Living with the perennial floods: How Assam’s Mising tribe does it
Much of Assam’s flood management approach is focused on building embankments which are often argued to have facilitated a process of ‘contractor raj’. A fair amount of literature and evidence over the years has highlighted that embankments often do not serve many purposes as they are often breached, either due to higher intensity of floods or due to low quality of construction, often done by contractor trying to cut corners and ‘profit’ out of it. In such a context, what Assam needs is to shift its focus to community preparedness and building resilience. And the Mising community could definitely provide a few lessons on preparedness and living with floods.
The Misings are the second largest tribe in Assam with a population of over 7 lakhs (2011 census). The Misings, originally a hill tribe, took the riverine route to come to the plains of Assam in the early 13th century and settled down in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The Misings, with over centuries of co-existence with floods, have developed innovative adaptive methods to deal with floods. An understanding of how ‘nature’ is placed in the tribe’s ‘belief system’ is important. The Mising belief system is centered around spirits, where ‘the good spirits’ are one’s ancestors who are called upon for blessings, while the evil spirits are those bringing ‘trouble’. Some of these spirits exist in nature and our immediate environment, like in forests, rivers, and the sky. These spirits are, at regular intervals are ‘appeased’, through various rituals and offerings. This approach of ‘co-existence’ also takes center stage even when the Misings deal with floods. No attempts are made to fight the floods, instead, the community lay its focus on ‘preparedness’, which gets manifested in the living style of the Misings starting from housing architecture to paddy cultivation to how the village is organized.
The starting point of any discussion on Mising people’s adaptation to floods invariably is their houses. The Misings live in elevated houses called Chang Okum (Chang Ghar in Assamese) built on bamboo stilts or wooden poles. They serve the dual purpose of keeping floodwaters and wild animals at bay. The houses are easy to construct and each year elevation levels of the houses can be changed depending upon the floods of the previous year. Higher the water level the previous year, the more elevated are subsequent houses built.
What often gets ignored in the discussion is the architecture within the house. A typical Mising house has certain key layers from the roof to the floor, with each of the layers serving a unique purpose. Right above the floor is the fireplace, called ‘Meram’. Above the Meram are two shelves, constructed of bamboo, called Peraband Rabbong. Both the layers are often hung from the ceiling by tying the four corners with jute or cane ropes. Because Perab is right above the fireplace, it is generally used to smoke meat and fish, which can be saved for future use. Right above the Perab is Rabbong where Pots filled with rice beer mix (which is filtered as per need) is kept. And above the Rabbong, at the ceiling level, another layer called Bangkung is present. The attic space between the Bangkung and the roof is where dry vegetables like potatoes, pumpkins, garlic, onions, etc., harvested from the kitchen gardens and fields are kept for use during the floods. The architecture of the house is described in larger detail here.
Because these layers are above the fireplace, the smokes keep these items free from bacteria and fungus while the thatched roof provides the cooling effect. Another additional feature that helps the Misings in collectively coping with floods is also the presence of ‘Tunggeng’, the front porch in the house, which is often quite large. In situations when houses with lower elevation get inundated, the residents are offered refuge in ‘Tunggeng’s’ of those with higher elevation. The granaries of the Mising families are also built on stilts which keeps the food source safe.
A typical Mising village generally has certain key areas in the vicinity; a river or a pond that provides fish; a forest (chapori), which serves as a source for fruits, wood, firewood, herbs, etc, and a grazing land for the livestock/cattle to feed on. The existence of these areas enabled the Mising community to have a self-sufficient life in earlier times. In modern times, embankments have also come up near these villages, which sometimes offer them protection from floodwaters. The villagers tend to shift to the embankments if the water level rises and then goes back to the village once the waters recede.
Because it is almost certain that the areas inhabited by them would be affected by floods, the community starts preparing early on. In earlier times, each Mising household built a boat that enabled them to continue their daily activities like moving from one place to another, transporting items seamlessly even during floods. With forest cover reducing, logging banned, and wood becoming expensive, cheaper replacements like rafts made of bamboo, wood, or even banana stems are nowadays being used to navigate through floodwaters.
During the dry season, each Mising village collectively constructs a ‘high raised platform’ of mud, which is often used as a shelter for cattle. The community house called ‘Murong Okum’ which is where most of the village level rituals take place is also often constructed in it. Because the elevation of the platform is quite high, if the houses get inundated, villagers move to the platform for a temporary time. Understanding the importance of such a structure, nowadays such platforms are constructed under MNREGA schemes too.
The Misings have also adopted an agriculture pattern suitable for floods. Pegu T (June 2013[i]) highlights that in the earlier times, the Misings focused extensively on ‘Lai aam’ (Aam = rice) cultivation, which needed very little water and could be harvested before the floods came. With time, the Misings, especially those who moved to areas where the intensity of floods was lower, also picked up ‘Aamdang Arig’ (wet paddy cultivation). This cycle enabled them to optimally use their cattle for plowing and also maintain a regular supply of grains. This also marked the beginning of the phase where the young of the Mising community started migrating to the nearby areas to work as ‘Agricultural laborer’, especially during flood seasons.
While the traditional knowledge systems and constant innovation in lifestyle have enabled the Mising community to adapt to floods until now, the picture is not all rosy. With the intensity of floods increasing, due to climate change and human interventions, erratic and heavier rainfalls for shorter duration and natural buffers like forests disappearing, adaption has become much harder and costlier than before. Modern high-intensity floods demand concrete structures, which many cannot afford. With a large amount of silt being deposited after floodwaters recede, much of the cultivable land of the Mising community has been lost. An increase in the intensity of floods, dykes, and embankments are also often breached, erosions are rampant, which have transformed a large section of the Mising community into climate refugees, forcing them to move from one place to another each year. The community now is also a source of migrant labor, where the young move from their villages towards the cities in search of work.
Notwithstanding the recent trends, the Mising community’s lifestyle and adaptation methods could provide important insights in flood preparedness and resilience, which we could only help could be useful in developing a community-based approach to flood management in Assam.
(This article was published in East Mojo here. )