Quest for a better future: Kolongpur village in Kamrup Metro district of Assam | Photo: TheNewsMill

For 31-year-old Jebesh Ronghang, the education of his two daughters is far more important than holding on to his family’s agricultural land. For the past six years, the family of four has been residing in a rented two-room house in Khetri, the nearest town from his ancestral village of Kolongpur, in the Kamrup Metro district of Assam.

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His village is about 29-30 km from Khetri, a distance easily commutable multiple times a day with a vehicle. However, without a proper road and transportation, commuting just 30 km is a luxury that the Ronghang family can hardly afford.

Jebesh and hundreds of others from 14 villages in the Sonapur revenue circle under Dispur constituency have been compelled to leave their native homes to provide education and medical support for their families. Without proper schools and just three medical sub-centres, that too without any doctor, the families have started living in the nearest towns of Khetri, Tetelia and Sonapur, leaving their fertile plots to middlemen for small amounts of money.

With the gradual migration of the younger folks to the urban areas over the past two decades, albeit temporarily, there is a lurking threat of these villages turning into ‘ghost villages’.

Villages left without children as majority have moved out for education

Just about 15 km away from NH-27, passing through green hills and lush agricultural lands, is the village of Kolongpur. The village belongs to the indigenous Karbi and Amri-Karbi tribal communities, about half of the population now converted to Christianity. On a Sunday morning, as the community returns from church service, while it would have been a normal sight to see children enjoying a holiday, surprisingly there were none.

Due to the lack of any high schools in the village, the children are admitted to the educational institutes of the neighbouring towns like Khetri and Sonapur in Kamrup Metro district.

“There is a lower primary Assamese medium school with classes till the 5th standard. But there is just one faculty, the headmaster, who also doubles up as the teacher for each class. There are about 25 children in total. The Christian missionary started a private school till class 2 that has three teachers and another 15-20 students. But after primary education there is no institute in the vicinity for higher education,” explained Mohe Phangcho, an elder of the Kolongpur village.

Apart from the main pitched road connecting the villages – which was constructed just before the 2021 assembly elections – there is no proper connectivity to the interiors, nor any facility of public transportation for the populace. Hence commuting 28-30 km daily to and from the schools is an impossible feat.

With about 120 families as per the villagers, Kolongpur has a population of about 850. Among them, around 120 students of various ages are residing in nearby towns for education. Since a good number of these boarders are minor, they are accompanied by their mother, in some cases by both parents and staying in rented facilities.

Shila Ingti, a mother of three said: “I have been renting a house at Khetri for the past 18 years. My husband stays in Kolongpur but I have to accompany my children; someone has to take care of them.”

Her eldest son is pursuing his bachelor’s degree, the second is in higher secondary second year and the youngest, a daughter, is in the 8th standard. The family needs around Rs 50,000 per month for the school and tuition expenses including rent and travel. The mother, along with her children, only visits home during vacations or emergencies.

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Like Teron, Jebesh Ronghang’s two daughters are also in KG and Grade 6 respectively. “Since my elder daughter is already studying in an English medium school in the town and my wife has to stay with her, the younger one is naturally admitted there rather than in the village school. Since both are small, I have also come to live with them for their safety,” said Jebesh.

The same story is prevalent for not just every household of Kolongpur but of 14 other neighbouring villages. Although the Markang High School was established privately, the lack of good faculty has been a major drawback. According to rough estimates of the village communities, about 1500 children from the 2000 families of the 14 villages in the area have been away from home in pursuit of education.

Lack of basic healthcare services

When Dr Swastika Padmapati first set foot on Kolongpur on April 7, 2021 on a one-day voluntary service with a local NGO called Spread NE, she recalls being panicked by the high blood pressure conditions of the villagers. “I have worked with the Karbi community as an intern and when Samir Bordoloi – the founder of the Spread NE – approached me for voluntary service I readily agreed. The roads were not very good. I recall the driver of the vehicle we travelled in explaining that many have lost their lives on that very vehicle before reaching the hospital – due to lack of medical facilities in the vicinity and improper roads.”

“Firstly, we had to plead with them to get check-ups. And the few who did, I was astonished to see such high BP levels. For most people, especially the privileged class, they would have been admitted in hospitals with such BP levels. But these villagers were neither unaware of their health condition nor had the means for treatment. However, they were patient in understanding the concerns and promised to take care. Many were also suffering from joint pain due to regular trekking on the hilly terrain,” she said.

A volunteer doctor treating patients at Kolongpur wellness camp organised by Spread NE NGO
A volunteer doctor treating patients at Kolongpur wellness camp organised by Spread NE NGO | Photo: TheNewsMill

Dr Padmapati, expressing her concerns, hopes to revisit the villages again and pleads with other volunteers to offer service.

There are just three medical health sub-centres among the 14 villages at Kolongpur, Dondoral, Bondorgog. “But we have never seen a doctor in these centres. Even for the basic first-aid we have to rush to Sonapur or Khetri. The Dondoral Medical Sub-Centre earlier saw regular visits by a doctor, about twice a week. But after his transfer there has been no other doctor. The centres have just a nurse and one or two ASHA workers,” said Kati Ranghang, a social worker.

A visit to a doctor is an expense of minimum Rs 3,000. “We have to wait for someone with a vehicle in the village to go to town to give us a ride at a rate of Rs 50 per person. Else a car has to be rented, that costs around Rs 1,000. Usually, the whole day’s wage is wasted and then there are the medical expenses,” said Kati.

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In most cases, farmers who are suffering from high blood pressure, as said by a few doctors who have volunteered for recent visits, are unaware or deprived of medical help. Sudden deaths while working in the field, mostly suspected as strokes, are common occurrences.

“People are reluctant to make such a tedious and expensive journey to the hospital,” he added.

Samir Bordoloi, whose NGO is presently working with the community is putting his efforts to bring in volunteer doctors in exchange for rural-tourism. In the absence of any pharmacy in the 14 villages, Bordoloi is also mulling to establish at least one, hoping to generate employment alongside.

The loss of fertile land

These hilly areas are among the most fertile of lands, where plants grow at the drop of a seed. Large plots are covered by orange plantations, pineapple, broom grass, rice, etc. But most of these are now the property of middlemen or market brokers.

“As the working population mostly lives in the towns, there is a significant crisis of farmers. Those left behind in the villages do cultivate but the remaining land is given to the middlemen in exchange of advance payment to bear the expenses of living in town,” said Jebesh Ronghang.

Cultivation at Kolongpur
Cultivation at Kolongpur | Photo: Samir Bordoloi

“My family has about 35 bighas of cultivable land. But my old parents can hardly do anything. As I need money, I sell my annual orange production in advance to a lender for Rs 30,000. If I could work myself, I would have earned at least double the amount. And this happens with everyone, we sell our crops in advance,” he said.

In such circumstances, most land is already leased out year after year for a meagre amount. Over the years many have lost interest or the means to return to agriculture and are barely earning as daily wage labourers in the towns.

Mohe Phangcho and Kati Ranghang expressed their concern that these tribal villages are gradually on the verge of turning into ‘ghost villages’, like those of Uttarakhand. Over the last two decades there has been a gradual migration of the families to the urban areas, leaving their land to the middlemen.

“We already do not have the strong younger people to till the land. The next generation are all growing up in the towns with no connection to the soil or agriculture. After staying away for so long and getting education, not that we oppose education, will they ever return to be farmers? Even if some do return, will they have the skill or resources to cultivate? There are chances that our lands will gradually be taken over by private parties,” they opined.

Dharma Ram Deka, head of geography at Sonapur College said: “We have seen many students from the villages coming to the towns for education. The schools and the house owners are profiting from them. They have enough plantations and cultivations to afford the costs of living but they are unable to earn much as the middlemen and the businessmen are profiting more. A permanent migration is not yet witnessed but children growing in towns, away from agriculture would definitely not want to return to the villages.”

Robin Bora, a quinquagenarian from Teteliya seconded Deka saying: “We have grown up with children from these villages. Until a few years back we saw the villagers carrying their patients in bamboo makeshift stretchers to the hospital, most often the ill dying midway. The migration for education is even higher now. Everyone wants to succeed and move away from the struggles of being left underprivileged. But in the process, they are leaving behind their traditions, their fertile agricultural land. Had they had good education and medical facilities in the villages, these children would have grown learning cultivation alongside. But now they are completely detached and will not return to that. Probably, ours is the last generation residing in the villages.”

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Although there is no official data of how many have migrated to the towns of Sonapur, Tetelia and Khetri, locals have opined witnessing the “temporary migration” and the locals benefitting, although marginally now, from them. Reportedly, several private schools have also come up in these areas, although there are several other factors contributing to the expedited growth of these towns. Without proper Census data, actual numbers could not be determined, although the movement is significantly visible.

Kolongpur village
Kolongpur village | Photo: Samir Bordoloi

Being marked ‘non-cadastral’ even after 75 years of independence

Notably, the 14 villages of indigenous people, their home for centuries, have been labelled as ‘non-cadastral’ (land without proper survey and without a revenue map) by the Assam government, depriving the villages of the benefits of the several government schemes rolled out for the farmers and the economically backward sections.

“Despite being a part of the Dispur constituency, we hardly see our MLA Atul Bora. He did visit once or twice during the tenure of the last BJP government but not once after the new government was formed. Over the years all our prayers and memorandums urging for roads, health facilities, schools, transportation, etc have gone unheard,” said Kati Ranghang.

The Sonapur revenue circle office, on enquiry, has informed that about 52 villages under the circle are to be surveyed soon under the Assam government’s recent initiative to carry out detailed survey of over 1,000 such villages across the state.

MLA Atul Bora, denying all allegations of negligence, told TheNewsMill: “There are several district hospitals, block PHE and sub-centres. It was my single-handed effort to construct the 30-bedded Khetri Hospital and Kamrup Metro Hospital in Sonapur and other areas. But doctors and nurses blatantly refuse to serve at these centres; that has been a major problem. In some higher hilly places where there are no sub-centres, people can easily come down to the others.”

Speaking about lack of high schools and transportation the legislator added: “There is the Markang High School, its ME section is provincialized but the remaining higher classes are yet to be done. And it is impossible to provide public transportation like buses on such hilly terrains. They have private taxis that run regularly to carry the produce; these are also available for the people. If they find it difficult to travel to this side (areas within Assam), they can easily cross the Ampi River at the border and go towards Meghalaya to avail the facilities. I am the only politician who has these places.”

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About Barasha Das

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Barasha Das is a journalist working in Northeast India region.

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