Lakhs of people in Assam find themselves displaced from the 2,251 sandbars that dot the river system in the state. Locally called char , these tiny islands formed by the river’s flow are ideal for farming because of the fertile land. However, soil erosion accelerated by climate change is posing new threats to their lives and livelihoods. Now, the farmers have yet another worry to tackle: That of keeping their Indian identity alive, in the face of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) list published in Assam in September. Land documents and updated tax receipts are the most important proof of their citizenship. The Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers of the sandbar districts pay an annual tax for lands eroded by the Brahmaputra.
Around 3,000 people belonging to 760 families in the Chenimari area of Barpeta district have till date moved to Balartari across the river. “In Chenimari, land erosion started in the early 1980s, and by 1996 the whole area was affected. Many families shifted to Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar and Darrang district in the ’90s. A few have settled in the Barpeta road area but we had no option after losing ten bighas (1.6 hectares) of agricultural land,” said Kamal Khan, a former resident of Chenimari.
For the people living here, life is an endless struggle. Forman Khan, another displaced char dweller from Chenimari, said, “We have not been able to grow a single grain on our land for the past 30 years but pay the khajna (land revenue) regularly as the updated tax receipts are proof of our citizenship.”
However, many among the displaced find their names missing from the NRC list because they do not have documents for the agricultural land that has fallen prey to climate change.
Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent photojournalist