Dhemaji/Guwahati: As the eldest child, Gomeshwar Kardong of Medhi Pamua village in Assam’s Dhemaji district is responsible for providing for his family. “I have been working since I was very young, as I had to provide for my mother and younger brother,” Kardong, 25, who lost his father when he was six years old, told IndiaSpend.

But, Kardong says, it is now risky for farmers like him to invest their time and effort in paddy farming, once the mainstay of their livelihood, because every year floods wash the crop away. Moreover, once the water recedes, he says, it is mainly sand that’s left behind, which damages farmland. Instead he grows potatoes and peas, and makes about Rs 80,000 over four-five months.

Agriculture is the primary occupation for communities in Dhemaji district, on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, but agricultural patterns are changing. In October 2022, Dhemaji was one of Assam’s worst flood-hit districts, according to Assam’s State Disaster Management Authority. Floods are not new to the area, and the local population of the Mising tribe, and some from the Hajong, Bodo and Sonowal tribes, along with Nepalis and Bengalis, have coexisted with floods for years.

But the floods are now worse, with erratic rainfall, and construction debris from roads, highways and bridges depositing in rivers and farmland, impacting farming in the area, locals and experts told us.

Farmers are now trying to adapt by shifting their cropping patterns, and cultivating more Rabi (winter) crops, such as mustard, potatoes and peas, that are sown in November, rather than Kharif crops, such as rice, sown in June and July. Others are giving up farming, preferring instead to migrate to nearby cities and towns for jobs.

The situation is predicted to worsen. Assam has the highest vulnerability to climate change of 12 states in the Himalayan region, according to a report by the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati & Indian Institute of Technology Mandi for the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change. Climate change projections for Assam indicate an increase in mean average temperature by 1.7-2.2 degrees Celsius by mid-century, compared to 1971-2000, and an increase in extreme rainfall by 5-38%, and floods by 25%.

Geography, human interference

Dhemaji’s location makes it prone to floods.

The sudden drop of the slope of the river Brahmaputra, from an altitude of 3,000 metres in Tibet to less than 150 metres in Arunachal Pradesh, after which it enters Assam, exerts enormous pressure in the immediate floodplains of Dhemaji, according to Luit Goswami, director of Rural Volunteer Centre (RVC), an organisation working with flood-impacted communities in the area. In addition, the Brahmaputra, and 14 of its major tributaries, along with “innumerable streams and rivulets which originate from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh”, intersect through Dhemaji, leading to massive floods, sand, silt and debris deposition, and river bank erosion.

In addition, debris flowing into the river because of construction of roads, bridges, dams and other development projects on the hills of Arunachal Pradesh raise the river bed and make it more prone to flooding.

“When the river overflows, the sand and silt is being brought with it to the floodplain areas. After inundation, the water dries up and the sand and silt is left behind,” said Prabal Saikia, who works as the chief scientist at the Regional Agricultural Research Station of the Assam Agricultural University (AAU) in North Lakhimpur.

Gomeshwar Kardong, of Medhi Pamua village in Assam’s Dhemaji district, has moved from growing paddy,
once the mainstay of their livelihood, to peas and potatoes, because of the worsening soil quality in the area.

Silt deposition on farmlands post floods can be helpful, as it provides fertile soil for crops such as mustard, potatoes and peas. But nowadays there is greater deposition of sand than silt, reducing soil nutrition.

One 2019 study found that the average agricultural productivity of plots was very low because of flood-induced sand deposition in farms.

Devid Kardong, a farmer from Medhi Pamua village, said, “Earlier we were hopeful that the silt left behind by the flood waters would lead to a good harvest but now it is only sand that is deposited which has affected the cultivation of paddy.”

According to Saikia, a large majority of the land in Dhemaji now is desert-like or with sand deposits, which has made farming difficult.

“It is basically debris from the hills--core sand, boulders, pebbles, silt that is getting deposited in the farms, and people are suffering because of this in the villages,” said Ravindranath Ravi, founder of RVC. “Everyone wants a good road, so that will never stop, and if the road construction does not stop, the siltation will keep on increasing in the plains. Communities downstream have to be prepared, they have to have good warning systems, and the focus needs to be on saving their life and property, and how agriculture can be done in the flood situation.”

Erratic weather

Paddy requires a lot of water for its growth, therefore, it is cultivated mainly in the rainy season, in the June and July months, and is considered a Kharif crop.

“The floods have over the years ravaged agriculture production in large parts. Between 1992 and 2004–05, net sown area in the district decreased by about 11%,” as per a report by the state’s disaster management authority. The report added that the “average paddy productivity in Dhemaji District is now much lower than the state average”.

A 2018-19 report from the Directorate of Agriculture in Assam found that Dhemaji had the lowest yield per hectare across districts in Assam.

Changing patterns has led to intense rainfall in a short time, which leads to overflowing water bodies and floods, said Ravi of RVC. “There will be a more turbulent climate in the future. What we require is more preparedness by the government and volunteer agencies.”

“Earlier I used to grow it [paddy] but flood waters would rise very high and keep destroying it,” Gomeshwar Kardong said, who now cultivates peas, a Rabi crop.

Rabi crops are sown around mid-November, after the monsoon rains are over, and harvested in April. These crops are grown either with rainwater that has percolated into the ground or by irrigation.

“Due to weather variations, pre-monsoon showers happen early in February instead of March, and the months of November-December have a drought-like situation; therefore, rabi crops also will fail,” said Saikia.

Devid Kardong agrees. He says he is not able to sow even rabi crops on time because of the lack of proper rain. “Crops don’t receive rainfall on time, we have to water them on our own but we don’t have irrigation facilities.”

IndiaSpend reached out to the hydrology division of the Water Resources Department in Guwahati for comment on these issues. While they said that they will not be able to comment regarding rainfall patterns in Dhemaji district, they shared rainfall data, which show erratic rainfall from 2012 to 2022.

Changing cropping patterns

The Regional Agricultural Research Station of AAU in North Lakhimpur has conducted research on sand-silt deposition with GIS [Geographic Information System] and satellite mapping, and have also experimented on what crops could be suitable for areas such as Dhemaji, said Saikia. The North-Eastern Space Applications Centre in Meghalaya and AAU are also studying the kinds of problems farmers face, and what kinds of crops can be grown in areas with sand-silt, Saikia said.

He said that one option is niger, an oilseed, like mustard, that grows in poor soil and does not require a lot of water. He also suggests buckwheat and muskmelon. “But the problem is processing and marketing which the farmers can’t do…The government and other agencies should work together to promote these.”

According to Ravi, bao rice--a kind of paddy and a starchy rice--rich in carbohydrates and nutrients, which takes about nine months to mature, can also be grown in flood-hit areas. “When the water levels rise, the paddy also rises, it grows up to 10 to 12 feet.”

Partha Jyoti Das, head of the Water Climate and Hazard (WATCH) Programme of the Assam-based non-government organisation Aaranyak, agreed with Ravi.Bao paddy has a future in Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts of Assam,” Das said.

According to Ravi and Saikia, it is also possible to reclaim degraded land with organic matter like cow dung or organic waste. “It takes three to four years for the sand-silt deposited areas to become soil. But if sand-silt keeps getting deposited with every flood, then the quality of the land will continue to remain poor.”

Nabin Kaman, the block development officer at the State Institute of Panchayat and Rural Development in Dhemaji district, disagreed. He said that the area’s “cropping intensity has increased”. Kaman, also a member of the Mising Autonomous Council--an autonomous district council for the Mising tribe in Dhemaji and Majuli--said, “in terms of the agriculture sector, Dhemaji is improving. Now, besides rabi crops, there are small tea gardens, horticulture gardens and rubber plantations. Some farmers are also going for maize, cabbage and cauliflower cultivation commercially.”

At the same time, he said that in 2022, the weather was erratic. “Usually Dhemaji receives rainfall in November and that rainfall makes rabi crops like potatoes and peas better. But last year there was no rain in November.”

Das of Aaranyak said that in the river bank and river island areas, rabi crops are an economic compulsion.

Ravi said that due to frequent flooding during the monsoon, and due to support from the government, through the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samaan Nidhi, providing income support of Rs 6,000 per land-holding farmer, the cropping pattern in Dhemaji is changing. This money helps fund the Rabi crop. “If you stop the schemes, then they will move back to seasonal paddy because they don’t have the money to invest in seeds and fertilisers.”

Migration for other livelihoods

Jaanmoni Doley, of Medhi Pamua village in Dhemaji district, Assam. Her husband works in Bengaluru as farming yields little income in the area with recurring floods and erratic rains.

Despite the growth in Rabi crops, farmers and the youth lack hope, prompting their move to nearby towns and cities for daily wage work or salaried jobs.

Jaanmoni Doley’s husband works in Bengaluru and has not been home in months. She says, “he left because farming wasn’t getting us any profits. He went to earn some money.”

People still cultivate paddy but the produce is mostly dependent on the floods. Gomeshwar Kardong and Devid Kardong say they also work as daily wage labourers in the construction sector in nearby towns to supplement their income.

“Agriculture-based livelihoods have diminished because agriculture is not paying them or hasn’t been beneficial,” said Tirtha Prasad Saikia, joint director of North-East Affected Area Development Society (NEADS), a volunteer-driven grassroots development organisation. “Most of them are migrating for their daily wage. Agricultural workforce has also decreased and most often women are left to fend for themselves.” Women are the ones who clean up after flood waters recede, and those who take care of livestock and agriculture at home.

The government is perhaps “used to the fact that there are floods every year”, said Doley. “But our lives and livelihoods continue to suffer.”

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