Skip to main content

How climate change 'refugees' became victims of citizenship scrutiny in Assam

Sabita Biswas
Counterview Desk
Of the many people struggling to prove their citizenship in Assam are thousands of climate refugees who have been displaced because their lands have been swept away by erosion or floods, says a report in The Third Pole, pointing out, the situation has created mistrust between mainlanders and those staying on the chars (riverine islands) or on the banks of the Brahmaputra, the transboundary river that starts in Tibet and flows right through the Assam valley before entering Bangladesh.
In the majority of cases poor Bengali speaking people are the ones living on the chars and the riverbanks, and they are easily targeted as “Bangladeshis” or illegal immigrants, says the report.

Text:

In Bhuragaon, a small village that lies 103 kilometres east of Guwahati, the capital of Assam in north-eastern India, Sabita Biswas worries about her grandchildren. The 70-year-old has submitted land ownership documents under her husband and father-in-law’s names, but these have been rejected, because the land is no longer there, swept away by the mighty Brahmaputra River.
A widow who has lost her two sons, Biswas used to work as a domestic helper in Bhuragaon, and is among the marginalised that have neither the expertise, nor the money, to effectively argue their case. The only breadwinner in her family is her daughter-in-law, who works as a domestic helper across the river. Biswas is now going from door to door to find help for her grandchildren.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC), an initiative to document those with valid citizenship documents in Assam, has a long history. A series of anti-migrant agitations over six years led to an agreement called the Assam Accord in 1985. One of the main clauses of this accord was that anybody who had entered the state “on or after March 25, 1971” would be detected, disenfranchised, and expelled. The NRC was set up to process this documentation, assisted by a number of foreigners’ tribunals, whose judges pored over the documentation that would prove a person, or their parents, had been resident in the state before the crucial cut-off date.
When the NRC came out with its final list this September, having gone over the documentation of over 33 million people, 19 million were found to have unsound documentation. While the people technically have 120 days to appeal the decision, it is a difficult process.
India has assured Bangladesh, where the migrants are assumed to have arrived from, that it will not impact Bangladesh, which may mean that there will be no deportations there. Detention camps are being built for those whose citizenship is now under question, some being built by the very people who may be housed in them.
It is for good reason that Biswas worries about the future of her grandchildren, but she does not know what to do. “I submitted my land ownership document which was in my husband’s and father-in-law’s names, but NRC didn’t accept it even though we used to pay taxes for the land which is now under water,” she said.
In 2017, the Assam government decided to stop taxing land that has been lost due to erosion. So, Biswas was now reportedly told by officials that ownership records of land that has been lost due to erosion do not prove anything.
Under the Indian legal system, it is the duty of the local revenue department office to maintain records of homesteads, agricultural land, vacant land, waste land, government land and land marked for industrial development. In the NRC process a person has the option to show pre-1971 land ownership documents with links to the ancestor who figures in the document as the owner. Thus, old documents have become key to establishing citizenship. When these documents are missing, or have small mistakes, or if the land itself does not exist anymore, it can have a massive impact.
Brahmaputra
“We have lost our land in erosion. Earlier we were on the Arakati Char (a riverine island on the Brahmaputra). When our village went under water we migrated to this place, Bhuragaon. Every year flood takes away everything from us, including documents,” said Biswas with tear-filled eyes.

Thousands of internally displaced climate refugees

There are thousands of families who are badly affected by floods and erosion in Assam. This has been the case for centuries, but the rates of erosion and floods have gone up due to climate change, so there are more climate refugees now. Their forced move to new areas has led to these climate refugees being seen as “intruders”, possibly foreigners.
“Almost 40 villages in the Bhuragaon circle have been lost due to erosion. When the world is moving forward with technology we are going backward in isolation because of our geographical location, with erosion pushing us towards lack of health amenities, education, transport, and now [having to prove our identity for the] NRC,” said Photik Chandra Mondal, a member of the locally elected village body.
According to the Economic Survey of India, 10% of the country is flood prone. In Assam, this becomes approximately 40%, or 931,000 hectares. “The scale of the problem has grown with massive erosion, which stands at an average rate of 8,000 hectares every year in the state with a total of 427,000 hectares of land having been washed away since 1950,” according to Assam’s minister in charge of disaster management. He also said that from 2010 to 2015, 880 villages were completely lost due to erosion, 67 villages were partially lost, and 36,981 families lost their homes.
With the loss of land, and a growing population, the pressure on the remaining land has grown savage, and migrants of whatever sort, whether illegal immigrants, or those displaced within the state, are looked at with suspicion. In a state overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture, those without land have few livelihood options. The economic desperation has led to Assam becoming a hub of child and women trafficking. These are among the people now desperately trying to prove their citizenship.
“If a family has shifted internally within Assam after losing land, we have seen that the foreigners’ tribunals have declared them foreigners since the tribunals did not trust documents of different villages. The tribunals in several judgements felt that the people are different despite having the same name, since some of their documents would be from one area and some other documents would be from other area. There is no justice for those climate victims,” said Aman Wadud, a lawyer helping people fight their cases in the tribunals.

An atmosphere of mistrust

The situation has created mistrust between mainlanders and those staying on the chars (riverine islands) or on the banks of the Brahmaputra, the transboundary river that starts in Tibet and flows right through the Assam valley before entering Bangladesh. In the majority of cases poor Bengali speaking people are the ones living on the chars and the riverbanks, and they are easily targeted as “Bangladeshis” or illegal immigrants.
One activist in the area, Santanu Sanyal, the president of the All Assam Bengali Parishad, told thethirdpole.net, “Sudden [impacts due to] climate change and floods [coming without warning] in the last few years have done more damage to the poor people staying in riverside areas. And the hot weather [in which temperatures have increased] doesn’t allow them to work continuously in their agricultural lands. This has made the poor people poorer and now when they have nothing left, their names are not there in the NRC. Going to foreigners’ tribunals to fight a case also needs money.” But that is the only legal course left to such people. 
Similar tales can be found in the village of Sarabat Ali, 58. He and his family in Goroimari village of 
Sarabat Ali
Assam – located 100 kilometres from Guwahati – are extremely worried. They migrated from Belbheli village in Nalbari district of Assam. For almost 12 years they have lived on the embankments constructed by the Assam government on the Brahmaputra riverbank. Now Ali has been denied citizenship status, because when they migrated, his father’s name was listed as Kota Ali instead of Ansar Ali. Now the family is being told that they cannot claim relation to the man.
“Due to migration from that area to this, this problem arose. Because of the fault in my name 12 members of our family are denied NRC,” said Sarabat Ali’s octogenarian father.
“Already we are erosion- and flood-hit people, we don’t own land. How will we pay lawyer’s fees for the foreigners’ tribunal?” asked Sarabat.
In similar circumstances Mazeda Begum and her husband Kuddus Ali settled on land provided by the government in the Kamrup area of Assam. Their land in Champupara village under Goroimari circle had been washed away.
“We have provided our previous land document in my husband and son’s name but that didn’t help,” said Mazeda Begum. “My husband is a daily wage earner; we don’t have the money to go to tribunals now.”

Easy targets

“Those people whose land and homes [have been lost to erosion and] become internally displaced, the moment they move to a newer area in search of livelihood they become soft targets and prime suspects. [They are] often branded as illegal immigrants. The strong correlations between climate change, river erosion and flooding has always been underplayed in the illegal migration discourse in Assam,” Wadud said.

Comments

Association for Climate Refugees (ACR) in Bangladesh is very much interested to know more about what continues to happen to the two families mentioned in the article. Please contact climaterefugees@gmail.com

TRENDING

'Blatant violation' of law by Central government in making NREGA payments

By Our Representative  In September third week, NREGA workers across the country were mobilised for two day so raise their issues and submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister. Organised the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NSM), a collective of groups that work with NREGA labourers across the country, workers from 13 states -- Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal -- carried out Kaam Do Abhiyaan, staging demonstrations and rallies against what they called blatant violation of law by the Central government in making NREGA payments. While NREGA has had very positive impacts, it has lately become fruitless, exploiting labour, even though workers who have put in honest hard work have to wait for their wages endlessly, it was suggested.  In such a situation, there is a need to firm up NREGA implementation and end systematic corruption to ensure that workers get their basic NREGA entit

Fascism on prowl? Religious meet 'deeply pained' at silence of Church, bishops, priests

Counterview Desk  The ‘Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace’which held its 17th National Convention at the Montfort Social Institute, Hyderabad, Telangana from 22 to 24 September 2022 on the theme “Deepening our Identity as Religious: Responding to the Signs of the Times”, has expressed concern “at the deteriorating situation of our nation on every front”, especially stating, “Fascism seems to have come to stay” in India. At the same time, the convention, which took place with the participation of 60 persons from 16 states representing 20 religious congregations, in its unanimously-adopted statement added, “We have reached abysmal depths on every parameter: be it social, economic and political”, underlining, “The poor in India become poorer every day; the rich and powerful continue to profiteer at their expense and amass scandalous amounts of wealth.” Text: We, members (63 women and men Religious, from 16 states representing 20 Congregations) of the Forum of Religious for Justice

Muslim intellectuals met Bhagwat, extra-constitutional authority 'like Sanjay Gandhi'

By Shamsul Islam*  In a significant development a delegation of five Muslim intellectuals namely former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi; former senior bureaucrat Najeeb Jung; former AMU vice-chancellor and Lt Gen (retd) Zameer U Shah; politician-cum-journalist Shahid Siddiqui (presently with RLD); and businessman Saeed Shervani [Samajvadi Party] met RSS Supremo Mohan Bhagwat at RSS Delhi headquarters. The meeting was kept secret for reasons known to the participants and was held in August. According to the Muslim intellectuals the meeting held in “a very cordial” atmosphere continued for 75 minutes whereas time allotted was 30 minutes! In a post-meeting justification of the parleys Quraishi stated that their main concern was “the insecurity being increasingly felt by the Muslim community in the wake of recurring incidents of lynching of innocents, calls by Hindutva hotheads for genocide and the marginalisation of the community in almost every sphere”. This delegation consistin

Whither Govt of India strategy to reduce import dependence on crude oil, natural gas?

By NS Venkataraman*  India presently imports around 80% of it’s crude oil requirement and around 50% of its natural gas requirements . As the domestic production of crude oil and natural gas are virtually stagnant and the domestic demand is increasing at around 7% per annum, India’s steadily increasing dependence on import of the vital energy source is a matter of high energy security concern. This is particularly so, since the price of crude oil and natural gas are considerably fluctuating / increasing in the global market due to geo political factors, which are beyond the control of India. India has promised to achieve zero emission by the year 2070, which mean that the level of emission has to start declining at slow and steady rate from now onwards. It is now well recognized that global emission is caused largely due to use of coal as fuel and natural gas as fuel and feedstock. While burning of coal as fuel cause emission of global warming carbon dioxide gas and sulphur

Rajasthan cops 'halt' Gujarat Dalit women's rally: homage to untouchability victim boy

By Our Representative  In a surprise move, the Rajasthan police stopped a Dalit women's rally from Gujarat on the borders after it crossed Gujarat alleging that it would "disturb peace" in village Surana, Jalore district, where the gruesome incident of death of a Dalit boy took place on August 13 after he was brutally beaten up by his teacher on touching the drinking water pot. Sources said, while the Gujarat government had "no objection" in allowing the rally, which originated from the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK), an empowerment-cut-technical institute for teens founded by human rights leader Martin Macwan, on September 24 morning, the Rajasthan police stopped it for two and a half hours before allowing it to proceed to Surana. The decision to take out a women's rally was taken at a DSK meeting on September 5 following a condolence meeting of the NGO Navsarjan Trust, also founded by Macwan, activists committed to work against caste-based discrimination, orga

Why Bose's India Gate statue suggests RSS, BJP need violence-loving ‘Hindu’ Netaji

By Prem Singh*  In a TV channel debate, a BJP spokesperson and anchor shared and served a lie that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's daughter in her letter to the Prime Minister has alleged that the Congress kept devaluing Netaji to further Gandhi's non-violence; because Netaji had taken the path of liberating the country through violence mode by forming the Azad Hind Fauj (INA). They also praised the Bombay Royal Naval Mutiny of 1946 to confirm that the country got its independence through a violent route. I stated that I have read the letter of Netaji's daughter, and there is no such allegation in it. But a lie told in the intoxication of power is bound to be blatant. Netaji's daughter Anita Bose Pfaff, even in the past, has already requested some earlier prime ministers of the country to bring back the mortal remains of her father from Japan to India. In none of the letters she has spoken about devaluation of her father’s role in the freedom movement on the basis of Gandh

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Is coal import dependence of more than 50% by 2047 of any relevance to India?

By Shankar Sharma*  I have read the article " Building Resilience in India’s Power Sector " by N Vedachalam, released by the Observer Research Foundation, with a lot of interest. I expected it to provide few useful recommendations to our authorities in charting out a sustainable pathway to green energy transition much before the climate catastrophe push our communities to the precipice. But I am sorry to say that the overall discussions or the message implied in the article disappointed me. I was expecting the article, coming from an engineer with past experience in the power sector, to discuss the much needed recommendations to put the power sector on a sustainable developmental pathway. But I could notice mostly technical jargon and a lot of statistical information, which may already be available in the public domain.   The article also seems to have simply accepted what some of the official agencies seem to have indicated as inevitable for the power sector in our country;

'True decolonisation move': Demand to name new Parliament building after Ambedkar

By Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd*  In recent weeks, there has been a demand for the new Parliament building being constructed on the revamped Central Vista in New Delhi to be named after the architect of the Constitution and anti-caste leader BR Ambedkar. On September 14, the Telangana Assembly passed a resolution urging the Centre to name the new Parliament building after Ambedkar. The Bharatiya Janata Party was absent during the debate about the resolution. The next day, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi-led government declared that the new secretariat in the centre of Hyderabad would be named after Ambedkar. Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao added that he would write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to name the new Parliament building in Delhi “Ambedkar Parliament”. The demand is finding resonance among civil society groups too and has led to social media discussions as well as public mobilisation.  But two questions arise: Should a Parliament that makes laws for a nation over a

Government 'fails to take up' Indian migrants' unpaid wages issue with other countries

By Rafeek Ravuther, Chandan Kumar, Dharmendra Kumar*  The migrant workers were one of the most vulnerable sections during the pandemic. India experiences large-scale movement of migrants internally and internationally. After the outbreak of the pandemic, migrant workers continued to face injustice especially in getting wages in expedited manner. In the international context, India, the home of 9 million cross-border temporary labour migrants, carried out the largest repatriation exercise ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. Even though the Indian government addressed the immediate requirement of repatriation, it failed to understand and recognise their post-arrival grievances, like back wages, social protection etc. Recently many workers were deported from the middle- east region. Amidst the establishment of grievance mechanisms such as Consular Services Management System (MADAD) and helplines in Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra (PBSK), the unresolved grievances remain high. The number of unresolv