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The Centre plans to safeguard the fast-eroding Majuli island — Asia’s largest riverine island — using research carried out on floating ‘B4’ boat labs along the Brahmaputra river. Majuli, the first island district of the country, was once 1200 square kilometres but due to excessive erosion has since shrunk to under 500 square kilometres.

It is also known for being the seat of Assam’s Vaishnava monasteries.‘B4’ – the ‘Brahmaputra Biodiversity and Biology Boat’, work on which will commence by December, will initially cover the region from Pasighat, Dibrigargh, Neemati, Tejpur and Guwahati in the state of Assam, said officials at the Department of Biotechnology.

The department has set aside Rs. 50 crore as an initial investment on the project.The large barge (or boat) which will be set up on the river will be a “well-equipped laboratory” with cold storage facilities for holding samples, along with multiple satellite boats or rafts that will venture into shallower and narrower parts of the river to lift samples.

“The large boat with the permanent lab will be spread over two floors and will go up and down the river. One floor will be dedicated to scientists, while the other floor will be accessible to residents of the area to learn about the eco-system,” said DBT secretary K. Vijay Raghavan on 20 Sept. 2017.

“The idea is to study the changes caused by dams, climate change, human interventions and the eventual effects it has on the river eco-system. Despite supporting considerable biodiversity, the Brahmaputra has not been studied as extensively as the Amazon,” he said.

Officials at DBT said that the project will “constantly monitor” the impact of various environmental and anthropological factors that affect the river and conduct research to mitigate the effects. The interdisciplinary focus, the work plan for which is developed with IIT Guwahati as the nodal agency, will also aim at a thorough study of freshwater resources of North East India.

“The integrated approach is aimed to combine data, science and judgement that can impact policy,” said officials.Union Science and Technology and Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan made the announcement about B4 on Wednesday and stressed that the programmes aimed at the North East of India were inspired by the ideals of Deendayal Upadhyay.

Further, Vardhan said that a Rs. 50-crore phyto-pharma plant mission has been set up to conserve medicinal plants. A frugal microscope ‘Foldscope’ assembled from simple components will be distributed in various schools and colleges across the northeastern states.