Even by Indian standards, the village of Dhubirchar is insalubrious. It’s nothing more than a row of thatched huts perched on the banks of the Gadhadar river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra in lower Assam near the Bangladesh border, and home to the Binn community of some 1700 souls.
The Binn are one of the communities who live on the “chars” or river islands that dot the massive Brahmaputra in India’s north east. The region is connected to the rest of India by a narrow chicken’s neck of land curving around Bangladesh, but feels so remote from it that people here often refer to India as the “mainland”.
In the wet season, the Gadhar flows wide and strong, but these days there are dry places interspersed by pond sized patches of river where a few men are dragging their nets.
Rubbish lines the edges of the villages like dirty lace, and water meets land in a soggy tangle of human debris and water hyacinth. Skinny brown boys splash in the water, bathing and playing while their skinnier brown younger sisters perch at the water edge scrubbing at pots that match their body weight.
The Binn originally came from Bihar, a traditional community of fishermen. They fish by dragging nets along the river and occasionally they would trap a river dolphin. In the old days there were dolphins here – lots of them. They got caught in the nets and the Binn would kill them and then render the blubber to produce oil used for lamps and for fish bait.
Then about 6 years ago, an NGO called Centre for North East Studies intervened. They wanted to save the river dolphins of the Brahmaputra which were on the verge of extinction. So they came to Dhubirchar and convinced the villagers not to kill dolphins anymore. CNES got some international funding, trained a few of the fishermen in how to use fish viscera (the digestive system) as a substitute for dolphin blubber. Years later, the dolphins are safe, but Dhubirchar is not what you’d call a success story.
Below Poverty Line
Every one of the 400 families living here is in dire need of a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card which would entitle them to food rations and subsidies, yet barely 10 families have them. Every one of the men of working age here should be entitled to access the NREGA scheme – the Nataional Rural Employment Guarantee which is supposed to insure 100 days of employment to subsistence and seasonal labourers. But no one in the village can get a sniff into any outside employment. A livelihood scheme was started here and a cow was donated to the village. But it died and that was the end of that scheme.
The problem is that the Binn are on the lower end of the caste system which despite rumours to the contrary is still alive and kicking in this country. They have no caste representative in the local Panchayat, the village ruling bodies.
Declining fish prices
There’s no government presence, the only NGO around is the CNES which runs a small boat clinic service for the chars. There are a couple of unpromising looking thatch schools and hardly any permanent structures. There is no running water, electricity or rubbish service. And there are no jobs except fishing.
And income from fishing is getting thinner these days. The oil previously made from dolphins, and then later from fish viscera is getting hard to find. The reason: previously, the fish guts would pile up in the fish market as waste and then was sold by the kilo for the oil. But fish at Rs 300 a kilo is more than the average daily wage, so the poor buy fish guts at Rs 40 a kilo instead. As Mehboob Alom Hazarika, from CNES explains: “the fish digestive system is now sold as a food product which it never did before.”
So here in the great economic miracle of India is just one example of the people who fall through the net. Government schemes are in place, but not the mechanisms to check them. Foreign funded NGO’s come visit but don’t always follow through. Schools are built, but as one young Binn boy cheerfully tells me, he’s in Standard 3 and can neither read nor write. Ration cards are used by people living in middle class Delhi apartments but not by the villagers who eat from what they earn that day.
And the tragedy that lurks behind the hype of the Indian economic surge, is that this little village on the tributary of the Brahmaputra is just one of the nation’s uncounted forgotten villages.