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The double jeopardy of climate change and citizenship: Envisioning resilience in the chars of Assam

By Anindita Chakrabarty | OMC 2024

Photo taken by the author during her fieldwork in Nirala Char in the Barpeta district of Assam, 2023-24.

Chars are transient landscapes, which are roughly translated to riverine islands. They are fluid landscapes that render residency an impermanent phenomenon. Chars are formed by silt deposits in the Brahmaputra. Subject to a continuous process of deposition and erosion, these land masses are temporary and like the flow of the river itself, subject to change almost every year. With irregular and unpredictable inundation, disappearance and appearance of land, land ownership in the region is fraught with ambiguity. About 4.5% of Assam’s population lives in the char areas.

The article takes the field location in the chars (riverine islands) in the northeast Indian state of Assam, and employs the conceptual lens of resilience to understand people’s everyday negotiations with river erosion, climate-induced displacement and construction of a ‘doubtful’ identity. It also takes cognisance of some of the recent evictions in the char areas, when the lack of land ownership was cited as the marker of illegality of the residents. It attempts to examine how the char-dwellers navigate and seek belonging living in a fluid habitat, in the absence of a permanent home, and the narrative around the illegality of their identity. 

As a result of the fluid nature of chars, as populations in Assam get displaced due to the inundation of land, there are no visible and pronounced rehabilitation policy initiatives. Concurrently, citizenship in India is largely determined by sedentary residence. Hence, the legality of residence of the displaced in Assam (to a new destination) comes to be questioned by the state and a vigilant civil society, entailing doubt and suspicion regularly. This often culminates in displaced people being labelled illegal foreigners or ‘Bangladeshis’. 

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) that aims to document ‘authentic’ citizens residing in Assam, is viewed critically due to its exclusion of several sections of riverine communities  (among whom the Bengal origin Muslims, settled in the chars, are also included). These communities traverse the question of citizenship, which is tied to land rights and indigeneity. The instability of the land mass in the char areas implies the impermanent nature of the land itself. This translates to make residence and/or citizenship impermanent. This is because the land is not necessarily owned on an individual and permanent basis, and hence is subject to negotiation. Where land itself is impermanent and shifting, ownership is much like the river that flows through it. Hence, residence and citizenship come to be contested in these landscapes and largely emerge as ‘transient’.


Through hard labour, agriculturists have been able to cultivate the fertile soil of the chars. However, this also leaves them vulnerable to erosion-induced displacement. Migrant workers in Assam’s unorganised labour sector are often unable to furnish the paperwork required for NRC verification. Furthermore, detention centres for foreigners in the state were sanctioned to withhold those who could not prove their identity in the NRC process (proof of residence implies the aspect of ‘permanence’ of not only residence but also the land). Rivers renew the destruction and construction of chars and the floods that continue to shatter agricultural land and human settlement. It consequently questions the accessibility to permanent land.  

These complex realities are absent in the eviction narratives which popularise angles of ‘illegal migration’, and that inhabitants have settled on government lands. This is also based on the imagination of ‘land’ as fixed and a binary understanding of land and water and not recognising the transient nature of the landscapes. This is embedded in the colonial land policy, and land revenue, that becomes possible by attributing fixity to land, and determining its territorial limit. The post-colonial state continues to enjoy the power to unilaterally demarcate tribal belts, reserve forest and grazing reserves. This has also meant that the state reserves the right to arbitrarily evict populations, acquiring massive tracts of land in the name of development projects or in the name of clearing encroachers on government land like what took place in Dhalpur in Darang district in 2021. Narratives that were circulated in mainstream media reiterated that “Those evicted from Darrang were encroachers, not victims”. 

There is an absence of a welfare state, yet a brutal state persists, which only legitimises oppression and patronises punishment. For example, river erosion is unrecognised as a disaster. Juri Baruah observes that construction of embankments was proposed as a prime concern of the state in order to protect the tea industries as well as oil and natural gas reserves in Upper Assam, thus denaturalising erosion as a natural process. The political economy of the state shows that cumulative land use decisions affect soil degradation and erosion. In this process, erosion does not qualify as a disaster. As erosion is not recognised as a disaster, the lack of rehabilitation policies in the erosion affected areas is unquestioned.      

Additionally, the lack of a ‘patta’ in the chars gives immense power to the hands of the State as they can evict people citing that they are trespassers, settling in government land. Land patta is a legal document that includes the details of the legal owner; it is referred to as ‘Record of Rights.’     The impermanence of residence owing to the shifting course of the river, coupled with soil erosion also makes people shift from one land to the other. This impermanence and absence of ‘patta’ is cited as a reason for their illegality of residence. Policy initiatives are also defined by the very conception of ‘indigeneity’. A newly implemented Mission Vasundhara, is a government policy of giving land rights. As part of this policy, the people of chars are not being given land rights. It attributes land rights to only ‘bhumi putras’ or the sons of the soil. The absence of land rights regularises the people’s impermanent status. These anecdotes bring out the production of illegality that takes place through the process of undocumenting and unrecognising the transient nature of habitat and landscapes.

Anindita Chakrabarty is presently working as an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the School of Law, Mahindra University, Hyderabad INDIA. She teaches courses on migration, political ecology and climate change, and introductory sociology. She researches on migration and is presently leading a project on climate change and migration, which has been accepted for an internal research grant for two years by Mahindra University in September, 2022. She completed her Ph.D. from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai in 2021. Her doctoral research unravels the contestations around identity and citizenship in contemporary northeast Indian state of Assam. In her M.Phil. (pre-doctoral) research, she carried out ethnographic work to understand the notion of undocumentedness of Bangladeshi migrants in West Bengal, India. Her interest areas comprise citizenship, governance, and migration studies. Her research works have been published in reputed journals.


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