A DISTANT CORNER

In photos: Life on Assam’s shifting islands

A horse walks along the shore of a sapori in upper Assam. Inhabitants of these riverine islands often rear animals to supplement their income. Most raise cows and goats, but there are some horses too.
A horse walks along the shore of a sapori in upper Assam. Inhabitants of these riverine islands often rear animals to supplement their income. Most raise cows and goats, but there are some horses too.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
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On the days when it is calm, the Brahmaputra resembles an impossibly wide silvery sheet of water, rippling mile after mile through the northeast Indian state of Assam. But when it rages, the world’s fourth-largest river by volume of discharge, is a savage horror, swallowing up entire islands, submerging villages, and wreaking havoc along its meandering course.

This year alone, nearly two million people have been affected by the worst floods in over a decade. The Brahmaputra has swept away 2,800 villages and inundated 200,000 hectares of farmland. More than 30 people have died.

The flooding has become an annual ritual for many—in particular, the three million people who live on the riverine islands known as saporis. In remote settlements, with little or no access to basic services, these sapori-dwellers live and die by the Brahmaputra.

In recent years, however, a small fleet of 15 boats has been bringing basic healthcare services to some of these saporis. In June, I spent two days on one of these boats, the MV Akha, travelling upstream from Dibrugarh.

This is what I saw of Assam’s shifting islands.

India Assam Brahmaputra
A horse walks along the shore of a sapori in upper Assam. Inhabitants of these riverine islands often rear animals to supplement their income. Most raise cows and goats, but there are some horses too.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
A mother and her daughter walk back after picking up medicines from MV Akha, which was docked at Aisung. There are two doctors and two nurses working inside the tent.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
The MV Akha is docked and waiting for patients at Dusti Balir sapori.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
The doctor’s table stands unattended late in the evening at Mohmora sapori.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
At the edge of Aisung. The saporis on the Brahmaputra are constantly sculpted by the river. Many disappear altogether over time, even as new ones are created. The population, too, keeps shifting.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
A mother and her daughter receive medicines from the pharmacy on MV Akha. Everything on the boat—consultation, medicine, and test—is free.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
Fog appears on the Brahmaputra at midday following a spell of rain. The river, which originates on Angsi Glacier in Tibet, traverses the Himalayas before plunging into the plains of Assam.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
Some members of MV Akha’s medical team take time off in the evening at the Mohmora sapori. Many saporis here now have cellular phone networks, but physical connectivity to nearby towns and cities is still problematic.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Assam Brahmaputra
Sunset at the Mohmora sapori, which has seen large tracts of land disappear under the river in recent years.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Assam Brahmaputra
Seema Bhumij, a resident of the Polo Bhonga sapori, an island with a population of about 240, poses with her younger child. Before the MV Akha began serving her sapori, she had to travel nearly three hours to find a doctor for her children.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
Members of MV Akha’s crew set up a temporary tent on Polo Bhonga sapori.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
Bhaben Chandra Bora, one of the two doctors who work on MV Akha, makes entries in his log book after treating a group of patients at Aisung.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
A view of the Brahmaputra from the shores of the Mohmora sapori on an overcast day.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal
India Brahmaputra Assam
Women from the Mishing tribe walk home in the rain after receiving treatment on MV Akha.
Image: Devjyot Ghoshal

Also read: On one of the world’s largest rivers, floating clinics bring doctors and medicines to millions