Boat-making in Sayengiya village. Image credit - Farhana Ahmed

Haren Tawe, a 35-year-old man from Uriumtola village on the banks of river Subansiri in Lakhimpur district of Assam was found giving finishing touches to a boat he had been making in the last one week. Spending a hefty sum of Rs 15,000 for the timber from Urium tree, Haren was sceptical about the return of the cost he has already made and the labour involved. Though he hopes to get back the money from the earnings of his new boat, the troubling nature of the river in the past couple of years is a matter of worry.

Jadab Pegu, an elder from the Sayengiya village in Dhemaji district of Assam, is worried for the losing demand of Guta Otlung (a small boat made from a single log) from other villages. He, who once made ten to fifteen boats in the monsoon season, is not receiving a single order from buyers outside so far this year.

Haren Tawe making a boat in Uriumtola village. Image credit – Farhana Ahmed
Haren Tawe making a boat in Uriumtola village. Image credit – Farhana Ahmed

“For the last four decades, we have been making boats from single log mostly from Azar trees. The river (Gai Nadi) has been generous as it brought hundreds of drifting wood in big sizes which we collected and dried to cut for making small boats. But in the last couple of years the river has been erratic in carrying logs and brings smaller and less amount of wood,” says Jadab.

Boat making from Urium and Azar trees

The name of the revenue village is Uriumtola — meaning the place under the Urium tree. Urium (Bischofia javanica) is a medium to fairly large, usually deciduous tree with dark red, dense wood which is also called the Bishop wood or Java cedar. The village under North Lakhimpur Revenue Circle of Lakhimpur district of Assam is located on the left bank of the river Subansiri, the largest tributary of the Brahmaputra. A homogenous village inhabited by Mising community, the village earned its name for the abundance of the Urium tree once it had. The community, living by the big river, made boats from the wood of the tree. Now both the numbers of the Urium trees, once used by tigers to leave claw to mark for demarcating their areas, and production of boats are on the decline.

 On the slopes of the eastern Himalayas on Assam-Araunachal Pradesh inter-state boundary lays a village called Sayengia on the bank of river Gai Nadi. Belonging to the Bordoloni Revenue Circle of Dhemaji district, Sayengiya is a large village with homogenous Mising community engaged in agriculture and fishing activities. But most importantly, the village has been producing Otlung, a traditional boat which is the lifeline of the Mising community living on the riverine areas in the plains of Upper Assam. The Sayengiya village is known for Guta Otlung — a traditional boat made from a single log of wood. Guta Otlung is used in crossing of rivers, fishing, firewood collection, transport of food for man and animals, in looking after their cattle farms, bringing of goods from the market to sell in the small micro shops in the village and also relief materials during flood are distributed with the help of this boat. One of the important uses of Guta Otlung during flood is transportation of emergency serious patients from village to the place where road transportation is available to reach the nearest health centre. The Sayengiya village is also known for its boats which are sold to users coming from further downstream areas of the river Gai Nadi.

Guta Otlung boat in Sayengiya village. Image credit – Farhana Ahmed
Guta Otlung boat in Sayengiya village. Image credit – Farhana Ahmed

There is traditional boat making villages in Bormotary on the banks of river Jiyadhal, a tributary of the Subansiri under Dhemaji Revenue Circle of Dhemaji district and in Galighat off the river Brahmaputra in Jonai under Dhemaji district of Assam.

In all these villages except Uruimtola, boats are made from Azar (Lagerstroemia speciosa) trees called Queen’s crepe-myrtle or pride of India. Azar, a deciduous tree with purple flowers that bloom in early summer, is resistant to water-logging and hence valuable for making boats. But the fall in the number of the trees is leaving the boat makers of these villages jobless as the timber of Azar is fast becoming unavailable.

Biswajeet Sayengiya (30), a young boat maker from Sayengiya village, says that he is yet to see the demand and sale of the boats as told by his father at his time.

“I was told that earlier people came from distant places to buy boats to our village. But the number is fast dwindling now,” laments Biswajeet. He attributes the dying state of their traditional livelihood to the abnormality in the river which has become very shallow with increased silt. “When the river turns shallow on its downstream areas, there is less use of boats,” explains Biswajeet. The declining number of Azar trees in the past few years has also caused a fall in boat making, observes Biswajeet.

Sayengiya village is found dotted with unused, unsold or unfinished boats — a phenomenon that is threatening a traditional occupation and artisanship due to climate change.

Impact of climate change on trees

Climate change impacts are already occurring in the Greater Himalayas (Beniston 2003; Cruz et al. 2007) and its most widely reported effect is the rapid reduction of glaciers. (IPCC 2007). The Subansiri, the largest tributary of the Brahmaputra, originates in Mount Pararu (5059 m) in the Himalayas (Tibet) and is fed by snow-melt run off and ablation of glaciers. Its maximum observed discharge was 18,799 cubic metres per second (663,900 cu ft/s), and its minimum 131 m3/s (4,600 cu ft/s). It contributes 7.92% of the Brahmaputra’s total flow. The Subansiri is 442 kilometres long, with a drainage basin 32,640 square kilometres large. The Subansiri in its downstream naturally evolves and changes their shapes by eroding, transporting and depositing sediments of its own, or alluvial fan deposits created by the numbers of feather streams emerging from the foot hills of Eastern Himalayas. During last 100 years, the Subansiri has been shifting towards west a minimum of two kilometres and maximum of more than ten kilometres eroding on its right hand bank and depositing sediments on the left hand bank (Hazarika, L.P. 2011).

An unused boat at Galighat village. Image credit – Farhana Ahmed
An unused boat at Galighat village. Image credit – Farhana Ahmed

The erosion by the Subansiri in the last couple of years has destroyed a considerable amount of forest covers. During the 2000 to 2010 the total land loss due to Subansiri’s erosion was 60.79 square kms —at the annual rate of 6.07 square kms. Among the total land loss about 9.29 square kms were forest cover and another 54.72 square kms were agricultural land with bushes of bamboo and other common tress. (Guite, L.T.S. et al. 2016). The loss of both forest and agriculture lands include the boat making villages of Uriumtola and Sayengiya. The forests and woods with trees like Urium amd Azar have been fast lost to the eroding river making the traditional boat making communities redundant.

Climate change in the greater Himalayas also making its impact felt on the trees and plants as predicted by experts. The Greater Himalayas have much higher biodiversity values than the global average (Krner 2004) and the eastern Himalayas have the highest plant diversity and richness (Xu & Wilkes 2004; Mutke & Barthlott 2005; Salick et al. 2006). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected that average annual mean warming will be about 3 Celcius by the 2050s and about 5 Celcius in the 2080s over the Asian land mass, with temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau rising substantially more (Rupa et al. 2006; IPCC 2007). These temperatures are potentially catastrophic for Greater Himalayan peoples and ecosystems (Anderson & Bowe 2008; Hansen et al. 2008). During the last few decades, the Greater Himalayas have experienced increasing and decreasing precipitation trends (Shrestha et al. 2000). The decreasing number of Urium and Azar trees may be attributed to the rise in the temperature in the Himalayan region. It has been predicted that rising temperatures will strongly influence plant reproduction, timing of leaf flush and flowering, and activities of flower-visiting animals in monsoonal Asia (Corlett & Lafrankie 1998).

There is a disturbing deforestation trend in some areas due to over cutting, inaccurate government reporting of forest cover, and poor land-use decisions. Results of this deforestation have implications for declines in endemic species like Urium and Azar which have been used in making boats. Now, these phenomena are being compounded by climate impacts which have yet to be assessed or linked properly.

Though the government of Assam adopted a policy to tackle climate change in 2015 the livelihood concerns of traditional boat making communities on this regard has yet to be specifically mentioned on the final draft. Climate-change-induced risks projected in the Greater Himalayas, however, cannot be eliminated by a natural process of gradual adaptation. As some mountain communities in the Himalayas are using traditional ecological knowledge and customs have evolved fine-tuned social systems to cope with natural hazards (Xu & Rana 2005; Byg & Salick 2009), the communities that make boats for a living must be given certain ways to sustain their livelihood here on the Brahmaputra-Subansiri catchment areas.

(The story is being published as part of the IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Program)

Farhana Ahmed is Northeast Now Correspondent in North Lakhimpur. She can be reached at:farhana.ahmed777@gmail.com

Farhana Ahmed

Farhana Ahmed is Northeast Now Correspondent in North Lakhimpur. She can be reached at: farhana.ahmed777@gmail.com

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