Lost Childhood in the Char Chaporis of Assam

Amreen in the middle with her grandmother on the right. Picture Credit- Nidhi Tiwari

Seven-year-old Amreen from the Char area in Barpeta, Assam, misses her best friend Amu who has migrated to Chandan Basti in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh with her family. Amu doesn’t go to school and stays at home taking care of her household while everyone else in her family engages in door-to-door waste collection. Although she doesn’t engage in child labor outside her house, the burden of taking care of the household falls on her at such a tender age. Due to the language barrier, there is little space for her in the local schools of Lucknow where the medium of instruction is English and Hindi. Children like Amu who didn’t go to school in Barpeta, find it extremely difficult to catch up with school education in Lucknow post-migration.

Back in Assam, her life was no better where she lived in the Char Chaporis near Amreen’s house. A boat ride in Brahmaputra to Char Land, takes one to small settlements of immigrant Muslims from East Bengal (Now Bangladesh) – to which Amreen and Amu belong. The community, known as Miya Muslim in a derogatory manner, has been stereotyped as “illegal immigrants” and has always suffered discrimination in Assam. Geographical vulnerabilities coupled with constant racism have kept the community destitute and socially excluded. The children from these communities are exposed to several vulnerabilities right from an early age which results in their unsettled future.

Children like Amreen and Amu are caught in the web of deprivation and discrimination. Amreen’s father, Moin is a farmer while her mother, Shaba is a house maker. Exempted from the chance to go to any schools, Amreen and her eleven-year-old sister Shama stay in their house and contribute in running the family. While Amreen accompanies her mother to the field, Shama looks after her grandparents and household chores. Ideally, when these children are supposed to go to a school, they are forced to choose a life where there are no options for them. They are completely disconnected from the development that is happening in a world unknown to them. They have seen this ‘surreal’ world only through television and YouTube videos that they watch on a second-hand smart phone their father managed to purchase.

Their father works on the little land they have access to. The family do not have any ownership of the land as no pattas (legal document for land ownership) are issued to char residents. The Char is a floating island, whereas Chaporis are low-lying flood prone river banks which keep changing shapes depending on the water level of the river. Prone to frequent land erosion and floods these areas are marked by low development indices. Char areas extend over 3608 sq km, or 4.6 per cent of the geographical area of Assam. With an estimated population of 25 lakhs, these areas extend from Sadiya in the east to Dhubri in the west over the entire course of the river Brahmaputra.

Other than farming, Moin also goes on to neighbouring districts to search for work to make ends meet. Although many of his neighbours have migrated to different cities for better opportunities, he prefers to stay back as his parents do not want to leave their home in Assam. According to a paper published in 2018, approximately more than 90,000 people have migrated from Barpeta to Lucknow. Although it has saved them from prejudices and ethnic conflicts but has opened up new forms of discrimination in the cities. Moreover, there children both in their homeland and migrated states continue to suffer and lose their share of childhood.

“I had many friends earlier. But slowly all of them went away. Since then, it has been a little monotonous for me. I wanted to go with them but Abba won’t take us,” expressed Afreen while explaining her life in the Char without friends. On her visits to the field with her mother, Afreen often likes to play by the river during breaks from work but is left without friends.  “I like to play but half of the games cannot be played alone. I wish Amu was here,” she rued, adding that “She did not want to leave her house, but had to go to the city along with her family. She came to visit me once and got me a small box as a gift,” Afreen added.

The lives of Amreen, Shama and Amu depicts that although these girls are not directly engaged in waste trade or any such outdoor activity, but due to the circumstances, they are losing their childhood. When the burden of unpaid household work falls on a girl child at such an early stage, it robs them of learning and growing, and enjoying their childhood.

Migration would have smoothened the economic woes of the family but family as a unit interacts with multiple systems that decides its fate. Out migration from a conflicted area can give multiple respites to a household but we need to analyse the factors that inhibit such movements and that’s a gap which still persists. And it is by virtue of this gap that these children are losing their precious time, and their precious childhood.

The article is written as a part of the WNCB Awards for Untold Stories on child labour.

Nidhi Tiwari is a winner of the WNCB Awards for Untold Stories on child labour. Share your feedback on [email protected]

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