As Millions Devastated By Assam Floods, Double Tragedy For Evicted Bengali-Speaking Muslims

27 Jun 2022 14 min read  Share

Nine months after they were violently forced out of their villages by Assam’s Bharatiya Janata Party government, hundreds of Bengali-speaking Muslims families have lost their makeshift homes to unprecedented floods that have killed over 100 people and affected five million. Their eviction took away their land, crops and savings, making it impossible for them to withstand the climate crisis even for a short duration, entirely dependent on relief supplies that never arrived.

Manura Khatun navigates the flood waters in Dhalpur on a raft, looking for food to feed her family, 21 June 2022/ PHOTOGRAPHS BY MAHIBUL HOQUE

Dhalpur, Assam: As Mojiran Nesa lay on a wrinkled bed sheet on the ground, staring at the plastic tube of the drip bought from a local “medicine man”, Sajiran Nesa, 14, hovered close by, terrified of what would happen if her 38-year-old mother did not survive the diarrhoea plaguing her in the middle of the unprecedented floods in Assam. 

Life for the teenager has been incredibly difficult since her family was forced to leave their village in September last year, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government evicted hundreds of Bengali-speaking Muslim families from Dhalpur in central Assam, claiming they were illegal settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh. 

Nine months later, on June 15, the makeshift houses they made from tin and jute on a different piece of land, a kilometre from where they used to live, were washed away in the floods. 

Mojiran, her husband, Md Shaban Ali, an agricultural labourer, and their four children were holed up at the Kirakara Anchalik high school, around 3km from the temporary settlement, when Article 14 met them on June 21, along with 20 other families who had fled with a few clothes, some rice and pulses to live on, and documents such as their PAN cards, and the print out of where their name appears in the National Register of Citizens  (NRC). 

“My mother needs a doctor and proper treatment. Her health has not improved,” said Sajiran, her voice breaking. “Neither a medical team nor anyone from the government has come to see us.” 


The primary healthcare centre (PHC) is only 50 m away from where Mojiran lay in the high school, under a tin roof, but has been closed since the eviction. 

Babul Hussain, a 23-year-old farmer, who was evicted last year, and whose house was washed away in the floods, said neither a doctor nor a pharmacist had come to the PHC since the eviction and there was no one to dispense medicines. 

“When I spoke to a nurse at the PHC, she said the key to that pharmacy room was with the pharmacist who was absent and all the medicines had expired,” he said. 


Climate Effects, Compounded By Govt Action

While the people of the char—riverine sandbars in Assam—move to higher ground during the annual floods or weather it out, the intensity of the flooding compounded by the eviction is making it impossible for the Dhalpur evictees to withstand extreme weather events.

Such intense flooding, in all likelihood, experts told us is induced by climate change and the impact of poorly planned dams and embankments on the ecology, but their ability to withstand such events, even for a short duration, has been eroded by recent government action, making them entirely dependent on government relief and medical supplies to survive. 

Without the land where they used to grow paddy and crops like brinjal, tomato, okra, corn, jute, and peanuts, the evictees have no source of income or savings to buy food or medicines. When we met them on 21 June, almost a week after their makeshift homes were submerged, they were running out of food and water, with no relief or medicines in sight. 

As they waited with their identity cards ready for perusal, the persecuted Bengali-speaking Muslims pejoratively referred to as Miya, said that even with the devastation around them and the staggering hardships they were facing, they were nervous the authorities would say they were Bangladeshis. Given their reliance on government relief, without any means of sustaining themselves, they feared a false allegation could make a difference between life and death. 

“After selling our crops, we used to save money for the floods. Until relief materials arrived every year, we used that money to fetch ourselves the essentials,” said  Babul. “But without any land to cultivate, there is nothing we can do.” 

After the floods,  Babul was forced to sell his cows because there was no fodder to feed him, and his lamb was washed away.  

“We are completely dependent on relief now,” he said. “If it arrives we will survive, otherwise, only Allah knows what will happen.”  


'Barbaric & Inhuman Behaviour Of The BJP Government ’

Dhalpur in Darrang district, around 55 km northeast of Guwahati, made news on September 23 when the Assam government evicted close to  1,000 Bengali-speaking Muslim families to make way for a Rs 9.6-crore agricultural project

When they resisted with sticks, the protests turned violent and the Assam police shot and killed a man and a minor. Forty-three people and 14 policemen were injured. A video of a photographer stomping on the body of the dead Muslim man Mainal Hoque went viral. 

The government’s claim that the Muslims living there were Bangladeshis who had grabbed land from indigenous Assamese was proved false by a 2021 study conducted by the Centre for Minority Studies, Research and Development and the Assam & BTAD Citizen Rights Forum, a think-tank and civil society organisations, which found they had the admissible documents to prove citizenship, with many names on the NRC.

Now they are encountering the devastating floods in Assam that have claimed the lives of 118 people so far, including four children,  with 28 of 35 districts and over 33 lakh people affected, according to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA). 

Media reports said that 32 districts and 5.5 million people have been affected.  According to the state meteorological department, Assam has recorded 556.2 mm from 1 June to 22 June 2022—89% excessive rainfall compared to the normal range of 294.9 mm recorded from 1 June to 22 June 2021, affecting the whole state, with the lower riparian districts of the Brahmaputra, from Darrang to Dhubri districts among the worst affected. 

While the Assam government has promised resettlement of the evicted families, Zamsher Ali, founder of the Centre for Minority Studies, Research and Development, a Guwahati-based think tank, said that not a single family had been rehabilitated by the Assam government since the eviction, and they had been deprived of any government beneficiary schemes as well as minimum supply of any humanitarian aid.

"Even in this devastating flood situation, when all the dwellings of the evicted people are under deep water and they have lost their livelihood, they have not been supplied even a grain or medical assistance," said Ali. "It is not only a concerning situation but barbaric and inhuman behaviour of the BJP government towards the evicted people."


‘This Is Unethical’

While the state has mobilized the army, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for rescue operations and relief, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s response has been criticised as woefully inadequate, seemingly disinterested in the acute suffering in his state, and far more invested in managing the political crisis triggered by a coup against the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray's government in Maharashtra. 

Last week, Sarma said the BJP government had neither the political courage nor economic power to solve Guwahati’s flood problem, but they could try if people cooperated. He also welcomed the rebel lawmakers from Maharashtra (staying at the luxury Radisson Blu hotel), saying the flood-hit state needed funds. 

Noting that it was “not climate change but a climate crisis”, Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor and head of the political science department of Gauhati University, Assam, said the relief and rehabilitation have also been very poor. 

“There was no preparedness to mitigate such a calamity. The incumbent government has been in a hyper electoral victory mood—from the municipalities to the council elections. The self-glorification of achievements made the incumbent government incapable of foreseeing such a challenge and preparing accordingly,” he said.

On the Maharashtra lawmakers staying at the Radisson Blu in Guwahati, Dutta said, “This is unethical.”

“When the people of the state have been suffering from one of the worst calamities and struggling for life and safety, allowing a group of power-hungry politicians of another state to camp in the state's capital and making that the attention of the media is indeed an insult to a sense of human dignity,” he said. 


Northeast India Likely To Encounter Floods and Droughts In The Same Season 

The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body that advances global knowledge of climate change, released in April 2022  forecasted that “the Ganga-Brahmaputra region also faces the threat of increased frequency of flood events.”

“In recent decades, floods have become a cycle of disasters due to a combination of climate change, ill-planned dam building and embankments that stop minor floods but fail to prevent the bigger ones,” said Rahul Mahanta, an associate professor of physics at the Cotton University in Guwahati, who is leading a research team in mapping rainfall and climate change in the region. 

“The Assam government feels it has a solution for everything and does not require consultation or advice,” said Mahanta. “The government only talks to engineers and not to social scientists. The local communities have no environmental democracy. They cannot make any decision on the river.”

In addition to climate change, experts attributed the floods to 14% loss of forest cover in the past 20 years, the ecological impact of changing land-use patterns,  increase in agriculture causing more soil erosion, bank erosion, and ill-planned dam building and embankments. 

Nayan Sharma, a distinguished professor at Shiv Nadar University, and an adjunct professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, with expertise in water management and river engineering, said that “unless holistic remedial actions are comprehensively implemented based on a strict scientific cause-effect approach, the intensity of flood erosion process in Assam will progressively assume increasing severity in near future.” 

“Such a very grim alarming scenario will badly devastate the economy of Assam by making the government spend humongous public funds only on apparently ‘unproductive’ flood-erosion disaster management,” he said. 


‘We Are Going To Starve If No Help Arrives Soon’

In addition to mounting health problems, families we met at the high school were also running out of food. 

On 21 June, Hanif Ali, in his late 60s, said that no supplies had reached them and the rice they had would only last for two days. 

“We are going to starve if no help arrives soon,” he said, sitting next to his 38-year-old daughter Majiron. “My daughter is ill and can only eat boiled rice. What will I feed her?”

In a one-room shelter at Bheti Bazar, next to the high school, 67-year-old Mohammad Kolimuddin and his family of eight are eating one meal every day and they have almost run out of provisions.  “My daughter said that she was hungry to some people who came to the market. They gave us two jackfruits. That’s what we have,” he said. 

As Kolimuddin spoke of getting evicted from his village last year and losing his makeshift house in the floods last week, his 13-year-old daughter Tasiran Nesa said, “We protected our documents and have kept them safe. If we lose the documents, we will be made Bangladeshis directly.” 


‘Extreme Events Are Becoming More Intense’

Studies have shown that extreme downpours are increasing as the world warms. 

Mahanta said that he and his researchers have found an increase in the extreme rainfall events starting from the 1970s which became more prominent after 1990. They found the frequency of 15 cm in a day rainfall and 20 cm a day rainfall increasing, even as the overall rainfall in the season has decreased or stayed static across years, meaning very intense precipitation within a short period.  

“Extreme events are becoming more intense over the region. We also found a change in the drop sizes. The drops are getting larger, the larger the raindrops, it will add to more soil erosion” he said. 

Mahanta said that one explanation for heavier downpours comes from basic physics: warmer air holds more moisture, increasing the possibility that a particular storm would produce more precipitation. Given that the earth has warmed by a little over 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century when societies began releasing large amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, Mahanta said the air can hold 7% extra moisture for every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature. 

Furthermore, Mahanta noted that one effect in summer and autumn is that high-altitude, globe-circling air current is weakening and slowing down, which means that storms have to move more slowly. 

“The storm that caused the recent flooding was practically stationary. The combination of more moisture and a stalled storm system can lead to extra-heavy rains over a given area,” he said. 


‘I Don't Know When We Will Get Any Help’

While many families, living at the temporary camp since the eviction, moved to high grounds like the high school, others have no option but to live along with the speeding flood waters in the hope of protecting their makeshift homes.

When Article 14 visited on 21 June, most houses had water as high as the windows and some up to the roof, and around 200  families were still there. To stay alive, those remaining had built a platform over their asbestos or tin roofs for all the family members.

Sprawled on the wooden planks over their house with a tin roof, Mariam Khatun, her husband and their three children were stuck staring at the watery remains of the camp they were hoping would be a second home after the eviction, while they were running out of food. 

Showing us how narrow the wooden platform under her was, 30-year-old Mariam said, “I cannot sit straight. My back hurts and I cannot even stretch. I have a cough, cold and fever. I don’t know when we will get any help.”

“All I can do is watch the water,” she said while telling us that she has no no source of drinking water. 

The tube wells installed after the evictions are underwater, forcing people to drink the flood waters of the Brahmaputra, highly silted and muddy.

In phone conversations with the evictees, Ali, from the Centre for Minority Studies, said he heard them crying and saying they had not received a grain of food or medicines. "It is really an unbearable situation," he said. "If the state failed to perform its duty to its citizens, history will never forgive them."

Unable to move to higher ground or even build a platform, Manura Khatun and her three daughters moved into a neighbour’s half-submerged tin shack. During the day, Manura navigates the flood waters in a raft she has built from borrowed timber, looking for food for her family. 

“The five of us are eating one meal a day but I'm running out of everything we had stocked,” she said. 

‘The Floods Have Become Worse’

Over the centuries, people living close to the many rivers of the Brahmaputra basin have learnt to live with minor floods, building their houses on stilts to let the floodwaters flow below and they profited from the fertile silt left behind when the floodwaters receded, Mahanta said.

In 1980, the government started planning big dams (flood control is one of the reasons for building dams), but in recent years, Mahanta pointed out that dam managers have been forced to open the gates every monsoon to save the structures—and that leads to a more ruinous flood pulse than would have occurred otherwise, and dams also stop silt.

“The current Assam government vowed to oppose big dams just after it was voted to power. But since then, it has done nothing to keep that promise,” said Mahanta, adding, “in the past 60 years due to the embankments, the floods have become worse.”

Mahanta noted that the authorities’ default option every year is to build more embankments while they repair and strengthen old ones, only to see them washed away again. He also said that embankments cannot stop the floodwaters from submerging the land, but they do stop the floodwaters from receding back into the rivers,  and the land remains waterlogged much longer than it would have otherwise.

“The government has invested so much into interventions that the people have lost their traditional methods to cope with the river. These infrastructures don’t improve the situation because the people continue to suffer. It is just a political play,” said Mahanta. “The core problem with the government is that it does not have a holistic understanding of the ecological landscape. Any solution you introduce to the river basin without studying the ecology of the area will be unsuccessful.”

Dutta, head of the political science department at Gauhati University, said the movement for the cumulative ecological impact assessment before constructing and commissioning the dams, had not been taken seriously by successive governments, and both the dams and the embankments have embedded class interests. 

“Embankments were planned as a strategy to absorb the interests of the emerging middle class, the contractors to be precise, apart from mitigating the flood,” he said, adding that while embankments have served many purposes, but “failed to provide sustainable solutions in terms of mitigating the floods and accompanying challenges.”

(Mahibul Hoque is an independent journalist based out of Assam. He tweets at @H_Mahibul)