Appearing And Disappearing Chars
The life in chars, to put it mildly, is pathetic. Thanks to the dewanis, who are being patronised by several political parties, there have been little social, economic or political development in the region devastated by the turbulent currents of the Brahmaputra
“I lost my household properties and several bighas of paddy land to the riverbed of the Brahmaputra 13 years ago. My eldest son became a rickshaw-puller, second son has been working as a daily wage labourer, third son has been pulling thela while the youngest sells vegetables. They send me money regularly. But we will be together only when the submerged land comes out of the water,” says pensive Muhammed Selim Sheikh of Chengmari char village in Barpeta district of Assam.
The turbulent current of the Brahmaputra submerges char after char in the rainy season, wreaking havoc in the life of the people staying in the catchment areas. However, shifting from one char to another is a common phenomenon in the life of the people along the Brahmaputra.
“This river has destroyed all my wealth. I have lost my relatives, house and several other things. We spend months together in boats waiting for the emergence of new chars. Truly speaking, I have changed my houses 20 times in my life. Moreover, 10 bighas of my land has been swallowed by the river,” rues 60-year-old Abul Hussein of Marichkandi char in Kamrup district.
Needless to say, the rampaging Brahmaputra uproots people every year, making them homeless. “I personally captured 5 bighas of land to reconstruct my house. After a few days, there erupted a new problem. A few powerful men, called mattabar came with lathials (men with sticks in hand) and recaptured my land by force and later sold it off,” adds Hussein resigning to his fate.
Every year, flood wreaks havoc in chars, changing the land character. The landlords encash on the situation selling the land more than once.
After the flood, the powerful grab the newly-emerged chars capturing them even before the original possessors can take hold of them.
“Like our village, almost all the char villages are without electricity. The people in char village are too poor to buy a generator. Now, you can well understand how our village people spend their night. Leave electricity, even the children are unable to get proper education. I have five children, including three daughters. My two sons are working as labourers in urban areas, earning Rs 30 per day, while my daughters have been working as maids with their mother getting Rs 50 to Rs 90 per month,” says Fazal Ali of Borbeel char in Morigaon district.
“I lost my wife at the time of delivery of my fourth issue. I could not afford money to take her to a hospital, as there is no PHC (Public Health Centre or Primary Health Centre) or hospital close to my village,” bemoans Motiur Rahaman Mondal, a resident of Nayer char in Barpeta district.
The economic condition of the people residing in the chars, to say it mildly, is pathetic.
“We are not getting monthly salaries on time. Our school building is in a bad shape. Sometimes, we teach students under a tree and if rain lashes, the school remains closed. The char is flood prone and remains submerged under water every year,” laments Amjad Ali, a private teacher of Badbadia char in Goalpara district.
“I lost my child, Sofia Bano (5), due to diarrhoea. I cannot afford to buy a filtered tube-well for pure drinking water. Even in our village, there is no pure drinking water. Like others, our family members also collect drinking water from river,” says Muhammad Kobad Ali Sheikh, a resident of Nagvangi char in Dhubri district.
The char people live a painful life. Here, pregnant woman delivers a dead baby, injection is administered by village kabiraj (quack).
“The politicians pay a visit to char villages, but only during the election time, paying lip service and promising sorts of comforts,” quips Sheikh.
Char (river island) or sand-bars or sandy-shore (locally called balur char) is the common phenomenon in the lower course of the Brahmaputra. In this way it has formed the riverine island Majuli, which is one of the largest river islands in the world.
Most of the sandbars are transient in nature. The chars are submerged when the Brahmaputra is in spate. But when water recedes, sediment gets deposited and new sandbars take shape. The sandbars do not exist throughout the year. They are submerged during monsoon and become visible during winter season.
Thus, destruction and creation of chars go on in an unending way. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries create hundreds of fields (islands) and rivulets every year and destroy the same in the same way.
It is not possible to ascertain the actual numbers of chars in Assam, as a large number of them are semi-permanent. However, according to the Assam intelligence bureau report of 1993-1994, a lot of riverine basins have sprung up between the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. These chars exist from Sadia of upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district to south Salmara of lower Assam’s Dhubri district. According to the estimate of Char Area Development Authority, there were 1,256 chars in the Brahmaputra in 1985.
According to the military intelligence report, as many as 2,089 chars are spread over 14 districts in the state. Out of 24.90 lakh, there are as many as 12.72 lakh of males and 12.18 lakh of females inhabiting the chars, while the density of population here is 690. There is 3,068 square kilometres of area comprising chars in Assam.
Most of the people inhabiting chars are Muslims migrated from Bangladesh and out of them 70 to 75 per cent live below poverty line.
Although, the other report says that the total population of char region is 24.90 lakh, of which 22.90 lakh is Muslims, and the rest include Kalita Nepali, Missing Ahom and Koch Rajbongshi. The vast tract of char land from Sadia to Dhubri is largely inhabited by Muslims and the rest is non-Muslims comprising 20 per cent of population.
The report claims that the immigrant Muslims largely populate the char lands. There are 90 per cent Muslims in the districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Kamrup, Nalbari, Darrang, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Morigaon and Sonitpur.
Majuli is the world’s biggest river island and various tribes inhabit it. Missing people is one of them. There are three Dewri villages in this island. In Majuli, Brahmin, Kaibarta, Ahom live together with their Muslim brethren. There is a sort of composite culture here bearing the stamp of Assamese art and culture.
However, the largest numbers of chars are found in districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Kamrup and Nagaon. There are more than 2,100 numbers of such sandy shores in the Brahmaputra, which are formed from Sadia to Dhubri.
There are some dwelling-places in the sandy shores of the Brahmaputra, but they are barren places, locally known as chapari gaon (i.e., char village). These char villages come into existence, when the Brahmaputra and its tributaries change their course in 10 to 20 years. There are approximately 400 to 500 new char villages appearing in the entire river basin every year. But the Assam government does not register most of them.
The people, who are living in the chars are locally called Bhatia, if they live in the lower course of the Brahmaputra, especially inhabitants of lower Assam. On the other hand, the people dwelling in the upper course of the river are the inhabitants of upper Assam called Ujani.
They toil hard to keep them alive. They work 10 hours to 12 hours at a stretch. But, despite all this, they are perpetual ‘outsiders’ in the present civilised society.
The inhabitants of the chars represent 25 per cent of the total population of Assam. Only 13.6 per cent people of chars are literate and more than 80 per cent of them are farmers.
The people of the char region are exposed to hard life in the sandy, muddy waters sparsed by uneven land. They depend upon the vagaries of nature for sustenance. The inundating waters of the Brahmaputra destroy crops and houses almost every year leaving the inhabitants swinging between despair and hope. Sometimes, the sand dune measures 7 to 8 feet in high, looking like a desert.
The chars have remained cut off from the mainstream for a long time. The living condition of people here is terrible. One can see numerous small and large char lands during a journey by boat, particularly in the autumn along the Brahmaputra in the lower part of Assam. Poverty is so prevalent that men and women toil all day in the fields to ensure one square meal a day. Most of the families own thatched bamboo houses measuring 200 square feet to 300 square feet, with straw beds, earthen utensils here. People are forced to lead a semi-nomadic life because of inundation. The formation of new chars is very common in the lower course of the Brahmaputra.
Sometimes, when the chars get submerged under flood waters, the inhabitants spend sleepless nights for months in their small and big boats on the shore of the new chars. However, these riparian basins are not found in the Barak Valley in southern Assam. A large number of people live in these char areas.
The land of the island is not permanent as it appears and disappears more often than not. This is why none can make any estimate of the number of chars at any given point of time.
The Char Area Development Authority in Assam was established in 1983 for strengthening the economic condition of the people inhabiting the char areas under special area programme. Subsequently in 1995, this authority has been converted into a full-fledged Directorate of Char Areas Development.
But, there are landlords known as dewani locally called as matabbar (village headman) operating in the chars. These landlords are very powerful and live on a particular tract of land along with the members of their family without any payment of revenue to the government. In some cases, the rate of revenue is just nominal.
The char occupants and the squatters occupy newly formed char land but pay nothing for the same as they have no patta. These plots of land under the char people are transformed into a periodic patta.
Sometimes, periodic patta is granted to one, who has influence or intimacy with the so-called landlords of this char region. The non-payment of revenue sometimes creates a number of problems. It may lead to the cancellation of such patta. In some places, there is no proper land tenure system and this in turn is exploited by the rich and the powerful landlords or dewanis.
The dewanis distribute the char land to one, who is dearer to them and who pays them najrana (gift). These landlords or dewanis or matabbars occupy the char with the help of their followers, who use conventional arms like sticks in hand (known as lathial). Sometimes, violence erupts between landlords claiming the same piece of char lands.
However, ‘other party’ occupies the newly-formed char land as and when the original owner fails to capture the same on time. But, this does not happen peacefully. Sometimes, more than a few landlords get together to claim a piece of char land and this leads to clashes resulting even in murders. However, there is triangular-fight between the original settlers, the new settlers and the char landlords or dewanis.
The followers or retainers of the powerful landlords play the role of occupying new char lands or distributing the land among their favourites. The landlords are always in search of newly-emerged chars. When they find them, they occupy before the original occupants make a claim on them.
In fact, dewanis are the kings of the char areas. Everybody acts according to their advice. Their words are law. The dewanis judge the cases related to murder, loot, plunder, rape, kidnapping, unauthorised occupation of land. Nobody is allowed to oppose the judgments delivered by them. Their orders stay final.
The char people have to give half of the produce to dewanis as a kind of revenue or forced tax. The dewanis receive it without rendering any labour. The char people cultivate crops, vegetables and fruits. The char inhabitants get punishment if and when they try to disobey dewanis’ orders or deny paying share to them. Sometimes, the dewanis evacuate them. However, dewanis are patronised by political parties which regulate their operations behind the scene.
On the other hand, the original land settlers, who lost their permanent land due to heavy flood and erosion, deem it fit to send their families, especially young men to towns for any work.
One can see on both sides of the Brhamaputra half-naked people fishing in their boats and working in their muddy fields along with their cattle.
These people have no permanent shelter and hence forced to live a sort of nomadic life. During rainy season, water seeps from their roofs. Many of them have to pass their lives in their country boats. These boats help them save themselves during rainy season, when almost all around them are submerged.
During flood when the entire char areas get submerged, it seems that the life has gone on the verge of extinction for the inmates. People feel ‘mian amago keyamater din aisha gechhe’ (our last days of destruction has been approaching). Scarcity of food, clothes and shelter haunt these people all round the year. They never dream of living a peaceful life. Natural and unnatural forces harass them. The ceaseless rainfall during the rainy season, land erosion and teeming population always make life difficult for these people.
During rain, their shelters are devastated, crops are damaged and domestic animals are washed away. The inhabitants of the islands are primarily agriculturist. Farming is their chief occupation. Along with this, they carry on petty business. During off season, they work as labourers, commonly known as kamla.
Amid the rampant poverty, they celebrate Id and observe Muharram. During leisure time, they listen to radio or watch television. Bengali and Bhatiali songs of the former East-Bengal called Puraba Banga, dances and other sorts of ethnic entertainments, are part of their cultural life.
In fact, the people of the char region have to fight natural calamities as well as government indifference. They live a sub-human life. They do not have access to good roads, schools, hospitals and communications. The government has a scheme for their development but only on papers.
The chars are devoid of drinking water facility, forcing the people to depend on tubewells or well or river water.
Some char lands are situated far away from cities or towns. The inhabitants have to face various troubles while wading through the muddy areas. Sometimes they overcome this by using country boat. Many a time, the only way to reach from one char to another is by using a dingi nouka (small boat). Needless to say, the absence of efficient transport system is a great hindrance in spurring the economic growth in the char region.
There are no hospitals or chemist shops in the char regions, compelling people to approach village kabiraj (quack). The absence of doctors, hospitals, Primary Health Centres adds to their miseries. Sometimes, a critical patient living close to border areas, goes to Border Security Force medical camps for treatment. However, in some chars, there are public health centres, but they are not well-equipped.
In education too, the char region is very backward. The dewanis are largely responsible for this sorry state of affairs. They are the persons still controlling the education in char areas. In fact, they do not want that the children of the char people should have any proper schooling, which may result in erosion of their authority in the long run. Teachers hardly attend schools and they in turn appoint someone to discharge their duties. This is how, these fake teachers cheat the government and play with the lives of the students in char regions. People of the char areas often lodge complaints against such a vicious condition, but then they go unheeded. Money and muscle power win the day.
The condition of primary institutions is also pathetic. The school buildings are in tatter state. They do not have necessary infrastructure, including libraries, desks and blackboards. Sometimes, one teacher is found manning 100 to 150 students.
However, the most common scene in the char areas is the existence of madrassas. They impart religious education instead of general education, where Arabic is used as a medium of instruction and not Assamese. But in char, inhabitants speak their own language including Assamese fluently. They use Bhatiali, the local dialect. For this, they are known as ‘Na Assamiyans’ (New Assamese), but for others they are called Mians, who speak various Bengali dialects along with local Assamese language.
Most chars do not have schools or colleges. Child workers or child labourers are a common feature in the char areas. Ramjan Ali (8), Nur Islam (10), Muhammad Nur Mohammed (12) say that it is poverty that has forced them to work as daily labourers. “We like to read and write like other children, but can’t. We wish to play and pass time like other boys and girls, but we cannot,” they say in unison.
But, there is exception too. A few boys and girls, who are eager to learn the art of reading and writing, go to schools.
They hope that things will be better in the chars in the days ahead.
(All pictures by Shib Shankar Chatterjee)
By Shib Shankar Chatterjee From Barpeta