By BHASKAR PHUKAN
Before joining the Assam Civil Service, I had worked for a while in the Public Relations Department of N.F. Railway with headquarters at Maligaon, Guwahati. Fresh out of college, my stint as a P.R man with the largest employer in the world became quite handy in my later career. The lessons learnt on the job during those early days of my career have stood by me even today. Amongst the memories of these days, I still cherish the daily lunch break adda of a few of us at the chamber of Mr. Bhattacharjee, a senior officer of our department. As most of my colleagues were Bengalis with their penchant for torko and goppo, those addas were always lively and interesting. Everything under the sun from the serious to the inane would be discussed. I looked forward to the dose of rich yet deliberately underplayed Bengali sense of humour everyday at lunch hour in Mr.Bhattacharjee’s small chamber.
Once, during my tenure at Maligaon, a member of the Railway Board, the highest administrative body of the Indian Railways visited N.F. Railway. The high profile visit sent Maligaon into a tizzy. Everyone became very busy. The Railway Board Member held a series of meetings with the senior officers of the Railway. He also inspected Railway Projects and infrastructures. The Public Relations Department worked overtime to give maximum publicity to the visit. Press releases were issued and a press meet was organized for the eminent visitor. Our efforts bore fruit. The visit was prominently covered by all the local newspapers on their front pages. Even some of the National Dailies deigned to carry the report of the visit – although on their inside pages.
Things became normal only after the departure of the eminent visitor. Our lunch hour adda which had been abandoned for a few days because of our hectic schedule resumed once again. On the day, we again gathered in Mr. Bhattarcharjee’s chamber, he was in full form.
“My dear Phukan”, Mr. Bhattacharjee began in his characteristically slow and soft spoken manner. “Have you seen the Deepor Beel?”
“Of course,” I said. The Deepor Beel not far from the N.F. Railway Headquarters is a vast stretch of wetland in the southwest corner of Guwahati. It is a place of great natural beauty. Originally, a channel of the Brahmaputra, the Beel is home to a rich variety of bird species. A part of the Beel has been declared as a bird sanctuary in 1989.
“You haven’t seen the Beel as I had seen it when I first came to Maligaon in the early sixties” said Mr.Bhattarcharjee. “It was twice the size of the present area. Over the years, encroachments have narrowed the Beel to its present size. Even N F Railway is constructing a track across it. For most of the year, nobody raises a finger in protest to save the Beel. But things change during the onset of winter every year when flocks of migratory birds come to the Beel from as far as Siberia to rest for some days before flying again on their routes. As soon as these migratory birds are sighted on the Beel, newspapers publish their photos. Suddenly, Deepor Beel comes into public focus. Everyone takes interest on the Beel and its precarious condition.”
“Deepor Beel becomes an issue”, added Timir Baran Sengupta, a colleague.
“Exactly,” said Mr. Bhattacharjee, “But once the migratory birds fly away, the Beel is once again forgotten.”
Mr. Bhattacharjee paused for a while. He looked around us and in sotto voce quipped, “The Railway Board Member is like a migratory bird. Till he was here, there has been a quite a lot of concern about N.F. Railway. The moment he left everything has been forgotten. Things are back to normal. Once again, the trains have started running – never on time.”
All of us burst into laughter except Mr.Bhattarchariee. He leaned towards me and said gently, “Mark my words, dear Phukan, you will meet many such migratory birds in your career. Humour them well. But remember nothing happens after they fly away.” More laughter followed. This time Mr.Bhattarchariee also joined us, breaking into peals of laughter.
True to Mr Bhattarcharjee’s prediction, I have met many migratory birds in the subsequent years of my career. But few could compare with the formidable lady from New Delhi, consultant to the 11th Finance Commission of the Government of India who visited Bhuragaon during my tenure there as Circle Officer.
Bhuragaon in Morigaon District is one of the most flood and erosion affected areas of Assam. The twin menace of flood and erosion creates havoc on the circle every year. However, people dread the erosion more. In a single season, large swathes of land, sometimes whole villages are eroded by the Brahmaputra. There is no respite from the erosion. Over the years, village after village have been gobbled up by the hungry currents of the river. Thousands of families have become homeless and impoverished. When I joined Bhurgaon as Circle Officer in January 1997, I was shocked to learn that out of 121 revenue villages in the circle as many as 41 villages had been completely eroded. These villages now existed only in official maps. Another 15 villages had been partially eroded. Bhuragaon town, once a flourishing jute trading centre of Eastern India has been reduced to a ghost town. The river which had once flowed about 7 kilometers away from the town had become a threat to its very existence with more than half of the land mass of the town already lost to the relentless erosion.
I still clearly remember that warm Saturday afternoon in the first or second week of June 1999 at my office in Bhuragaon. I had planned to avail headquarters leave and spend the Sunday with my family residing in Guwahati. Just I was about to send a leave application to the Deputy Commissioner, a wireless message from the local Police post arrived on my desk. It was from the DC. It read: FINANCE COMMISSION CONSULTANT FROM NEW DELHI VISITING BHURAGAON TOMORROW AT 10 AM FOR EROSION SURVEY (.) PLEASE MAKE NECESSARY ARRANGEMENTS INCLUDING MACHINE BOAT (.) CO- ORDINATE WITH E & D DEPARTMENT* (.)
I cursed my luck and was upset about having to cancel my leave. Such disappointments are common to our service. Gathering myself, the first thing I did was to rush to the river front with Bhupen Kalita, a lat mandal, on his bike to search for a machine boat for the next day’s programme. Machine boats also known locally as “bhot bhoties” because of the sound of their engines are large wooden vessels fitted with a diesel water pump from 8 to 10 bhp. The pump is connected to a propeller fitted outside the boat which sets it in motion. These boats are the lifeline of the small riverine islands called chars. During floods, these boats are requisitioned by the administration for rescue and relief operations. Many of these boats are owned by the matbors – local leaders of the immigrant Muslim community of the chars. Often, the boat owners are reluctant to part with their vessels for hire by the administration. The Government rates are usually lower than what they could get on their own by ferrying people and goods across the river. Besides, the formalities of Government like submitting bills and waiting for the payment order to come put them off. It often took quite an effort to “convince” the boat owners to let their boats for hire, a task usually accomplished with the help of the local police. Also, my love for P.R., pun unintended, came in quite handy. I knew most of the boat owning matbors by name and always made it a point to offer them a chair whenever they came to my chamber. It was a small gesture but for a matbor to sit face to face with the hakim meant a lot for his status. On their part, they rarely turned down my request.
That afternoon, after riding for some time along the river front, a sturdy machine boat was found. It belonged to one of those boat owners personally known to me. He reluctantly agreed to let us hire his boat.
The next morning, along with officials of the E & D Department I waited at the local inspection bungalow for the eminent visitor. Some members of the Bhuragaon Erosion Protection Committee, a local NGO formed to demand permanent protection measures against the erosion were also present. At around 10 am, a convoy of vehicles pulled up in front of the inspection bungalow. From the cloud of dust kicked up by the vehicles, emerged the Deputy Commissioner, a young IAS officer who had just recently joined the district. After him, a tall silver haired lady in a cotton sari, holding a leather folder stepped out of the car. I walked towards her and introduced myself. One of my staff welcomed her traditionally with a phulam gamocha. She smiled and thanked us profusely. I ushered her towards the veranda of the IB where arrangements had been made for a briefing session over a cup of tea. We sat on the chairs placed around a small round table. I introduced all the persons present there before the guest. Mr Sinha, an Additional Deputy Commissioner who had accompanied the DC opened the session with a bio data of the guest. She was a retired professor of Economics, presently engaged as consultant to the 11th Finance Commission. Her purpose of visiting Bhuragaon was to make an on the spot assessment of the problem of erosion in the region.
Mr Sinha then requested the SDO of the E & D Department to explain the situation. The SDO unfolded a large map on the table and with his finger on the map traced the shifting of the course of the river through the years. On the map, the thin red dotted line indicated the present position of the river. The lady heard the officer in silence, absorbing the facts with gentle nods of her head. I gave details of the loss caused by the river, reading out data from a note I had prepared. I handed her a copy of the note. She went through the figures with a concerned look on her demeanour.
“You mean, 41 villages have disappeared into the river?”, she said. “Didn’t you take any measures to save the villages all these years?“
Before anyone could reply, a member of the Bhuragaon Erosion Protection Committee, Debanand Sarma, a feisty old man ,thundered, “Because of the short sighted policies of the E &D Department, much of our land have been lost to the river. Instead of permanent measures like building stone spurs on the banks, every year, the Department resorts to temporary measures like placing bamboo cages and tree branches in front of the banks to deflect the current. Such measures could not stop the erosion. Instead, lakhs of rupees are siphoned off in inflated bills against these temporary measures every year.” The E &D officer tried to intervene but could not prevent Debanand Sarma from continuing his diatribe against the Department. Finally, Mr Sinha stopped Debanand Sarma and announced, “Let us proceed to the river before the sun comes above our heads”The briefing session ended. We drove to the river front where the machine boat was waiting for us. My lat mandal BhupenKalita was there. A plank of wood was placed on the bow of the boat and the sandy ground as a kind of impromptu gangway. The lady gingerly walked up the plank. The rest of us followed suit. We sat on the benches fixed on the sides of the boat. Two plastic chairs were kept for the DC and the lady. There were around fifteen persons on the boat. The feisty old man, DebanandSarma stayed behind as he was not feeling well, much to the relief of the E&D officials. As soon as we were comfortably settled on the boat, I signaled to the boatman to start the engine. He pulled a string and the boat spluttered to life. We decided to move downstream along the banks. Though the water level was still below the banks, it was rising steadily during that period. Significantly, the erosion is most severe during the times when the water rises and later again when it recedes. The boat picked up speed. We moved along the jagged contours of land jutting out like a giant half eaten bar of chocolate. The DC pointed towards the banks. At some places, there were large cage like structures made of bamboo floating in the water. These were devices known as Temporary Palliative Measures placed by the E&D Department to protect the banks for a limited time. In most cases, they could hardly stand against the ravenous currents. Just then, a large land mass with shrubs and plants still on it gave away plunging into the water with a giant splash. The fall caused an upheaval, sending ripples rushing around. “That’s a big one,” said Mr Sinha .The lady appeared to be shocked by the sight. She kept staring at the spot about 200 meters from our boat. It was something that she had never seen before.
“Why do you call it EROSION and not SUBSIDENCE”? , she asked. Everyone was stumped by her query. I had never heard anyone use the latter term to describe the river’s action. ”Madam, it is a standard terminology” the E&D engineer ventured to explain. She didn’t react to his answer. She looked at the rest of us as if waiting for someone with the right explanation. Even the DC who was an IIT graduate didn’t risk answering. Finally, Mr Sinha spoke. “Madam, whether, it is Erosion or Subsidence, the fact remains that the people here have suffered a lot. The State Government could not on its own take up permanent measures like construction of stone spurs. Naturally, we look up to the Central Government to come to our aid”
The distinguished lady looked at Mr Sinha with a bemused look of tolerance. “That still didn’t answer my question. There has to be a reason why it is called Erosion and not Subsidence,” she said with an air of finality.
Meanwhile, the boat was steered for the return trip. During the return trip, the lady didn’t utter a single word. She seemed to be lost in thought. It took twice the time, moving against the currents to reach the spot from where we had started the cruise. The vehicles were waiting for us. We went to the IB where arrangements for lunch had been made. After lunch, the members of the Bhuragaon Erosion Protection Committee handed the lady a memorandum. She accepted it and thanked us for the pains taken to open her eyes to something that required the urgent attention of researchers and policy planners. She promised to do her mite to highlight the problem of Bhuragaon at the appropriate forum.
Before the lady left for Morigaon, Mr Sinha, called me aside and whispered, “Do you know the probable results of today’s visit by the lady? A wasted Sunday “.
Suddenly, Mr Sinha’s words reminded me of Mr Bhattacharjee of yore. The story of the migratory birds at Deepor Beel ringed in my head.
True to Mr Sinha’s words, the venerable lady’s visit to Bhuragaon bore no fruits. Before leaving, she had assured us of placing the problem of Bhuragaon at the right forum. Nothing came out of it. Perhaps, her efforts were lost in her own semantic confusion on that warm sunny day at Bhuragaon. Was it Erosion or Subsidence?
*Embankment & Drainage Department is now known as the Water Resources Department.