by Suraj Gogoi

In the winter of 1991, towards the end of November, three fishermen from Sadiya were making their usual rounds in Tengapani region of what was then Lohit district in Arunachal Pradesh. President’s Rule was already in place in Assam, implemented a year before on 27th of November 1990. ‘It took a year for the army to come to Sadiya’, noted Biren (name changed). Those fishermen saw thousands of Indian soldiers being dropped in the Tengapani area, mostly home to the Tai-Khamti community with whom these fishermen shared a profound symbiotic relationship. Hari (name changed), one among the three, noted that ten helicopters dropped the soldiers while one went around in circles. Few of them came to visit them and set up their camps for 10 days in the proximity. Among those soldiers, two were from Assam, who bought some fish from them. Hari recalls vividly that they bought ten bowls of tenga (sour) soup and four pieces of borolia fish (a popular river fish). Before the army left, they urged Hari and his friends to leave the place, as the search operations and counter-insurgency operations were about to intensify.

These fishermen belonged to Disoi, a Kaibarata village which sits next to the Kundil river, a tributary of the mighty Lohit in Sadiya. Disoi became a revenue village in 1930s. Changing course of the river and subsequent major floods of 1988, 2004, 2006 and 2012 have relocated its residents to various places. Changing courses of the river and lack of fish also affect them in various ways. A week ago, I met a villager while crossing a dolong (makeshift bamboo bridge) that connects Disoi to Miri Chapori. Seeing me fix my gaze at the water below, from the bridge, he mentioned of the lack of fish in the waters of Kundil. When I looked back at him and smiled, he added, that ‘the river has become too expensive’. The comment of this stranger, who happily surprised me, as I walked into Miri Chapori, touched me in many ways.

The lack of fish was not the only aspect that the notion of ‘expensive’ captures. It also indicates the outward distress migration and unemployment that grips the villagers of Disoi, as many worked in the boats that commuted in Saikhowa Ghat. The displaced labour find themselves in precarious positions after the Dhola Saikhowa Bridge became functional connecting Sadiya, Lohit and Lower Dibang Valley with the rest of Assam. Scarcity and inability to access resources are two undeniable predicament of a world that lay in capitalist ruins. ‘Expensive’ in many ways, to my mind, indicates that precarity of life and labour.

Disoi is home to multiple communities, with the Kaibarta being the majority. Their current settlement is beside the Kundil River towards the old highway that led to Saikhowa Ghat. In between the Kundil and Balijan, where Miri Chapori (sandbar region) is located, lies one of the major settlement—common grazing ground and agricultural area of the village. Pinuram Das notes that some Mishing families still own some land in the chapori, but they don’t live there anymore. The chapori now is home to people of the Moria and Nepali community primarily, although, very few Ahom families also live on the fringes of the chapori. Occupationally, only the Kaibarta take to fishing beyond subsistence, but not all of them. For the past two years, a herd of elephants have caused much trouble in Miri chapori, like many other places in Sadiya and Assam. They have lost lots of paddy and other vegetables that they cultivate in the chapori. Puniram believes that he wouldn’t cultivate any paddy in the chapori anymore as they are hapless at the face of the elephant herd. This winter, his visit to the chapori is limited to cutting and drying the straw for the thatched roof of his kitchen, which is almost worn out and won’t survive the next monsoon.

Most of the people from Disoi worked in the boats as drivers and helpers in Saikhowa Ghat, ran make shift shops and hotels in the river banks, and as monthly wage labourers in the government ran alcohol distillery (it used to be 350 rupees per month), until it was shut down in late 1990s. They also cultivate paddy on a subsistence basis. The arrival of the army, which the fishermen were a witness, also meant cleaning up the camps of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in Miri Chapori, where they were supervising the digging of a canal to change the course of the river Kundil and connect it to Balijan, yet another tributary of the Lohit.  The mud that was unearthered from the canal was used to build an embankment on one side. The work of digging the canal began roughly a year ago in 1990 before the army arrived. Mujibur Ali, a resident of Miri Chapori adds with a smile that there are no Miris (referring to Mishing community, the second largest plains tribe in Assam) here. The villagers of Disoi also had to suffer a lot during search operations. An extra plate in the kitchen, that exceeded the total members of the house, became a questionable thing to possess.

The work in the canal brought together people from most villages in Sadiya, who came in large numbers to offer their labour. The success of the canal would mean preventing lot of land loss and erosion in Miri Chapori which suffered tremendously during a series of floods and also added to the precarity of Saikhowa Ghat downstream. People offered their labour on a voluntary basis. Many note the presence of prominent ULFA leaders such as Bhim Buragohain and Paresh Baruah, among others. Most locals recall the people from Marwari community also lending their help in digging it. People in Disoi would say, referring to the Marwaris, that they too left the comfort of their shop and finally, opened their sandals! Some of them even recall people from Arunachal joining work, even if it was for a day.

The canal remains close to the public at large and most of them remember with some nostalgia. Perhaps labour creates a sense of belonging. In many ways, it also shows how infrastructures and water can assume a social nature. Water did flow through the canal, however, it didn’t meet its purpose as the water would flow inwards during floods. A few years later, a government project under the village panchayat in 1994-95 tried to make necessary modification to the canal. Many people from Disoi worked there for a daily wage of 25 rupees.  This later effort to revive the canal was a failure too.

Water and water related infrastructure is also a conscious reminder of human modification we have done to water and how it transforms us. The uncontrolled lives of water show us that the controlled world we thought we had around us is outside our grip and consciousness. We find ourselves in a water trap. More and more rivers are being dammed in the developing world. Certain environmental and ecological thinking, however, offers optimism too, amidst precarity. They argue that despite the human communities and their modifications, nature continues. We as humans are just part of it and what one needs to do is to harmonize it, not dominate. Water is a process after all.  We should treat any body of water as a living organism.

Human modifications are part of water systems. Infrastructures associated with water bodies bring together many actors and agendas, institutions and ideologies. When one looks at a river, the various parts of the river are used or approached differently. The ULFA nola is one such human modification which captures the social milieu of its time. The ULFA nola came to signify a social base of the ULFA in Sadiya, which however debatable, became an object of counter-insurgency measures. Seemingly, after the Dhola killings of five individuals, with the news of increasing recruitment of ULFA, lists of villagers particularly ones who have migrated to cities in search of employment are asked for with disturbing regularity. This was reminiscing to those days when the presence of an extra plate in the kitchen was questioned.

For people who live in land with no relations with water bodies, two islands might appear disjointed spaces but there are always connections. Same is true for a river. The people of Disoi might have more crossovers with the Tai-Khamtis of Lathao than their contiguous Ahom villages in Sadiya.  Water helped create those grounds of connection, through their productive activities. Physical features like winds also do play a role in establishing those connections. At other times, it can be kinship ties that connect them.

The case of the ULFA canal is a reminder how ideology and power become part of water and infrastructure. It shows us how there is a web of connections that gives us the social nature of water and infrastructure. Many biographies of people, rivers, institutions and things come together to make the social possible. Vilém Flusser reminds us that biographies are not chronologies of life, not of some sort of an ‘I’, but of lists of networks and connections. It is that sum of connections that we ought to think about.