Majuli, Assam: When Prasanna Bora, a 44-year-old boat-maker from Salmora in Assam’s Majuli island, was in his teens, nearly every family in his village had someone who built boats. But now, he is one of a few remaining professional boat-makers.

“It is difficult to procure the timber required for making boats these days,” Bora told IndiaSpend. “Every year we lose land and forest to erosion. The government therefore does not allow us to fell trees anymore, as deforestation is believed to speed up erosion.

“We now source timber from the neighbouring Jorhat and Sivasagar districts. This has rendered boat-making to be commercially unviable, leaving little profit for us.”

Boats are the primary mode of transport in Majuli, given its location in the middle of the Brahmaputra. Almost every family has a canoe or a dugout, used for navigating the numerous beels (wetlands) and moving to safe ground when the river is in spate. Majuli, an Assamese language book published in 2001 and compiled by local scholar Prasanta Kumar Mahanta, states that due to the landscape and location of the island, boats are vital to the everyday life of the inhabitants.

Assam had 7,126 occupational boatmen according to the 1881 Census--a high number for what was then a sparsely populated outpost of British India. In his doctoral dissertation on the Brahmaputra valley, Ritupan Goswami explains how important boats were in Assam. “Road traffic in Asom was considered to be at a minimum chiefly because of the absence of all-weather metal roads. The soil of the entire country was clayey and the freight had to be carried by water, the rivers working as the 'high-ways',” he writes.

The village of Salmora is historically known for the craft of boat-making. About 80% of the boats used in Majuli are made by the boatmakers of Salmora.

Debasish Dey, a doctoral research scholar at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal and author of a 2021 study in Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, says that the indigenous craft of boat-building is an important “living heritage” of Majuli.

But a combination of land erosion and forest loss has increasingly threatened the centuries-old craft of boat-making on the island.

A boat built in Salmora is anchored on Luit Xuti, a stream that flows through the village to the Brahmaputra.

Erosion, climate change, and forest loss

Majuli is one of the largest river islands in the world, and is home to about 170,000 people. In 2016, the government officially declared it a district--the first river island to be so designated in India.

The Brahmaputra, along with the Ganga, are among the siltiest rivers in the world. Silt accretes around an obstacle, and over time it grows in size. However, what the river brings, the river can also take away--thus, islands formed by accretion diminish due to erosion. According to government data, Majuli has reduced in size from 1,250 sq km at the beginning of the 20th century to 483 sq km by 2014. And as the island has shrunk, the number of cadastral villages has dwindled from 210 to 141, of which as many as 96 are vulnerable to flooding.

Experts as well as locals point to the 1950 earthquake as the major turning point. After that quake, the island witnessed tremendous changes in its morphology due to constant shifts in the river channels. The quake swelled the riverbed by three to four metres due to heavy silt deposits, triggering continuous riverbank erosion and flooding in the island.

When IndiaSpend visited Salmora in December, 2023, located on the southernmost tip of the island, boatmaker Bora took us to the bank of the Brahmaputra, barely 100 metres from his home. “There,” Bora said, pointing to the grey, wide river, “somewhere in the belly of the Brahmaputra river, is the home where I was born. Some families here have shifted their house as many as 10 times due to erosion since 1950.”

A 2022 study states that while Majuli has always been prone to seasonal flooding and erosion, climate change-induced impacts have sped up the process.

“While the island always experienced perennial floods and erosion, the intensity of flood and erosion has undergone a significant shift in recent years,” says Jaya Kalita Gogoi, assistant professor of geography in Majuli College. She adds that recent shifts in rainfall patterns have led to earlier and more prolonged monsoons on the island.

A study published in 2020 in International Journal of Geoheritage and Parks found an ‘alarming’ rise in the annual rate of erosion in Majuli. The rate of erosion in the island was 1.75 sq km per year from 1975 to 1990, 2.33 sq km per year from 1990 to 2005, and 6.7 sq km per year from 2005 to 2017.

“In recent years, flooding has become more severe, and the normal nutrient-rich silt deposits, which rejuvenate the soil each year, are being replaced by sand,” says Jogendra Nath Sarma, a geologist and retired professor of Dibrugarh University who studied long-term geomorphological changes in Majuli. “This makes the soil infertile and unsuitable for any vegetation to grow.”

While Majuli does not have any protected forest area, research indicates dwindling of general vegetation cover on the island. A study on land cover change in Majuli, published in 2021 in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, found that vegetation on the island has gradually decreased from 365.59 sq km in 1973 to 262.79 sq km in 2019. In contrast, barren land had increased from 4.82 sq km in 1973 to 31.88 sq km in 2019.

Overall, Assam has lost over 7.5% of the state’s total landmass--approximately 4,000 sq km, or two-and-a-half times the size of London--to riverbank erosion in just the second half of the 20th century. This includes more than 2,500 villages and 18 towns, including sites of important cultural heritage.

Bora and other villagers in Salmora tell IndiaSpend that the village has lost almost 50% of its original land to the Brahmaputra, and that they fear the whole village will be lost in the span of a few years if erosion does not stop.

“People who lost everything to the river here have migrated to places like Titabar (in Jorhat district) that neither experience flood nor are close to the river,” says Bora. “Boats are of no use there. So they don’t make boats any longer, and consequently have lost their boat-making skills.”

In Salmora, sandbags are placed near the riverbank to prevent soil erosion during monsoon. Villagers say Salmora has lost a large part of its original area to the Brahmaputra.

Lack of timber for boat-making

Dharmeswar Hazarika, 43, another boat-maker of Salmora, says that during his grandfather’s time, the hollong tree (Dipterocarpus retusus) used to be the first-choice source of timber for boats. That tree is now on the verge of extinction, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature listing it as endangered.

The hollong tree once grew in abundance in the plains forests of the Brahmaputra valley. But as early as the late nineteenth century, E. A. Peal noted in his The Canoes of Assam, the tree was already under pressure from overexploitation.

“These trees were found in abundance until a few decades ago,” Hazarika says, pointing to a community forest just across a shallow stream flowing southward to the Brahmaputra. “Before, we used to procure trees from that forest.”

Earlier, a single piece of wood from the hollong tree--which grew up to 45 metres in height with a trunk up to 6 metres--was used to make a boat. While this practice is now rare in the absence of such big trees, boat-makers in Solmara still follow centuries-old methods of boat building. The boat-making industry in Salmora is artisanal in nature, and the boats built here are entirely handmade with no involvement of machinery. Only traditional instruments such as hacksaws, blades, chisels, and rivets are used in the construction of boats.

With the hollong tree on the verge of extinction--subsequently the tree was declared Assam’s state tree in 2003 and accorded protected status--boat-makers took to using other locally available trees.

“Nowadays we use timber from trees like Ajar [Lagerstroemia speciosa], Uriam [Bischofia Javanica] and ou tenga [Dillenia indica] to make boats,” Hazarika says. “Even these trees are hard to find as their numbers are shrinking.”

Forest authorities in Majuli have now strictly prohibited the felling of trees on the island. Deforestation is known to accelerate erosion, as removing vegetation reduces the soil’s ability to absorb rainfall; further, it is the roots of trees that hold soil in place and once the trees are gone, the soil no longer has that binding force.

A public commons forest along the riverbank in Salmora. Previously, boat-makers sourced timber from local public commons like this one. But now there is a restriction on felling trees on the island to stem erosion.

Hazarika and Bora both told IndiaSpend that procuring timber from outside the island increases the production cost and renders boat-making economically unsustainable.

They say a 16-foot long, low maintenance boat costs around Rs 35,000 but the price will go up by a few thousands if they have to source the wood from outside of Majuli.

Another traditional source of timber for boat-makers here is uie kath--driftwood. Driftwood is collected in the months of monsoon, especially from July to September, when the rivers are at a spate. Bora and Hazarika say that the amount of driftwood floating down the Brahmaputra has significantly dwindled in recent years.

“When we were young, we used to collect fine uie kath that came floating down the river. For many boat-makers here, uie kath used to be the primary source of timber for building boats,” Bora reminisces. “Nowadays you would be lucky if you find a good piece of uie kath in the whole year.”

While Bora is not sure why the driftwood has decreased with each passing year, Hazarika offers a guess: “It might have something to do with the dams built upstream and loss of forest in the source areas.”

A piece of driftwood salvaged from the Brahmaputra. Locally known as uie kath, driftwood used to be a traditional source of timber for the boat-makers here. “Nowadays you would be lucky if you find a good piece of uie kath in the whole year,” boat-maker Prasanna Bora says.

“The traditional boat-makers are roped in whenever there is an opportunity to put their skills into use. The Assam forest department employs them from time to time to build boats used for patrolling during floods,” says Nabajyoti Das, circle officer of Ujani Majuli. Apart from this however, he says, he does not know of any specific initiative that aims to address the problems faced by the boat-makers.

Dey of Visva-Bharati University, who conducted an ethnographic study in Salmora, says, “The living heritage of the boat builders of Majuli is facing an existential threat due to a mix of erosion-induced displacement and forest loss, and economic factors triggered by climate change.”

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