• Vidya Vijayaraghavan

The Mising Tribe of Assam’s Unique Approach to Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

There is no doubt climate change is wreaking havoc all over the planet, from endangered species to once-in-a-century weather events that are no longer a rare occurrence. While many places are slow to adopt climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, the Mising tribe of Assam is an intriguing exception.


Their ingenious Indigenous flood prevention strategy – steeped in centuries of traditional ecological knowledge – has thrust this small community into the spotlight.


In this blog we’ll shine a light on Mising tribe, their history and struggles for recognition, and how the application of Indigenous knowledge and climate change is actually empowering Indigenous people.


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The Mising are one of the Indigenous tribes of Assam. Photo by: Nilotpal Kalita (Unsplash)

Who is the Mising Tribe of Assam?


The Mising Tribe – also sometimes referred to as the Mishing Tribe – is a major ethnic group in northeast India and the second largest tribe in Assam. They are the River People; the name “Mising” comes from mi (man) and asi (water), or “man of the water”.


“To be Mising is to be made and unmade by the river.” – Nimisha Thakur

The Mising tribe of Assam is one of the Scheduled Tribes of India, a culturally rich tribal group also known to the outside world as Miri. Originally a hill tribe, they migrated from the eastern Himalayan mountains to the Brahmaputra valley around the 13th or 14th Century. They now occupy the plains of the state of Assam and some parts of Arunachal Pradesh in north east India.


At present, the Misings – whose population totals around 700,000 – are scattered across eight eastern districts of Assam: Dhemaji, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Sivsagar, Jorhat, Golaghat and Sonitpur. [1] This territory includes some of the most flood-prone areas in Assam, including Majuli, the world’s largest river island and one that may disappear thanks to the frequent floods of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.


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Majuli is an island in the Brahmaputra River which may even disappear, thanks to the increased flooding caused in part by climate change. Photo by: Zak261826 (Pixabay)


The Culture of the Mishing Tribe


The Mising people’s (or Mishing people’s) principal livelihood is subsistence agriculture, which they practice on the banks of the river they call home. Of all the Assam tribes, they are best known for being hardworking and extremely resilient to the vagaries of the unpredictable Brahmaputra River, often dubbed a ‘moving ocean’ because of its massive expanse.


This may be thanks to their culture. The Mising community is one of the most vibrant and colourful tribes of Assam. Though over 97% practice Hinduism, their religious practice is quite distinct. They consider most of nature to be imbued with supernatural power, including the skies, water, and wood. Though they don’t worship nature, they do respect it, and recognize that it has the power to destroy.


Every year, floods occur in the basin of the notorious Brahmaputra River and its tributaries, like the Dhansiri, causing devastating losses to life, livestock, crops and property. Nevertheless, according to Mr. Partha Jyoti Das, the head of Assamese NGO Aaranyak’s Water Climate and Hazards Division (WATCH), the Mishing people have developed a deep understanding of the river’s behaviour, better than other riverine tribes in Assam.


The Mising consider the river a source of life, rather than a threat. They live a temporary and fluid existence along its banks, and have learned to coexist with its temperamental nature. Instead of trying to prevent their homes from flooding, they engineered a way to overcome it: houses on stilts.


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The Mising tribe of Assam are a river people, who live on the banks of the Brahmaputra River. Photo by: Rohan Reddy (Unsplash)

Why Are Houses in Assam Built on Stilts?


There’s a pretty clever reason why houses in Assam are built on stilts. It’s what allows the Mising to adapt to regular flooding, rather than fight it.


Also referred to as Kare Okum, a traditional Mising chang ghar (sometimes spelled chang kar) is a wooden house built on bamboo stilts with mud foundations and a bamboo thatch roof; bamboo is also used extensively for flooring.


These bamboo houses in Assam are long and shaped like the letter “I,” constructed at least 5-10 feet (1.5-3m) above the ground. They can be built in less than a month and last about 5 years. What’s more, floor height can be adjusted according to the flood levels every year.


The stilt houses in Assam, a form of vernacular architecture, are full of innovative features. Inside, the chang ghar is built with multiple levels, each serving a specific purpose. First comes the Meram, the fireplace. Above it are two bamboo shelves, Perab and Rabbong, tied to the roof with jute or cane rope. These are used for storing fish, meat and Apong, a type of traditional rice beer, in clay pots.


Since the Perab is right above the fireplace, it can be used for smoking meat and fish as a way of preserving them. Next comes the Kumbang, close to the ceiling. This is where vegetables are stored, like garden-grown potatoes, garlic and onion.


Outside, residents enter and leave the house by bamboo ladders. Another innovative design of the Mising stilt houses of Assam is the large front porch, called a Tunggeng. This is typically used for sitting or for storing grains. It also comes in handy during a particularly intense flood: If a house with lower elevation gets flooded, the residents can take refuge in the Tunggeng of another, higher elevation house.


Traditionally, every stilt house would also have a wooden Ollung secured beneath – a wooden raft to help families get around during flood season. These days it is more common to find literal banana boats – rafts made from the trunks of banana trees – which is more affordable than wood.


people on a boat in a flooded river in India
Floods are a problem in many parts of India, including Bihar (pictured). But none are more threatened by the worsening effects of climate change than Assam. Photo by Atul Pandey (Unsplash)

A Region in Trouble


Of the 12 Himalayan states in India, Assam is the most vulnerable to climate change. According to a vulnerability assessment by India’s Department of Science and Technology, this is thanks to Assam’s unique topography, physiographic location, dense network of rivers and location in an area where the Southwest Monsoon is dominant.


In addition, the state has high rainfall and frequent floods; nearly 40% of the total area of Assam is in a flood-prone zone. And this is only projected to get worse: According to Mukund P. Rao, a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, the monsoon is expected to intensify during the 21st Century.


The impacts of this flooding are made worse due to the socio-economic conditions in the state: Nearly 32% of its population lives below the poverty line, making Assam a study case for the economic burden of climate change.


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The Mising chang ghar is an Indigenous flood prevention strategy that is gaining new attention. Photo by: Tommy Rau (Pixabay)

Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation in Assam


Naturally, Assam needs to take climate change adaptation and mitigation seriously. Unfortunately, so far, Assam’s approach to flood management has focused on building embankments designed to prevent land adjacent to the river from getting flooded when the river swells.


It doesn’t work. More often than not, these embankments are breached, either thanks to especially intense storms or shoddy workmanship.


This, coupled with the increasing prevalence of concrete settlements, has created a recipe for disaster: instead of holding back the floodwaters, the embankments impede them from receding back into the river; the replacement of fields with concrete leaves the water nowhere to go. On top of that, erosion and silt deposits are leaving much of the cultivable land unusable.


Instead of focusing on this type of “preparedness,” it’s probably time to start building resilience.


Part of the Assam State’s Action Plan on Climate Change and their Disaster Management Plan is to design climate-resilient habitats and there is a growing belief that they should to look to Indigenous knowledge for climate change resilience.


Who better to turn to than the Mising, who have honed resilience and lived in harmony with the river for centuries? They no doubt could provide a few lessons on the subject.



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Stilt houses in Assam may be a climate change adaptation and mitigation strategy that can be adopted even outside the Mising community. Photo by Tommy Rau (Pixabay)

The Chang Ghar Tradition Threatened


“Across India, we’ve observed people are building homes where they didn’t earlier. They are eschewing vernacular architecture for more ‘modern’ concrete houses,” Manu Gupta, co-founder of SEEDS told the Third Pole.


This is one of the issues with traditional knowledge. Despite the obvious benefits the chang ghar provides, it has also long been a symbol of marginalization, in part due to their designation as kutcha, or temporary. Such temporary homes are deemed inferior than “modern” concrete homes, and are looked down upon.


Other factors threaten the chang ghar tradition: traditional skills aren’t being passed on, natural forest buffers are disappearing and there’s even a ban on logging. The result is that traditional adaptation methods have become harder and costlier than before.


On top of that, worsening flooding coupled with the favoured but ill-suited embankments create conditions that are more than what traditional houses built on stilts can withstand. And they are collapsing. 2017 was an especially bad flood year and many Mising lost their homes.


But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. “[O]ur adaptation methods still have a lot to offer,” community activist Manoranjan Pegu told the United Nations regional office for disaster risk reduction. “[T]he focus is not to fight or tame nature, but to live with it, and improve community preparedness.”


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The traditional chang ghar is getting a modern makeover to help it withstand climate change, thanks to foundations like SEEDS. Photo by: Siddharth Behl, (c) SEEDS

Enter: The Chang Ghar 2.0


As a result, the chang ghar has been getting a modern update – the “chang ghar 2.0”. These hybrid chang ghars are being promoted by local NGOs like the North East Affected Area Development Society (NEADS) and Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS), who provide construction help.


In this reimagining of the chang ghar, rubberized bamboo pillars set into concrete replace the traditional bamboo stilts in mud foundations, while preserving the upper wood and bamboo structure. This construction is more secure, ensuring that houses do not get swept away by raging flood waters.


While preserving Mising ingenuity and their traditional character, modern houses in Assam built on stilts feature some new innovations. First, they are built an additional three feet higher off the ground. Furthermore, the floor can be raised even further when flood levels demand it, thanks to a flexible joinery system. In addition, cross-bracing bamboo supports increase the structure’s stability, allowing it to withstand the rush of flood waters, and even earthquakes.


They also come with toilets!


And they have proven their worth. Since the first ones were built, this updated chang kar design has withstood more than seven floods.


As this Indigenous technology gains acceptance, many are recognizing the value of the chang ghar design, and pushing for it to be used for schools and other important buildings in flood-prone areas.


New Recognition Part of a Long-Standing Struggle


The Mishing tribe of Assam – who self-identify as Indigenous and tribal – have long fought for autonomy and cultural recognition as “an Indigenous tribe that shifts and changes with the river’s flow”.


Recognized as Miris under the Indian Constitution (which generally provides some measure of political and economic safeguards), the Mising have been fighting for inclusion under the Constitution’s 6th Schedule since 1983. This Schedule outlines autonomous tribal regions and grants special rights and governing authority to the listed Indigenous groups. Despite being a “scheduled tribe,” the 6th Schedule does not currently include the Mising, a glaring oversight.


The Mising currently do, however, enjoy a measure of independence from the Assam Government. Following violent clashes with the government, the Mising Autonomous Council (MAC) was formed in 1995, which administers the tribe-occupied area. The MAC governs 40 Mising tribe constituencies.


The marginalisation of the Mising is exacerbated by the media which, until this year, has consistently ignored their plight in the face of climate change. Following more protests, the Mising managed to raise some awareness about the flooding in Assam, their vulnerability to it and also their resilience and ingenuity. The increasing awareness, coupled with the stark realization of the benefits of indigenous knowledge for climate change assessment and adaptation, is gradually shifting biases and increasing social acceptance of the community.

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The hills of Assam. Photo by: Ankur Lahon (Unsplash)

Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change: The Solutions to Our Future May Lie in the Past


Overall, the Mising tribe of Assam has been successful in cultivating resiliency in the face of a flood-prone river, and now a new foe, climate change. Though it is testing the limits of this Indigenous flood prevention strategy, with a little help, the Mising chang ghar tradition is meeting the challenge.


They have a lot to teach the rest of flood-prone Assam when it comes to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Coupled with better flood mitigation and development policies and early warning systems, the chang ghar could become an instrumental part of the region’s – and the country’s – climate change strategy.


Let’s hope governments take notice.



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About the Author

Vidya is an environmental lawyer from India, with special interests in biodiversity, climate change and sustainability issues. She is a fellow at the Guarini Center, NYU after graduating as a Vanderbilt scholar with a masters in environmental law at the NYU law school. Previously, she advised the UNDP, India, the Indian Ministry of Environment and worked with IDLO, Governments of Namibia and Vietnam on interesting environmental legal and policy issues. She enjoys travelling, bird watching and wildlife photography. In her free time, you can find her playing at the beach or convincing her friends to go vegan.


Notes

[1] Pegu, Rahul. “The Role of Mising Women And Their Socio-Economic Status In Mising Society: A New Perspective,” Journal of Tribal Intellectual Collective India (JTICI) Vol.3, Issue 1, No.1 Pp. 1 To 12, September 2015 <http://www.ticijournals.org/the-role-of-mising-women-and-their-socio-economic-status-in-mising-society-a-new-perspective/>