Can Assam’s nature thrive?
PEOPLE living in Assam are deeply worried about how nature might unsettle their lives. Floods; the erosion of river banks; community elders recounting scary stories of how past destructive earthquakes impacted the people; a fast decreasing forest cover; the numerous deaths of elephants in the wild and the increased poaching of rhinoceros; along with many other similar memories, are all a part of the ongoing narrative. Every monsoon, newspapers report long spells of rain, swelling rivers, impending floods and dangerous landslides across the fragile hills. However, the hill ranges continue to shield those who live in the region from cyclones and tornadoes that regularly hit the east and west coasts.
In Assam’s western neighbourhood, in parts of Bengal, cyclones have long wrought havoc. Protection against those cyclones that come from across the hills on the southern edge of the state, have given parts of Assam an extraordinary environmental stability. Minor scars of stress on nature tend to heal easily here and the annual monsoon always infuses a remarkable energy for renewal and recovery.
Despite that, the thought of possibly losing out in an environmental battle that is happening, continues to impact the minds and imagination of the people. Many believe that deforestation will wipe out the forests forever. Others complain of increasing conflict with mega mammals like elephants. Reports of elephants and rhinoceros wandering onto highways or into urban neighbourhoods are now frequent. Breaches in the embankments make front page news with greater regularity. Contradictions abound. But, there is a counterpoint too.
There are encouraging examples of great promise like the splendid success in fauna conservation. Assam represents a microscopic picture of varied environmental challenges which offer both promise and a sense of gloom. Its natural environment has many layers of change, in varying scales and forms. Some of those changes have left long-term imprints. In past centuries, no grave injuries were inflicted on the forest cover. The principal features of the environment remained intact.
The economic forces which are entangled with Assam’s natural environment in the future, however, are bound to be different. Will nature be as resilient as it once was?
This essay presents a brief insight into Assam’s modern-day encounter with nature, and seeks to extend itself as a message of hope.
Guwahati, the fast-growing capital of Assam, and a major gateway to India’s Northeast, is experiencing an increase in floods. The floods are predictable, and residents have become familiar with the areas that will be temporarily inundated. In many places, an overnight downpour brings life to a halt. As the roads get bogged down with water, rickshaws replace cars as a means of transportation.
A sense of gloom envelops the city for a few days after which life returns to normal. This disruption is invariably followed by animated public debate and discussion, looking to find scapegoats responsible for the disaster. A blame game ensues. Many questions need answers. Are the city’s plebeians responsible, those who in recent times cleared the forest cover, and then retreated to the hills and built small hutments there? Or, are the city’s unique geographical features its faultlines? Or, is the constant flooding a result of the failure of technological planning? And finally, does this ancient city have a future?
In the late 19th century, the township of Guwahati was home to a small population of a few thousand. This town has added 1,000,000 to its population figures over the last century. The city’s built area, and technological infrastructure has become inadequate. These changes have gained momentum since the mid-20th century. The city has grown exponentially and like most other cities, it will continue to expand. Guwahati welcomes people who come here in search of better opportunities. As it has grown, it has broken down and also re-engineered some of its natural features.
Illustrative of this is the network of tiny tributaries of the Brahmaputra or wetlands, that had once crisscrossed the town’s landscape. Early Assamese literary accounts are full of praise for these tributaries and their towering presence. Well into the mid-20th century, people converged on the riverbanks for a sacred bath.1 The key role these tributaries or wetlands played in providing the city much-needed space to adjust to the rhythms of the monsoon, was largely missing from these literary eulogies. These tributaries now remain alive in town planners’ maps of a time gone by.
These tributaries were replaced by a series of impoverished drainage networks that washed off the charging storm waters. A mega-size CT scan would reveal how a web of drains crisscross Guwahati’s underbelly. These helped residents escape the brutalities of nature, but only partially. Little do we know of how nature’s ferocities will impact and affect the city. Is there a future for Guwahati?
Guwahati’s experience with floods is markedly different from that of Assam’s countryside. The latter is able to withstand the annual floods in different ways. For centuries, floods have sculpted Assam’s rural landscapes and continue to do so. A sizeable portion of her rural landscapes is encircled with low embankments. They are identified as rural transportation arteries. In terms of their scope and spread, these embankments came into existence between the 1950s and the ’70s.
From the early 20th century, a massive expansion of cash crop production in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, was one of the major reasons for an extensive programme of creating embankments in Assam’s floodplains. Thousands of kilometres of embankments could not control, let alone end, the floods in Assam. From the late 1950s, Assamese newspapers regularly reported on the fragility of these structures as they failed to prevent floodwaters from inflicting severe damage to crops, rural housing and livestock.
Such failures compelled Assam’s leadership to look for other technology based mechanisms to tame the floods. They drew from the experience of other countries and studied flood control measures in China and the United States of America. The examples helped convince them that they too could emulate the tools used and gain from the flood control measures that had been employed. Like for example, power generated from flood control infrastructure would add to Assam’s prosperity. Backed by Assamese public opinion and also by modifying the power sharing arrangement with India’s federal structure, the Union government took on the guardianship of the Brahmaputra in the early 1980s with the promulgation of the Brahmaputra Board Act of 1980.
This significant step under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was to have long-term consequences. Over the next decades, two parallel ideological developments took place. First, the river came to be increasingly seen as a source of Assam’s perennial sorrow. It had to be taught to behave, keeping in line with the economic aspirations of the larger nation. From the early years of the present century, rivers have emerged as a new source of wealth. Modern hydropower infrastructure are in different stages of planning or implementation for the river basins. India is not alone in this. China has already pushed for massive technological infrastructures to control the upstream of the Brahmaputra across the eastern Himalaya. There are similar plans and projects underway in Burma and much of Southeast Asia. Such projects do have their critics.
From around 1995, there has been a popular and growing awareness – multilayered and involving many shades of complex, intertwined societal ideas – that advocated the well-being of the environment. These popular environmental narratives, often overshadowed by shades of environmental romanticism, urged that the habitats of birds, monkeys, heritage trees, and more, be protected.
Emerging from popular Assamese writing, and not due to any in-depth academic inquiries, this early environmentalism had a limited impact on environmental governance. It did, however, help many, especially the educated youth, to think of their neighbourhood environmental heritage, and become more aware of, and curious about, the flora and fauna around them. This inculcated a sense of pride in their surroundings and a respect for their rich legacies. This generation were also avid readers, and absorbed stories of great hunting accounts written by Jim Corbett and other celebrated Assamese authors. Many read Salim Ali and Assamese authors’ who had written guide books of birds and animals.2 Soon and unknowingly, many of them got sandwiched in the not so strongly earmarked debates on the rights of nature versus those of the human conquest of nature. This ethical and moral impasse had a role to play in the early days of environmental activism in the late 20th century. Many pieces of legislation – the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 – provided them the requisite moral and social legitimacy.
Empowered with environmental idealism, armed with laws, and silently supported by some forest officials, these energetic activists went after corrupt contractors in the hope of stopping logging or the illegal trade in wildlife. Some explored nature’s unexplored beauty. Civil society, visiting botanists, zoologists and their apprentices from neighbourhood colleges and universities, along with small groups of environmental ‘activists’, came to the rescue of patches of forests, landscapes, and wildlife habitats to save them from degradation. The causes of degradation, they concluded, could have been due to multiple factors. At the top of their list was illegal logging, poaching of animals, and the rampant clearance of forests for the expansion of agriculture and urban growth.
They engaged with the state machinery and produced popular narratives in defence of their demand for conservation of these sites as being endangered and therefore, needing protection. Their environmentalism occasionally paid off. From the last decade of the 20th century, several forested tracts were added to the list of Assam’s national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. Some tracts were reclassified as part of these two categories. Others were further reimagined as part of Assam’s diverse cultural history. By 2020, such Protected Areas covered approximately five per cent of Assam’s land area compared to 5-6 per cent nationwide. The new tracts included Dibru-Saikhowa and Dehing Patkai.
Afew of these sites acquired global recognition due to their ecological specificities. Early in this century, a vastly spread out wetland in Guwahati, Deepor Beel, a freshwater lake, was recognized as a Ramsar site. Following an international convention on wetlands, popularly described as the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental environmental treaty of 1971, under the aegis of Unesco, was promulgated which promised to protect endangered wetlands across the globe. These wetlands came to be designated as a site of global importance. Uniquely positioned as the frontier of Guwahati, geologists recognized this wetland as part of an earlier channel of the Brahmaputra river.
These wetlands are a staging site on migratory flyways and house many varieties of aquatic birds. One can see the Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), Lesser and Greater Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos javanicus), and the Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri). In the early ’70s, because Guwahati was considered the future capital of Assam, town planners recognized this wetland as a natural stormwater storage.
Since then, Deepor Beel, before it was recognized as a Ramsar site, began to appear in Assamese popular literary journals as part of the new age of environmentalism. These campaigns did not catalogue the wetlands’ biological importance but only highlighted its distinctive place in the Assamese environmental imagination. The neighbourhood population that has not made the transition to urban life, is still dependent on fishing as a livelihood here. Commodification of the biological life of the Deepor Beel continues in various ways as it is a major source of fish and other aquatic food for many.
Unlike the Chipko movement, this environmentalism neither took on a coherent social character, nor did it spark a substantive political debate. Some of the ideas generated looked at human and nature interdependence. But it silently continued to produce other, lesser-known, conservation initiatives. At the root of such campaigns were global conservation initiatives, Indian environmentalism, and state support.
One of the finest examples of this was the restoration programme of the pygmy hog (Sus salvanius), a tiny grassland pig that had almost disappeared some decades ago. In the early 19th century, the pygmy hog, a new finding for the then naturalists, swarmed the grasslands along the eastern Himalaya foothills.3 By the 1960s wildlife enthusiasts thought that this tiny mammal had nearly disappeared.4 Later research also observed that habitat loss was one of the many reasons for the disappearance of the pygmy hog, as was the intensive flood control measures.5
Much to the delight of many, a small batch of the hogs were noticed in 1971 by the residents who lived in a forested corner of Assam.6 This chance encounter could not be given a miss and the IUCN, the global conservation network, arranged for their captive breeding. In the next few years, away from public attention, a small team of conservationists enhanced the captive breeding facilities, and then released the hogs into the wild, and continue to protect this little-known animal.
In doing so, support came from many quarters including international conservationists. Indira Gandhi extended her support as well.7 This was followed by a number of bright Indian scientists who dedicated themselves to the cause of this tiny animal. Hundreds of pygmy hogs now inhabit the wilds of Assam, but the animal remains on the list of critically endangered species, signifying its extreme vulnerability. Yet, probably two thirds or more of the pygmy hog in the wild are from the captive bred stock which is no small accomplishment, a step forward to save rare small fauna of the wet grasslands.
More nature enthusiasts joined the rank of local conservation warriors. They worked to protect many varieties of fauna and bird species including the White-backed and Slender-billed vultures. Away from popular attention, several smaller taxa perilously live on the edge. Once available in a wider area, the Hisphid hare (Caprolagus hispidus), considered as one of the world’s rarest mammal, struggles to survive in a few scattered grasslands of Assam and Nepal.8 Similar is the fate of the Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis).
Rising environmentalism, which sought to conserve nature, was equally matched by scattered but widespread micro activities of rural agrarian populations seeking to dislodge boundaries of government-owned forests. This process has intensified since the 1960s. The rise of a rural landless population in Assam has generally been attributed to diverse sets of economic causes, but equally powerful has been the role of the never-ending natural processes of changing river courses and siltation. Smaller batches of the rural population regularly moved out in search of lands. Their choices were limited – they either had to clear grasslands or timber-bearing forested patches, from the government-owned forests.
Such actions in the field required local political support, tactical support from land the revenue bureaucracy, as well as collective community support. In the 1960s, direct support came from the state machinery that extended help in distributing small plots of lands to poor landless populations or refugees from East Pakistan and other such migrants. This state support was partly a response to the widespread communist mobilization of the rural poor.
Such state machinery began to disappear from the mid-1970s, which coincided with the pro-conservation steps that the Indira Gandhi government had initiated. The withdrawal of state endorsement resulted in eviction and other punitive measures. Among the evicted were Assam’s poor tribal and Muslim populations. Periodic evictions not only caused serious discontentment but also helped shape occasional ethnic and religious polarization in Assam. The withdrawal of state support did not mean local political leaders abandoned those who were still in search of land in the last two decades of the 20th century.
Years of political turbulence in the 1980s had further reinforced the struggle between forests and the agrarian frontier. Peasants – across religious or linguistic affiliations – cleared and converted forest lands into zones of highly vibrant sites for agriculture. Commodity production – mostly in the form of tea cultivation by indigenous cultivators, who partly followed the footsteps of the colonial tea planters in this process of clearance of forests – expanded into the foothills.
This deforestation was more than a phenomena of landless peasants seeking farmlands. As the 20th century was drawing to a close, sedentary agrarian practices emerged as a preferred economic model of agrarian economy. For most tribal communities, the Bodos as an example, this was unlike their traditional shifting cultivation in the fluid geographies. Several reasons which included limited arable agricultural lands and an increasing government surveillance of state-owned forest lands, made the practice of shifting cultivation untenable.
Increasing preference for sedentary cultivation was ideologically rooted in the ethnic mobilization of the 1980s. The latter acted as a powerful counter ideology to the state-sponsored forestry programmes. The ethnic political mobilization of the late 1980s and later, often in the form of militancy, briefly challenged forest governance. Community squatting on state-owned forests became an everyday affair. The forested interiors of Assam bustled with human interventions that rapidly set in motion a process of peasantization, i.e. the transformation of these forested tracts to make them part of the peasant economy.
The timber removed through this process found a lucrative market. The profits from this trade in timber was deployed as primary capital for peasantization.
Over the years, the ‘new farmer’ raised commodity products in the new permanent agricultural fields. The practice of shifting cultivation in the hills continued. Despite the removal of original biomass, the forests there, gifted with a long spell of monsoon rain, continued to regenerate. Peasantization of forest lands continued. New social movements of this century further reinforced these processes ideologically and politically.
By the end of the century, official statistics, the narratives of conservationists and others, summarized that these interlinked processes of deforestation and widespread expansion of agriculture could be described as an indicator of the ill health of Assam’s natural environment. A war of words ensued between the votaries of conservation and peasantization. This ideological contestation raises some questions. Is this history of deforestation only emblematic of a contested history of space and resources? Or does it also portray a worrying truth about the future for ‘nature’ as we now know it? Is Assam heading for other experiences from elsewhere, that witnessed the massive elimination of forest cover?
There are no clear definitive answers at this juncture. Because of the presence and return of state surveillance and widespread conservation awareness at the grassroot level, the expansion of agriculture into the forested interiors never became a large-scale phenomena. Peasantization happened at a micro-level and the process has slowed down significantly. Between 1987-88 and 2014-15 the net sown area from an estimated 2.7 million hectares, to 2.8 million hectares, is an indicator of the slow expansion of agriculture.9
Sandwiched between hope and gloom are several charismatic landscapes, mega mammals and smaller taxa. The best illustration of such a landscape is the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). Sculpted by the waters and silt of the Brahmaputra, surrounded by a rich agrarian history, dotted with a complex mosaic of grasslands, trees and water bodies, the rise of Kaziranga National Park is a product of many layers of political, social, and environmental history.
The KNP, originally born as an asylum for the one-horned rhinoceros which was thought to be vanishing, has witnessed many ecological and political ups and downs throughout its century-old journey. A wide canvas of factors – environmental, political, economic amongst others – have helped protect and conserve the fauna and flora in this protected space. These have together equally contributed to the reinforcement of the idea of the KNP, both as conservation of nature and as a cultural space.
Since the mid-20th century, global conservation practices with support from the Nehru-led Indian government measures, and the rise of the KNP as a destination for naturalists and global tourists, have further consolidated the idea of KNP. Towards the late 1960s, and thereafter, the park was seen as emblematic of Assamese political identity. A key driving force behind this new momentum for regional political support to the conservation initiatives in the KNP was the one-horned rhinoceros. The latter continues to remain at the centre of Assamese nationalist politics.
Over the decades the KNP’s well-being was shaped by its ability to negotiate many challenges of which three – environmental, poaching of rhinoceros for its horn, and agrarian dynamics in its surrounding – remained crucial. Support came from conservationists, from foresters, from the government, the politicians, and neighbourhood residents.
By the turn of the 21st century, the KNP came to symbolize a success story of conservation, but it equally remained witness to an increasing entanglement of the aspirations of neighbourhood rural communities and the Assamese bourgeoise. For its neighbourhood residents, the KNP, and more importantly its surrounding landscape, have for long been a source of livelihood. This utilitarian outlook and need however, does not factor in any ‘emotional’ ties with the flora and fauna of the KNP.
Anecdotal accounts attest to the compassion and concerns of residents for the well-being of the fauna. Many neighbourhood residents still affectionally refer to the KNP as a ‘reserve’, an abbreviated colloquial idiom for a ‘Reserved Forest’.
A century of legislative, community, and conservation initiatives, which are well-founded and with regular fine-tuning, have given the one-horned rhinoceros a safe haven. Yet, trouble does surface regularly elsewhere. Large mammals exit the boundaries of their protected areas. Wandering herds often cause injury to humans. They access newer spaces, often crossing into crop fields where they graze.
For instance, elephants – more than 5700 of them and distributed over 14,000 square kilometres in Assam, and almost equal numbers in the neighbouring states10 – frequently reached out to newer areas in search of food. A wide range of checks – mechanical and natural – have been put in place to keep the hungry elephants at bay. This has resulted either in inflicting injuries to elephants or protecting the food stocks of peasants.
Some micro-level initiatives have a more promising future, but it is too early to predict their permanence. Equally visible is the articulate public disapproval of such cruel and harsh measures. So, will popular enthusiasm for conservation’s failure figure out what it means to live alongside more elephants? But elephant habitats – largely due to infrastructural activities – are increasingly at risk.
The failure of the agrarian economy to emerge from a long-drawn stagnancy, has already put the state’s economy in crisis. Amidst this crisis, industry-induced development is seen as the alternative. The pace of growth of industries is indeed very slow. Many of these are, however, in direct conflict with elephants’ habitats. Industries will grow, resulting in loss of space for elephants.
A similar loss of habitat and Assam’s biota in general, was reported from the 19th century. The British tea planters’ massive expansion, was one of the reasons. Elephants and other big mammals survived then, but things have changed dramatically since. Whether they will have a secure future is not so clear. Action and concern are more genuine than ever, but so are the pressures of ‘development’.
The modern economy is putting down firm roots in the two great valleys of the Barak and Brahmaputra and in the hill regions. This will exert intense pressure on the natural habitat. The latter is a set of finite resources. This new century has proved to be very different from past times and ages for the world, for India and for Assam as well. The drive for rapid economic transformation has accelerated. To alleviate poverty and raise living standards, is the stated goal.
Any intervention could have other wider consequences. The issues of a fair distribution of resources is linked to the question of who gains most from nature and how. The cases above illustrate the many facets of an unfolding drama, an impending crisis. Equally critical are several significant attempts that allow nature a protected and dignified place of its own. Assam needs to have many conversations about these fundamentals that will determine its future. It is never too late for those dialogues and ensuing actions and correctives.
Assam’s own footprint, in per capita environmental impact, might still be low by all available indicators. She is surrounded by some biologically rich hotspots which are home to wide varieties of vascular plant and terrestrial vertebrate species. But no one can assure that her environmental future will always remain safe. Many have already raised an alarm about the disappearing natural wetlands. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries in the upper courses, will soon be overwhelmed by some of the largest hydro-power projects. There are fears of severe environmental problems resulting from these projects. Decades of political, legislative and societal experience, including increasing environmental awareness and nature’s own checks that sustained Assam’s habitat for long years, can still provide a ray of hope to halt any further deterioration of the environment.
* Arupjyoti Saikia is the author of The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra. Oxford University Press, 2019.
1. Jnananath Bora, ‘Moi Hindu?’ (I am a Hindu?), Abahan 3(2), 1932, in P. Majumdar compiled and edited, Abahan (Vol. 5). Publication Board, Guwahati, 2016, p. 183.
2. For instance, Dimbeswar Chaliha, Banar Bandhu: An Illustrated Book on Wild Mammals of India in Assamese. Publication Board, Guwahati, Assam, 1991.
3. Brian H. Hodgson, ‘On a New Form of the Hog Kind or Suidae’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 16(1), May 1847, pp. 423-428.
4. A.K. Mukherjee, ‘The Extinct, Rare and Threatened Game of the Himalayas and the Siwalik Ranges’, Journal of the Bengal Natural History Society 32(1), 1963, pp. 36-37.
5. Anna T.C. Feistner, A Briefing Book: Saving the Pygmy Hog: Devising the Way Forward: Assessing Conservation Needs and Actions 2003-2005. http://pygmyhog.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Saving-the-Pygmy-Hog-Anna-Feistner-2003.pdf
6. Anonymous, ‘Pygmy Hog and Hispid Hare’, Oryx 11(2-3), 1971, pp. 103-107; G. Narayan and P. Deka, ‘Pygmy Hog Porcula Salvania (Hodgson, 1847)’, in M. Melletti and E. Meijaard (eds.), Ecology, Conservation and Management of Wild Pigs and Peccaries. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 234-245.
7. Mahesh Rangarajan, Nature and Nation. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2015, pp. 151-89.
8. W.L.R. Oliver, ‘The Doubtful Future of the Pigmy Hog and the Hispid Hare’, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 75, 1978, pp. 341-372.
9. These two figures are cited from https://www.indiastat.com/table/agriculture/ state-wise-total-cropped-area-net-area-sown-croppi/403505; https://rbidocs.rbi. org.in/rdocs/Publications/PDFs/46TA BLE13BA 48CE8FEF4A1480687540 E33 647CD.PDF
10. Government of India, ‘Synchronized Elephant Population Estimation: India’. Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, New Delhi, 2017, Table 1, p. 7.