By the Brahmaputra (Vol: 20)

(For the quarter October – December 2012)

Editorial

By the Brahmaputra : The North-east must fashion the Burma Road

At a recent discussion on Myanmar, where several senior Burmese civil society figures participated, a number of ‘real issues’ came up.  One was the puzzlement of those from that country about the so-called ‘Look East Policy’ and what it meant, specifically, for Myanmar, and how those from the North-east agreed about the LEP’s failure to do anything of substance for the region itself.

Another was the amusing way in which some former Indian Government officials had transformed themselves from speaking only for government and believing in what it does (what is called G to G: Government to Government) to becoming breathless advocates of a P to P (forgive the inappropriately sounding phrase) approach.  A third was the way in which speakers from the NER, especially those in office, made forceful pleas for ensuring that those from the region drove the approach, policy and conceptual framework for the new relationship with Myanmar and South East Asia.

As TP Khaund, the representative and adviser of the Mizoram Chief Minister, and a veteran administrator himself declared, it is those from the region who speak its languages, have traveled in the area and understand its people and those on the other side of the border with sensitivity, who are best equipped to take a pro-people policy of neighbourly relations forward. This cannot be done by mandarins from Delhi, especially a few retired ones who have breathlessly gone into pushing their ideas on the area.

There were other issues which came up and which need to be reflected upon. Rajiv Bhatia, surely one of the finest foreign policy officers that India has produced who thinks about international and national issues with coherence and served with distinction as Ambassador to Myanmar, made other telling points: one was the umbilical link between reform and reconciliation, a point that President Obama himself made and which rings true from the experiences of South Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines and even pockets of the gravely troubled Middle East. The other substantial point is how Myanmar was going to deal with a federal polity, a concept that was banned from discussion for decades because it was seen as a precursor of all things evil including the possible fragmentation of the country.

One needs to understand this issue a bit more substantially for it informs the latter part of this column.  Myanmar’s major ethnic groups are minorities in their country but majorities in their homelands where their languages and traditions rule. Since 1962, when Gen. Ne Win took over in a military putsch that displaced the democratic U Nu, contemporary of Jawaharlal Nehru, the military had fought brutal, unending civil wars with the ethnic armies of the country, which only have calmed in the past decade and appear to be coming only now to some form of political accord, under President Thein Sein’s benevolent gaze.

The accounts of those conflicts are too chillingly similar to our own military’s encounters with the Nagas, Mizos and then Manipuris and to a degree those from Assam over a similar time frame. People displaced and killed, villages burned, women molested and raped, a long list of the disappeared.  After some time, a counter-story in our country emerges, from the other side, of manifest brutality and extortion, depredation and intimidation by armed non-state actors.  Yet, over the decades, good sense began to prevail in Delhi and among the armed groups: political dialogue slowly replaced the language of weapons, negotiations and agreements became the process of change and ceasefires (many not implemented effectively) the order of the day. Levels of peace began to grow even as insurgency-related violence began to slow, weakened by a commensurate growth in peoples aspirations, their lack of support for the militias and, indeed, their consequent fatigue with conflict and its many accompanying traumas.

This does not mean that violence is at an end but surely it is of no mean significance that no jawan had fallen to an insurgent bullet in Nagaland for over five years? Peace may not be in hand but a lessening of violence related to claims for sovereignty, that now faltering slogan, clearly is. This is the advantage that even a fractured democracy is able to give people and citizenry — it enables them the selection of candidates (not entirely of their preference but whom they can choose) to run affairs and with time better sense has prevailed in Delhi where it has become clear that the force of arms against fellow Indians must be replaced by the open hand of friendship, if not the embrace of agreement.

But in Myanmar, it’s a different story: having spent nearly half a century under a despotic military regime that has done its best to cut itself off from the world. During that time, battling to crush ethnic claims and combatants, the generals who still make up a majority of the reforming (not reformed) Myanmar’s new face would be very reluctant at heart to embrace a multi-ethnic federal polity. But this is the key to the country’s future and the difficulties are seen in even the unsure position of DASSK, as Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi is also known, on the issue of the Rohingyas.

Most Burmese leaders deny there is such a community in their country. These unfortunates are denied citizenship. They are derided and dismissed as Bangladeshi and that they speak Bangla (indeed, many speak a form of the Chittagongi dialect).  Aung Sang Suu Kyi, at an engaging conversation with some of us in Delhi during her recent visit, emphatically declared that many of the Rohingyas were out of doubtful nationality since corrupt immigration officials had allowed to let them in. She has said this elsewhere as well.

To some of us, frankly, this appears to be far too simplistic and does not address the issue of ‘inconvenient’ minorities in homelands, a problem that is staring us in the face in Assam and other parts of the North-east.  Indeed, her remarks took me back to a conversation some years ago with some of the Myanmar political \groups in exile while they were based in Mizoram.  Two or three representatives of Arakan factions were also there.  When I asked the roomful of dissidents how they would plan to tackle the Rohingya problem, they all turned sheepishly to the other, half-smiled and almost together said that it would be resolved when democracy came to their country.

I still remember what I said to them at the time: ‘This means that your position is basically the same as the military and when and if democracy comes, it will not change and you will have the same problem all over again.”  Unfortunately, this has become a fact and a thorn in the flesh of the nascent democracy in our eastern neighbour.  How are the Burmese to handle this and other ethnic divides which continue to trouble them?

I believe there are good and bad examples to follow in the North-east. One is not specifically referring to the Rohingya problem but to the overall question of a federal relationship: In the NER, there is the fine example of Mizoram where a comprehensive dialogue between the Centre and the Mizo National Front meant that politically inclusive negotiations preceded an agreement where the civil society, especially the powerful Church, was involved.  A Chief Minister stood down to make way, during an interim period, for the leader of the insurgents to take office.  In one swift move, the armed fighter had become a prisoner of the Constitution and its servant and thereby a part of the democratic process. That Laldenga of the MNF was defeated by schisms within his own party even after winning at the hustings is another story, one that tells us not of the fragileness but the challenges, robustness and divisions of democratic politics in this country.

The Naga-Delhi talks appear to be at the same ‘final stage’ as the talks between ethnic groups and the Myanmar government with similar sticking points: will the ethnic army be disbanded and merged into the national army? What is the meaning of complete peace and cessation of conflict: does it bind future generations?  What are the Constitutional provisions that guarantee a special ‘unique’ place to the negotiating group? Will land demands/borders be respected?

The North-east is in a position to export good ideas and experiences to its neighbours, not just limited items of trade and headloads of tiny commodities at Moreh and Zokathar, Tamabil and the haats on the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border.

I write this from Thailand, which lies at the crossroads of many cultures and influences. The soft power of our music (rock bands and musicians such as Reuben Mashangva, the Shillong Chamber Choir, the Nagaland Singing Ambassadors, Lopu Majaw, Rudi Wallang), poets and authors as well as sports figures (football teams from Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland) can perform in Mandalay and Yangon, in Bagan and Neipidaw but also in Bangkok and Cheng Mai, Kaula Lumpur, Penang, Singapore and Jakarta. It’s the time for the real Look East Policy to come on the road, not a few car rallies organized by business associations, but one that is driven and designed by ideas and people from the region.

Sanjoy Hazarika
Managing Trustee
(From his regular column in the Assam Tribune published on 12th December 2012)


Myanmar conference at Jamia

Following the significant visit of Opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi to India, a group of senior political, civil society figures and scholars from Myanmar participated in an international conference on ‘Myanmar: Distant Neighbour’, organized at Jamia Millia Islamia by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia in association with the Centre for Policy Research, ANFREL, Bangkok, and the Academy of International Studies (JMI). The conference was held at the Rabindranath Tagore Hall in Mir Taki Mir, near the Administrative Building, on Dec 5. The opening session was chaired by eminent writer journalist Sanjoy Hazarika, Director of the Centre at Jamia. The effort was to look at ways of bridging existing gaps in collaboration and understanding and looking at ways to strengthen people to people connectivity. The Myanmar team will have also studied Parliamentary procedure and processes.

From the Indian side, R.S. Mooshahary, Governor of Meghalaya, Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia,Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs, Dr. Sanjaya Baru, former spokesman in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr KC Sivaramakrishnan Chairman, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, Former Secretary, Govt. of India, & Senior Advisor, World Bank, Mr T P Khaund Principal Adviser to Govt. of Mizoram and Mr. PD Rai, MP(Sikkim) were among the policy makers, scholars and others who joined the conference. The seminar brought together from Myanmar, under the aegis of ANFREL, prominent media practitioners as well as political activists and representatives of ethnic groups

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Participants at the Jamia conference

 


Media Coverage

NDTV

The NDTV coverage, a group photograph

The NDTV coverage of a health camp at Bordia

A team from NDTV led by its North East Bureau Chief Kishalaya Bhattacharjya visited Bordiya char with the Kamrup Boat Clinic team on 15th October 2012 to cover a health camp with special focus on children affected by recent floods. Dr. Dipankar Das, CEO and Bhaswati Gowami, Communications Officer, C-NES also accompanied the team. The team reached Bordia village at 12.10 pm and walked almost two kilometers to the camp site. Camp continued for four hours. An awareness session on various health aspects was initiated by community worker Md. Lalmamud Ali.

The link: http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/assam-s-boat-clinics-carry-health-services-and-hope-for-children-280951

Gulf news coverage

The Dubai based Gulf News covered the Boat Clinichealth initiative in their November 29th, 2012 issue. “Mini hospitals on boats are helping improve the health conditions of people in far-flung islands in northeastern India” is how the Features Editor, Friday magazine, Gulf News, Mr Anand Raj describes the Boat Clinic with inputs from Bhaswati K Goswami,Communications Officer, C-NES.

The Gulf News established itself as the leading English language newspaper of the region – a position it has occupied for many years reaching more readers than all the other English dailies, combined. In addition, the Arab Media Outlook 2011-2015, rated Gulf News as “the most read newspaper” of the UAE. The link: http://gulfnews.com/life-style/general/ship-of-hope-1.1111401

Asian News International

A team from Asian News international visited the Morigaon Boat Clinic on 3rd November 2012 and accompanied the team to cover a health camp at Bhangkoura char. During the two hour boat journey the team interviewed the Medical Officers and the rest of the healthy team. The community members and Asha provided feedback about the impact of the health camps and the Boat Clinic intervention and the positive impact it has brought to the beneficiaries. The programme was telecast by DD News on 15th November 2012.


Visitors

Joint Review Mission, NRHM 2012 Visit

The Joint Review Mission of NRHM, Govt. of India during their course of inspection of the NRHM activities of the Govt. of Assam, also visited briefly two C-NES Boat clinics. At Jorhat on 5th November 2012 the team led by Dr S. K. Sikdar, Deputy Commissioner (FW), MoH & FW, GOI inspected the boat while on their way to Majuli and at Tezpur on 7th November 2012 another team led by Dr D. K. Mongal, State Prog Coordinator, UNFPA visited the Sonitpur Boat Clinic. Both the teams inspected the infrastructure available in these boats, SB Nahar and SB Numali respectively and examined the records of the various camp activities including its planning and implementation, cold chain maintenance, waste disposal management, facility for child delivery etc. They were of the opinion that all the activities carried out by the teams could further emphasize on preventive measures especially for these deprived river dwelling community and should augment the present health awareness campaign as the present setup is an unique innovation and a beacon of a successful PPP mode with NRHM.

UNICEF Visit to AKHA

Mr. Louis George Arsenault, UNICEF Representative in India accompanied by Ms Jeroo Master, Chief Field Office, UNICEF Assam, Dr. Sachin Gupte, Health Specialist., Ms Pramila Manohoran, Education Specialist. and other officials from their Guwahati office visited the C-NES flagship “AKHA” in Dibrugarh at Nagajuri Ghat on 11th November 2102 to familiarise on the functioning of the boat clinics with a special interest on the service rendered for maternal and child health and the Education project in the far flung Char / Saporis in the midst of the Brahmaputra. Following presentations and discussions with the Medical Officers and other staffs of the Dibrugarh Unit, the CEO and the Program Manager of C-NES Mr. Arsenault showed his appreciation of the work being presently done and the potentials of its sustainability of the intervention taken through advocacy with NRHM and SSA under the RTE. He further commented as the project moves to the next Country Program 2013-17 that he would be happy based on the present experience to leverage more resources from the government and other partners so to meet further challenges ahead.

Unicef team led by Mr. Louis George Arsenault, UNICEF Representative in India with “Akha” in Dibrugarh at Nagajuri Ghat

Unicef team led by Mr. Louis George Arsenault, UNICEF Representative in India with the health team of Boat Clinic “Akha” in Dibrugarh at Nagajuri Ghat.The C-NES team included the CEO Dr Dipankar Das and Programme Manager Mr Ashok Rao

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A health camp by the  Dibrugarh Boat Clinic unit during the Unicef team visit

Anna (left in red) and Christina with the Kamrup health team

Anna (left in red) and Christina with the Kamrup health team

Swedish visitors

Swedish midwife Christina Pedersen and researcher Anna Arvidson collaborating with Ipas- an organization headquartered in North Carolina, US and working around the world to increase women’s ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, visited a health camp with the Kamrup Boat Clinic team at Hengratari village where the camp was held in the local lower primary school premises. The visitors shared information on safe abortion with the team along with recent developments in mother and child care sector at the international level. They also interviewed few beneficiaries’ villagers separately with their moderator. Camp continued there for almost four hours as 133 patients were treated in the camp. A huge number of children and pregnant women were immunized; ante natal checks up and post natal checks up were done in the camp.


Training for Community workers

A two day training for C-NES’ Boat Clinic community workers on awareness and community mobilization was organized at the State Institute of Health and Family Welfare Office- Khanapara, Guwahati on 8th and 9th October 20012. 30 community workers from the 15 Boat Clinic Units took part in the training The welcome address was delivered by Dr D Das, CEO, C-NES. The objective of the training was given by Ashok Rao, Programme Manager and the importance of community participation for community health highlighted by Manik Baruah, Associate Programme Manager. Dr. P. N. Borah, State Program Manager, NRHM, spoke on community health & role of NRHM. Tandrali Das, State Media Expert,NRHM and Gopajit Das, Media Expert, spoke on prevailing IEC tools in promoting health awareness. Sanjeev Ranjan, Programme Executive, NRHM spoke on community mobilization: means and issues. Ritul Bhagwati, BCC Coordinator, NRHM highlighted the basics of counseling. Chandana Borah, State Advocacy & FP Coordinator, PFI, spoke about the approach to family planning for creating awareness. A mock drill and role play was also conducted in the session which saw active participation from the grass level workers of C-NES. The vote of thank was delivered by Bhaswati Goswami, Communications Officer, C-NES.

Group photograph during C-NES’ Community Workers training

Group photograph during C-NES’ Community Workers training

 


IMNCI and NRT training

An eight day IMNCI training for ASHAs and Community Workers was conducted from 26th November to 3rd December at Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH) Dibrugarh. There were 26 participants for the training .Ghanashyam Rajkonwar, Utpal Mahanta and Gautam Rajkhowa were the trainers under Dr. Tullika Mahanta , Associate Professor SPM,AMCH .The NRT training for ANM and GNM was also held for 2 days on 4th and 5th December in the same venue. There were 11 participants. Dr Bangthai, JDHS, Dib and Dr. Tullika Mahanta arranged for the trainings.


Training for ASHAs

Demonstration on IUCD usage by Dr. Arup Joti Saikia, Addl Join Director of Health, Tinsukia District.

Demonstration on IUCD usage by Dr. Arup Joti Saikia, Addl Join Director of Health, Tinsukia District.

A two day capacity building training for ASHAs was organized at GNM training centre in Tinsukia District on 17th and 18th October 2012 on family planning and reproductive health. 18 ASHAs from the nearby chars attended. The objective of the training was to impart clear concepts on modern family planning methods involved, effective counseling skills for better community response, to make the participants more confident in community discussions and dealing with challenging topics. The participants were welcomed by Ms Rithiz Gogoi, District Family Planning Counselor, Tinsukia,Mrs. Chandana Bora, State advocacy &FP Coordinator briefly discussed the challenges faced by the ASHAs in char areas and the visible changes on behavior change communications

The resource persons for the training were Dr.Arup Jyoti saikia, Addl Join Director of Health service, Tinsukia, Dr.Putul Ch. Saikia, SDM&HO, Mr Kulesh Talukdar,DME NRHM, Tinsukia and Mr. Ritu Hazarika, DCM, NRHM Tinsukia. Training and discussions were held on Reproductive and Child Health, Maternal Health and prevention from water born diseases. The training was conducted with support from NRHM and District heath society, Tinsukia District.


The health team of Jorhat Boat Clinic after the successful delivery

The health team of Jorhat Boat Clinic after the successful delivery

Delivery by Jorhat team

Jorhat Boat Clinic conducted an emergency delivery at Gopal Chuk on 12 October, 2012. Dr Manmohan Bora, Dr Gautam Das and ANM Pratima Saikia successfully conducted the delivery.The ASHA and Dhai (midwife) informed the team about the need for an urgent delivery as the women was under labour. Medical Officers wanted to refer it to nearest CHC and PHC. No machine boat was found at night. Therefore MOs, ANM conducted the delivery at Boat Clinic. A girl child was born at 9.35 pm.

This was the fourth delivery conducted by the Jorhat Boat Clinic, the first was  in February 2011,the second in August 2011, the third in September 21st 2012 and twelfth successful, safe delivery conducted on the boat clinics till date – Five in Dibrugarh, two in Dhemaji, one in Barpeta and four in Jorhat. The Boat Clinic health outreach programme reaches out to the state’s vulnerable population who live on islands on the Brahmaputra with a special focus on women and children. Providing ANC, PNC checkups along with advocating institutional deliveries has been priority with all the health teams especially crucial for a state like Assam which has India’s worst Maternal Mortality rate at 390, higher than Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, and a high Infant Mortality Rate.


Awareness Camps

Awareness camps were held by the Jorhat Boat Clinic Unit at Sengelisuti and Samoguri villages. Laboratory Technician Achyot Jyoti Das and Community worker Jadumoni Hazarika took an active part in the session held in an open space of the boat clinic. The importance of iron in daily diet was the topic of discussion. It may be mentioned that anemia is a common condition in most of these communities and diet lacks a healthy combination of essential nutrients. Women and children are the most effected by this. Children accompanied their parents and the packed crowd eagerly listened to the talk. To make the camp more appealing and to keep the children entertained there was singing competition arranged in two sapories. Children of the islands sang beautifully excited with microphone in their hands, for the first time ever. Dr. Monmohan Bora (MO), Elizabeth Kom (GNM) and Sashi Pamegam were the judges of the competition and prizes were distributed.

Singing competition at Sengelisuti

Singing competition at Sengelisuti

Winners display their prizes

Winners display their prizes

 


Nalbari team in Health Mela

Dr. Bhumidhar Barman treating people.

Dr. Bhumidhar Barman treating people.

The Nalbari Boat clinic team took part in two special Swasthya (Health) Mela camps organized by Mukalmua BPHC at Barballa IV and Kaplabori in September 2012. The former Health Minister of Assam and local MLA Dr.Bhumidhar Barman accompanied the team.

The camp was conducted near the ghat before which a meeting was conducted by the villagers where they facilitated Dr. Bhumidhar Barman who appreciated the work of the Boat Clinic in the district. Nearly 700-800 people attended the Swasthya Mela where 649 patients were treated. Dr. Bhumidhar Barman also treated the people.


Hand Washing Day observed

Boat Clinic Community worker demonstrating hand washing to a child

Boat Clinic Community worker demonstrating hand washing to a child

Global Hand washing Day (GHWD) is observed world over on October 15th to promote hand washing (with soap) as an important hygienic practice that reduces by two thirds, the prevalence of diarrhea, dysentery, other water borne diseases that affect and in many cases kills millions of children. The Barpeta Boat clinic Unit 1, observed “Global Hand Washing Day” during its camp at Kasaripara, under Nagoan PHC. Members of the Public Health Centre also accompanied the team and attended the camp. As the camp is a regular targeted char under Boat clinic unit 1, routine immunizations and general check ups were also conducted. In addition, awareness campaigns on health and hygiene, family planning, safe drinking water and sanitation were also organized.


Brahmaputra Community Radio Station

C-NES in collaboration with UNICEF, Assam has set up a Community Radio Station (CRS) – “Brahmaputra Community Radio Station” (BCRS) at Maijan, Dibrugarh, on the banks of the Brahmaputra. The BCRS which is now fully equipped, staffed and expected to broadcast later this year will be broadcast in five languages Bhojpuri,Assamese,Mishing, Bodo and Shadri, the dialect of the tea tribe community (prominent in the nearby areas) and will thereby reach a large number of tea garden community members on diverse issues extremely relevant to them including health, education and entertainment leading to overall development of the community.

Programme on Gram Sabha

Recording the programme on Gram sabha

Recording the programme on Gram sabha

BCRS conducted a live phone in-out program on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti in two Gram Sabha Panchayats in Dibrugarh district – Hilodhari and Maijan Panchayat on 2nd October, 2012 including disseminating information on the basic ideas of Gram Sabha, its importance and people’s participations in Gram Sabha and Gandhiji’s Gram Swaraj.A discussion on women’s participation in Gram Sabha and other village level social activities was also conducted with local women. The reporters conducted interviews with villagers about their perceptions on gram sabha.


Workshop on proposal writing/ fund raising

A three day workshop on effective proposal writing and fund raising for upcoming CR stations was organized by Drishti, a community media organisation in Ahmedabad at the Janvikas Training Centre, Ahmedabad in association with UNICEF, India from 6th to 8th November, 2012. UNICEF Delhi has entered into a partnership with DRISHTI to provide support on proposal writing & fund raising for various CRS across the States.

12 participants from seven CR stations supported by UNICEF, participated in the workshop from seven different states of India- BCRS, Assam; Radio Dhimsa, Odisa; Lalit Lokvani, UP; Sambhav, MP; MANT, WB; Vaishali Lokvaani, Bihar; SPAR, Jharkhand. Radio Brahmaputra was represented by Mr. Manik Ch. Boruah, Associate Programme Manager, C-NES and Mr. Bhaskar Jyoti Bhuyan, BCRS’ Coordinator. Mr. Mohan Krishna from Janvikas Training Centre was the key resource person of the training.


Management Committee meeting

Media person Mrinal Talukdar  at  BCRS in October 2012.He appreciated the programmes and spots made the first time community and offered valuable suggestions and feedback for the upcoming station.

Media person Mrinal Talukdar at the BCRS in October 2012.He appreciated the programmes and spots made by these first time community reporters and offered valuable suggestions and feedback for the upcoming station.

A management committee meeting of BCRS was held at its conference hall on 30th October 2012, attended by five members from the BCRS management committee – Dr. Bishnuram Das, Associate Professor, Community Medicine, AMCH,Dr. D. N. Bangthai, JDHS, Dibrugarh,Dr. Pranjal Sharma, Associate Professor, Dept. of Sociology, Dibrugarh University,Mr. Ikbal Ahmed, Senior journalist, The Sentinal, Dibrugarh and Mr. Amrit Kr. Borah, DPO, Boat Clinic, Dibrugarh.along with Managing Trustee, C-NES Sanjoy Hazarika, PMU members Ashok Rao, Program Manager and Manik Ch. Boruah, Associate PM. Four DPOs from the neighboring Boat Clinic districts and 13 staff from BCRS also attended the meeting chaired by the Managing Trustee. A presentation about the project activities and description of various formats was made by the BCRS Coordinator, Bhaskar Jyoti Bhuyan.

Selected BCRS produced programmes were played in the meeting for a feed- back about the quality of programmes and suggestions for improving the same. Impressed with the productions especially those on health issues, Dr. D. N. Bangthai, JDHS, Dibrugarh requested the BCRS team for the lyrics of the song on hand washing, so that it could be used by the health department. Managing Trustee urged Dr. Bangthai to think whether the song on hand washing could be used by the health department as the theme song.


Talks by Sanjoy Hazarika

Sanjoy Hazarika, Managing Trustee, C-NES and Director, Centre for NE Studies at Jamia, spoke on ‘ Unraveling the North-east: conflicts, concerns, issues’ at the Gandhi Study Circle, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi on Oct 18, 2012.The same evening, he participated in a discussion on Identity and the NE organized by Zubaan Talkies at The Attic, Connaught Place (Regal Building). The discussions had Ms. Kausiki Sarma and Ms. Zuveni Lotha, photographers, as well as Ms. Nitu Das of the English Dept of IP College, Delhi University and was moderated by Ms. Preeti Gill, C-nes Trustee and Editor, Zubaan.


Researcher at Majuli

Researcher and journalist Papri Sri Raman recently visited Majuli,the largest river island and the centre of Vaishnavite culture in Assam in association with Jorhat Boat Clinic to conduct research on the Satras (monasteries). She also visited Jorhat Boat Clinic. Follows a write up by her on the Majuli experience


Hope Rides On The River

The River…the river…the river…you have to see it to understand the enormity of it….and how insignificant I and you are before this vast stretch of water…. Still as a glass.

Mine was a study trip to the island of Majuli. I had never been to the north-east and this was my first visit. I was going alone. I did not know the language. I had no friends or relatives anywhere there. Yes, like most others in the rest of India, I had never consciously thought of the north-east and there was the usual matter of ignored identity. There were also the newspaper headlines of the floods and riots which cast long shadows over the picture of Mary Kom on Time magazine cover. But yes, there was that inspiration, if she could do it, so could I. If nearly two million flooded out people could reb againuild year after year, if the grass in the Kaziranga park could stand tall again and, so could I.

The Centre for North East Studies was not part of my plan, although a few years ago, it had facilitated a fellowship for me for conflict studies. It just took an e- mail from Sanjoy Hazarika to Riturekha Barua in Jorhat for me to be able to go through Jorhat and see what is popularly known as the ‘Ship of Hope’. 

The hospital boat is steady as any house could be, people coming in and crowding the starboard, the voices of the busy GNMs could be faintly heard. The S S Nahor  is getting ready for an assessment by a visiting National Rural Health Mission team. I will be going on to the island and will not be on the boat going from sapori to sapori, but I understand what it would be like, district programme officer Ritu and general nurse and midwife Elizabeth take me on a conducted tour, explain it all to me, as does the boatmaster.

Anganwadi worker Deepti Mili would be crossing over to Gormur in Majuli on the crowded ferry boat, which provides only four crossover services in the day from Nimatighat. It is three hours on the river. She holds my hand and tells me how the Boat Clinic has made a great difference to all the char or sapori, inhabited mud flats, on the river in lower Majuli area, where the boat clinic service is provided. “To convince people to go for immunisation for the children still remains a problem”, Deepti says. Just like elsewhere in rural India.   If I fall flat on my face on the slippery fine muddy banks of the Brahmaputra, I actually have nothing to fear. The boats are full of friends! The Mishing know, the boat clinic is there for them.

There is no one at the port side, its the quiet back of the boat …under sunshine though ..where I sit wondering and asking why and how…the water is still…and so high the sapori is barely inches above the waterline, the silt lurking just under…even the boatmaster is not sure where it is…so much for guesswork and not running into one while navigating. Just two weeks ago this was the water that displaced  almost two million people…today it sleeps like a baby…the erosion on the banks immense and for the world to see. The biggest island is slowly falling away, bit by bit.

There are no waves in the Brahmaputra and the still placid surface tempts one to walk over…first drop your shoes, then drop  the ipad,ipod,ebook, datacard…pen,paper, everything…..just be without anything….just the place to vanish….watching the ring of ripples as one by one these attachments disappear….

and then I know the xihu (hihu) is waiting at the centre of the ripple….asking me to dive in and follow him upriver to his wonderful kingdom.

On the Majuli island, the temples are like tapovans, roadless and remote and shaded by tall shonaru and shilikha , Bel, bakul, banana groves,  I walk over flowers, goat kids trail me to my sleeping quarters, angry geese bar my way, the sound of music –khol,taal–wakes me and puts me to sleep… they bring me payesh, prasad from the temple in bucketful… my first cup of tea. My monastery hosts ensure that I don’t miss any of ‘bhawna’ recitals and they want me not to to leave, the monastery  has five hundred young acolytes…i am stunned by the kindness and caring of strangers…they didn’t know me a few days ago but they protect me as though I was as precious as their sashipats.

Work cannot always be an escape….freedom is when you leave the city and its heartache behind…freedom is to be able to be in the back of beyond where no one knows you, …ride with the xihu  on the boat of hope watching a golden moon playing on the wide, wide river Brahmaputra.

–Papri Sri Raman

 

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