Improved water governance (and rights)
in the Brahmaputra:
Civil society (and citizen’s) responses
Department of Geography
Political ecologies of disasters
• How do political economic processes, state and non-state
actors, and biophysical nature interact and (re-)produce
disasters and hazardous landscapes?
• Floods and riverbank erosion in Assam, with a particular
focus in Majuli river island
- Role of the Indian state in the production of hazardscapes in
Majuli and such geographies
- How do the local people respond? With what implications?
- The livelihoods transformations and their spatialities
“We had our best times here before the embankments […] came up. Back in
those days, there were still floods during the monsoon season, but the
floodwater was evenly distributed in the island, and there were also fishes,
and other organic materials that came along. We did not have any scarcity of
food or fishes. But after the embankments were built, our beels and pukhuris
(the wetlands) stopped receiving enough water, and there is hardly enough
fish coming in these days. […] The embankments had also destroyed our
agriculture since the lands do not get sufficient and timely water any more.
[…] Moreover, with the breaching of embankments, floods started to wreak
havoc, which was not the case earlier. Before, the water used to come in
gracefully and leave the island sooner.”
Puniram Kutum, Sumoimari village
“During the monsoon season, embankments are like atom bombs.”
Gopal Hazarika, Salmora
Riverbank Erosion in Majuli: Key Data
Area of the island (sq. km)
• Average annual rate of erosion (1917-2001): 3.43 sq. km
• Highest annual rate of erosion (1996-2001): 6.42 sq. km.
(Sarma 2013; Sarma and Phukan 2004).
Why riverbank erosion and Majuli make a
• Riverbank erosion as a distinct agrarian crisis:
It means the disappearance of the land itself – and along
with it the loss of homestead, agriculture, social relations,
traditional organization of mutual reliance, cultural
associations, and even the traces of one’s history!
• “slow disaster” and its implications
January 8, 2013: Dul Hazarika, in front of the family’s home at Salmora
February 16, 2013: Dul and his brother standing on the spot of their old house
July 25, 2013: the family’s new home – still under construction
Chronicles of the Hazarika family’s displacement
A large house where 5 brothers (including Dul’s
father Bhola Hazarika) and their parents lived
together was washed away.
The specific year of erosion/displacement was
The family was displaced twice this year.
After the 1970 erosion, the family moved to a
place by the embankment where they had the
longest stay till date.
From this year on, the sons – the second
generation – took over the responsibility of
shifting and rebuilding their house.
The most recent erosion : twice thus far
“We have been like the ‘aghoris’ (the nomads). We are
living the life of the ‘aghoris’. […] We do not have a
permanent home … always moving from one location
to another. Life can’t be more miserable.”
Bhola Hazarika (84), Salmora
What happened to the civil society?
• Some of the important civil society groups in Majuli are:
Majuli Suraksha Samanyay Manch (MSSM), the satras, AASU,
• Submission of memorandums is the dominant activity,
combining with rare instances of sit-ins and other forms of
• Lack of concerted, long-drawn strategies and activities. Why?
• The issue of knowledge: whose knowledge? What truth?
“the state and ‘‘its’’ science wields overwhelming authority in creating a
singular environmental ‘‘truth,’’ and excludes from legitimate discourse
other types of knowledge about the environment and the practices of
natural resource use by the resource users themselves” (Blaikie and
Muldavin 2004: 542)
Civil society (contd.)
Conflicts of interests?
Co-option by the state and/or capital?
Lack of leaderships?
How can we think more innovatively and find ways of
both empowering citizens and forge alliances across
and beyond organizations/institutions?
Need for a discursive shift?
• Is it an issue of “governance” alone, or of “rights”
too? What does a governance discourse restrict?
• Does a rights discourse open up new political
avenues – in terms of actions from below as well as