Islands in the river

  • 30/10/1994

Islands in the river A NOMADIC existence runs contrary to the general notion of security, which is popularly identified with geographic stasis - staying put in one place. But then there are 2 kinds of nomads: those who choose to wander, society's nuts; and those who have no other choice. It is often only the latter kind who come to a symbiotic understanding with raw nature.

The river nomads of Assam have adopted a lifestyle that is amphibian enough to seem almost impossibly alien. Punting muscularly from outcrop to outcrop, and missing squalls by inches, these itinerants wander not in search of pasture but for islands in the mighty Brahmaputra which rumbles for 2,880 km through China, India and Bangladesh before debouching into the Bay of Bengal.

The riverine islands, locally Taking to the called chars, provide temporary river refuge to these wanderers, fertile Where people and the Brahmaputra live and let livo-,i land for cultivation and food for their animals. The nomads recog nise each outcrop: the temporary,peacetime islands those that go ahmap. River erennial under during the state high floods from the handful shelter.

floods having been unkind to them in living memory. The chars that dot the 720 km-long course that Brahmaputra runs through Assam vary greatly in size A shape. The recently constituted Assam State Char Ar Development Authority has identified as many as 1,200 J as having some degree of physical and human significance.

The sandy chars soil, enriched by regular humus depa from the river, has favoured the gro,,vth of tall, sharp fx (2-3 metres); along with the occasional temporary mar- they provide a unique natural habitat for both local a migratory birds and animals.

The first settlers of the chars wer6 from Bangladesh. emigrated from the erstwhile East Pakistan at the begirm of this century. The similarity between the riverine ecolaqy of the Brahmaputra and that of Bangladesh proper probably Arracted landless peasants from that country. They had notham To lose by taking to the river. Concomitantly, some Nepali Sraziers, after being informed primarily by the Nepali soldiers vskruited by the British about the existence of luxuriant grassbnd along the Brahmaputra, also forayed into the char areas. Vb ij t is known is that the process of human inhabitation of WbIC Juirs began from the western end of the Brahmaputra valhm and gradually spread eastward to cover first the lower and Own the central part of the valley.

I Nt present, almost all the permanent chars of the maputra river are topped with limpet-like human settletN. The dwellers have adopted static economic pursuits, ,:ially agriculture and fishing, but in tune the peculiar ecology of the chars.

A perennial problem for the inhabitants of Juirs is limited territory - and never any pects for expansion. The chars are slightly ex in the middle, which makes their bowl for habitation. Usually, susceptibility to - depth of - flooding increases towards the phery of a char. As the chars are often comelv submerged during high floods, the itants have no alternative but to build their on earthen or wooden platforms.

k-onsequently, in the char areas, one fre th- encounters scattered heaps of earth d for the purpose of erecting the bastis mesteads). The Nepali immigrants prefer .-,- ghars (houses built on wooden or bamboo *ornis) to building on what they consider vulnerable earthen platforms.

The plots of land accommodating the bastis normally lie perpendicular to the channels that zig-zag across the 'char. This alignment enables the households to use the river water that is directed through the channels for washing, boating and fishing and encourages the growth of a logical, linear pattern of settlement that does not obstruct the ferocious current of flood water.

The char-dwellers are poor people, who are forced to change their settlement sites mainly because the surging Brahmaputra saws away relentlessly at the banks of the islands, often eroding them into little more than sandbanks for the next season. The nomads, with their traditionally light baggage, drift in their small country boats from island to island in search of habitable and cul tivable land.

The Muslim immigrants have brought with them the riparian technology of their Bangladeshi ancestors, perfected over centuries of water-borne commerce and social life. The roofs of their houses, sloped steeply to enable rainwater to drain off quickly, are made of locally available thatch. The frames of the walls are made either of bamboo or dry jute stems over which a thin layer of mud is plastered. Except for the matabbors (group leaders), whose eminence allows them to own 2-3 relatively firm houses, sometimes with expensive tin roofs, the other families live in a single-thatch house, attached to which is a small shed for domesticated animals.

Flood waters damage, completely or partially, many of the houses on the periphery of the chars every year. The chardwellers, therefore, dismantle their houses just before the occurrence of high flo'ods - which they can predict with uncanny accuracy - and erect them temporarily over embankments or wide, raised public platforms. Sometimes, families prefer to stay, along with their domesticated animals, on rafts made of banana stems kept either inside or close to the inundated houses for days together during the floods.

Despite the risks and discomfort that floods bring, the river nomads seem to welcome them. As one said, "Floods are our life, they sustain us. If they do not occur, who will make our soil fertile, multiply the fish population, strengthen the growth of baodhan (deep-water rice) and, above all, keep our poor environment clean?"

The houses of the Nepali people, on the other hand, are relatively spacious with separate rooms for youngsters and elders. The open space of about 2 metres below the platforms of their chang ghars is generally used as an open animal shed during winter.

The chars of the Brahmaputra with their physical vulnerability and cultural nascency present an environmental situation quite distinct from the rest of the Brahmaputra valley region. And the dwellers have adopted a unique and sustainable cropping practice suitable to their peculiar habitat.

'Radical' ecofarming
The farming system in the chars is characterised by traditional methods of multiple cropping and interculture. This is traditional (but nevertheless 'radical') ecofarming. The plant biomass, weeds, animal dung and rainwater are constantly integrated into the farming process, following a unique crop-calendar developed by the peasants themselves keeping in mind the sweeping seasonal changes of the valley.

Floods are taken into account while deciding the cropping pattern. As most of the chars are inundated during the summer, the river nomads select the periods of sowing and harvesting so that the flood damage is reduced to a minimum.

Soon after the flood waters recede, the char-dwellers start preparing land for cultivation of rabi (winter) crops such as lentil, blackgram and mustard rapeseed. The cultivation of these crops continues from late October to late November, and even early December. The main rabi season, however, spans November to March. The cultivation of ahu rice, which is the main grain crop of the chars, starts in March and is i harvested in July just before the floods wash everything away.

Char-dwellers do not generally grow the same crop on, plot year after yeAr. They often follow a suitable system of CPM rotation. For example, the plot used for growing ahu rice dii year would, for the next 2-3 years, be used to cultivate rd crops. Leguminous plants such as sone, dhumsa and Lew which have the special ability to fix nitrogen in the sod, are grown as rabi crops. This practice considerably enhances yield of the subsequent crops.

The peasants of the chars areas put much of their labom into raising a number of rabi crops from the same plot an agricultural year, since the kharif (summer) season any case, watery and spartan.

Tradition thrives here
The peasants mostly use crude technology and a traditk variety of seeds that are cheap and easily available. Traditic agriculture pratice is well-suited to the simple skills of peasants, their lifestyle, ronment and the motk production. The dwellers are usually uni ested in cultivating hi yielding varieties experience seems to taught them that HYVS v4'ry vulnerable to insects diseases, and kept he only by regular - and, their case, unpragmatic doses of insecticides.

I Interestingly enough, traditional varieties of such as hasan gaonbu Ka&manik, ghunz saithadhan grown by peasants of the chars are well-suited to their pec ecological condition t their yield is often hi than that Of HYV Moreover, the use of simple implements such bidha for the proper spa of broadcast rice and removing weeds plays a sig. nificant role in optim g the yield.

In spite of their will to survive, the socio-economu life of the char-dwellers is extremely hard. It is only the blew ings of nature that have so far nourished them. They are cut too from the benefits of modern science and technology. Eyes today, the sound of machines would be alien to them. The extraordinary quiet of the river is only occasionally broken noisy, collective haats (periodic markets).

---Abani Kumar Bhagabati is a reader in the department of geography, Guwahati University.

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