Monday, February 18, 2013

24 Jan 13 – Guwahati to Tezu

I changed two plans during the day. The first was the time of departure – it happened because I woke up early and was ready by 5 am with nothing else to do but leave for my next destination, which was Tinsukia. I felt happy that the formalities in ORH had been done yesterday for that gave me the freedom to leave when I had to. I had stayed in the Maligaon ORH a few times in 2010. So I knew my way around. Even the short cut to the Nagaon highway came back to me easily. I took the road and got to the NH as easily as local resident would. In fact, I surprised myself for my homing skills and sense of direction are so poor that I often wonder how I would get to places without interacting with people on the road! The mostly four-laned road and sparse traffic got me to Nagaon in quick time (130 kms in two hours). Work was on in many places to complete the four laning; which brought with it its own share of misery – traffic would suddenly emerge on the wrong side of the road due to diversions, which were not pre-warned.

The drive from Guwahati to Tezu was also, in some part, a recce; the first leg of the East-West expedition was from Tezu to Guwahati, 600+ kms. Therefore, I was also scouting for possible attestation centers and making notes of them and the challenging stretches. I reached Jorhat by 9.30 am – had covered 180 kms from Nagaon in 155 minutes! The road was very good, except for the fact that the effect of the floods last October was evident on the roads leading to and from Kaziranga. Since I had done about half the distance to Tezu in four and half hours I changed plans the second time in the day. I had made arrangements to halt in Tinsukia, which was less than 200 kms away. I decided to go through to Tezu for two reasons. One, I would have the company of a police constable from Tinsukia and second, it would fetch me an additional day in Tezu. I informed Seju of the decision and he welcomed it. He also mentioned that arrangements had been made in the Circuit House to lodge me.

After Jorhat the condition of the roads worsened, though in comparison only. It took me a bit under four hours to reach Tinsukia, a distance of 190 kms. At Tinsukia I arranged to meet up with Rajesh, the police constable and emissary of SP Lohit, in front of the New Tinsukia railway station, which could serve as an attestation point in the next few days. Rajesh and a few others piloted me in a car to the house of Agarwal, a friend of Rajesh, through the crowded city and more crowded lanes. There I was introduced to Sanjay Kumar Phukan, the District Planning Officer of Tezu, who, I later learnt was an immensely influential person in the border regions of Assam. I was also told that the situation in the border area could change fast and without warning. To illustrate, Rajesh told me that traffic had been blocked on the road leading to Tinsukia for some time before I got there. Sanjay’s familiarity with the place helped them avoid the disturbed area.

While I was impatient to leave for Tezu, Rajesh and Sanjay showed no such priority. They had some work to finish in Tinsukia and I wanted to be in Tezu before nightfall. Clash of objectives, but not critical. In what seemed to me a lot past eternity, we were ready to leave from Agarwal’s house – luggage had to be rearranged and every nook and cranny in the car had to be utilized to find space for two more passengers and their luggage. As we set off Sanjay started his narration about the history, culture and developmental efforts of the state. We stopped for lunch at an eatery aptly named “Dhaba HW37”, for it was on the highway 37. The place gets crowded, I was told, in the evening and on weekends. The meal was heavy and I gathered that Sanjay is a gourmet.

It was nearing 3 pm by the time we had finished our meal and got ready for the final stretch to Tezu. I was told that the standard timing between Tinsukia and Tezu is four hours and, since we had covered some distance, it would take a half hour less to our destination. There was heavy police presence on the way. Rajesh told me that the reinforcements and additional checking were due to an incident the previous evening. Suspected ULFA militants had lobbed a grenade into a police station in Kakopather. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but injuries had been many. We passed Kakopather and I afforded just a peek at the police station. I was also told that such incidents happen as a precursor to protests on Republic Day! I missed the ULFA camp site, a short distance from the border to Arunachal Pradesh.

Within a half hour into Arunachal Pradesh, through the Digaru gate, roads worsened considerably. Progress had to be carefully measured. I was worried for the tyres of the car. It had seen plenty of action in the past two weeks. Nurturing it, I took the roads slower than my companions may have liked. The distance from Tinsukia to Tezu is about 120 kms; the road condition makes it look much longer. There are two accesses to Tezu, one via the ferry and the other via the ghats. During the rains the latter is preferred while the ferry is the preferred option during the dry months. The decision point is Chongkham, where the fork takes you one way or the other. We settled on the ferry route, with me intent on preservation rather than adventure.
After some time I was directed to drive on a non-existent road, with Rajesh and Sanjay, the latter more than the former, unsure if it was the right one. I was driving on the bed of the Brahmaputra River. It was dark and the stones of the river bed, some pointed and some round, made driving stressful. Finally we reached the ferry. We had to wait for some time for the ferry as it was on the other shore. I was told that the width of the ferry and the crossing locations change with the time of the year. The ferry itself was a primitive rejig of two small boats with a platform over them. It was not very comforting to see the boatmen bailing water out of the boats. However, the deed had to be done, and there was no alternative at this point. While waiting for the ferry a foreigner came up and introduced himself as Calvin, an American based in New York. His wife was a Tibetan, whose mother was staying in the Tibetan settlement in Tezu. He claimed to have worked closely with the government in Delhi for the CNG introduction and a few other initiatives. He recounted many of his experiences of dealing with ‘babus’ and offered a swig from his hip flask, which I politely refused.

By 8 pm I reached Tezu. First I dropped off Sanjay at his house and partook of some Assamese festival delicacies before being taken to the Circuit House by Rajesh. There was some confusion there about the allotment of the room. The caretaker had information that I would be checking in only on the 26th and hence, no room was available. Rajesh, in his own incomparable style, got the VIP room opened for my stay. It was aesthetically done up with local cane paneling. The room, I was told, is normally kept reserved for the Chief Minister of the State! It was, undoubtedly, the best accommodation in the whole of Tezu.

Seju invited me over to his house for dinner. I freshened up and took the short drive to the house of the SP of the District. The 2007 UT cadre officer, Seju Kuruvila, was there to warmly welcome me into his home. I was meeting him for the first time, but it seemed I had known him for some time. Such was the warmth he exuded. He made me feel completely at ease. The discussions gathered various hues and it was fascinating to know about the development of the state. Seju’s wife, Meghna, is the SP of the adjoining district of Anjaw. Both were batch mates in the Academy and belong to the UT cadre. Arunachal is considered to be hard area posting. It was interesting to know that the tenures have been scientifically worked out. Dinner consisted of chicken curry and chappatis. It was decided that I would visit Wakro and Parasuram Kund tomorrow in the company of Rajesh, who was attached to me during my stay in Tezu.

Before hitting the sack I tried to recollect the information I had gathered about Arunachal Pradesh (the land of the Rising Sun) from various sources during the day. The number of districts in the state has gone up from 5 to 17 in the past few years and it is expected to go up to 21 shortly. There is virtually no opposition party in Arunachal – all the MLAs belonged to one party; if they wished to switch sides they would do so en bloc, as had happened in the past! This effectively closed options for the citizens. Their power was unchallenged. Corruption is rampant and extortion is common. Easy money is had through compensation paid by project executors – land being commonly held without any land records, it was easy to lay claim to territory. Diversion of Central funds, without even spending half of it, is common knowledge and is most often the start point of extortionist demands. It is said that an MLA circulated a ‘feedback’ list in which the people in his constituency were asked to provide their ‘wish list’ of items they needed – from liquor to household items. Once the wish lists were gathered the items were distributed at a function organised by the MLA, at the end of which each household was also given two blankets! It is said that he did this as compensation for not visiting the constituency during the floods in October! The major tribes are Nishi, Adi, Apatani and Mishmi, Chakma, Monpa and Wancho. The major religions are Hinduism and Donyi Poloism (animist), which constitute 65% of the population. Christians and Buddhists add up to 32%. Literacy is around 67%; institutions for higher education are sparse. The population of the state is only about 14 lakhs (Kerala 334 lakhs) – Lohit has 1.5 lakhs population and Anjaw 25,000! The density of population is only 17 per sq km as compared to 860 in Kerala!

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