Why is riverbank erosion, which continuously affects the poorest and most impoverished sections of the community residing in the Ganga-Brahmaputra flood plains, not classified as a disaster?
The pain that riverbank erosion has caused is immense. My land was eaten away and I had to constantly shift. In my previous village Ramapara, I had to shift 20 times! The river would constantly gnaw at the banks. I had to shift my house constantly to escape the river’s wrath, says Zakir Hussain of Dighir Pathar village in Barpeta District of Assam.
Like Hussain, there are a large number of people who suffer continuous displacement and hardship in Barpeta, which has suffered particularly due to riverbank erosion. In 2007 alone, around 440 hectares of land was eroded and around 76 villages and some 2,500 families were affected by riverbank erosion. The total loss of property was around Rs 33 million.
Around 6 percent of the district is affected by riverbank erosion.
The Brahmaputra River and its tributaries like Beki River cause riverbank erosion in the district. The calamity caused by riverbank erosion in Barpeta is symptomatic to the problem faced across the Ganga-Brahmaputra flood plains from bank erosion. The damage it causes to the poor and vulnerable is no less than that from the annual floods in Assam and several other states in the country.
A serious problem
The intensity of the problem can be gauged from the fact that the total land loss due to bank erosion caused by the Brahmaputra River in Assam alone has ranged between 72.5 sq. km per year and 80 sq. km per year between 1997 and 2007-2008. Further, property worth around Rs 182.24 crore was damaged as a result of bank erosion.
Floods, being classified as a disaster, elicit immediate response from the government in the form of rescue, relief, compensation and sanctions for repair of infrastructure. But hazards like riverbank erosion that continuously affect the poorest and most impoverished sections of the community residing in the Ganga-Brahmaputra flood plains, are not classified as a disaster.
There is a pressing need for declaring riverbank erosion as a disaster.
The action on bank erosion is currently restricted to bank strengthening through reinforced concrete or bamboo porcupines. However, one needs to take a people-centric approach to address the problems emanating from riverbank erosion that would contribute to resilience building of the erosion-affected people. The provision of compensation and rehabilitation along with an emphasis on human resource development among erosion-affected population through skill-building initiatives will help.
The process of erosion
Riverbank erosion is a natural phenomenon that results in the removal of material from the banks of a river. Most rivers in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin are essentially braided alluvial channels that cause erosion through a combination of three different processes. The pre-weakening process involves repeated cycles of wetting and drying of the bank, which prepares it for erosion.
Thereafter, two processes begin to operate simultaneously. The particles and aggregates are directly taken away by fluvial action and subsequently the bank succumbs, resulting in a mass failure that involves the collapse, slumping and sliding of material from the bank and into the channel.
While the phenomenon is natural, the impact it has is disastrous on the life and livelihoods of the riparian community settled on or close to the unstable banks of these channels. The resettlement is often an involuntary decision as the land gets eroded. Given the impoverished state of the riparian population, the resettlement happens close to the river as land prices increase as one moves farther away from the river.
In a study on riverbank erosion-affected families in 44 villages in Barpeta in 2015-16, we found that the loss of land was the most important loss faced by the families.
Land, the most important asset possessed by any rural household, forms the basis of economic and social identity of the household. Bank erosion renders the households landless and homeless, and families face involuntary displacement.
Their hitherto primary occupation, agriculture, takes a fatal blow. While development-induced displacement tends to displace people once, families affected by bank erosion are subjected to multiple displacements.
The loss of land and the resulting displacement also reduces livestock holding. Livestock is usually seen as a liquid asset on which the rural household can fall back during times of crisis. But as agricultural land is lost to the river, the availability of fodder is also reduced. Hence, keeping livestock becomes an expensive proposition.
Similarly, the loss of homestead land also means a loss of small water bodies located in the homestead, where riverine population would otherwise engage in fishery for self-consumption. We found that post-displacement the consumption of fish drops among the affected population.
Landlessness among the bank erosion-affected community breeds a certain kind of occupational insecurity. As people are forced to move out of agriculture and get engaged in labour or small business, there is an increased demand for family labour. The demand increases with the increase in the size of the household. The average family size among the erosion-affected people in Barpeta was seven, compared with a national average of five.
In the absence of proper skills and training, a large number of the affected people, who are also young, are forced to enter the unorganised labour market and migrate. This disrupts the normal functioning of a household. Children are often the prime victims of this because they have to drop out from schools following the relocation of the household.
Apart from requisite skills, lack of access to cheap credit also constrains the erosion-affected towards undertaking superior non-farm occupations. In Barpeta, the credit gap is usually filled by moneylenders, who provide credit to people at exorbitantly high rates of interest, often as high as 40 percent on the principal amount. Reduction of farm-based livelihoods, limited option for superior non-farm livelihoods and lack of access to formal credit keeps the erosion-affected household in a state of impoverishment.
As seen among the bank erosion-affected people in Bangladesh, affected households in Barpeta also fall back on the informal social networks of the community (colloquially called samaj) during times of crisis. The samaj plays an important role in helping the affected family perform social obligations like funerals, marriages, in providing a collective identity and in facilitating collective action towards combating the bank erosion through constructive works like construction of crude embankments with locally available resources or the repair of bamboo bridges.
Dealing with the disaster
Given the kind of impoverishment that riverbank erosion imprints on the life and livelihoods of riparian communities, it is important to go beyond the usual engineering-centric bank strengthening activity and to build an action plan that puts affected people at the centre of the planning process. A series of actions are required for this.
Firstly, riverbank erosion must be classified as a disaster. Currently, it is not and the affected population is not entitled to get any relief through compensation. Recent modifications in the guidelines for the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) provision the state government to use around 10 percent of the SDRF to provide relief to people who are affected by “disasters within the local context of the state”. Since 2015, the Government of Assam has also designed a scheme for rehabilitation of erosion-affected people. There is a need that riverbank erosion, like floods, should automatically qualify as a disaster and that this should not depend on the whims of the state government.
Secondly, emphasis needs to be placed on skill development to harness the demographic dividend that exists in such areas. Skill enhancement is particularly important among this section of the relatively young population because skills are an asset that serially displaced community can continue to possess, unlike other assets like land and livestock.
Thirdly, provisions should be made to improve access to formal sources of credit that would enhance and not constrain the developmental process. One could use informal social networks for starting formal groups of credit circulation through the creation of self-help groups (SHGs).
Disclaimer: This article, authored by Sayanangshu Modak and Nirmalya Choudhury, was first published in VillageSquare.in. The views expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect that of YourStory.