Sunday, May 11, 2008

Connecting to the Northeast

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 4, 2008

The Other Half

You know you have left “mainland” India the moment you leave the outskirts of Guwahati, Assam. Life suddenly takes on a different pace. For the tired eyes of an urban dweller, the green is incredibly soothing. And even the pre-monsoon Brahmaputra, at its lowest water level, is awe-inspiring.

But the scenic beauty, the slower pace at which things move, the abundance and variety of vegetation fail to camouflage the tensions that prevail just beneath the surface. You catch a glimpse when suddenly you come across army personnel patrolling an area. The military presence in Upper Assam is not as obvious as in Kashmir. But it is there, a reminder that all is not well in this beautiful State.

Constant reminder

Even in the not-so-remote parts of Assam, you are constantly reminded of the fact that the entire region remains apart. “Connectivity” was an issue more than three decades back. Assamese and other Northeasterners complained of their lack of access to each other and to India. Today, things have improved. There are more flights and trains coming into the Northeast from the “mainland”. But connectivity between the “Seven Sisters” is still poor. And although the Internet has begun to spread its reach, access is still indifferent at best and non-existent at worse. In fact, despite all these changes, the issue of “connectivity” continues to be the subject of editorials and discussions.

Difference and remoteness from the “mainland” are also evident in the choice of stories in the newspapers of Assam and the Northeast. After days of being assaulted by images of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches on the front page in Mumbai newspapers, it was a relief to read local newspapers for whom the brouhaha over this meshing together of sport and entertainment was a non-issue. In fact, even their sports pages did not carry any reports on this new version of Bollywood and cricket — that ought to be called Bricket.

Instead, the newspapers reported bomb blasts in Manipur, the death of a one-horned rhino in Assam (a reminder of the constant problem of poaching), and the civic problems that the burgeoning capital city of Assam faces. “Mainland” politics, and sports, were a somewhat lower priority.

The visit was also a reminder of how serious environmental concerns are ignored despite studies and reports. The highway that slices through the Kazhiranga National Park, a World Heritage Site, is like a scar. Buses blow loud horns, trucks spew out diesel fumes. Despite this, you can actually spot a rhino or two in the distance. But how long will these animals survive this steady onslaught on the environment that occurs day in and out just a few metres away from where they graze and calmly view the world around them?

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