By Amaryoti Borah
Guwahati — Anju Dewraja had not yet finished high school when her family asked her to quit classes and stay home. Now the 15-year-old from Tami-heruwa village in India’s north-eastern state of Assam has seen her life reduced from lessons and homework to household chores.
Many families in Assam dependent on agriculture for their livelihood are suffering the consequences of recurrent droughts and floods, which experts attribute to climate change. Dewraja’s is one of them.
In Morigaon, the district where Tami-heruwa is located and one of the most severely affected in the state, thousands of school-age girls have been forced to drop out of education and are now either working in the home or as daily wage labourers, researchers found.
Anju’s father, 48-year-old Thaneswar Dewraja, says his family has been devastated by a string of bad harvests over the last five or six years. Last year he decided to end his daughter’s schooling and ask her to keep the house so her mother could go out in search of work to supplement the family’s income.
The family, previously comfortably off, used to earn around 100,000 Indian rupees (about $1,700) a year growing grain and vegetables. Dewraja never had to purchase grain for the family to eat as they got whatever they needed from the field.
“However, in the past four years I could not save any money, and also couldn’t get any grain as everything was washed away,” he said. “My wife now works as a daily wage labourer and gets 120-150 rupees ($2-2.50) a day, and that is a big relief for us.”
LITTLE HOPE OF RETURNING
Anju looks despairingly at the life ahead of her and says that she has no hope of going to school again one day.
The Dewrajas’ story is echoed by other families.
“Last year my parents asked me to quit school and to help with household chores, and since then I have not been to school,” said Marami Dekaraja, 15, also from Tami-heruwa village. She helps cultivate the family’s small field as well.
Her father, Praben Dekaraja, says the family had no choice but to end his daughter’s education after floods damaged their home and washed away crops.
“There were no other options for us. Unpredictable weather over the years has completely shattered us,” he said.
According to researchers, the number of such cases is growing rapidly, and thousands of Assamese families are being forced to take their daughters out of school and put them to work, as floods and droughts have destroyed thousands of hectares of agricultural land belonging to once-prosperous farmers.
“In several areas in the state, the income of families who are solely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood has declined several-fold, as with climate change there has been a change in the rainfall pattern and also there has been a decrease in the average rainfall,” said Sabita Devi, co-convenor and senior researcher of the Assam-based Centre for Environment, Social and Policy Research (CESPR).
WOMEN AND GIRLS HIT HARDEST
A recent study by the organisation found that financially precarious households and those living in rural areas in the state are particularly prone to the impacts of climate change. According to its research, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to negative consequences.
Even women who belong to once-prosperous families have been forced to take up work as domestic help and daily wage labourers.
“In hundreds of households women are now compelled to take up weaving, daily wage labour and other related activities to make ends meet, and in many areas, women of the household are also taking up fishing to make up for lost agricultural produce,” said Devi.
Sosinanda Bordoloi, a social activist and researcher associated with the Women Development Centre, a non-governmental organisation, pointed out that such issues have become a regular phenomenon in the district, as the adverse impacts of climate change have severely affected families that rely on farming.
CESPR’s research also found that the changes are affecting girls’ education to a great extent. Once the mother decides to go out in search of work, the responsibility of the house usually falls to the girl and she is asked to leave school, the researcher said.
Families are also likely to believe that girls are less able than boys to cope with wading through high floodwaters to get to school, the study pointed out.
Families in Tami-heruwa confirm that boys, rather than girls, are the ones staying in school through bad times. Anju Dewraja’s younger brother is continuing at school, and Marami’s Dekaraja brother finished school and now works for a small private firm.
Amarjyoti Borah is a freelance writer based in northeast India.