of their communities. With the speed at which this island is reducing due to climate change, there is a threat of extinction of this culture. The world should know about their lives and stories.

Women making mekhela sador, the traditional wear of Assamese women using handloom.

About the Author

Dharamjeet Kumar’s passion for social change compelled him to pursue a Master of Arts in Development from Azim Premji University. Coming from an agriculturalist family in India, Dharamjeet’s own upbringing deeply informs his work as an AIF Fellow, where he currently works with flood-affected communities in Assam to create alternative livelihoods. He is excited to work with an organization established in the social sector and share his ideas with other change makers.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.



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