A Buddhist Perspective on the Environmental Problems of Majuli Island
- Buddhist door International Dr. Ramala Sarma
The delightful locale of Majuli is located in Jorhat district of Assam, a Northeastern state of India. It is said that ancient earthquakes created Majuli, now the largest inhabited riverine island in the world. With a population of over 150,000 and a density of 300 people per square kilometer, the island is a bastion of Vaishnavite culture. Srimanta Sankardeva, the 15th-16th century Vashnavite leader, sought shelter on this island and brought culture (sanskriti) and devotion (bhakti) through the establishment of the satras (monasteries constructed by the Vaishnavites). To this day the sun rises with devotional songs and sets with worshipful prayer. The serenity of this pristine culture and isolated environs has shaped the lifestyle of its people people, allowing them to live for centuries in harmony. Set in the middle of the mighty river Brahmaputra, Majuli is a picturesque island with scenic splendor, a rich agricultural tradition, a diverse range of arts and crafts, and endangered flora and fauna.
However, behind this idyllic veil lurks the shadow of a sorrowful truth: Majuli is suffering. The Buddha, in his middle age, discovered this truth: that even pleasant things in life are associated with pain and dissatisfaction. He elaborated this in his teaching of the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, it has a cause, suffering can be overcome and there is a way to accomplish this.
There is suffering: Majuli is suffering from loss of land, lives, property, and tradition. Majuli had a total area of 1,250 square kilometers, but presently it has an area of only 421.65 square kilometers. The Majulians have had to move from their own villages to others or to the mainland. The island is also losing its status as a haven for exotic migratory birds.Satras face the threat of flooding. Once, Majuli boasted of 65 satras. But thanks to their shift to the mainland, the number now reduced to 22. This is a severe blow to the island’s Assamese culture. It is uncertain if this island will survive at all. During 25 – 30 June, 2012, almost 70% of the culturally rich island was inundated. Clearly, Majuli is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis and needs an urgent but long-term solution.
There is a cause for suffering: There are several identifiable causes to Majuli’s plight. The predominant triggers are the frequent riverbank erosions and annual floods. The floods have remained the quintessential threat to the island’s rich agricultural tradition and flora and fauna. During the last flood from 25 – 30 June 2012, the mighty river breached the Bechamara dyke, inundating Salmora village. Nevertheless, Majuli’s island-dweller people have been able to endure since the floodwater recedes once the river returns to its normal water levels. The more acute problem is the erosion that imperils the survival of Majuli itself. Every year the Brahmaputra slices away parts of the island, constantly eroding away the land on which the villages stand. The constant damage has forced the people and thesatras to move to the mainland, and it is possible the island may be abandoned altogether.
There is a cessation of suffering: It is true that the state government has been taking various measures. Among them are the protection of siltation in the form of land spurs, timber dampeners, bamboo cribs and bamboo porcupines. This is meant to help prevent recurring floods and the erosion of the riverbanks. However, these measures have not been met with the expected results. Why is the island still suffering from nature’s wrath?
There is a way to the cessation of suffering: As the government’s current measures are not in tune with the right path that leads to the cessation of suffering, the island is still in peril. The Buddh observed that only action performed in the light of right conduct (sila), right concentration (samadhi) and right knowledge (prajna) could lead to genuine success. Here the name of Sanjay Ghosh is noteworthy. He worked in Majuli about one and a half years under the banner of Avard-Ne, an NGO. His passion for the eradication of rural problems took him to Majuli in April 1996. His sociability, love and compassion for the Majulians attracted them to his mission for protecting the island. Unlike governmental efforts that were exercised from the outside, Sanjay happily suffered with the island’s people. He also initiated an experimental project that utilized a 1.7-kilometer stretch of the island’s riverbank as a green “laboratory”. Here, he planted an aquatic plant – ipomoea aquatica – that was purported to help prevent erosion to the banks.
Sanjay Ghosh is not alive today. On July 4, 1997, he was abducted and killed because his welfare activities went against the selfish interests of local opportunists.
Although his work was left unfinished, Majuli’s people remember him with great reverence: the “1.7 kilometre stretch of the island” still stands today, unaffected by erosion. It was Sanjay who approached the HRD ministry for the first time, in order to process an application for listing Majuli as an endangered world heritage site. He realized that saving the island as well as giving it a world heritage site status was crucial. Perhaps now is the time to act on his wisdom.
Suffering has been a fact of life since the dawn of humankind. Perhaps suffering is the stepping-stone of civilization, for so many inventions were created in order to lessen our miseries, from cooking to housing to agriculture. But even in this era of science and technology, Majuli has been brought to its knees by recurrent floods and coastal erosion. The government must take the urgency of the issues seriously and concentrate on the problems, their causes, their cessation and finally the best way leading to the required solutions. As the death toll and damage costs rise year by year, the government has to find a long-term environmental measure to protect against flood and erosion. Currently, it is far from certain they are on the right track. Perhaps it could take refuge in sila, samadhi and prajna as taught by the Buddha?