In Assam, people sing traditional songs called Bihu – songs about a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years. The songs bring to life the timeless relationship between animals and the people who depend on them. One such song is about a man who is destined to never find a wife because all his time is dedicated to his buffalo and the endless tasks involved in tending to fields and crops.
In Seujia Pathar village, they no longer raise buffalo. In 1980, the villagers stopped this ancient practice and switched to raising bulls -- an animal that requires much less feed and shade. Here bulls are constant companions, often named in Assamese for the colour of their coats – ‘black’, ‘brown’, ‘mottled’ and so on. But, they represent more than just companions; they are investments for the future. As one villager described them – they are the local equivalent of a bank account.
Three young bulls in Seujia Pathar village, Dhemaji District, Assam
Try for a moment to imagine what it might be like to wake up one morning and discover your bank account is empty. For people dependent on their animals like Dipen Bora Gohain or Dalimiya in rural Assam, that is exactly what a flood can be like.
July and August 2012 saw some of the worst flooding in memory throughout the Machkhowa Block, Dhemaji District, Assam. Many animals were lost. Some were washed away, others drowned while others fell sick to illnesses that spread quickly, flourishing in the unsanitary conditions that followed in the wake of stagnant, fetid floodwaters.
A bridge washed away by recent floods
The mighty Brahmaputra river that traverses this northeast Indian state overflowed its banks. An annual and predictable event, the floods this year were larger and more devastating than any in recent memory. The river – this bringer of life - showed its other nature: a destructive wall of death and disease that kept some areas underwater for up to a week.
RajatBura Gohain, Seujia Pathar village resident and Indian Army Medical Corps officer shows the high water mark left from the recent floods
Dipen is thirty-seven years old and is actively involved in his community. He is the local representative of the development-focused NGO Action for Food Production, and we first met him when we came to his village in response to the floods and its impact on the animals. Dipen owns a large one-year old sow named Phakhari (‘mottled’). He purchased her one year ago for one thousand rupees (about $18 USD). She lives in his family compound along with his wife Manulla Bora Gohain and his young son Mrinmoy. He plans to sell her soon for 10,500 rupees (about $195 USD) – a significant profit in the livestock and agriculture-based economy of the Dhemaji District.
Dipen and Phakhari
Dalimiya owns several cows and a young bull named Lal Bai or “red brother” in Assamese. She and her family live side by side with their cattle near Seujia Pathar and consider them to be members of the family. To meet the family, is to immediately recognise that Lal Bai holds a special place in their hearts. Dalimiya proudly showed us the animal feed provided by WSPA – a month’s supply of rice bran. She offered thanks for seeing her and her family through the worst of the floods while Lal Bai slowly ate the rice bran in the family’s swept mud courtyard.
Living several houses down from one of the feed distribution centres WSPA-sponsored, Dalimiya and people from the surrounding community rushed over to greet us enthusiastically when they saw our WSPA t-shirts. Despite the recent hard times, people smiled as they recalled someone being there for their animals. “With your help, Lal Bai and my cows had enough to eat and this helped them and my whole family,” said Dalimiya.
Dalimiya, her granddaughter Dili Rani and Lal Bai
Animals form the backbone of the local economy – plowing fields, giving milk, eggs, meat and as the main source of income from sales. To lose an animal in a disaster has a devastating effect on families. If the animals manage to survive the initial flood, there is often a lack of food and clean water to keep them healthy and floodwaters create conditions where diseases like foot and mouth disease and dysentery flourish.
WSPA selected Machkhowa as the focus of our response in Assam because the animal need here was greatest. In addition to supplying feed, we worked alongside local veterinarians, to distribute veterinary medicines and set up mobile veterinary clinics. Now we’re here working in Seujia Pathar village to create a model plan that draws on local knowledge to determine things like where to evacuate, how to source feed, what resources are available to the community and how to access them when needed. Hansen and residents of Seujia Pathar documenting a goat's health information
Our hope is this plan will help the residents of Seujia Pathar cope with future disasters and, if successful, be adopted elsewhere in India. As always, our goal is to help break the effects of the annual disaster cycle, ensure communities are better prepared and their animals are safe.