Blog post by Prarthana Sen, a member of the Indian Association for Asian and Pacific Studies (IAAPS) and former researcher at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). 

In the Brahmaputra valley, a region situated between hill ranges of the eastern and north-eastern Himalayan range in Eastern India, the livelihoods of the people are mostly dependent on agricultural practices of some kind and are closely connected to the river. As the river erodes vast tracts of fertile lands, a plethora of agrarian communities become immediately deprived of their sources of income. Though this happens every year, rehabilitative measures within the region remain inadequate to date. 

With time, heavy encroachments and large-scale deforestation have led to heavy siltation, worsening the impacts of river bank erosion within the Brahmaputra valley. In addition to the loss of livelihoods, heavy erosion has led to the loss of infrastructure and ecosystems, and to contaminated drinking water. Consequently, internally displaced persons (IDPs) have had no option but to move in search of income.

Assam’s char-dwellers

Inhabitation in the chars can be traced back to the period of British rule in Assam. At a time when Assam’s tea industry suffered due to an overproduction slump, decline in the growth of cultivable lands, and the British administration remained unsuccessful in their efforts to popularise the cultivation of jute among local peasants in the fertile riverine plains of the Brahmaputra, the colonial state sought newer avenues for revenue collection. It was during this time that the British administration encouraged Muslim cultivators in East Bengal to migrate to, and cultivate the chars, so as to generate a huge amount of revenue from the wastelands. 

Thereafter, a large number of cultivators from the districts of Mymensingh and Rangpur began to migrate to the chars. Gradually, what was once seen as a small-scale migration assumed the form of a large-scale spill over into the Brahmaputra valley. With time, char-dwellers fell prey not just to the environmental distress and the financial insecurity that it brought forth, but also faced hardships due to their religious and ethnic identities within the state. Char-dwellers are often perceived as intruders in Assam’s economic and cultural space. 

Riverine areas on the Brahmaputra are known as ‘char’ in the local languageEvery year, chars get partially or fully submerged in the time of monsoons, forcing its residents to seek sanctuary elsewhere. As per the Socio-Economic Survey 2003-04, 14 districts in Assam house 2,251 char villages, which in turn accommodate 24,90,097 people. This seems to be the most up to date data available on the total number of char-dwellers within the state. 

A study on the Beki River, a tributary of Brahmaputra, which was featured in The Economic and Political Weekly in 2012, revealed that 77% of households in the Barpeta district suffered from land erosion, and 94% of the households lost their lands. This left the char-dwellers with no other option but to migrate in search of newer avenues for income. 

Enter, the NRC factor 

Many of the displaced char-dwellers find themselves missing from India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) list that recognises all the ‘legal’ citizens of the country. A report by The Hindu Business Line reveals that many lack valid documents for the agricultural lands as they had been lost or damaged during the time of heavy floods. Further, as per the NRC process, a person can utilise pre-1971 land ownership documents to prove their links to an ancestor who appears to be the landowner in the document. However, things become uncertain when the land itself ceases to exist. From 2017 onwards, the Assam government had decided to not levy taxes on those lands that had been lost by erosion. Thus, documents proving one’s ownership over a land that has been lost due to erosion are no longer valid in the eyes of the Assam authorities.

To remedy this situation, one could learn valuable lessons from the Kerala floods. After hundreds of documents got lost or damaged in the wake of the Kerala floods, a technology-powered drive under the Digital India Programme was conducted to retrieve documents like ration cards, marriage and birth certificates. Thereafter, these documents were stored in DigiLocker accounts that had been opened for the aggrieved. While the Digital Assam Initiative functions as a subset of this flagship programme, such facilities remain absent from its agenda.  

As char-dwellers are compelled to move to newer areas where they remain unwelcome, they are perceived as ‘illegal immigrants’. Also, the idea that they ‘threaten’ Assamese identity, land and culture is found deep-rooted in the state’s popular imagination. Even when studies suggest that climate catastrophic events are leading drivers of human mobility in the areas of India’s Northeast, and highlight how the flood situation in Assam has simply worsened over time, the prevailing ‘illegal immigrant’ perception emerges as a bottleneck with regard to any efforts that can be taken up by the government of the day to render assistance to the displaced flood victims. 

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma himself went on to state that since there is growing debate concerning the settlement of the char-dwellers of Brahmaputra and other such rivers in the state, the government shall be refraining from taking any such decision at present, and that no eviction or settlement shall be taking place in the chars. Thus, it can be seen how strong correlations between climate change and flooding have come to be underplayed in Assam’s illegal migration discourse. 

Way Forward 

In a 2021 report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), Assam’s vulnerability was found to be among the highest in the country concerning extreme climate events like floods and droughts, and the state had very low adaptive capacities for dealing with the same. Despite this, several victims of Assam’s climate change-induced problems refuse to move to other places– a mostly uncovered and under-discussed aspect concerning reports or studies that focus on environment-induced displacements around the world. While a large chunk of char-dwellers opt to migrate for earning their livelihoods and survival, many choose to remain or return to the erosion-battered lands.

Land ownership in India can be proved through certain documents. They include a record of rights (RoR) involving details of the land holder, size of the plot area and its revenue rate; a registered sale deed proving that the property has been sold, and taxes for selling the concerned land have been paid; survey documents demarcating a property’s area and its boundaries, also proving that it is listed in government records; and lastly, property tax receipts. 

All these documents can only be generated if a land survey has been conducted. Since the Assam government has not conducted a land survey in the chars since the 1960s, it has failed to provide any land pattas (or a government-issued documents in recognition of the owner of a certain plot of land) for the char-dwellers. Land records lend the most important proof of this vulnerable category’s citizenship status, since land records are instrumental in proving their legacy claim as mandated by India’s NRC process.With many still living in the chars, there is a need for an immediate survey for a proper estimation of their numbers to provide the required legal documentation. 

Till such time, the Assam government could furnish the aggrieved char-dwellers, both who remain within the chars or have migrated to other parts of the state, with IDP certificates recognising them as displaced persons and guaranteeing state protection in keeping with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement . This enables the affected persons to immediately avail of government benefits in the wake of natural disasters within the chars. Long-term solutions may include sending special teams to the chars to inform its dwellers about the minutiae of the citizenship verification processes– concerning data from the Socio-Economic Survey 2003-04 showed that 92% of women and 81% of men in the chars were illiterate. Speedy and easy access to the foreigners’ tribunals must be ensured for those who find themselves missing from the NRC list, along with the provision of free-of-cost legal aid. 

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