András Zoltai

2020 - Ongoing

Assam, India

Majuli is the world’s largest inhabited island lies in the mighty Brahmaputra River, in the state of Assam, North-East India. The island has approximately 170.000 inhabitants. Every monsoon, the island is under threat due to the extensive soil erosion on its banks. Much of the land is underwater for months swallowing large chunks of land. In the last 100 hundred years, the island has been eroded at an unexpected pace — probably because of the changing climate, the massive deforestation and the incorrect regulation policy of the river. By today, slowly but steadily it has been shrinking to one-third of its original size. Since 1991, over 35 villages have been washed away and thousands left their homes. Surveys predict that in 20 years from now, Majuli would cease to exist.

The reason for this magnitude in erosion is still uncertain, but probably is due to the large embankments built in neighbouring towns upriver, and the incorrect and irresponsible regulation system of the upper parts and anabranches. Massive deforestation in upstream areas also loosened topsoil and increased the sediments carried by the river, leading to the current situation. Not scientifically proven yet, but according to locals, the problem of Majuli is probably caused by the changing climate and a series of bad decisions made by policymakers in India, or even in China.

In the meantime, local people do a heroic fight with nature and time to protect their land and culture. I visited Majuli in the middle of the dry season in January 2020 to experience how locals prepare for a more dangerous and unpredictable monsoon season. In this period of the year, villagers voluntarily fill sandbag embankments all along the affected banks of the Brahmaputra and anabranches. The environment is pretty calm this season.

Fighting with the river is a way of life there. People respect the river and its floods because without excessive water there will be no rich harvest on the rice fields. On the other hand, this excessive water might ruin their bamboo houses, and a unique culture they nurture for ages. Mishing people is the biggest tribe on the island. Their everyday life still relies on the nature of the river. This contradictory fight against ( and for ) the river makes me think about the connection between nature and humankind. Nature plays its role without questions, and our land is more fragile than we think.

I plan to revisit the island during and after the monsoon and make a deep reportage about the island and its story

Project schedule:

There are 3 stages of this project.

I am planning to visit the island in every season, at least 3 times:

1. During the more calm dry season when everyone prepares for the flood, building protection around their villages. To experience the everyday life of the community (I already visited last year January - February)

2. During monsoon when there is a significant flood; This is the most important stage, visiting families whose homes are affected by Brahmaputra, possibly for a minimum of 3 weeks. (June - July 2021)

3. After the monsoon, see how the land altered after the flood, revisit the same families, and also travel along the Brahmaputra finding out the origin of the problem. (September - October 2021)

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  • Mishing people fishing with a special fish trap called ‘Jang’ in the Kherkatia River which is a small offshoot of Brahmaputra, close to Jengraimukh. This narrow river flows west and south-west direction demarcating the northern boundary of Majuli.

    Jengraimukh, 2020

  • A traditionally built Mishing bamboo hut — villagers has been living on houses built on stilts that protect them from floods for ages. However, stilts can easily collapse on loose structure of the soil especially along the endagered riverside.

    Barali Mora, 2020

  • The land is literally cracking. The structure of the soil consist of very soft sand that can collapse easily during rainy season. Every year the bank of the river draws its boundaries showing a new face of the island.

    Kamalabari Ghat, 2020

  • Inland water covers almost the whole surface of the island even in the dry season.

    Jengraimukh, 2020

  • Villagers collect sand from the river bed of Brahmaputra, and transport to endangered part of the riverside in order to build sandbag enbankments. Winter season is the time to prepare for the flood because the river is very shallow.

    Dakhinpat, 2020

  • At Selek Ghat locals fill sandbags that might weigh over 700 kgs. They push filled sandbags into the river by their hands. This is the cheapest way to protect their villages. Everyone work voluntarily.

    Selek Ghat, 2020

  • Villagers from Mishing tribe take bath in a swamp lake close to Maharichuk Gaon.

    Maharichuk Gaon, 2020

  • Boarding to the ferry.

    Nimati Ghat, 2020

  • A man is waiting for the excavator at Selek Ghat that helps to move sand to the workers.

    Selek Ghat, 2020

  • Villagers gather together to cook aromatic rice beer called ‘Apong’ close to the village Kamalabari. It is an essential drink for every Mishing family.

    Kamalabari, 2020

  • Massive deforestation in upstream areas also loosened topsoil and increased the sediments carried by the river, leading to the current situation.

    Kharki Chuk, 2020

  • The island has been the hub of Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture. Many monasteries called Satras constructed since the 15th century, and still represent the colourful Assamese culture. Unfortunately, the subsequent soil erosion have brought down the number of Satras in the river island and endangering the remaining ones

    Auniati Satra, 2020

  • A girl handpuming water into a jug in the pouring rain. In remote villages drinking water is usually not accessible.

    Garamur, 2020

  • RCC Porcupine system is a cost-effective method of riverbank protection. The Water Department of India attempted to overcome excessive erosion by constructing porcupines along the Brahmaputra.

    Dakhinpat, 2020

  • Kamar Gaon, 2020

  • Students pulling a rope as an exercise on the court of a local elementary school close to Bon Gaon.

    Bon Gaon, 2020

  • People playing cardgames on the ferry that comes from Nimati Ghat to Kamalabari Ghat. Ferries might take more than an hour to reach the island. Even more in the summer due to the powerful streams that slow down the boats.

    Nimati Ghat, 2020

  • New sight of the riverbank. More than 96 km of the riverbank surrounding Majuli has been covered by sandbags to avoid landslides on the bank.

    Dakhinpat, 2020

  • Brick factory close to Gayan Gaon. More brick houses appear on the island due to its steady structure.

    Gayan Gaon, 2020

  • Early morning view of inland swamp lakes between Garamur and Kamalabari

    Kamalabari, 2020