Can a community in India become plastics-free and as a result, restore its original heritage? That’s the question that a Queen’s University Belfast researcher has posed as his team attempts to help an Indian community to transform the world’s largest and oldest inhabited river island and save its heritage through a plastics ban.
Dr. M. Satish Kumar, who is originally from Shillong, North East India, has been leading an international project called “Hidden Heritage in Majuli” with researchers from California, Belfast, India, Delhi, Varanasi, and Kolkata. They’re examining how climate change is transforming the landscape of Majuli river communities. The goal is to implement a plastics ban to confirm how harmful plastics are to the environment and to reaffirm the importance of a carbon-neutral life. The end result would be that, rather than plastics, culture and tradition would return fully to daily life of Majuli.
Majuli lies in India’s far northeast and has been the cultural capital of Assamese civilization since the 16th century. It is a river island in the Assam state, with the waters of the grand Brahmaputra swirling around it. The river island has been relatively isolated for years. Until the last decade, boats were still necessary to cross its numerous wetlands and streams — it used to take three boats to reach the ferry point from one of the island’s central towns.
“While it is the largest inhabited river in the world,” Kumar explains, “Majuli has shrunk by half over the last 100 years due to climate change, rising water levels, and earthquake impact. In the mid-19th century, Majuli was about 1,200 sq. km. in area; now it is barely 400 sq km… The island has a very rich culture and history and, due to the significant changes to the climate regime, its people have learned to adapt their lifestyle to suit the river, building their houses on stilts and moving when required.”
“I think sometimes we forget that science has a role to play in the explanation of climate change,” he added.
The project was set up to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and involves the dynamics of climate change on heritage.
Majuli island floods every year during the monsoon season, and the natural floods help crops flourish and feed fish populations. Much of the land loss acceleration, however, has been caused by climate change. Rising water levels and increasingly severe weather patterns negatively affect the sandy island’s equilibrium. As temperatures soar in India’s Himalayas, the increased snowmelt causes flash floods along the Brahmaputra. Rain and monsoon patterns, once relatively predictable, have become uncertain and severe, leading to a loss of crops and property for Majuli’s agricultural community.
How do the people who live on Majuli cope with the floods, the restrictions on their livelihoods, schooling, disease, and continuous erosion? How long will they be able to dig down for clay, which is critical for their culture for pots, icons, and so many other items of importance to the people of Majuli and Assam?
The Problem with Plastics
The Majuli island is an idyllic place seemingly lost in time — or is it?
The island didn’t see its first mobile phones until 2009, and plastic packaging is a similarly recent phenomenon. Majuli has been declared a carbon-neutral biodiverse region, and, in order for the work that Kumar and his research group are undertaking to have a lasting effect, it must have continuity.
So they have reached out to the island youth, and Kumar has created an educational course to help young people to understand the detrimental effects of plastics. This next generation will be charged with undertaking the effort to make the ban on plastics permanent, starting from a place of learning and transferring it to their homes, community, xatras, the rest of Majuli, and into Assam.
Kumar’s team provided specific scientific evidence and analysis to the key stakeholders of Majuli so that they could co-create a strategy to sustain the island’s culture and heritage alongside the plastics ban. He remarked, “People have said, ‘You can’t ban all plastics.’ I’ve said, if you look at the most problematic aspect of plastics, you’ll see polythene bags, plastic water bottles — they are not biodegradable.”
His team created an exercise which invited students to learn to reuse materials which are indigenous and which could easily be used as substitutes for plastics. The workshop sought to raise awareness of how harmful plastics are for the global environment as well as the environment of Majuli and to remove plastics from the islanders’ daily consumption.
Traditional materials such as clay pottery and clay cups were suggested for daily household use, and water hyacinths and jute were modeled for use as carrier bags, carpets, and other household products. Such indigenous materials also have the potential to boost traditional household or cottage industries and enhance the livelihood of the Majuli inhabitants.
The lessons emphasize that, after a single-use, plastics are left to the environment — “discarded, dumped into the rivers,” Kumar elaborated. “It is important that we continue to look at waste management and landfill sites, but it is necessary that plastics are banned to reaffirm a carbon neutral Majuli and to protect the unique heritage of the island for years to come.”
From a Plastics Ban to Saving Ancient Monasteries
The effort to eliminate single-use plastics would reduce pollution in the river, one of a number of growing concerns in Majuli. Another significant concern is flooding, which may destroy ancient xatras — monasteries constructed by the saint Krishna, the popular Hindu god who played here with his friends, according to local beliefs. Many xatras still survive and represent the colorful Assamese culture. Of its original 65 xatras, only 31 survive.
Modernity has marred the traditional façade of the xatras of Majuli, the seat of Vaishnavite culture included in the tentative list of the Unesco World Heritage Sites. The centuries-old walls, living quarters, prayer halls, and structures of the xatras were made of ekora (a type of reed), bamboo, mud plaster, cow dung, tree trunks for posts, and other indigenous features. Time and weather lead to the gradual deterioration of the xatras that were once the pride of Majuli. The existential identity of the xatras dissipates when indigenous materials are replaced by cement, iron rods, hollow pipes, modern bricks, glazed ceramic, and vitrified tiles.
“It is the human story that helps us, transforms us. We know we have a responsibility not just to control the floods — we have a responsibility to protect the cultural heritage,” Kumar acknowledged. “There are two elements: preservation and conservation. And they are both tangible and intangible.”
Traditions like the Raas festival and Bhaona Samorah are part of the international calendar and attract visitors to Majuli from around the world. However, these traditions may disappear if Majuli drowns with flooding. An effort is underway to protect Majuli by UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage Site to help save it from extinction. The state government wants to focus on the island’s natural biodiversity, its topography, and cultural traits for the Unesco World Heritage Site label.
Commentary from Dr. Kumar: A CleanTechnica Exclusive
We contacted Dr. Kumar to see if he would comment on the important interaction of plastics with larger ecosystems in the world. Here are his replies.
What is the relationship of plastics to ecosystem in Majuli? What lessons can other communities learn about reducing GHG emissions if they implement a plastics ban?
The relation of plastics to ecosystem in Majuli is a recent phenomenon. The introduction of plastics into this environment happened around the end of the 1980s and has now become part and parcel of everyday life. These single use plastics have replaced traditional materials such as clay tea cups in household and semi-commercial establishments. This change is also visible where plastics have replaced daily use carrier bags from Jute and other local materials such as gogol being replaced by plastics. Another area where this became really dominant is in the case of water bottles which have dominated the market. Plastics are clogging up the existing fragile ecosystem and jeopardising the target of a zero carbon heritage complex.
The key lessons that communities can learn by refusing and banning plastics is to promote their own indigenous products such as bags made from water hyacinth, and mattresses from gogol. They can also use traditional clay potteries as a replacement for plastic and polystyrene cups which are commonly used for coffee and tea. By reducing and banning plastics, there would be a boost to the livelihood of those working in traditional cottage industries and this would also assist in the fulfilment of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets.
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