Discussion puts spotlight on Majuli, Assam’s shrinking river island

The conversation centred around Slow Disaster, authored by academic Mitul Baruah

Updated - November 19, 2022 09:35 pm IST

Published - November 19, 2022 09:32 pm IST - New Delhi

Mital Baruah, author of Slow Disaster, speaks during a panel discussion on his book.

Mital Baruah, author of Slow Disaster, speaks during a panel discussion on his book. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A panel discussion at the India International Centre in Delhi put the spotlight on Assam’s Majuli, one of the largest river islands in the world which has experienced immense socio-environmental transformation over the years. The two-hour session on Friday drew over 80 participants.

The conversations centred around Slow Disaster: Political Ecology of Hazards and Everyday Life in the Brahmaputra Valley (Routledge, London, 2022), an ethnographic account of the challenges faced by the island’s resident communities by Mitul Baruah, assistant professor at Ashoka University.

While moderator Swargajyoti Gohain, associate professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ashoka University, spoke of the value of anthropological methods in writing a biography of a place, writer, columnist and human rights activist Sanjoy Hazarika pointed out that a large section of Assam’s population (roughly one-twelfth of the total population) lives on the chars (riverine islands) that are transitory in nature, thus highlighting the vulnerability of the population.

Arupjyoti Saikia, professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Guwahati, highlighted how the embankments have become so much a part of the everyday lexicon in the Brahmaputra valley within a short span of time that it has colonised our imagination.

Mr. Baruah, the author of Slow Disaster, commented that the book’s overall contribution was to develop a theory of “slow disaster” — that is, a disaster that is not cataclysmic but incremental, one that unfolds quietly and out of sight.

Three interventions

The panel discussion was followed by a presentation made by the author where he highlighted the three main interventions that he has made in the book: understanding the role of the state in the production and re-production of the Majuli hazardscape; a political-ecological analysis of rural livelihood transformations on the island; and the agency of disaster-affected people by looking at their various forms of resistance in the time of environmental crisis.

Slow Disaster begins with an examination of Majuli’s geography and ecological complexities and goes on to discuss the role of the state in water governance and hazard management as well as popular resistance by the island’s rural populace. It focuses on livelihoods as a way of offering economic context to living in challenging environmental conditions and examines the interactions between the state and a whole host of non-state actors, and the everyday, arbitrary functioning of the bureaucracy in a ‘hazardscape’.

The book foregrounds the political ecology of hazards, water and hydraulic infrastructure, rural livelihoods, agrarian questions, as well as social movements in north-east India.

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