Sultana, a resident at Kisamgiri in northeast India’s Assam state, never wanted more than two children; a girl and a boy were more than enough. But when she needed to access birth control pills last year, the floods came.
Her family lives in river islands called chars, floating in the Brahmaputra River from the eastern to the western part of the state. To date, she has been displaced from her home at least 10 times in the last two years. She witnessed ten floods in 2020 and seven so far in 2021.
Now, with the recent birth of her fourth child, the future of her family is uncertain: the welfare schemes that help the char-dwellers tide over poverty could be cut for many of them.
Assam recently enforced a limit of two children for couples to access state-run welfare such as affordable housing or health coverage. This plan is partially active, but will be fully implemented in the next couple of months, government officials say.
In theory, the new policy —which came into practice on January 1st, 2021— aims to control population growth in the state of Assam. But in practice, it disproportionately affected a climate stressed Bengali Muslim population, which has been historically marginalised.
The State Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sharma admitted intentions to control the migrant population and even blamed the state’s population burden on the Bengali Muslim immigrant population that had settled on chars in the western and central part of Assam.
This population is particularly vulnerable to climate change, something that further increases their difficulties to access health services.
The State Action Plan for Climate Change forecasted an increase in extreme rainfall events by 38%. As a result, floods displace this population, adversely blocking their access to family planning methods and other medical interventions.
The climate shocks make it harder for the migrant population to access birth control methods, says Sultana. In her case, floods in 2020 blocked access to medical care from boat clinics or hospitals located in the mainland, preventing her from getting emergency contraceptives.
A report by the United Nations Population Fund says climate-change-related disasters make it difficult for women and girls to access essential health services including family planning, risking maternal health and leading to increased cases of gender-based and sexual violence and child marriages.
Already, the state’s ‘Population and Women Empowerment policy of Assam’, makes any person with more than two children ineligible for government jobs and election to civic bodies and panchayats [village council].
The new two-child policy proposed by the State Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma will prevent access to government-backed social safety nets and healthcare available to the low-income groups in the state (like char-dwellers), earning less than Rs 5 lakhs ($6637 USD).
Around the world, strict population norms of not bearing more than two children have had negative impacts: In China, it created an ageing population on the rise; in Myanmar, it led to the increased statelessness of the Rohingyas, with women resorting to unsafe self-induced abortions to acquire property and government benefits.
A forgotten community
With a small crowd gathered around the camp, a community health worker, Allaluddin, asks only the pregnant women and children to stay for coronavirus and their routine childhood immunisation.
“Men in char-islands think using condoms or signing up for vasectomy would interfere with their labour-intensive work such as farming. On an island of 1200 residents, 540 Mala-D [contraceptives for preventing pregnancy] and 10 male condoms were distributed [by the government]”, said Allaluddin.
Sultana’s access to health care will be compromised under the new two-child policy, she says. In her community, women have to assume most birth control responsibilities, given the lack of sexual education among men, she adds.
In her case, Sultana needed emergency contraceptives but wasn’t able to get them on time due to extreme floods. “I didn’t realise my irregular periods for three months would bring me two more children,” she sighs. Her family now faces extreme poverty without government aid.
The migration of the char-dwellers from East Bengal [now Bangladesh] was induced by the British before India’s independence to get around the shortage of manpower and make use of the state’s “wastelands” to generate revenue.
Then, chars were deemed “wastelands” due to their unused barren or overgrown status. This influx of migrants provoked anxiety among the indigenous local population over the loss of their cultural and linguistic identity and economic resources.
These nativist reactions to claims of land and economy spurred political movements in the state; the Assam movement of the 1980s led to a brutal massacre of around four thousand people, mostly the Migrant Muslims [char-dwellers] of the Morigaon district.
“Freedom is alien”
As for the other women residing on the island, the process of conceiving more than two children against their own wishes has been painful. Climate pressures have made family planning especially difficult and have restricted their access to basic needs.
When Saleha —she thinks her age is over 22— conceived her fifth child, she was limping for a long time. Her struggles aside, she birthed the sixth child caving into her husband’s demands.
To sustain her family, she works as a daily wage labourer, earning over Rs 200 (over $2 USD) a day. “My husband doesn’t work. Who will feed my children if I don’t?” she says.
“The idea of freedom is alien for women in the chars, let alone having agency over their bodies,” said Shyamjit Pashi, District Project Officer, who leads the boat clinic to the 28 villages in chars dotting Assam’s Morigaon district.
The char-dwellers migrate to neighbouring islands when the floods inundate their islands and erode them away. Manuwara Begum, a resident of Kisamgiri char, has faced seven displacements so far this year.
“The islands are breaking away stronger than last year. Going to the mainland to reach hospitals for medical check-ups and accessing healthcare becomes difficult”, she explained.
According to Allaluddin, char-dwellers are too poor to afford a boat ride (back and forth journey costing Rs 3000) to the nearest government hospital, located at least 25 km away, and the delivery charges. “Most of the women end up having home deliveries,” he says.
When asked about the government’s two child policy, Saleha stares blankly, only to be interrupted by her neighbour, Manuwara Begum. “We lost our homes. There were floods. We didn’t get anything from the government as compensation, or flood relief. The government cannot do this. Will we kill our children for securing aid?” Manuwara asks helplessly.
Climate change is a key part of the village’s inequalities and vulnerabilities. The children’s education, for example, was compromised after one of the recent floods wiped out the local school.
Because of the lack of education access, Waheeda Rehman, a mother of 4 girls and 2 boys, says she’s waiting for her girl to turn 18-the legal age for marriage in India.
Assam has conducted limited studies on char-dweller population. The last survey conducted 17-18 years ago in 2002-2003 had revealed dismal literacy figures: 81% of men and 91% of women were illiterate.
Allaluddin says the island had as many as 8 primary schools earlier. If you ventured into the foggy tail end of the island, one would come across disintegrated parts belonging to these schools. These schools remained empty last year owing to lockdown.
“Whenever we visited the schools, we never saw a steady presence of teachers,” said Shyamjit, the project officer. Now, these schools don’t exist, after being dismantled by the river, say the health workers from the boat clinic and the residents.
Rudabeh Shahid, non resident fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre, cites how India’s neighboring country, Bangladesh, battled its soaring population growth by implementing non-discriminatory family planning measures.
In Bangladesh, for example, local NGOs employed women field workers who went door-to-door providing family planning advice and contraceptives to women. In contrast, Assam’s population control policy is exclusive of the Muslim population, the expert said.
Secondly, Assam has no climate adaptation policy for its chars. Whereas Bangladesh had implemented land reclamation plans for its chars by directing sediments flowing through the course of the river between cross dams placed on islands and polders, or land rimmed by embankments.
Cross dams are known to hold back sediment. The accretion of sediments behind these dams lead to formation of large inhabitable islands–and seemingly climate resilient–that may house climate migrants.
“Char islands break away every few months and people have to run for their life. If the Assam government takes measures to stabilise chars by land reclamation or any other measure, there will be permanent schools and hospitals, reducing the gap in education and healthcare and reducing population growth,” said Rudabeh.
On 17th September, the residents of the chars were sensing that the river was tearing down their island, silt by silt. After a week, Manuwara said she had fled the island, taking a refuge in another char, 2kms away, westward over a phone call.
Over the years, discrimination was something she said she had gotten used to. But with the imminent two-child policy norm, she hoped the government would spare the ones who already had more than two children.
“Whatever has been done, is done. The government should understand this. Now, there is no option but to use contraceptives”, she said.
*This story was edited on November 19, 2021, to correct the job title of Rudabeh Shahid.