Reaching out to forgotten lives by Brahmaputra

May 28th, 2008 - 11:26 am ICT by admin  

By Sanjoy Hazarika
(Attn Editors: This is the second in a series of three articles by Sanjoy Hazarika, a former New York Times reporter who now works on development issues, especially health, in the riverine areas and remote islands of Assam. He provides a glimpse of life under the surface of headlines and policy reports in that distant state)

Dhemaji (Assam), May 28 (IANS) We walked straight into the Dhemaji deputy commissioner’s office where several officers were waiting for us - the joint director (health), the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) district programme manager and an NRHM “media expert”. The discussion was good and focused: I outlined the need for a programme coordination committee and that was decided on the spot. Deputy Commissioner Diwakar Mishra reflected on the bad roads in Dhemaji, an unending saga, and described the district as among the worst affected by militancy although we were to hear the same from K.K. Dwiwedi, deputy commissioner, Tinsukia, the following day about his district.

I suggested that in addition to health a few more programmes be taken up - solar power for energy (individual households) and veterinary as well as awareness building among out-of-school children and mobile connectivity. He liked these ideas. The idea on this multi-sector approach is to give a push to move a few hundred thousand out of abject poverty.

The NRHM mediaperson suggested that we needed transportation to bring people from the ghat to the hospitals or from villages on saporis to the ghats and vice versa. My suggestion was a modified cycle rickshaw or thela with a small engine that would enable the patient to be brought over sapori/ghat roads to a place where an ambulance or van operated by a local service provider/social organisation could take charge. Ideally, there should be ambulances at each pickup point but this is not possible in many places and we have to be innovative.

We then drove to Silapathar and en route, Manik Boruah, who works on our dolphin conservation project, described, as we passed a group of Bengali villages, how large mobs of Assamese and Mishings had attacked and killed many Bengalis in 1983. These were settlers who had come during the Bangladesh war and were settled in these areas by the central and state governments.

I remember covering Assam during those days of such anger and violence, such tumult. The memories of massacres like Nellie and Silapathar probably continue to haunt those who suffered; they remain for people like me who saw the result of the violence as well as preparations for it (in one case, I recall a long line of men, armed with bows and arrows and daos, as they walked to attack a Muslim settlement - it felt as if we were stepping into a movie set, the only difference was the deadly intent of the marchers).

On the way back, naturally, we got stuck again in the sand and began pushing the vehicle. And this is where mobile technology is amazing: Manik called the boat crew and in the meantime a band of young boys appeared out of nowhere to push and then demanded a little money.

There were four of them and they were running a flourishing little enterprise: they had already “helped” two cars as we had seen from a distance and then run from us to help a vehicle whose driver, with misplaced bravado, dashed by us and promptly got stuck.

“If you need help, we will always be there, we are not going anywhere, we are people from here, we do not progress, so this is how we have to live,” one of the boys told me. I did not have the heart to ask him if he went to school.

I’m sure all this is good exercise, pushing and scraping the sand from below the tires and under the chassis! How good it is for my knee, I don’t know. But it’s strapped and seems to bear up.

We returned to a quiet dinner on the ship, Akha, the first of our health vessels where Kamal Gurung, our boat builder, supporter and ever-cheerful friend, joined me. It was nice with clear skies and the hulk of a workshop ship, owned by the state’s Inland Waterways Transport Department, loomed out of the darkness in front.

The old repair ship has been there for ages, looking more and more like a bhoot bungalow, derelict and abandoned by staff, which come once a month to log in and collect salaries but do no work and go to their homes in the evening. No one comes to check; at least I haven’t seen anyone in the last 18 years.

A few repairs need to be carried out on our ship, especially tarpaulin for the rooftop of the deck, above the engine room and crew quarters, so that it doesn’t leak when it rains and creates discomfort for the health team and crew. It has been raining heavily and gusting strongly with powerful winds, temperatures of 24 degrees Celsius while Delhi bakes at 40 degrees plus!

Dinner was simple: rice, dal, a vegetable, chicken and fish. Somehow, food always tastes better on the river and we feel hungrier.

The meal had been cooked by Kapilash, the tough and thickset “master”. The master is the pilot, the navigator, who is really the boss of the ship although I’ve designed the “fleet”, raised the funds, created the network and envisioned the programme along with my core team in five districts. But the master decides the route of the journey, how many people can be accommodated on board; he can tell you the depth of the river and its speed by just looking at the colour of the water. His expertise, without formal knowledge, is a formidable lesson for all of us on the need to respect the river and its people who hold the key to a safe journey.

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