Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Aura of Assam - II

captured from our car - a common sight in this part of Assam
The second leg of our sojourn was through the meandering exotic locales that crisscrossed the sylvan landscape of Dibrugarh. Unjustly called the NH-37 (National Highway), as it doesn’t even match up to the claims of a village road at many places, our journey ended in rude jolts and bumpy rides all through the 78 km long journey which again took us an unusual 3 hrs and 20 minutes of travel time.! This ‘NH’ traverses the entire length and width of the state, and at many places, to our horror, we saw rail lines laid parallel to NH roads with just around two metres separating road and rail lines, and no walls in sight, to protect the unwary layman from the approaching trains.

The NH bustles with bus transport provided by Assam State Transport Corporation, and one interesting line that caught our eyes all along our travel was the tag, ‘Under ASTC’ – words that found a place in almost all buses, omni buses, vans etc. When our inquisitive group members quizzed a bus driver on this tag, he had a remarkable explanation to offer. It seems ASTC had embarked on an ambitious plan of handing out govt buses on lease to private operators. This, he added, was due to the frequent bandhs and strikes that crippled
operation of services by the government, where government buses were the first casualties that faced the ire of irate mobs. Whereas, private operators, mostly under political influence, apart from providing efficient service, also saw to it that buses did not fall prey to the ravages of the agitators. And, the smile in his face was palpable when he said that the government is planning a complete privatisation of transportation in the State.

Privatisation, albeit reduces the role of the state by confining its duty to just providing the desired conducive environment and playing a regulatory role for smooth operation of services. And, that’s exactly the case with China. Indeed, China has never gone for full privatisation of its state-owned services. Yet, the china-model was touted a great success! Is at least Indian Airlines listening?

Roads on either side had village folk lining up with fish (their prize catch) which they sold after the usual bargains. Later we came to know that rivers and lakes played a key role in holding high the financial health of the state. Apart from the agricultural activities that happen on its banks, the rivers and lakes are also havens for fishing and boating for locals and tourists alike. 

Among the various lakes that adorn the landscape of Assam, the Sibsagar Tank is touted to be the largest man-made lake in Asia. One interesting curiosity about the tank is that, the water level in the tank is found to be on a higher level than the ground level. One of nature’s unsolved mysteries perhaps! The Sibsagar College is located just behind the tank and provides a picture-perfect backdrop to the beauty of the lake.  But one jarring note about these lakes was that, the local body(ies) don’t seem to have taken any immediate steps to deepen the river-beds to prevent floodings, and also de-weed the lakes, which sometimes prove deathtraps to pedal-boaters (like the ones at Sibsagar Tank) which sometimes run the risk of getting entangled in the thick weeds that are spread through these water beds.

Apart from village folk who lined up on either side, one sad aspect of reality that strikes the Assamese, especially in Dibrugarh, Sibsagar etc was the fact that all streets had gun-trotting soldiers lined up on either side, due to the increasing risks posed by miscreants/outfits. There was this famous exhibition at Sibsagar which we visited on a rainy evening. Even the exhibition had a posse of armed soldiers manning the entire premises. But, while these security measures looked strange to outsiders, to the native, it was a common everyday sight to which they were accustomed every other day of their lives. And even the soliders rarely interfered with the common man, except for an occasional chaai or his khana that he took at the local restaurant, when they interact with the common man to try to ‘gain’ vital info about happenings in the vicinity. This reminded me of my friend Thongam ji from Manipur who lamented just the previous day that, over there, for 500,000 people there were 70,000 soldiers manning the entire stretch of a few districts. In the many places to which we travelled, policemen were a rarity, except for traffic constables clad in white, who manned important traffic signals to smoothen traffic during peak hours.

Another rarity in the towns and villages of Assam was the case of the missing auto rickshaws, which in any other place would have made a beeline and a killing! Here, the rickshaws manned by skilled rickshaw-wallahs, were there to take you anywhere you wanted, at a fixed price (no bargains here!). The rickshaws were there as early as five o’ clock, and it was a sight to see women and children sit neatly clad, upright, gracefully in the rickshaws, while their men-folk usually preferred cycling or biking. Share autos were a common sight, and the gusto and zeal with which they transport their passengers, locals and tourists alike, (literally shoving them into the autos!) was yet another vicissitude of ‘local hospitality’ on a platter.

To be contd…

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