Displaced Lives: The face of Un-Managed Disasters

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A Mising woman stares into the rising river as she stands infront of her house, holding her child in a Lower Majuli village. May, 2009.

“For even as you have home-comings in your twilight, so has the wanderer in you, the ever distant and alone. Your house is your larger body.” ~ K. Gibran on Houses

 

Few days with family or friends outside, most of us feel the need to get back home after the honeymoon period gets over. That is but natural. But what about those lives who have no place to call home, one that is of considerable permanence? Those families which involuntarily move from a house to a road to an embankment and then back to the road, all in search of safety, a shelter, a home to call their own? Displacement then becomes the order of the day.

Assam is a state that is tormented with multiple disasters including floods, storms, earthquakes, pogroms, with an average of at least seven out of twelve months in a year. One of the main causes of impoverishment of the rural areas of Assam has been the recurrent floods and river-bank erosion. We do get informed about the economic losses and losses of life, i.e. more or less of losses that are tangible in nature through our much revered state and local media platforms (with a tsunami of social media platforms in the last few years). However, most of us do not give heed to the kind of thoughts that go through such minds until ofcourse it happens to us; to a life that is ad-hoc in nature. In the academic world, one of the terms referred for the state of mind of a human being is psycho-social well-being. The term ‘psychosocial’ is used to emphasise the close connection between psychological aspects of our experience (our thoughts, emotions and behaviour) and our wider social experience (our relationships, traditions and culture). These two aspects are very closely inter-twined in the context of natural-hazards induced disasters like floods, earthquakes, etc as well as human-induced disasters like pogroms, conflict etc.

 

The Study:

In 2011, as part of my academic curriculum, a study titled “The Misings of Majuli and the Brahmaputra: Effects on their Psycho-social well being” was conducted in Majuli subdivision (an island in the Brahmaputra) of Jorhat district in Assam. The study was carried on in 7 flood/river-bank erosion-effected villages in the three administrative blocks of the island including upper, central and lower Majuli. It included 70 participants from the riverine community – the Mising tribe, the second largest tribal community in the state. All but one among the seven villages was located in it’s original place when this study was on; rest all had long moved from their original locations due to the eroding banks of the river. Most villages were located in a horizontal pattern on either side of the public road and few had a scattered pattern within the interiors of the island. Each one of them had moved as a community; with kins of only few families relocating to entirely different places due to lack of adequate space on the roads/embankments for their entire joint family to reside together.  The study used a universally recognized and applied scale devised by the World Health Organisation called the  Self-Reporting Questionnaire – 20 (SRQ). Few findings of the study are presented below:

> 53% of the total population showed skewed* symptoms of PSWb**

> 97% among these expressed the feelings of nervousness, tension and worry at most times. The primary cause sited was the leading of a life of involuntary displacees in their own land. Although 40% of the participants were agriculturists, most of them were landless labourers and only a few farming on their own lands.

> 76% of the participants reported of finding it difficult to enjoy their day to day activities, showing symptoms of fear of heavy, windy rains and storms especially during monsoon seasons, constant headaches etc.

The aforementioned findings vividly indicate the rippling effects of floods, river-bank erosion and consequential displacement on the PSWb of the people there. Insecurity of life due to the state of landlessness (all participants were landholding farmers originally), a nomadic pattern of living and absence of a stable source of income were not rare. Hence, turning them into landless laborers or semi- un-skilled labourers (as daily-wage labourers, carpenters, selling home-made liquor etc) within the island or the district. This obviously brings a persistent uncertainty of the future of their children; most of whom form a major chunk of dropouts in the island. Displacement thus have life-altering consequences; not only on integration of the family, livelihoods and physical health but also more crucially and quietly, on the psycho-social well-being of the survivors.

 

Lost between the Tussle of Centre-State: 

River-bank erosion is not a nationally recognized disaster as per the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and the National Disaster Management Plan of 2016. Soil erosion, however, is mentioned in the hazard profile of India. Thus, communities affected by it are not even recognized as ‘especially affected groups’ or IDPs (Internally Displaced People as per UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement). Thus they are deprived of any governmental or non-governmental benefits aiding their rehabilitation. Available literature says that huge amounts of funds flow every year from the centre to the state for flood relief and erosion-mitigation in forms of loans as well as grants. However, how much of it actually reaches each of those homeless families and how much fill the bureaucratic pockets, remains an open secret among all quarters engaged with protecting and safeguarding the rights of such communities. Moreover, due to the dynamic nature of relationship between the state and centre, managing floods and erosion have become an ego issue for the state over the years. They refuse to seek central assistance while remembering to demand for declaration of the Assam floods as a ‘national crises’ (that again ensures heavy-ing their pockets!) by the Centre.  In particularly dealing with river-bank erosion, the state’s response, most unapologetic-ally, has been limited to engineering solutions like building embankments, dams or dikes and distributing immediate relief.

 

Displaced in the Humanitarian World:

Working in a setting wherein we rebuild homes and schools for many across the sub-continent, my eyes often tread towards those who donot have a piece of land to call their own, on which to build a home. Due to the absence of official documents which are generally the basis for receiving various kinds of assistance, these communities are becoming invisible in the cobweb of red-tapism and within the humanitarian aid world. Amidst all this hullabaloo, the monsoons and the media displaces millions from their lives and our memories. As per the report of Global Estimates 2015 – on People Displaced by Disasters of  the IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre),  the Inter Agency Group of humanitarian NGOs in Assam noted a relative lack of media reporting on the situation in Assam and Meghalaya, describing it as ‘a disaster of the poor’ and comparing it with Jammu and Kashmir’s ‘disaster of the middleclass’. The report also noted that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, had declared the disaster of floods in Jammu and Kashmir a national level crisis. Class, socio-economic status of the affected, geographical location, geo-political nexuses and media coverage are hence entitled much than they deserve – to define and decide where and how a government and the humanitarian world shall respond to a disaster.

 

Let’s be Humans first, than being mere Managers:

The survivors of these disasters, and the people of Assam are not unacquainted with the problem of floods or river-bank erosion. With a repeated experience for over three times a year, getting adjusted to the array of problems that follow these disasters has been the real challenge, with minimum acknowledgement from the powers-that-be. The cross-cutting issues of marginalisation and exclusion based on community/language, economic and social backwardness and limited accessibility to constitutional and political rights only add to the problem. Hence, effective implementation of any inclusive developmental activity still remains a faraway cry for such refugees in their own land. Ours is a state where huge landmass gets eroded by flood water every year, with an ever-expanding territorial fight over ownership of land. In such a scenario, different factions of both government and non-governmental entities need to rise above petty politics of declarations, constitutionally defined aid assistance and blame-game to address this urgent need of ‘managing disasters’ in Assam and the NorthEast of India in a more pragmatic and humane approach; wherein opinions from the affected invisible faces are equally amalgamated in policy and acted upon.

When a community moves in search of a safe place for survival from one embankment to another school with an average of three times a year, they essentially become refugees in their own land. If appropriate action is not taken well-within time, an ever-smiling, peace-loving community called the Misings and their abode – the Majuli Island shall erode away into anonymity along with the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra on a quiet dawn; while the likes of us shall continue writing/reading/sharing our experiences of “Majuli – the biggest human-inhabited river island of the world” and watching it’s “news” in our television sets and tablets.

 

 

*Skewed symptom here is defined as a rating of 11 and above in the SRQ – 20 following standard guidelines of the scale
**PsychoSocial Well-being
** This is an excerpt from an article titled “Disasters-Induced Displacement vis-à-vis Policy Framework: A Study of the Mishing Community of Majuli, Assam” published in the Journal of Disaster and Development, NIDM, Vol. 7, No. 1 & 2, Dec. 2013 45(http://nidm.gov.in/PDF/Journal/2_Dec_2013.pdf#page=56)
 
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