By the Brahmaputra (Vol: 21)
(For the quarter January – March 2013)
A Messy Democracy: Burma’s challenges
The unraveling of ethnic strife in neighbouring Myuanmar or Burma as some of us would prefer to call it but especially the sharp escalation of anti-Muslim violence, first, against the Rohingyas or Muslims of the Arakan and then against Muslims elsewhere in the country, represents one of the key challenges that face its rulers and especially the leadership of its principal opposition figure, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Democracy is a messy business as we all know. The early, easy promises of change, based on the military junta’s surprisingly sudden decision to disempower itself and recognize the key role of Aung Sang Suu Kyi as well as the democratic opposition may not have quite faded. But with the army being called out to crackdown on rioters who burned Muslim neighbourhoods and homes while the police allegedly stood by and watched (a familiar scenario in parts of this country) or worse were partial to the rioters, Burma faces a series of tests which call for not just a high degree of statesmanship from its former military rulers turned democrats and the toast of the western world – not to speak of other parts of the world — but also from figures such as Suu Kyi.
These are not easy challenges. For on their handling will depend much of the future of Burma and its ethnic minorities, the most extensive, powerful and diverse in the world, but also the relationship between Buddhists and Muslims there and the road map to a secular nation. This has been among the most crucial issues facing both new and older nations, fledging democracies and established ones: the question of inclusion of minority groups, whether ethnic or religious or any other, and the need to affirm the equality of all communities.
In many cases in India, we have been found wanting and have repeatedly failed the test. Whether the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi, Kanpur and elsewhere, the communal riots in Gujerat or Bhiwandi and Bhagalpur, of last year in Assam and the ethnic eruptions of this year in this state, if we are to look at the record of the last 20-30 years, it’s a sorry spectacle of a majority or a powerful minority, protected or assured of protection by local power syndicates and systems, literally running riot, gunning for the “other”.
In all this, there has been some solace: there have been commissions of inquiry, public debates, investigations by media and independent groups, long and at times depressing but often inspiring legal and activist driven campaigns seeking justice and ensuring that it is meted out. The strength of the latter has been far more lacking than the activism of the former. But although one could write a tome on the capacity of the State and its many minions through a multitude of processes of delaying and stalling justice (the Sikh victims of the 1984 riots are one such case), what is amazing is that in case after case especially in recent years, those who have suffered have not given up: the may feel that the State has failed them but not the system of law, however delayed or convoluted it may appear to an outside observer.
Returning to Burma, this is precisely the problem: the institutions of fair governance, equal play, justice and democractization such as the panchayats in this country (let’s not deride them beyond a point, many councils function even though, like their mentors in state and national politics, members may be corrupt and disinterested in anything outside of personal gain) but above all of free expression and media are what are lacking in our neighouring land. The NGO movement in this country is so vibrant, noisy and at times irksome, especially to governments and stakeholders.
But think for a moment of its major figures such as Aruna Roy, Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar, Ravi Chopra of the Peoples Science Institute of Dehra Dun, our own Gogoi not to speak of Anna Hazare and others who are a major force in India. Indeed, without personalities like the Chipko father figure of Chandrika Prasad Bhat, SR Hiremath of Karnataka, Prof. Mishra of Benares, who passed away recently but as scientist and activist, made unrelenting efforts to save his city and the Ganges from human pollution, of Rajendra Singh, the water man of Rajasthan, of Anil Aggarwal, perhaps the first green campaigner for rights in India based on equity and science and founder of the Centre for Science and Environment, and his worthy successor Sunita Narain. Without them, could we even visualize a nation where the rights of people for safe water, air, food and a democratic and equal space are protected? The State and the corporate sector, domestic and international, private and public, would have wiped out resources and destroyed the environment, livelihoods and incomes without compunction. What we have saved is due to these selfless warriors.
They made the noise, presented the facts, mobilized the people, the media and organized the campaigns that enabled concerns to be protected and even drafted into law. Where are Burma’s eco warriors? Its battlers against corporate might and the force of the State, both of which often combine? We do not hear enough and often of them. What about those who battled the junta so long and so hard? There are worrying reports that some of them are now part of the system and do not wish to raise their voices. The one name that emerges at every turn of Burma’s road is Suu Kyi. Where are the others?
There have been challenges to the Kalodyne multi-nodal river project that seeks to benefit India by transporting goods (when it is finally ready and no one is quite sure when that will be) from Sittwe port in the Arakan up the Kalodyne to Mizoram and then by road to other parts of the NER. Can one think of a more tortuous way to do business: there are neither godowns nor landing sites where ships are to unload onto trucks. I have spoken of this in earlier columns. The Chin community through whose lands the project and river flow says it has not been consulted, that livelihoods have been affected and the environment damaged without compensation. I have been told by senior officials in the Indian Government that things have been ‘sorted out’.
Also, it is not surprising that despite the mayhem that appears to be taking place within parts of Burma, that the large international corporations, whether American, Russian or Chinese (not to leave aside smaller western powers) continue to beat a path to Neipidaw and Yangon, political and economic capital of Burma. There’s business and money to be made in good times and bad.
In all this turmoil, the stand of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her party is crucial. To me, at least, her position has been puzzling, and even of concern. In different parts of the world, when she went on her first international trip last year to be feted and give addresses and accept awards, she hesitated to take a position on the Rohingya question. At that time, one believed that that was a sensitive view which took a long-term approach as she did not want to exacerbate the ongoing confrontation. But when she came to India and met some of us at a dialogue hosted by Salman Khurshid, the External Affairs Minister, she indicated what was really on her mind: that the Rohingya issue was complicated by corrupt immigration officials who allowed many illegal migrants to come across the border and settle in the Arakan. To me, this appeared to be either a naive interpretation of facts on the ground — for the Muslims of the Arakan, have settled there over generations and are a mix of many communities, including Arab, Bangla and others – or a ‘mainland’ or Burman construction of conditions.
With elections just two years away in Burma, how does one view also the fact that she took a place of honour along with the generals she so long opposed on a recent national day to watch the Army march past? Of course, her father was the founder of the modern Burmese army. So in a way, this too can be explained.
But what cannot be explained adequately is the reluctance to take a position that would pit her against the right wing in her party and in the Burman community, the largest and most powerful of all ethnic groups in her country. Is she reluctant to possible alienable the influential and populous vote bank which would decide her future as the first democratically elected leader of Burma in decades? Can the latter be taken for granted. given the rifts which have surfaced in her own party? But far more important, will The Lady take a far more inclusive approach than she has done so far because as she herself as indicated, that is the key to a stable and hopefully democratic future in Burma. Being an Icon is not enough. Her friends, well wishers and neighbours are watching.
(From his regular column in the Assam Tribune published on 3rd April 2013)
Republic Day Honours
The Boat Clinic units at Sonitpur and Barpeta, under women District Programme Officers Moushumi Duwarah and Sapna Das respectively won laurels at the Republic Day celebrations. The Unit at Sonitpur district was felicitated by the State Minister Planning & Development Mr Tanka Rai Bahadur in presence of the Deputy Commisioner Mr Tapan Sarma and SP Mr Apurva Jivan Baruah. The ANM of the unit Mrs Elizabeth Tigga received the award on behalf of unit at the Republic Day function in the district where the Boat Clinic services were appreciated by the minister. Elizabeth was the only ANM to receive the award from Sonitpur district this year for her work. It may be mentioned that the district administration short listed the Boat Clinic unit after a house to house survey conducted by a team under the initiative of the district health administration. The team visited char areas as part of an IPPI camp and checked the vaccination status in that area. They were given positive feedback from the villagers regarding the health services provided by the Boat Clinic. The Boat at Sonitpur named “SB Numali has been donated by the Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility outreach in 2011. At Barpeta, the district health society selected the Boat Clinic unit in the district a model worth displaying in the Republic Day tableau.
US Consul General Visits BCRS
Clinton S Brown, Consul, Political & Economic affairs, US Embassy, Kolkata, visited Dibrugarh on 22nd January 2013 and appreciated the work of C-NES’ upcoming Brahmaputra Community Radio Station supported by UNICEF in the upper Assam tea town of Dibrugarh. He had a look at radio station setup and listened to a few spots prepared by the first time community reporters of the station. Mr. Brown also appreciated the Boat Clinic work which Programme Manager Mr Ashok Rao explained to him. His comments below:
“I was particularly impressed by the medical programs you undertake to help deliver life –saving services to some of the regions most vulnerable and difficult- to- reach communities. I was pleased to hear about your coordination with the government, working to ensure your efforts are properly reimbursed and to avoid duplication of efforts or gaps in coverage. I was also impressed by the sharp and well trained team involved in the community radio project. I hope the license will be granted soon that the community can benefit from the high quality programs they have tailored to met the communities needs. The energy, enthusiasm and intelligence of these staff offer much needed hope that the future will be bright indeed!”
Participants from the Community Radio Awareness Consultation visited Radio Brahmaputra on 22nd January 2013. The Consultation held at Dibrugarh University was organized by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GoI in partnership with Community Radio Association from various states of North-East and West Bengal. The participants appreciated the work done and listened to spots and programmes made.
Radio Brahmaputra organized a three day drama workshop for its Community Reporters and Village Volunteers representing different communities from both main land and island villages of Dibrugarh from 27th to 29th December, 2012. Radio Producer Jayantajit Das, Theatre Activist Nilim Chetia and drama personality Sapunjyoti Thakur from Assam participated at the workshop as resource persons. The team learnt the basic processes of ‘Radio drama’ – planning, script writing, acting, music, special effects.
HIV testing for Boat Clinic
Assam Aids Control Society (ASACS) formally initiated the HIV/AIDS testing programme with the Boat Clinics on 19th January, 2012 at Pithakhaiti char under Bhuragaon BPHC in Morigaon. Laboratory Technician and ANMs of the Boat Clinic were trained on testing, counselling, referral processes and reporting format. Ms. Rashmi Rekha Bhuyan, Asst. Director and Ms. Deepshikha Phukan, Divisional Assistant from ASACS, Guwahati were present in the meeting. Ms. Bhuyan conducted the awareness session.
C-NES at Tufts University’s International
Communications Officer C-NES, Bhaswati Goswami attended the 28th Annual Norris and Margery Bendetson Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC) International Symposium, organized by the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), Tufts University, Boston. The Symposium from 21st to 24th February 2013 took an intensive and multidisciplinary look at Global Health and Security in today’s world. The four day event was made up of a series of student moderated panels that focused on this year’s theme,” Global Health and Security” The symposium featured dozens of prominent panel speakers including Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, coordinator for Threat Reduction programs for the US Department of State as well as Surgeon general of Israel Yitshak Kreiss and Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist; Author, The Coming Plague. A number of Tufts faculty members from various graduate programmes and Tufts students who partook in the EPIIC programme this year also spoke
Goswami took part on the panel on 24 th February at the session: “Bringing care where it’s needed most: health care delivery system” to discuss the possibility of sustainable health care systems in developing countries. She presented the organizations Boat Clinic health outreach initiative on the remote Brahmaputra River islands to a packed Sunday afternoon crowd at the Cabot Intercultural Centre, Fletcher School at Tufts Medford Campus. The presentation was widely appreciated as was C-NES’ work in the other areas for the overall development of the Brahmaputra river island communities in Assam. The panel had expert panelists from across the globe: Zheng Xie,Lecturer,Department of Public Health, Peking University, Jean Kagubare, Principal Technical Advisor, Rwanda, David Chiriboga, former Minister of Health, Ecuador and Anne Goldfield, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. The panel was moderated by EPIIC Colloquium member Jessica Muganza, a freshman.
Conference on Climate Change
A two day international conference on “The Eastern Himalaya: Climate Change, Livelihoods and Poverty” was held under the auspices of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi on March 7-8, 2013 with a vibrant set of panels from Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and presenters from London School of Economics(LSE), International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), IIT-Guwahati, C-NES, Dibrugarh University on climate change, livelihoods and poverty.
The seminar was attended by the Vice- Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia Mr. Najeeb Jung, Mr. Kanak Mani Dixit, the renowned Nepalese journalist and editor publisher of the Himal south Asian magazine. A number of delegates from the various embassies were present for the different sessions of the seminar. Ms. Nancy Powell, Counsellor, Australian High Commission was present for the opening session, and HE Mr. Pisan Manawapat, Ambassador, Royal Thai Embassy attended the Fourth Saifuddin Kitchlew lecture. 43 resource persons from different parts of the country as well as from different countries attended the seminar. The seminar concluded with a North East Cultural Programme featuring traditional performances like the Bihu and classical Manipuri dance, along with more contemporary music forms like the Alobo Naga and the Band of MTV music awards fame and the Urban Inc, from Sikkim, along with Patronymic Jamia’s own rock band performing on stage. The function had in attendence Dr. and Mrs. Surin Pitsuwan, along with Mr. P. D. Rai were the guests of honour, while Prof. S. M. Rashid, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia was the chief guest for the occasion.
If India wants its northeast to benefit from the much publicised Look East Policy, it must bring top leaders of south east Asia to that region and encourage dialogue and discussion there” said Pitsuwan while delivering the fourth Saifuddin Kitchlew lecture at Jamia Millia Islamia, suggesting that the foreign ministers of the nations could meet in the northeast, at a summit. Reflecting on his visit to the northeast a few years ago, Pitsuwan said that its role must be central to the efforts by ASEAN and India to build “the east–west corridor from the Mekong River Basin to the Ganges river basin and beyond”.
Pitsuwan was foreign minister of Thailand and widely regarded as one of the most articulate of Asian leaders. The recently inaugurated Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia is the only such centre in a central university in the country with Sanjoy Hazarika as the Director of the Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
|Classical Manipuri Dance recital as part of the North East Cultural Programme at the seminar||Assam’s famous Bihu dance being performed during the cultural evening at the seminar|
Nirode Barooah speaks at Jamia
Dr. Nirode Barooah, the historian and biographer of Gopinath Bardoloi, Assam’s first Chief Minister, Gandhian and indomitable freedom fighter, spoke at Jamia Millia Islamia at the Centre for NE Studies and Policy Research on February 12 th 2013. He spoke on ‘Nehru, Assam’s Bardoloi and Partition’. Prof. R. Gopinath, Head of the History Dept at Jamia was the discussant while Sanjoy Hazarika,Director of the centre chaired the session..
Training for Nurses
Assam State Aids Control Society (ASACS) organized a three day Induction training program for GNMs from 7th – 9th March 2013 at the Regional College of Nursing, Guwahati. Five GNM nurses from Boat Clinic attended the training program. They were
Ranjana Narah Mili from Dhemaji,Nirmala Kullu from Dibrugarh,Elizabeth Kom from Jorhat Arjuwara Begum from Kamrup and Fayeja Begum from Nalbari
Deputy Commissioner visits Boat Clinic
Deputy Commissioner Morigaon Dr. Vishal Shailja visited Morigaon’s Kalair char area on 27th January 2013 with a group of IAS trainees with the district Boat Clinic team and appreciated the work done by the health team.
Bank Accounts for beneficiaries
Officers from the United Bank of India, Lahorighat were taken to a few river islands in Assam’s Morigaon district- Hamur char, Bhangkoura char, Kajiar char, Lohori char, Nabur char and Kasemor char by the Morigaon Boat Clinic team to open bank accounts for health beneficiaries (especially new mothers). 366 accounts were opened.
Correspondents from of Zee News visited Nalbari Boat Clinic on 10th December, 2012 and attended a health and immunization camp at Balarchar.The three member team accompanied the health team and reached the camp conducted in the residential premises of ASHA worker Sohida Dewan .Two hundred people attended the camp for health check ups and some of these beneficiaries were interviewed by the media team. Individual interviews of each member of Nalbari Boat Clinic were also taken.
Doordarshan Kendra, NE, Guwahati produced a documentary on innovative health service under NRHM and accordingly covered a health camp conducted by the Sonitpur Boat Clinic Unit in February 2013. The documentary was telecast on 25th March.
Journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap from the Indian Express accompanied the Kamrup Boat Clinic team to a health camp at Balagaon held in the Balagaon L.P. School premises. Team reached the school premises at 11.30 am after 50 minutes boat journey and almost one hour on foot. Kashyap interviewed a few villagers and patients for his coverage. An awareness session on importance of routine immunization was held where community worker Md. Lalmaud Ali, CW spoke to the gathering.
A two day capacity building training for ASHAs on family planning and reproductive health was organized at C-NES’ Brahmaputra Community Radio Station, Dibrugarh on 5th and 6th March 2013. 21 ASHAs and 2 ANMs from Dibrugarh and Dhemaji Districts attended the training, part of the Population Foundation of India (PFI) supported C-NES project to popularize the concept of family planning among the Brahmaputra river island communities in five of the thirteen Boat Clinic districts in Assam -Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Sonitpur. The objective of the training was to impart clear concepts on family planning methods, effective counseling skills for better community response and to make the participants confident in community discussions and challenging topics.
The participants were welcomed by Arup Saikia, DPO, Dibrugarh Boat Clinic and Chandana Bora, State FP Coordinator who discussed the challenges faced by the ASHAs in char areas. The resource persons for the training were Dr.Tulika Goswami Mahanta, Professor Dibrugarh Medical Collage and Ms. Monisha Borgohan, DPM, NRHM Dibrugarh. Medical Officers of Dibrugarh Baot Clinic Dr. Bhoben Ch Bora and Dr Priyanku Pratik Sarma were present. Training and discussions were held on Reproductive and Child Health, Maternal Health, IPC skills and advocacy with community and the government.
Jamia NE Centre inaugurated
Minister for Human Resource Development, GoI Pallam Raju inaugurated the totally NE decor and designed new premises of the Centre for NE Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia,New Delhi to a packed, standing hall on 22nd January 2013.He said that the centre should be the pivot of research and work in NE and neighbourhood and that it should bridge gaps between field work, research and policy.
The ethnic NE decor and designed new premises of the Centre for NE Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia,New Delhi
NE Fest of Cultures in Delhi
Sanjoy Hazarika, Managing Trustee, C-NES and Director of Centre for NE Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia, launched a two-day NE Festival of Culture at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi on January 18th and 19th,2012. He chaired a session on Mizoram with a range of scholars. Two other C-NES Trustees had a key role in the programme: Preeti Gill, formerly editor of Zubaan books, helped put the entire project together: Ms. Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times chaired the opening panel and moderated a session on Meghalaya.
Street Plays for awareness
The Bongaigaon Boat Clinic team organized six street plays in the district’s river island villages in collaboration with the district NRHM as part of an awareness drive during February 2013. Awareness on prevention of early marriage, adolescent girl’s health, importance of immunization for children, pregnant women and Government schemes for health beneficiaries were some of the areas focused. The Community worker’s announced about the plays earlier so there were big gatherings for each play. At the end of the programme the community workers had a special message to share about the play which was appreciated by the people.
My experiences with the Boat Clinic
Swapna Das, DPO unit II, Barpeta
Work is worship—I am guided by this principle from the Bhagawat Gita. And this is why I have been working with sincerity whenever and wherever I have got opportunities. But the job as D.P.O. under C-NES will be always memorable life long. There are challenges, thrills and excitements everyday. The greatest thing is that we get to be in direct contact with people. Service to mankind is service to God– is the proverb highly prevalent all over the world .Being a part of C-NES I have got a chance to serve human being. So, I feel very blessed myself.
My team has been working in Barpeta District in lower Assam providing medical services to the poor and underprivileged. Our area of operation is the river island villages locally called char. The life style and living standard in char villages are different from mainland village. People living here are struggling with basic needs, diseases and with natural disasters.
There is no sea in Assam. But the Brahmaputra in Assam and its tributaries are as mighty more so during the monsoon season when floods ravage the state of Assam. It happened in June –July month last year. The Brahmaputra showed its Tandav Nritya or the dance of destruction with the monsoon rains. The wave of floods swept away everything that came its way. Barpeta – Mandia road was under water and all bridges and pools were washed away. The electric posts with cables were leaning dangerously on road side. The river ghat road was totally under water. The char areas where our team conducts health camps remained cut-off for long from other part of the district. The flood caused untold human misery and devastation.
Thousands of people became homeless and left in search of high land for shelter by using small boats and rafts made of parts of banana trees. I sensed my duty and obligation. My heart cried for these kind hearted ordinary people. They now needed our help. Our existence there and support would really mean a lot for those people. Otherwise, they would become easy prey of epidemic diseases. So, my team had got ready with all we required. But then we realized our helplessness. How could we could reach our destination? There were no road links, no other means by which we could reach our boat clinic. A chunk of the concrete bridge was hanging as the only evidence and memory of the bridge at Manikpur ghat. The tea stall of Rahim Chacha where we sipped hot cups of tea had no sign. I had not seen the familiar faces like Sakina Jerina who always greeted us in her own language………..and what happened to the boy who asked our medical officer almost everyday: “I caught a big fish today. Do you need it sir?”. Where had those people gone? I could not guess their whereabouts. Were they alive? I looked at the packets of foods and medicine again and again.
I had received a number of calls during the flood.
: Miss Swapna, you have to arrange relief camps from tomorrow hook or by crook. District administration ordered us to do so. ……………. the joint director said.
: Swapna, help us…………situation is too grave…………. -Mandia block PHC in-charge telephoned. We all were aware about our own responsibility but could not do anything. We were trapped with road link cut off. That day I wished human beings had wings to fly..
I called on the driver and asked him to arrange a bike. Next day we came out in search of alternative roads. The poor and dangerous condition of sub-roads disrupted our search drive. The bridges and pools were broken or swept away in multiple places. Yet we continued our search all the day. Different kinds of thoughts came to my mind. Sometime, I thought that I was knocking at death’s door. I was putting myself in danger. Within a moment the previous thought was replaced by new one- it was a chance to do something good- an opportunity to serve the people who were struggling for life.
Every cloud has a silver lining. At last, we found an alternative road. My team could reach Brahmaputra after crossing three tributaries- Beki, Saulkhowa and Vellengi river. We quickly decided to take that long path. Thus, we served the people for nearly two months. The flood situation improved gradually and the Mandia road became useable once again. But this time it was not so smooth. Still we used it and traveled a portion by the multipurpose vehicle Sumo, a portion by boat, some of it by tempo and some on foot before we could reach our clinic floating on Brahmaputra. Those are familiar scenes in char areas and well-known to all who are working at boat clinics. The past days were my toughest days but full with thrills, suspense, experience and knowledge.
We are trying to give our level best to char villagers ignoring all our physical pain and discomfort. We participated in exhibition of Assam Sahitya Sabha sanmilan held from 1/01/2013 to 5/01/2013 at Barpeta Road.We even arranged a show on Republic Day with the help and guidance of District health society, Barpeta this year so that we could showcase what the boat clinic is. Dr.Rana Dev Das, Joint Director of Health Services, inspired and supported the programme.I am very grateful to him as his leadership has been an inspiration to improve our service and fulfill the dream of reaching the unreached.
The rainy season will soon arrive, so will our battle with nature begin again. But we are not afraid of these odds. We are more mature, experienced and determined this time and are ready to come out successfully again.. My team will go to fight back again to be the winner. Because we believe- quitters never win; winners never quit. And we also truly believe- action speaks louder than words.
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