Both the State Government and the Centre have announced a number of initiatives for protection and development of river island Majuli, a heritage treasure trove of the State that has also been bidding for UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status. Even more than the annual floods, erosion by the river Brahmaputra has been its biggest problem, with large stretches of landmass eroded by the river over the years. With the 15th Finance Commission recommending Rs 1,075 crore for the construction of the new embankment-cum-road around the island, the perennial concern of erosion should ease. A well-known seat of Assam’s Vaishnavite culture as propagated by the 15th century saint-reformer Srimanta Sankaradeva, Majuli retains its centuries-old sattras (monasteries) which – together with the social and cultural practices influenced by these religio-spiritual centres – have accorded a heritage identity to the place. Indeed, as many experts believe, Majuli deserves to figure in the list of coveted UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
While a dose of development is an urgent need for Majuli, given its backwardness and the resultant hardships endured by the local populace, it should also be noted that any diluting of the river island’s ambience represented by its antiquity and old-world charm will effectively diminish its heritage value. Therefore, the kind of development sought to be effected in Majuli must be in sync with its inherent heritage that has survived for centuries. The existing physical as well as ethno-cultural landscape, particularly in and around the sattras, need to be preserved and not allowed to be scarred by the onslaught of ‘modern’ development. While a bridge linking it with Jorhat is a genuine need of the Majuli inhabitants, it is likely that it could lead to a drastic change in Majuli’s heritage ambience, eroding its exclusiveness and sanctity. Therefore, even while having the bridge, the ethno-cultural heritage of Majuli must be zealously preserved by making effective regulations if necessary in matters of land transfer, house construction, market places, etc. Failing this, the resultant loss in Majuli’s heritage worth could be substantial and irreversible. The elusive UNESCO status apart, it is regrettable that Majuli still awaits its due recognition even within India. The Government of India has not yet deemed it fit to declare Majuli as a heritage site, citing restrictions in declaring an island as heritage site under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. The Government should recognize Majuli’s heritage by making amendments to the Act.