Internet wisdom is helping flood-ravaged people in Assam rebuild their lives

Syeda Ambia Zahan April 13, 2017 5 min

Story Highlights

  • Volunteers from the Jhai Foundation did month-long research on disaster management programmes of Unicef and other organisations
  • They then devised a Char Development Programme for four Barpeta villages — Tapajilu Pather, Mazidbhita, Balikuri NC and No 4 Bhera
  • They empower char residents with internet wisdom and YouTube videos on rebuilding houses and buildings and alternate methods of farming

Every monsoon, when the Brahmaputra overflows, it causes severe flooding and soil erosion through the length of Assam, displacing millions of humans, animals and destroying all in its course. The worst-affected are the chars (sandbars) and chaporis (river islands). Having borne decades of ravaging by the river, the people of Assam have resigned themselves to the recurrent disaster. Life must go on, they know, but putting up a brave face is easier said than done.

On an average, 8-12 lakh people are affected by the floods in Assam every year. More than 39% (31.05 lakh hectare) of the state’s total area (78.523 hectare) has been assessed as “flood-prone”. Some of the worst-affected chars are Uttar Godhani, Tapajuli Pather and Mazidbhita in Barpeta district; Kalartop, Duramari and Barakhat in Kamrup district; Rupsi, Lakhipur and Matia in Goalpara district and Chapor in Dhurbri district.

Volunteers from the Jhai Foundation did month-long research on disaster management programmes of Unicef and other organisations. They then devised a Char Development Programme for four Barpeta villages — Tapajilu Pather, Mazidbhita, Balikuri NC and No 4 Bhera  

Villagers in Barpeta now have some practical help at hand thanks to the Jhai Foundation. The civil society organisation is tapping into the vast resources available on the internet to model rehabilitation and relief programmes to help villagers deal with the aftermath of the floods.

A team of 10 volunteers from the Foundation spent six-seven hours day for a month doing in-depth research on their laptops on disaster management programmes and models of Unicef and other development organisations. They then devised their own Char Development Programme, which they implemented in four villages — Tapajilu Pather, Mazidbhita, Balikuri NC and No 4 Bhera — that they’ve adopted in western Assam’s Barpeta district. Barpeta is one of the worst-affected districts in the state, with about 1.5 lakh people affected in the headquarters alone every year due to floodwaters from the Beki, a tributary of the Brahmaputra.

Lifting dampened spirits

The volunteers empower the char residents by teaching them coping mechanisms they have gleaned from the internet. The focus is on rebuilding houses and buildings, alternate methods of farming and behavioural changes required in the aftermath of floods.

The team watches flood and disaster management videos on YouTube, saves them offline and make notes to refer to while explaining things to village community in the local languages. They also show the villagers YouTube videos on how people in Nepal and Bangladesh deal with floods.

The volunteers empower the char residents with internet wisdom on rebuilding houses and buildings, alternate methods of farming and behavioural changes required in the aftermath of floods  

“Thanks to low internet tariffs, we have been able to devise an international-level programme for the sandbars,” says Majidul Islam, one of the volunteers. The team has 10 laptops and they access the internet on mobile hotspots through Jio or Airtel connections.

Another focus area is solar power — the Foundation has inspired the villagers installed solar panels in all the four villages. Its own office too runs on solar power. “We tell villagers not to wait for the government to provide them electricity. The government is non-existent here,” says Abdul Kalam Azad, the secretary of Jhai Foundation and an alumnus of TISS, Guwahati.

They also teach the villagers how to develop kitchen gardens and grow their own vegetables and fruits so they have enough to eat. One of the biggest collaterals of the floods are standing crops. According to reports, the average annual crop loss due to floods in Assam is to the tune of Rs 200 crores. Thanks to the Foundation, about 100 village homes now have their own gardens.

Skype classes in a boat!

When the floods hit, survival is primary. Education, naturally, takes a backseat. The overall literacy rate in Assam’s char areas is less than 20%, while the female literacy rate is less than 15%. It’s a no-brainer why.

The programme is also helping get children back to school, or rather, educating them wherever possible. They have roped in Hafiz Ahmed, the principal of a higher secondary school in Guwahati, to teach them English twice a month via Skype.

 

When it rains, these Skype classes are held in a boat! The boat has been modified to add a bamboo structure with a roof to protect them from the rain and can accommodate 40-50 students  

When it rains, these Skype classes are held in a boat! The boat has been modified to add a bamboo structure with a roof to protect them from the rain and can accommodate 40-50 students.

Ahmed also gives the kids motivational classes. “After listening to Hafiz sir, I understood why it is important to dream big. Now, I want to be a doctor so I can do something good for society,” says Halim Mollah, a Class IV student of Alipur Tapajuli Pather Lower Primary School in Tapajuli village.

To empower girls, they organise YouTube screenings of Unicef’s cartoon series Meena — named after its protagonist who’s a smart, confident schoolgirl — in three schools. Farmin Ara Begum, a Class IV student from the area, says she always thought girls have to get married by the age of 12-13. But, after watching Meena, she realised that she too can grow up and work one day. “I will also buy a laptop after I get a job,” she says triumphantly.

Stopping child marriage

Another bane in the flood-ravaged region is child trafficking and child marriage. According to a 2014 report of the Assam Health Department records, Barpeta has the highest rate of child marriage in the state, at 54%.

Thanks to WhatsApp and a vigilant youth from the area, the Foundation has been able to intervene in this issue as well. Local youth Illiyas Rahman alerts the team via WhatsApp whenever a child marriage is being planned in the area. They then take up the case with the state administration and get the marriage stopped. This initiative has reportedly saved more than 15 children from early marriages.

FactoryDaily recently published a story on how Illiyas Rahman’s Facebook campaign saved a girl from child marriage and she was sent back to school.

Read other Tech Meets Bharat stories.


The ‘Tech Meets Bharat’ series brings to you stories on how technology is impacting and changing lives in hinterland India.

Syeda Ambia Zahan is a Guwahati-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.