Connectivity, pending for centuries, still remains a major issue in the world’s largest river island Majuli, which goes to polls on Saturday, in the first leg of the three-phase Assam Assembly elections.
Majuli, 350 km north of Guwahati, has a political significance during this election as Chief Minister and ruling BJP nominee Sarbananda Sonowal had first time won the seat in 2016, which was once a Congress stronghold, and is now seeking re-election.
Political pundits said that Sonowal though this time locked in a five-cornered contest but his main fight would be with Congress candidate and former Minister Rajib Lochan Pegu, who had won the seat three consecutive times since 2001 but lost to 59-year-old saffron party candidate last time in 2016 by a margin of 18,923 votes.
Sonowal had secured 49,602 votes (nearly 51 per cent of the total votes) while Pegu managed 30,679 votes in 2016 in the Assembly constituency, which was declared a district in 2016 curved out of Jorhat district in eastern Assam.
The Majuli constituency has been a Congress stronghold with the party candidates winning the seat five times since 1962. The Asom Gana Parishad won the seat thrice in 1991, 1996 and 2000 while independent candidates won the seat 1967 and 1985 and Janata Party nominee in 1978.
Along with 46 other constituencies, Majuli, reserved for tribals, would go for balloting in the first phase on March 27.
Connectivity is the main issue for Majuli as the island, with a population of 1,70,650, is only accessible by ferries from Jorhat.
Promising a bridge, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari laid a foundation stone in February 2016 but the project has had no headway in the past five years.
Last month Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed the Bhumi Pujan for the two-lane Majuli bridge on the Brahmaputra between Majuli (North Bank) and Jorhat (South Bank).
The 8-km long bridge, to be built at a cost of Rs 925 crore, will be located on NH-715K and will connect Neematighat (on Jorhat side) and Kamalabari (on Majuli side).
Jayant Bhagwati, a local resident, said that besides connectivity, erosion of soil is the other big problem of the river island.
“If the connectivity problem was solved earlier, the economy of the people would be much better. The Economy of Majuli district is agrarian agriculture along with its allied activities the principal occupation of the people of Majuli.
As high as around 90 percent of the total population of the district depended their livelihood from agriculture and its allied activities,” Bhagwati told IANS.
Farmer Ramesh Dutta said that people of Majuli are fed up with empty promises of the BJP government and leaders.
“Despite Chief Minister representing the constituency, the development of the backward region is a far cry. No master plan or no road map for the development of the tribal dominated island,” Dutta, a Congress supporter, told IANS over phone.
Confident to win the seat with bigger margin than last year, Sonowal said that after declaring first island district in the country our government has taken a number of steps for the socio-economic development of Majuli, which is known as the seat of Assam’s neo-Vaishnavite religion and culture spread by the 15th-16th century saint-scholar and socio-religious reformer Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev.
“Besides development of educational network and solar electricity connections, our government has provided all possible support to the farmers,” he told the media.
Majuli made international headlines nearly 24 years back when, Sanjoy Ghose, a social worker was kidnapped by the Ulfa on July 4, 1997, and killed a day later. Ghose was the secretary of the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development (Avard-NE) which mostly worked on an experimental basis to prevent erosion by building embankments.
The island continues to face the menace of erosion.
As per the land survey records of 1950, the total habitable land mass was 1245.12 sq km. Mysteriously the number of its population is increasing more than 1.35 lakh during the post independent decades in Majuli.
Due to the regular erosion especially during the four-month long (June-September) monsoon Majuli’s land mass has shrunk to almost half of 1245.12 sq km now.
Various reports said that in the past 20 years, over 3,000 families have been forced to shift away from their traditional homes after their houses were eroded by the rising waters of Brahmaputra and its tributaries.
A district official said that the Union government has taken some decisions in December 2017 and a Rs 233-crore project was undertaken to bring erosion under control and also to regain lost landmass but the project did not progress much due to various reasons including timely release of funds by the center.
The population in Majuli Assembly Constituency comprises tribal communities including Misings, Deoris and Sonowal Kacharis. Non-tribal communities include Koch, Kalitas, Ahoms, Chutias.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)