Saga of Devastation in Brahmaputra Valley River Islands


A Story of Vanishing Islands in North-East India

A Case Study in River Erosion

“… I lost my lands, household property and 4 to 5 bighas of paddy lands in to the river-bed of the Brahmaputra in 1988, which has not still reemerged. My eldest son becomes a rickshaw-puller, my second-born is working at daily-labour and third son pulls a hand-barrow, while the younger ones are small vegetable-vendors in the towns, sub-divisions, districts and cities. They send me money after every 2 or 3 months. They will return home only, when my land re-emerges.

Truly speaking, this river has deserted me having been devouring all wealth and presently, I have no other options. The turbulent current of the river Brahmaputra washed it all away during the rainy season, when the river becomes turgid.

Char 5
River erosion of Char Village, which is the main threat for the char village peoples of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

Even, we spend months together in boats and wait for the emergence of new chars nearly, when our chars totally go under water. Although, shifting tendency from one char to another is a common phenomenon in our life …”, regrets septuagenarian, Muhammed Selim Sheikh of Chengmari char-village of Barpeta district of North East Indian State, Assam.

Case Study in Land Capture

“… this river has deserted me and destroyed all my wealth. At present, I have no other option, but to accept of begging, for I have lost my house, house-hold-goods, relatives et cetera. The turbulent current of the river Brahmaputra washed out all away during rainy seasons, when river becomes turgid and our chars goes under water.

Atwar Ali Sheikh and his wife Akhtar Bano during flood at Ghegamari Char Village
Atwar Ali Sheikh and his wife Akhtar Bano during a flood at Ghegamari Char Village of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

Even, we spend months together in boats and to wait for the emergence of new chars. This forces us to shifting tendency from one char to another, which is a common phenomenon in our life. Truly speaking, I have changed my houses 15 times to 20 times in my life.

This year also 10 Bighas (that is, 144,000 square feet) of my land has sunk into the river Brahmaputra during flood. After flood the members of our family captured another new one, but could not keep under control, everything lost.

I personally captured 4 to 5 bighas of land to reconstruct my house. After few days, there erupt up a new problem. It shocked me; because, suddenly, a few powerful men, called Mattabar or Dewani or Dalal (that is, middleman) came with Lathial (that is, men with sticks in hand) and recaptured those lands by force and sold them off. I could not do anything against them. There was no security of any sort against forcible occupation of land by the muscle and money.

Practically, every years, floods have made new unstable chars and that is why; the change in land character also support the landlords to sell the plot of char-lands more than once, which are renewable sources of income for them.

In fact, after the flood, the followers make regular rounds of the riverbank areas, looking for newly emerged chars and capturing these even before the original possessors can make command. In this connection, as per current proverb goes to in our areas that Jaar lathi, tar mati …”, 60-years-old Abul Hussein inhabitant of Marichkandi char-village of Kamrup district of North East Indian State, Assam points out a awry finger to his right.

Case Study of the Electricity System

“… Like our village, all most all the char villages are without electricity. We the char village peoples are so poor; therefore, it is impossible to buy a generator for electricity to each family. Now, you can understand that how can our village peoples are passing their entire night. Not only is that without light, children are unable to get better education also. I have five children including three daughters. My two sons (one is 12-years-old and other is 13-years-old) go to the urban areas as a daily-labour. They earn Rs. 30 per day and my two daughters (one is 14-years- old and another is 15-years-old) go to town areas to work as a maidservant with her mother and earn Rs. 50 to Rs. 90 per month. Tell me; is it possible for us to buy a generator for light? What can we do? You know that how can be a family consisting of 07 to 08 members run …?”, claims Fazal Ali of Borbeel char-village of Morigaon district of North East Indian State, Assam.

Case Study in the Health System

“… I lost my wife, Sofia Begum (17) at the time of delivery of my fourth issue. I could not afford money for taking her to the hospital. Because, in my village, there is no PHC (that is, Public Health Centre or Primary Health Centre) or Hospital nearby. We are very needy …”, bemoans Motiur Rahaman Mondal, a resident of Nayer char-village area of Barpeta district of North East Indian State, Assam.

Case Study of the Education System

Char 7
An unknown little minority Bengali speaking Muslim boy playing in the river island of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

“… we are not getting any monthly salary timely. Our school building is broken. Sometimes, we teach them under the tree and if rain appears or thunderstorm comes, the school remains closed. During rainy season, we close the school for 4 to 6 months every year. Because the char is a flood prone area, which remains sub-merged under water for 90 to 100 days every year.

The astonishing fact is that the academic session starts from January of every year, but books are supplied after three months (that is, in the month of April) or even later, while the essential materials of black-board, desk-bench, chair-table, chalk-pencil-duster et cetera are not available in the school.

Char people are very poor and illiterate and so they do not send their children for studies elsewhere. A awareness among these char people about education by different ways, like local Sabha or Samiti, Nukkar-bazzi (that is, street-drama) with singing and dancing et cetera …”, laments Amjad Ali, a private (venture) school Master of Badbadia char-village of Goalpara district of Northeast Indian State of Assam.

Case Study of the Drinking Water System

Children carry drinking water
Children carry drinking water collected from the river for their houses at Char Village, Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

“… I lost my child, Sofia Bano at the age of 5, due to diarrhea. I cannot afford money to buy a deep filtered tube-well for pure drinking water for my family. In our village (in fact, all most all the char villages), there is no pure drinking water system. Like others, our family members also collect drinking water from the river.

Now, you can guess, how the char areas people live a painful life. Here, pregnant women deliver dead babies, injection is administered by the village Kabiraj (that is, quack). Babies are reduced to skeletons for want of a protein-rich-diet, char people use bullock-carts and boats for transportation, they drink unfiltered water, char-born-children lack education, who don’t even have electricity, and many lose their eyes in early stage.

The opportunist politicians, who visited these remote and distant areas thousands of times during the election (like Village Panchayet, Assembly and Parliamentary, et cetera); but have not spent any time on boats before and after elections. They do not see our poor conditions after they win the ‘game’ (election) …”, says Muhammad Kobad Ali Sheikh, angrily, a resident of Nagvangi char-village area of Dhubri district of North East Indian State, Assam.

Axom, is a land of blue hills, lush green forest and red rivers, which is a captivating country since its birth. One of the world’s largest mighty river ‘Brahmaputra’, locally called Luit (from Lauhitya meaning Redness) flows from the Manas Sarobar, that is, Tasangpo (from where it originates) to the ‘Bay of Bengal,’ disregarding the international boundaries through the then East-Pakistan, that is, East-Bengal, known as Purba Bangla, presently Bangladesh.

Brahmaputra has 35 tributaries in Assam

Char 12
Char Village peoples making a bamboo dam to check the erosion of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

“Char” (that is, ‘River Island’) or ‘Sand-bars’ or ‘Sandy-shore’ (locally called – Balur-char) is the common phenomenon of nature that is found farming here and there in the lower course of the river Brahmaputra. It 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 begin to move as the flow of water increases. But, when the water flows recede, sediment gets deposited and new sandbars take shape. The sandbars do not exist throughout the year. They are submerged during the monsoon and become visible in winter season.

Thus, destruction and creation of chars go on in an unending way. This transformation of chars is not a new matter but eternal. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries create hundreds and hundreds of ‘fields’ and rivulets every year and destroy them in the same way.

It is not possible to ascertain the actual chars in the eastern Indian State – Assam, for a large number of them are semi-permanent. However, according to the estimate or of Indian Assam State Intelligence Bureau Report of 1993-1994, a lot of riverine basins have sprung up between the river Brahmaputra and it’s tributaries. These chars exist from Sadia in Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district to South-Salmara in Lower Assam’s Dhubri district of North-East Indian State, Assam, while according to the estimate of Char Area Development Authority, Government of Assam State (India) – CADAGAS(I), in 1985, there were 1,256 char on the river Brahmaputra.

According to the Indian Military Intelligence Report, “Of total number of 2,089 chars, lie under 14 Districts, 23 Sub-divisions and 59 Development Blocks with 2,251 villages in 299 Gaon-Panchaet (village panchaets) in the whole state. Over 24.90 lakhs people (of them 12.72 lakhs male and 12.18 lakhs females, comprising 4.35 lakhs families of which 2.95 lakhs are very needy, that is, live below the poverty line) reside in the chars of the river Brahmaputra and it’s tributaries and the density of population per square kilometer in char areas is 690, while 3,068 square kilometers area belongs to char areas in the Eastern Indian State, Assam. Most of the people are of ‘Muslim Community’ (specially indicate the ‘Religious Minority Muslim People, who reside in basically western part of the State and are basically needy and migrated from Bangladesh from time-to-time in search of food, clothing and shelter) and 70% to 75% live below the poverty line.

Char 13
Char Village people, praying for god in a Dewaneralga Char Village, Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

Another report says that the total population of the char region is 24.90 lakhs. Of this, 22.9 lakhs is ‘Muslim’ (that is, ‘Religious Minority’) and 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh is ‘Kalita-Nepali’, ‘Mising-Ahom’ and ‘Koch-Rajbongshi’ (that is, ‘Non-Muslim’) and others. Apart from this, more than 70% to 75% of char-village population is ‘Immigrant Muslim’ and the rest live in the town and other places permanently. This vast tract of char-land from Sadia to Dhubri is largely inhabited by Muslim community, which according to the Government report is 80% and the rest 20% is the people of ‘Non-Muslim’ community.

Apart from these, the Government report has also disclosed that the people of immigrant Muslim section largely populate the char-lands. There are 90% Muslim community in the districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Kamrup, Nalbari, Darrang, Sonitpur, Nagaon and Morigaon and Sonitpur, (Mangaldoi) Darrang of Eastern Indian State, Assam are the noted riverine char-villages, where various sections of people like ‘Nepali’, ‘Boro’, ‘Bengali-Hindu’, ‘Fisherman’ (locally known as : Kaibarta) et cetera live together. Even, some noted tribe like ‘Missing’ community, which 50% of total population in riverine char areas from Dhemaji district to Sonitpur district lives for many years in the state.

‘Majuli’ is the world’s biggest river-island and various tribes inhabit it. Missing people is one group. There are three ‘Dewri’ villages in this island. In Majuli-island ‘Brahmin’, ‘Kaibarta’, ‘Ahom’ et cetera live together with some people of Muslim community. This is why a sort of mixed culture prevails at Majuli that bears the tradition of Assamese art and culture of the Northeastern Indian state, Assam.

The largest chars are found in the Eastern Indian state, Assam’s districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Kamrup and Nagaon respectively. There are more than 2,100 such sandy-shore in the Brahmaputra river, which are created from Sadia (upper course of the river) to Dhubri (lower course of the river).

There are some dwelling-places in the sandy-shores of the Brahmaputra riverine area but these are very barren places, locally known as Chapari-gaon (char-village). These char-villages come to exist, when the river and its tributaries change their own course and flow, which take 10 to 20 years. There are approximately 400 to 500 char-villages created in the entire river basin every year. The Indian State Government, Assam, does not register most of them.

The people living in the chars are locally called Bhatia, means people, who are living in the lower course of this river, especially inhabitants of Lower Assam, while the people in the upper course of this river, inhabitants of Upper Assam, are called Ujani.

They toil hard to keep alive. Most of them are born tough. They work 10 hours to 12 hours at a stretch. But, despite all these things, they are perpetual ‘outsiders’ in civilized society.

Char 4
Kobad Ali Sheikh, Char Village old man, makes a fishing net to catch fish, one source of income for the people of Char Village of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

The inhabitants of the chars represent 25% of the total population of Assam. Only 13.6% people of the doomed chars are literate and more than 80% are farmers, 20% daily labourers, 10% fishermen, 10% vegetable-sellers, 5% fish-sellers, 10% Hand-barrow-pullers, 20% Rickshaw-pullers, 5% others.

The people of the char region live a very pain-stricken odious life in the river-islands full of hot as well as cold sand, muddy water and uneven land. Most of these people are half-fed ill-clothed and shelter-less. They loiter with empty bellies and beg food. They have cultivable land, but they fail to yield crops.

The cultivators of the char region nurse a hope to reap a good harvest. But, hope perishes, when the flood of sand washes away everything. The waters destroy houses and shelters dash to the ground, cattle die for want of fodder. This sand dune is so terrifying that in some places it is 7 to 8 feet high. It seems the entire char has turned in to a small ‘desert’ because the soil of the chars are sandy.

In fact, they have remained cut off from the mainstream of life for a long time. The living conditions of these people is sub-human. One can see numerous small and large char-lands during a journey by boat, particularly in autumn along the river Brahmaputra at any place in the lower part of Assam. Poverty is so prevalent that men, woman and minors toil all day in the fields to ensure one square mile a day. All that most families own are a thatched bamboo house 200 to 300 square feet, straw beds, earthen utensils and a piece of cultivable land, which is also temporary due to the erosion. People are forced to lead a ‘semi-nomadic’ life because the inundation and formation of new chars is very common in the lower course of the river Brahmaputra.

Sometimes, when the chars sink under flood water (flooded in the monsoon seasons), the inhabitants of these chars wait and pass their terrified sleepless nights for days and months in their small and big boats on the shore of the new char and begin life anew. However, these riverine or riparian basins are not found in the Barak Valley in Southern Assam sector. A huge number of people live in these char areas.

The land of the island is not permanent for they appear and disappear with the appearance and disappearance of the flood. This is why there is no reliable estimate of char-land. The Government also fails to survey char land properly and as such Government cannot receive necessary revenue from this unsettled land because, the flood makes the char-land unstable every year. The floods create and destroy this char-land every one or two years. Sometimes, these chars are unfit to dwell on.

According to the Government officials, this unstableness of the char-land has created a bar to carry on a casual survey work here. There are different problems about the distribution of these char-lands. In the state of Assam’s ‘Brahmaputra-Valley’ and the Revenue Department (RD) has been empowered this task of distribution.

The Char Area Development Authority, Government of Assam State (India) – CADAGAS(I) was established in the year, 1983/1984 to strengthen the status of the people living in char areas as a Special Area Programme. Subsequently in the year, 1995/1996, this authority has been converted to a full-fledged Directorate of Char Areas Development, Government of Assam State, (India), shortly says – DCADGAS(I).

In fact, there are two parallel authorities (the RD and the landlord, known as Dewani or Matabbar, or Village-Headman) operate in the char areas. These landlords are also very powerful and have unauthorized right to live in a particular tract of land along with the members of their family without any payment of revenue. In some cases, this rate of revenue is just nominal. These landlords sometimes are helpful and in some cases, they are harassers. They become the main arbiters both in case of the settlement of their disputes and also their land area, which is not under patta or is yet to be surveyed.

The char occupants and the squatters occupy newly formed char-land but pay nothing for the same for they have no patta. These plots of land are transformed by the char people 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 without or with revenue. The non-payment of revenue sometime creates a number of problems. It may lead to the cancellation of such a patta. In some places, there is no proper land tenure system and this in turn allows exploitation of the poor char people by the rich and powerful landlords or Dewanis.

They distribute the char land to one, who is dearer to them and who pays them Najrana (that is, gift). These landlords or Dewanis or Matabbars occupy the char with the help of followers, who use conventional arms like sticks in hand (known as Lathial), which often are newly formed or created by force and then sell them to others at a high price. Sometimes, fierce struggles take place between two or more landlords, over the newly emerged islands, that later on leads to murder or ‘bloodshed’. This is often noticed among the landless farmers, who have been evicted due to repeated river erosions.

Sometimes, again, it is found that the ‘third party’ has gone to occupy that newly formed char as and when the original owner fails to capture it in due time. But, this is not done peacefully, except against some killing, say some char inhabitants. Sometimes, more than a few landlords get together to claim a piece of char-land and this leads to clashes, injuries and murder. Of course, if a landlord enters into a clash the other parties do not sit idle but get involved in it. There may be a ‘triangular-fight’ between the original-settlers, new-settlers and the char-landlords or Dewanis.

According to a noted advocate of the Lower Assam’s Undivided Goalpara District (presently – Dhubri, Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts) the cases, which lie at the disposal of the honourable ‘Court’ are related to the tussle or bloodshed or murder occurring in the chars for occupation of char-land.

The followers or retainers of these powerful landlords play a role in occupying ‘new-char’ or distributing discovered land among their favourites. The landlords are always in search of newly emerged chars. When they find them, they occupy them before the original occupants make a bid that has neither money nor muscle power. But, the most astonishing fact is that the char people, who in spite of all these disparagements, often fall victims of those so-called village-headmen or leaders who leave no stone unturned to exploit them. These men, when fail to convince, call them ‘Bangladeshi’. They have no documents of landed property and so are harassed off and on.

In fact, Dewanis are the kings of the char areas. Everybody acts according to the advice of Dewani. His word is Law. The Dewanis judge the cases related to murder, looting, plundering, rape, kidnapping, unauthorized occupation of land et cetera. Nobody is allowed to oppose the judgments dispensed by the Dewanis. His order is final. It is a feudal administration.

Therefore, everybody has to bear the pang of oppression and repression of the Dewanis. The char peoples have to give half of the produce to the Dewanis as a kind of revenue or ‘forced-tax’. The Dewanis receive it without rendering any labour. The char people cultivate the desert-like char-land by the sweat of their brow and produce crops, vegetables, and fruits. The Dewanis enjoy a major share without any labour.

The char inhabitants get punishment if and when they try to disobey their orders or deny paying their share. Sometimes, the Dewanis evacuate them. They have no right to protest against extortion made by the Dewanis. At the root of these ‘Dewani-tantra’, there is strong support by some political parties, who regulate their activities behind the screen.

On the other hand, the original land-settlers, who lost their permanent lands due to heavy flood and erosion et cetera think that is nothing but to accept that land lost forever and to send family members, specially young men to towns or semi-cities or cities for any work as daily-wage-earner, daily-labour, vegetable-seller or fish-seller, pull-carter, rickshaw-puller, rag-picker, et cetera.

Whatever the reason for this, it will be better to say that the way of resource capture is taking place in the chars. Further, unequal distributions of land along with natural calamities intensify cries related to population et cetera.

If anybody of inquisitive nature intends to pay a visit to the Brahmaputra River Island of Eastern Indian State, Assam, he or she would be astonished to see that on one side of the river Brahmaputra, a few half-naked people anchored their boats and have been fishing for hours, while on the other side a few people are found working for 10 to 12 hours in the muddy fields along with their cows and bulls.

The mystery does not end here. Mystery again miraculously appears, when the visitor comes across hundreds and hundreds of huts made of straw or bamboo sheets measuring 250 to 300 square feet, where thousands and thousands poor and hunger stricken skeletons are passing their lives day after day or year after year. These sheds, where these creatures are compelled to live are not only unhygienic and unhealthy but also like the dens of dead or even a piggery.

The people have no permanent shelter and hence live a sort of nomadic life. The clothes they wear are torn and the food they take has no nutritious value, far below the calories needed. The sheds they are allowed to live in are pathetic. Some of them have a roof and some have not. Therefore, during rainy season, water pours from their roofs, which drenched them severely during heavy shower. They lack the means to light up their shelters and so they are plunged into darkness when night advances. Many of them have to pass their lives in their country-boats. These boats help them to save their possessions during rainy season, when almost all around them is submerged in flood. It is a pathetic life and they have to live it until the flood subsides and new char land emerges from the havoc of ubiquitous flood and devastation.

During the floods, when all the char areas are submerged, it is at this time, it seems that life is on the verge of extinction for the inhabitants of the boats are then found saying to each other, ‘Mian amago keyamater din aisha gechhe’ (our last days of destruction are approaching).

The misery of these people intensifies, when at daytime, the scorching rays of the sun pour upon them to burn them. This again becomes unbearable, when an unruly storm accompanied by thunder and lightning fall upon them to destroy all they have. The Char families, numbering 10 to 12 have an uncertain and chaotic life, when the monsoon breaks the banks and changes the course of the river.

The distress of these riverine char people does not end here. It begins with diversified problems, when the flood subsides and water of the riverine islands reaches the knee-deep level. During this period, they cannot rest, because sand, mud and water are all a problem. Neither farming nor fishing is possible for these unfortunate living beings during this period. Added to this, diseases of various kinds threaten them. In some places the situation turns very serious, when the watery land turns almost desert. Scarcity of food, clothing and shelter haunt these half-fed, naked skeletons.

The people of the river islands never dream of living a peaceful life. Natural and unnatural forces all harass them. The ceaseless rainfall during the rainy season, land erosion, unpredictable lashing of the climate limited socio-economic resources and untamable growth of population always make the life of these people vicious.

Char 1
Pashan Ali Sheikh cutting crops from his flooded corn field at his Majher Char Village of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

The fortunes of char dwellers never smile and even when they dare to smile, it hints at some unforeseen calamity to beset them soon. They struggle from the beginning of the season to the end. During rain, their shelters are devastated, crops are damaged and domestic animals are washed away. During the off-season, when drought appears, it is difficult to meet the daily necessities, which keep their life oiled. They fall prey to hunger and hypocrisy.

The inhabitants of the riverine islands are primarily involved in agriculture. Along with farming, they have small businesses in their own homes. During the off-season, they work as day labourers commonly known as Kamla.

Poverty is a common feature of life here, but they do not show a cold shoulder to their natural festivals. They observe EID, Muharram, and others. During leisure time, they hear and enjoy Television (TV) and Radio – mostly from Bangladesh. Bengali and Bhatiali (ethnic lingual) songs of the former East-Bengal, now called Puraba Banga, dances and other sorts of ethnic entertainment is also part of their cultural life.

“… they aren’t politically indifferent and so they live far from the political turmoil of life. This is because they have no time to spare for this hobby except now and then. This also happens, when political demagogues inveigle them …”, said an eminent Muslim scholar in Assam.

The people of char areas lack of literacy and leadership and so they are often harassed, reproached and even suffer sentences for breaking laws, when they fail to convince corrupt Government officials.

“… there are hundreds and hundreds of chars in our state. We visit these areas either frequently or half-yearly; but, the fact is that it is too difficult for anybody to visit these char areas at a time and to meet up their demands we have to work within the time bound routine. But, it is true that the char people have been living in hardship (like animals) on deserted embankments …”, claims an Assam Government official.

The real fact is that these untold miseries and the exploitation by the Dewanis are the constant companions of these destitute char people. In fact, the people of the char region have to fight constantly with natural calamities as well as Government indifference. In a word, neither the guardians nor the children of these people have any future of their own. The lack of schools and colleges has forced them to live a life of dump and driven cattle. Malnutrition often makes them weak and unfit to work properly and this compels them to surrender themselves to the mercy of fate.

The people of char areas live a sub-human life, because, the Road and Transport System is paralyzed, tottering condition of the Health System, failure of the Drinking Water System, Poor-Education System, there is no Electrification System, bad Sanitary System, lack of Post and Telecommunication or Telegraph System, no job opportunities, poverty, natural calamities, et cetera, which ruins the life-lines of char people.

They neither get any help from the people, Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) nor from the Government. The Government has a scheme for the development of char people. But it is only written on paper and is not implemented. The inhabitants of the char never have any opportunity to see and enjoy a better life. A class of leaders devours all in the name of the CADAGAS(I), which was created between 1985 to 1986 by the Government of Assam State in the name of char area development.

Drinking Water System:

It is another drawback of this desert like char area. In these places, there is no pure drinking water system. The scanty water supply forces these so-called ‘desert-valley’ people to depend upon either hand-tube-wells or well or river water.

Road and Transport System:

Added to these problems are the problem of conveyance. Some char-lands are situated at a long distance and the communication is very stiff. There is water and mud stretching from one char to another.

Char 2
Boat is the only mode of transportation for the peoples of Char Village, Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

Therefore, the inhabitants have to face various troubles while passing through those muddy ways. But, when this becomes difficult, they are required to use Nouka (that is, Country-Boat or Engine Fitted Country Boat -EFCB, which is locally called – Bhutbhuti). This again compels the poor people of the chars drain money and item. They watch and fix their time through the movements of the Sun.

Sometimes, the only way to move from one char to another is by Dingi-Nouka (a very small boat) that might take many hours with the menacing waters beneath and the blazing sun above.

Although they live on agriculture, fishing and vegetable cultivation, the absence of an easy transportation system makes economic activities difficult.

Health System:

There are nothink like a chemist-shop, dispensary, pharmacy, et cetera so they use the Village Kabiraj (that is, quack) occultist. The absence of doctors, compounder, hospitals, pharmacies, Primary Health Centre or Public Health Centres (PHC), or any type of treatment in the chars causes untold problems and as a result of this, many patients suffer a lot and die prematurely, when any epidemic breaks out there.

This leads to them grow up to believe in ‘superstition’ to control diseases. During rainy season or any other critical condition, a char patient, who lives on especially India-Bangladesh International Border areas, goes to Border Security Force of India (BSFI), who helps them in their medical camps et cetera.

In some chars, there is a small PHC, but they are not well equipped. Here doctors and nurses are quite helpless and have few medicines. They offer only prescription. Lack of an ambulance many times forces the patients to face many troubles.

Name In Majuli In other areas Total
A. Public Health Centre

or Primary Health Centre (PHC)

08 44 52
B. Sub Centre 18 114 132

Source : Assam Administrative Reforms Commission, Interim Recommendations, Part IV, Government of India.

Education System:

In education, too this char region is a backward place. There are educated persons but their number is far from being visible. The chief cause of this is the influence of the Dewanis, who control education in char areas.

In fact, the Dewanis do not want the children of char people to have any education. There are schools but there is no good environment for learning. Some Teachers are appointed for these schools, but do not attend to discharge their duties. They hire other people temporarily on payment of a daily wage. These hired persons perform the functions of the teachers in disguise. They play the real role of teachers but the fruits of it are enjoyed by so-called the ‘fake teachers’. They do this in order to carry out their private business, which helps them gain more income.

These fake teachers cheat the Government and misuse public money. People of the char areas often lodge complaints against such miserable conditions of the char institutions. But nothing is done to stop this type of illegal activity. Money and manpower both help them to hush it up.

The condition of primary institutions is also pathetic. The school buildings are broken. The students do not have proper schooling because of the shortage of blackboard, chalk, dusters, books, desks and benches.

The number of teachers is very low. Sometimes, one teacher is found controlling 100 to 150 students. As a result, there is continuous din and bustle in the campus of the school.

This has increased the percentage of literacy but at a very slow degree. It is 2 to 3%. There is also provision for Adult Education in many places, but it is absent in the char regions.

The most common scene in the riverine char areas is the existence of Madrassa (that is, the Islamic Institution for Education). These Madrassas have grown up in the char areas instead of Assamese (that is, regional language of the Eastern Indian state, Assam) medium schools. The Madrassas impart religious education instead of general education. In the Madrassas Arabic is used as a medium and not Assamese. This is not to say these people have become Asamiyan (that is, Assamese-community) in the real sense. But in char inhabitants speak their own language including Assamese fluently; especially they use Bhatiali, the local dialect.

Char 6
A minority Bengali speaking Muslim family, residents of Chalakura Char Village of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

For this, they are known as ‘Na-Assamiyans’ (that is, New-Assamese), but for others they are called Mians who speak various ‘Bengali’ dialects along with local Assamese language when necessary and also give identity as a real Assamese.

In fact, they use both languages simultaneously. Most chars do not have schools or colleges. Child-labour is a common feature in the char areas. I had an opportunity to meet Ramjan Ali (8), Nur Islam (10), Muhammad Nur Mohammed (12). The char children say that their poverty has compelled them to work as daily labourers. They like to read and write like other children, but they can’t. They wish to play and pass time like other boys and girls but cannot.

There are exceptions too. A few boys and girls, who are eager to learn the art of reading and writing, try to go to schools and get educated. They do this by stealing a little time from their daily routine works and serving houses as maid-servants.

The char people generally cannot send their children to school, college or higher educational institutions due to financial stringency.

Name In Majuli In other areas Total
A. Lower Primary (LP) School 423 01,429 01,852
B. Middle English (ME) School 138 436 574
C. High School 90 128 218
D. Higher Secondary (HS) School 04 04 08
E. Colleges 08 10 18

There is great disparity between Majuli and other areas.

One LP School serves 508 people in Majuli but 1592 in other areas.

One ME, High or H.S. School serves 968 people in Majuli and 4005 in other areas.

One College serves 26,875 people in Majuli and 227,500 in other areas.

Source: Assam Administrative Reforms Commission, Interim Recommendations, Part IV, Government of India.

Total Char 2,089 Numbers
Total Char Area 2.39 Lakhs of Hectares
Total Char Village 2,089
Total Char Family (Farmer) 266,787
Total Blocks (Cover) 56
Total Sub-Division (Cover) 21
Total District (Cover) 14
Total Population 21 Lakhs
Total Population Below Poverty Line (BPL) 800,591
Total Educated/Literate 2.86 Lakhs
Total Un-educated/Illiterate 18.14 Lakhs

Source : Char Area Development Authority, Government of Assam State (India)

DHUBRI 313 233,206 25,885 207,321
GOALPARA 187 130,007 11,960 118,047
BONGAIGAON 150 110,215 14,658 95,557
BARPETA 351 275,525 36,333 2,39,192
KAMRUP 148 1,05,687 7,966 87,721
NALBARI 58 62,892 4,968 57,924
DARRANG 121 1,35,876 19,450 116,446
JORHAT 210 1,41,901 45,266 96,635
MORIGAON 41 55,581 4,112 51,469
NAGAON 29 45,161 3,793 41,368
DHEMAJI 95 68,898 9,783 59,115
SONITPUR 118 92,061 12,888 79,173
LAKHIMPUR 182 1,10,200 15,317 94,883
DIBRUGARH 86 33,034 4,690 24,344
TOTAL ASSAM (CHAR AREAS) 2,089 16,00,242 227,069 1,369,195

Source : Char Area Development Authority, Government of Assam State (India)

Char 11
Char Village, Nagbhangi of Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.
Char 8
Char peoples washing their cows in the river after cultivating their paddy fields in a Char Village, Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.
Char 10
Women of the Char Village work as daylabour in the town areas to earn two-meals-a-day for their family in Dhubri district in Assam, Northeast India.

Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman & The Telegraph Contributor-cum-Correspondent from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of South Asia, specially, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar.