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Jun 21, 2012 at 01:58pm IST

'Beautiful Country,' stories from Assam, Meghalaya

Beautiful Country is a journey towards understanding India. From the rarefied world of the Jalpaiguri tea estates to the crowded bylanes of Varanasi, from the pristine forests of Andamans to the seething valley of Manipur, from the scattered habitations of Ladakh to the flooded villages of Barmer - these are the roads less travelled.

Here's an extract from the book:

Assam & Meghalaya

'Beautiful Country,' stories from Assam, Meghalaya

Authors Gunjan Veda and Syeda Saiyidain Hameed's book 'Beautiful Country' is a journey towards understanding India.

In August 2007, we found ourselves in Dibrugarh, the second largest city of Assam, the state which is the entry point to India's beautiful North east. We knew this state relatively well, having travelled through much of it. The name 'Assam' is an anglicized version of 'Asom' or 'Axom'. There are several theories about its origin. O ne view traces it to the Bodo word 'Ha-Cham', which means 'low or level country'. Another ascribes it to 'Asama', meaning 'unequalled' or 'peerless'. This word was used to refer to the Ahom, a Shan tribe that ruled this land for six centuries from the thirteenth century ad onwards.

Sometimes it was work and sometimes friends that had taken us to Guwahati, Tezpur, Kaziranga. But this was our first time in the state's north-eastern region and its hub Dibrugarh. Dibrugarh's name is derived from the nearby River Dibaru or Dibru, whose confluence with the mighty

Brahmaputra is about eighteen km east of the city. We had read that the city had been devastated by the great earthquake of 15 August 1950, with its epicentre in Rima on the border of China and Arunachal. The earthquake, measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale, raised the bed of the Brahmaputra, causing severe erosion on its south bank; as a result, the Dibru River got merged with its master stream in Rahmaria Mouza. Dibrugarh has an interesting location. It is bounded by Dhemaji District, and a part of Lakhimpur District in the north, Sibsagar District and Arunachal Pradesh in the south, Tinsukia District in the east and another portion of Sibsagar in the west. All along the north-western boundary of the district flows the magnificent Brahmaputra, a wide and braided rope of water. Near the city it is ten km wide. It runs right up to the Patkai foothills in the south, with a total length of ninety-five km. Our flight over the state followed the course of the great river. At first glance, it seemed as if the entire area was flooded; large chunks of barren brown land were surrounded by lazy stretches of equally brown water. Gradually we realized that what we saw below was no deluge but a slow devastation orchestrated by the leviathan as it chipped away at the armour of the surrounding land mass bit by bit. The steep slope, large volume of water of the river and its high-velocity flow together cause large-scale bank erosion - erosion that is constantly changing the boundaries of Assam's many towns and cities, all of which have thrived on the banks of the Brahmaputra for centuries. As it laps in circles around valiant sandbars of various sizes, some of them inhabited, the mighty river appears deceptively calm, almost sluggish. But we were not fooled - we had experienced its force in other parts of the state. It was an hour's drive from Dibrugarh to the banks of the river from where we were to set off on our journey. Upon reaching the banks, we stood still for a moment to register the full force of the current. We were hesitant to walk on the narrow plank placed between the shore and the large waiting boat. Too many eyes were watching our steps. The plank stretched some twenty feet from the bank across the slush to the deck. Our guides had told us that it had been raining non-stop for twenty days. Today, however, the sun was finally shining. The Akha (Assamese for asha or 'hope'), the 'Ship of Hope' on which we were to ride that morning (beneath the ship's name on the mast were written these three simple words) was gleaming in the sunlight. This ship is the vehicle for the delivery of healthcare to tribes which live in some of the remotest human habitations of the state. To be honest, it was stories of the Akha that had drawn us to this historic town and its surrounding chars.

In preparation for our travels, we had read about the chars or the chaporis (pronounced 'saporis') of Assam. These riverine islands of varying sizes are formed out of the silt that comes along with the river currents. After some years, the silt collects and is covered by weeds and grasses. Gradually, humans and animals move to the larger and the more habitable of these sandbars. They are, however, subject to the constant mood swings of the great river that surrounds them. It is not an easy life, and yet, at 690 persons per square km, the density of population on these riverine islands is more than double that of the entire state.

We knew of Majauli, the biggest char in the world, currently a UNESCO Heritage site. It was from this island that the young activist Sanjoy Ghosh was abducted and killed. We had read news clippings about the conditions of the char people but had never actually seen one until the day we crossed the immense Brahmaputra on the Akha. The ship was anchored in Maijan Ghat, an hour's drive from town. Our cars stopped at a tea garden from where we picked our way through the monsoon slush. The team was led by Sanjoy Hazari ka, a former New York Times journalist who is managing trustee of the Centre for North-East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES). It was in the C-NES building in downtown Guwahati that the idea of Akha was first mooted. In his travels on the Tsangpo (the Chinese name for the Brahmaputra), one of the world's greatest rivers, spanning three nations, India, China and Bangladesh, Sanjoy realized the complete dependence of millions of people on the river for their livelihood, transport and communication. One of his conclusions was that the river itself could be used to respond to some of the problems and challenges people faced. Most of the chars lack basic services: health, schools, electricity, drinking water and sanitation. So why not use water transport to relieve this deprivation? Some three million people or 12 per cent of the state's population live on 2,500 islands of the Brahmaputra. Most of these are poor migrants or tribals. At last count, there were 2,300 villages floating, on the river (many chars and, hence the villages on them, are semi-permanent). Country boats are the only means of connectivity, and these are usually dugouts pulled by oars. During floods, people's lives are shattered. Every year, lakhs of women, children and men become homeless and take shelter in temporary relief camps. Here, they huddle together for weeks, waiting for the water levels to recede.

The Akha was a small-size ship, twenty-two metres long and four metres wide. It had a beautiful deck on which we rode. It also had an OPD, cabins for medical staff, a small kitchen, toilets, crew quarters and a general store. Sitting on the deck, watching the magnificent river, we thought of the reach and grasp of the National Rural Health Mission that we had witnessed over the last four years. The NRHM is one of the government's flagship schemes, meant to deliver adequate and affordable healthcare to rural India. 'Have you ever thought about the chars?' Sanjoy had asked us in Delhi. 'Here, thousands of people live their lives in adverse conditions, cut off from mainland by a fast and furious river. The challenge is to give them access to basic health. How will they get sub-centres, leave alone Primary Health Centres? They don't even have drinking water.'

That morning, watching a mist rising on the Brahmaputra while the sun shone bright and harsh, we thought of the multiple complexities of our demography and terrain. The chars are flat lands, gently resting on the waters. Vulnerable to the undulation of the river, they have no protective mangroves and plants such as the ones we had seen all over the Andaman Islands (see Chapter 4), which had acted as a protective shield against the 2004 tsunami.

Our hour-long journey across the deceptively calm river was taking us to Dodhia Sapori. On the river we heard the rest of the Akha's story. In 2004, when the concept of a boat health centre was showcased by C-NES, it won an award at the World Bank's India Development Marketplace Awards. With the award money, construction of the boat started. Carpenters from Dholla and Tinsukia worked tirelessly under the supervision of the engineer, Kamal Prasad Gurung. In June 2005, the ship that would bring hope to the lives of thousands of forgotten char dwellers was completed. Since then, the Akha has made regular trips to these small riverine islands, organizing medical camps, immunizing little children and providing basic medicines.

By now, we had almost reached our destination and we had our first real taste of the difficulties of living here. The ship could not get right up to the sapori. We had to drop anchor some distance away and climb into a 'phatphat boat', a noisy jugad (makeshift) boat-taxi to reach the island. The slush was almost knee-deep. We removed our shoes and walked through the tall khaironi (a type of grass used in building roofs), brushing against the sharp blades, dreading the insects and snakes lurking in the wetlands. The island was inhabited entirely by the Mishing, who are related to the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. They are also called the Miri. As we trudged on, it was evident that, until twenty-four hours ago, this land had been submerged in water.

We stopped at the first dwelling, a house built on stilts. On the verandah of the house, a stocky young man was sitting on his haunches along with his two sons. Bhaity Phaike was eight years old, and Lakhima Phaike was three. Their father was a schoolteacher but the school was flooded, and no children came. So he was at home, watching the flurry of activity that starts each time the Akha drops anchor. Waving goodbye to the Phaike family, we went deeper into the village called Kuligaon or Dodhiakule. Plodding through the khaironi we reached the building where the health camp was being run. This multi-purpose facility was also on stilts and served as a school, an anganwadi, and a sub-centre. It consisted of one large room fronted with a verandah. When we reached, a few patients were waiting outside. Two hours later the place was filled with people. Mishing women, in bright coloured shawls (which also served as baby slings) and sarongs which they had pulled up to mid-thigh were walking through the waist length khaironi grass. Babies were strapped to their backs as they stopped to wash their feet at a hand pump installed at the base of the centre. The doctors sat on the school benches, and consultation was going on across the school desks. Nurses examined women patients in a corner and referred them to the doctors in the room. Medical supplies, neatly arranged in one side of the room, were dispensed by a pharmacist. The place was buzzing with life; healthcare had been carefully extended to the most deprived of our people.

Book: Beautiful Country: Stories From Another India; Authors: Gunjan Veda, Syeda Saiyidain Hameed; Publisher: HarperCollins India

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