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Assam's border farmers fenced in by changing climate conditions

by Amajyoti Borah | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 22 December 2015 07:48 GMT

Border guards cross a gate in Assam’s Dhubri district, in northeast India. TRF/Jyotirmoy Chakraborty

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When water runs short, how do you irrigate on the wrong side of the fence?

DHUBRI, India, Dec 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Golok Das, a farmer in India's northeast Assam state, is happy with the harvest produced by his main 6-hectare farm. But he'd love to sell another 4-hectare plot, just half a kilometre away, even though it's equally fertile.

Why? It sits on the other side of a barbed-wire fence marking the Bangladesh border, and that means he can't irrigate it.

The fence was built in 1987 to prevent illegal migration from Bangladesh to India. It traces a line about 150 yards inside the actual border, on Indian land, since no treaty agreement allowed a fence to be built on the border itself.

Large tracts of Indian land, including some villages, were left on the far side of the fence. In the Golokganj sector of Dhubri district, more than 8,000 farmers struggle with a fence between their homes and their land. They are allowed to cross though the fence each day to work their holdings, but only at set hours.

Now changing climatic conditions in the region for the first time require farmers to irrigate their land frequently to get a good crop - but legal and bureaucratic obstacles make it hard to invest in irrigation on the far side of the fence, meaning harvests there are two-thirds lower than those on the Indian side.

"With climate change, there has been a change in the rainfall pattern and also the flood intensity, which is making agriculture difficult in many areas in the state," said Girin Chetia of the non-profit North East Affected Areas Development Society.

Those changes mean farmer Safikul Islam now wants to get rid of his 5 hectares of land on the wrong side of the fence, and next to Das' plot.


Both farmers say their land on the Indian side of the fence yields nearly 1,500 kg of rice a year, while an equivalent area on the Bangladesh side produces no more than 500 kg.

"The land on both sides is equally fertile, however we suffer as we don't have any irrigation facilities there. This takes a major toll on our land on the other side of the border," said Das.

"We have been traditionally dependent on the rainwater for our cultivation (for) generations, but now as the rainfall has become unpredictable, it is not possible," said Munin Das, a 52-year-old farmer who owes 4 hectares of land on the Bangladeshi side of the fence.

"We need irrigation facilities to be able to cultivate our land and get good yields," he said.

By law, construction of any concrete or permanent structure is forbidden near the fence, local people say.

"Even the idea of building any small irrigation project or building any project for water harvesting does not arise," said Dinesh Kumar Sarkar, a former legislator from Dhubri who also owes agricultural land on the other side of the fence.

Sarkar said that even taking tractors onto the land requires a lengthy bureaucratic process.

Local people worry they will have to give up farming on the Bangladeshi side of the fence as a result of the weather changes, and complain that neither the district administration nor the Indian government's Border Security Force (BSF) have been sympathetic to their problems.


Gates to cross the border are open from 8 am to 4 pm, Sarkar said, and outside these times no Indian citizen is allowed to work land on the Bangladesh side.

The problem is that "farming cannot be done within a fixed timeframe," Sarkar said. In particular, the fixed crossing hours "create a lot of problems for the farmers, as the farmer needs to reach his field very early in the morning", he said.

In addition, he said, people living on the Bangladeshi side of the border sometimes damage Indian-owned crops or harvest them, leaving Indian growers with no produce to show for their labour.

Farmers and civil society groups have long urged India's government to purchase their land on the other side of the fence.

Members of Nagarik Unnayan Mancha, a civil society group, say they plan to file a petition on the issue at the Gauhati high court.

"Our demands have been ignored for years, and now we are planning to send a delegation to (explain) our situation before the Assam chief minister and the country's prime minister," said Sarkar.

The state government, however, says that it cannot act alone on a matter affecting the country's border.

"This is an international issue and Bangladesh must also be involved, and this could be done only through the Ministry of External Affairs," said Bhumidhar Barman, Assam's revenue minister.

He said he would take up the issue with the central government.

(Reporting by Amarjyoti Borah; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)

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