Memories of ‘Floods’, ‘Erosion’, and ‘Displacement’ - MHI




Memories of ‘Floods’,
‘Erosion’, and ‘Displacement’

The Missing Link in the 
Climate Justice Discourse of Majuli

Olimpika Oja


Abhishek Choudhury


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

This year, Assam experienced grave flooding and landslides with unprecedented damage and deaths that left over 7,00,000 homeless. Majuli’s name often recurs in this floods-and-erosion narrative.  Located in the upper Brahmaputra valley of Assam, Majuli is one of the largest freshwater river islands in the world. It has, however, shrunken from around 1,255 to 422 square kilometers, losing 69 villages to river bank erosion and 96 villages prone to flooding. Satras (monasteries), which house historical collections of writings, antiques, and masks were originally 65 in number but only 23 have survived now. 

Even as Majuli was in the global spotlight for its ecology and demands for UNESCO heritage conservation of its historical buranjis (ancient writings), satras, folk theatre, dance forms, and craft work, it was affected by decades of armed conflict and insurgency, leading to the displacement of villages, migration, and resettlement. 

This study brings out an undocumented lacuna in the discourse of Majuli that over-arches people’s lived experiences of climate-induced disasters. Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) has been historically under-prioritised in climate disaster-related rehabilitative services and policies. 

Climate change is increasingly having a stronger and longer-lasting impact on people’s mental health. Despite the widespread prevalence of climate change and disaster-induced distress, response approaches have traditionally focussed solely on immediate humanitarian needs, thereby, excluding mental health services from its purview. 

This study draws upon oral histories, lived experiences, and collective memories of its five participants and weaves a narrative of how indigenous communities like the Mishings of Majuli have deployed their inherent knowledge, practices, and resources in the adaptive management of crises like floods and erosion.

Etiau buku bikhae jaae (“I still feel a lump in my throat”)

Dipa Payun, secretary of Rengam1 from the Mishing community, highlights how the loss of built environment and personal built spaces can lead to grief, loss of autonomy, and a sense of helplessness: “Bohut dukh lagisiile (we felt very dejected). We have shifted five times during past erosions.” Because of their low-resource settings, Majuli’s Mishing community is disproportionately affected by climate-related hazards and shares a significant mental health burden.

Dipa narrates the risk factors that predispose the Mishing community to these experiences: “We do not have any land of our own. We curse our ancestors for choosing to live in riparian regions, while the upper castes chose to stay in elevated areas.” The Mishings are, therefore, located at a crucial juncture where contextual factors like their economic, geographical, and ethnic marginalisations interact with each other and multiply their different vulnerabilities. 

Das argues that flood control in Assam has often been aimed at protecting urban economic hubs at the expense of rural villages. In Majuli, dykes and embankments protected only the revenue-generating villages, excluding the Mishing settlements that were historically semi-nomadic in nature. Their rehabilitation, too, was in question as they came under non-cadastral villages. 

Along with the above-mentioned factors, the loss of livelihood during climate-induced disasters remains a crucial exposure pathway to psychosocial distress. Rituraj Phukan, a climate activist from Assam, highlights how “floods and erosion often drive people to work as daily wagers or to migrate to cities to work in hotels and restaurants, and often it is mostly men. For women, the choices are far fewer and limited.”  Bedabrata Dutta, a local Majuli resident who runs a community-based organisation named Amar Majuli that works with Mishing women weavers from Rengam, substantiates Phukan’s viewpoint: “People from the younger generation have given up farming. They often move to Hyderabad or Bangalore to work as security guards.” Such instances highlight how different structural systems permeate and bind together the otherwise siloed discourses of mental health and disasters.

Politics of flood-control: excluding indigenous knowledge systems

Dipa and the other interviewees underscore the systemic marginalisation of indigenous knowledge systems by centralised, techno-managerial flood control measures like embankment construction. Payun says, “We have years of experience of living by the rivers yet the engineers do not involve us in flood mitigation programmes.” Phukan highlights certain alternatives to such heavy and expensive structural measures: “Along with the embankment intervention, it is important to explore nature-based solutions such as the example set by Jadav Payeng2.” Dhriti3, who works with one of the District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMA) in Assam, provides a localised solution to this structural issue: “Programmes need to be district-specific with a bottom-up approach where districts are consulted prior to policy-making.”

Climate-related hazards can cause intense emotional suffering and this gets underlined by Dhriti’s narrative: “This year, I worked for 10-12 hours at a stretch, resulting in a severe burnout.” Dipa, too, highlights the lack of an intersectional discourse within climate-induced distress conversations: “When we lost our homes, we went through severe trauma and had no mental health support.” Phukan sheds some light on why an MHPSS approach does not get included in disaster management programmes: Because, after all, “in Assam, mental health still remains unknown beyond urban spaces.” 

Aami aakhabaadi (“We are hopeful”)

This section highlights some good practices that have been taken up in Majuli, Assam, and in the North-East of India vis-à-vis climate justice and mental health. It also underlines how fostering a community’s ability to manage distress using its own resources is a sustainable and holistic approach.

Detailed examination of community responses to recurring floods offers examples of best practices forming a time-tested body of alternative knowledge. For instance, the flood-resilient Chang-Ghar4 system of the Mishings is a unique indigenous response to environmental hazards.  

Similarly, their climate-sensitive expertise in growing suitable crop varieties, or their traditional cost-effective approaches, such as planting trees like Indian cottonwood, bamboo, coconut, and betel-nut, are some effective nature-based solutions for soil conservation. Especially when embankments, dykes, or sandbags have remained vulnerable to breaches. Phukan further adds, “Their ways of preserving food through smoking, sun drying, pickling, or by fermenting can be useful methods during climate-induced crises.” 
However, disconnection from social support systems is one of the major stressors of climate change. Dipa explains the significance of traditional community care networks in building resilience: “After our homes got swept away and when the entire community used to eat a meal together, we used to feel xukhi (happy).” Deb5, a disaster management professional in Majuli, talks about the district’s Aapda Mitra scheme, which trains community volunteers as first responders to disasters; and the Community Quick Response Team, consisting of local men, women, and resource-deprived groups like transgender persons. These are exemplary community-based, low-resource methods to reduce vulnerabilities and mitigate the mental health and psychosocial impacts of climate change.

Further, losing one’s home environment can create a sense of a loss of belonging, and of personal identity, especially exacerbating the experiences of children. Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) help in addressing this marginalised group and ensure a safe environment through integrated programmes like play, education, health, and psychosocial support. “Along with CFS, every flood camp in Assam has a special corner for pregnant and lactating women,” Dhriti mentions.

Climate-induced disasters can also make mobility a challenge for older people and people with disabilities, thus impacting their sense of autonomy and control. “With the help of ASHA6 workers, we take special care of these vulnerable groups,” adds Dhriti. Similarly, MANOJNA — a tele-counselling helpline service — provides psychosocial support for disaster-affected people of Assam. It facilitates appropriate referrals while also offering follow-up services. The Assam Climate Change Cell (2018) envisages cross-sectoral convergence across departments in the planning, delivery, and monitoring of climate action, while at a macro level, the Pakke Declaration (2021) of Arunachal Pradesh is a model multi-sectoral approach towards low emission and climate-resilient development. 

So, what are some of the paradigmatic shifts that can strengthen disaster management policies, while also building allyship with mental health? Climate-related disaster responses should operate with a psychosocial lens and go beyond the diagnosis-treatment model.  Climate-affirmative mental health practices should integrate the psychosocial impacts of climate change and address systemic inequities at a multi-sectoral level. This can be witnessed as Dutta and Dipa, while highlighting the community needs of Majuli, underline the need for a bridge and emergency healthcare support, along with employment avenues following disasters.

Community-based mental health programmes should be deployed to bridge the gap between Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)7 and climate-induced stressors. Different marginalities operate within individuals and these intersectional locations need to be taken into consideration while addressing community distress


Lived experiences of the indigenous Mishing community in Majuli can help us mitigate climate change sustainably and the lessons learnt can be deployed amidst communities who live in disaster-prone areas. Further imposing top-down measures increases alienation and fails to help with climate distress. In fact, doing so may even be one of the reasons for producing psychosocial stressors in the first place. Development projects need to value indigenous knowledge systems and their voices of resilience that remain at the margins and privilege these over expert-led institutional knowledge.

If we look for solutions to any climate-induced problems, whether it is flood or erosion, it must be tailored to the needs of a particular community of a specific region. Anything that is successful in Kerala cannot be replicated in Assam or anything that works in Assam with the Mishing community may not work with the Bodo community in the plains or the Karbi community in the hills. Any intervention must be community-led to make them full stakeholders in the discourse. Rituraj Phukan aptly sums it up: “When indigenous communities have the right to enjoy their existing cultures, eat the food they grow, and seek basic human development, that is climate justice.”

Cite this Article View all References


  • “Rengam”- which means “a united group” in the Mishing language – is an indigenous weavers’ cooperative that was established and led by the local Mishing women and currently has more than 160 members who come from more than 15 flood and erosion affected villages in Majuli.
  • “Jadav Payeng is an indigenous Mishing community leader and a famous environmentalist known as the Forest Man of India. Jadav Payeng has created what is arguably the largest man-made forest by one man on this planet.”
  • Name changed.
  • Chang Ghars are built on a raised platform supported by bamboo stilts, which can keep floodwaters, insects, and wild animals at bay. 
  • Name changed.
  • Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers are trained female community health activists, who work from and within the community itself as an interface between the community and the public health system.
  • “Disaster Risk Reduction.” UNESCO, Accessed 15 July 2022. “Disaster risk reduction is the concept and practice of reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyse and reduce the causal factors of disasters.”
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