This book by Mitul Baruah presents a fascinating, ethnographic account of the challenges faced by communities living in Majuli, Assam, one of the largest river islands in the world, which has experienced immense socio-environmental transformations over the years, processes that are emblematic of the Brahmaputra Valley as a whole. This is an excerpt from the book.
The accumulation of capital and misery go hand in hand, concentrated in space.
― David Harvey, The Limits to Capital
Once an avid fisherman, Paban Das from Dakhinpat Kaibarta Village took up goat trading about two decades ago when fishing as an occupation became unviable and other options were limited. Goat trading is a backbreaking job. Das must cycle to far-flung villages in search of goats, sometimes covering over a hundred kilometers a day, bring home as many goats as possible on the bicycle, and then look after them at home for a night. The following day, he has to travel to Jorhat town, across the Brahmaputra, using three modes of transportation – bicycle, ferry, and truck, in that order – to sell the goats in the district meat market.
Sometimes, unable to sell all the goats at the market, he also returns home with a few goats, which are taken again to the market in his next trip. For the men of Dakhinpat Kaibarta, this cycle of procuring goats on a bicycle from distant villages and taking them to the Jorhat market the following day goes on uninterrupted. It is a highly strenuous job, particularly so in the summer months. No wonder when I visited Paban one late summer afternoon, he looked terribly weak and was still recovering from diarrhea. Paban explained his condition:
Even in this heat, I have to cycle for more than ten hours a day, with my cycle loaded with goats. Sometimes I carry six adult goats on my cycle for five-six hours a day. While at work, we have no choice but to eat and drink wherever it is available and cheap. Many a time, while on the road, we are so exhausted and thirsty that we drink water from roadside ponds if there are no villages nearby. Dysentery, fever, and body ache are common to us.
Dakhinpat Kaibarta used to be a fishing village in Majuli. However, with the steady depletion of the wetlands over the past few decades, the island’s fishery sector has almost collapsed, forcing communities like the Kaibartas to look for new sources of livelihood. An unprecedented fish epidemic that hit the island in the mid-1980s made matters worse for the fishermen. It was at this point that Paban and a few others in the village took up goat trading as an alternative. They were the pioneers of this new occupation. It soon gained popularity in the village, so much so that Dakhinpat Kaibarta is now known as Sagoli Beparir Gaon or the village of the goat traders in Majuli.
As I was chatting with Paban and his wife in their sotal (the front yard), some of the neighbours joined in as well. One of them was Gabbar, a young man in his mid-20s, who traded scrap metal for a living. Much like the goat traders, Gabbar also went around the island on his bicycle procuring scrap metals from households and workshops, which he then sold to a middleman who took them to Jorhat town. This is what Gabbar had to say about his occupation:
I deal with scrap mainly, but I do anything that comes my way for a living. The scrap business alone does not sustain the family, given the paucity of scraps in Majuli. In fact, there have been days when I went out to procure scrap but returned with goats or both. Then there are times when I go fishing in the morning so I can sell a few kilograms of fish while on my way to pro- cure scrap or goats.
The cases of Paban and Gabbar exemplify the crises facing rural livelihoods in Majuli. With both flooding and riverbank erosion turning disastrous over the course of the twentieth century, the natural resources – based traditional livelihoods have suffered hugely. Thus, in the case of Dakhinpat Kaibarta, fishing is no longer an important occupation even though for generations, fishing and the Kaibarta people were almost synonymous. Today, this community is forced to explore different forms of livelihood, some of which seem to work while others render them far more vulnerable. Gabbar’s story of I do any job that comes my way resonates with a large section of the island’s population, especially those living in the chaporis and the riverside areas and who are constantly displaced and dispossessed of their natural resources. In the process, they are increasingly decoupled from their traditional skills, social network, and their way of life as a whole.
This chapter examines the processes of livelihood transformations in Majuli by drawing on a political ecology approach to livelihoods that views livelihood decisions and their sustainability as “locally-specific materializations of translocal, economic, political, and environmental processes and structures” (Carr 2015: 336). Such an approach differs radically from most mainstream livelihood frameworks that are narrow economistic in their approaches. Drawn heavily on cultural ecology, these frameworks generally treat livelihoods as “systems of local resources and networks intermittently connected to social, economic, political, and environmental relations that cross scales” (Carr 2015: 333, emphasis added).
In contrast, political ecology views the so-called ‘local’as always influencing and influenced by processes and structures that are translocal in nature. Similarly, the political ecology of livelihoods also calls attention to the role of planetary phenomena such as climate change in shaping livelihood decisions. As Scoones (2009: 182) points out, a livelihood analysis that ignores the “big picture” is like “fiddling while Rome burned.” Drawing on Sen’s (1997) concepts of “capitals and capabilities,” Bebbington (1999: 2022) argues that “people’s assets are not merely means through which they make a living: they also give meaning to the person’s world” (emphasis original). In other words, for Bebbington, livelihoods are meaning-making endeavors; they concern questions of people’s identity (cf. Leach et al. 1999).
Discussing rural livelihoods in South Africa, geographer Brian King (2011) calls attention to “spatializing livelihoods,” which is to understand the reciprocal relationships between space and livelihoods. In other words, for King, “space operates as an enabling and constraining mechanism for livelihood systems, [and] livelihoods potentially rework spatial patterns” (2011: 300). According to King, a spatialized understanding of livelihoods “reveals that historical and contemporary processes remain meaningful in producing particular spatial configurations that will influence livelihood possibilities in the future” (2011: 309).
The above perspectives inform my engagement with the questions of rural livelihood transformations in Majuli. In what follows, I delve into the livelihood question in Majuli by paying attention to its material, cultural, and spatial dimensions across multiple scales. I look at the transformations of three sources of livelihood in particular – agriculture, fishery, and pottery – given their significance among my research communities on the island as a whole. The question of land remains one of my central concerns here. I also look at how the rural people in Majuli have started adopting new ways of living as their traditional livelihoods are increasingly under threat, and the challenges and opportunities involving these new sources of livelihoods.
Note: The writer is an assistant professor of Sociology & Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. His research interests include political ecology, water governance, hazards and disasters, environmental justice, agrarian studies, and island studies. He also possesses years of grassroots experience in environmental conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and community mobilization in rural India.