Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Assam’s season of sorrow
D. N. Bezboruah
More often than not, the monsoon in Assam that begins in June and lasts till about August is Assam’s season of sorrow. Like the Yangtzse and the Huang He rivers of China, the Brahmaputra too is Assam’s river of sorrow during the rainy season. Even in a year when the monsoon is just normal, the devastation of the State by flood waters is substantial. Rural households, schools, health centres, standing crops and embankments are all targets of the floods. And during these months, it is not just the sole male river of the country—the Brahmaputra—that wreaks havoc in the countryside but other rivers as well. In Assam, we have a natural calamity—the floods—that visits us without fail every year.
We are only about halfway through this year’s floods. It should be clear to anyone that the floods we have had this year are far worse than what we have experienced in many years. So far, 8.5 lakh people in 22 districts of Assam have been affected by the floods. The floods have so far taken a toll of 61 (approx July 1, 2012). The Brahmaputra has been flowing above the danger level at Dibrugarh, Nimatighat, Tezpur, Guwahati, Goalpara and Dhubri. Ten other rivers are also flowing above the danger level. So far, 22 embankments have been breached, more than half of them being embankments built as protection against the Brahmaputra. Several other embankments too are threatened. The total crop area affected is over 23,000 hectares. This is hardly surprising when one considers the kind of rainfall that we have had in the last few weeks. From June 1 to June 27, Assam recorded 508.6 mm of rain against the normal expected rainfall of about 388 mm. A whole month of heavy rains is still ahead of us.
In addition to the inundation by flood waters, there is yet another hazard that is most pronounced at this time of the year, namely, territory lost to rivers (mainly to the Brahmaputra) due to erosion. The erosion phenomenon was much in evidence after the major earthquake of 1950. Almost half of old Dibrugarh was lost to the Brahmaputra. The threat to Dibrugarh still remains, but is countered with the construction of dykes. In recent months too erosion by rivers has resulted in considerable loss of land. In some areas, scores of villages have been nibbled away by the river.
Perhaps the most unfortunate kind of reporting about floods is that such reports tend to concentrate more on the material losses suffered rather than on the tragedy of human misery, desperation and devastation. This is not to suggest that the material losses do not contribute to the misery and the devastation. They do in a very substantial manner. However, what is generally overlooked is the kind of devastation of the spirit and the human psyche that takes place year after relentless year of floods. It is important that we stop to think of the kind of frustration and the sense of defeat at the hands of Nature that can cripple the soul in a matter of just three or four years. Urban India can rarely visualize the humility and a total lack of security of rural folk having to forsake hearth and home and live along the highways for weeks together. As on some previous occasions, people have had to share elevated ground with animals this year too. Perhaps urban India cannot even understand why poor rural folk need any privacy or security at all. And what agricultural output can one expect from a farmer who has lost not only his crops but also his cattle to the floods? Perhaps the rest of India cannot even imagine that the so-called flood relief does not reach the victims of the floods but manages to find a way to the private coffers of those who have never had to wet their feet in flood water. But any sensitive soul that is close to where this annual tragedy takes place cannot ignore the sustained assault on the human spirit that takes place year after year in all flood-prone areas, making any productive work quite meaningless for a lot of people. What needs to be addressed by any sensitive government elected by the people is this sense of frustration and hopelessness induced by floods every year.
In Assam, floods in the rural areas are a natural calamity. But floods in cities like Guwahati are almost entirely man-made. We have seen in the last few days how a heavy shower of rain lasting two or three hours can make many areas of Guwahati quite inaccessible for a couple of days. The PWD that has shown scant regard to any rational planning of the city’s drainage has had a major role in creating the calamity that afflicts the city after every heavy shower of rain. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) that has been granting building permits recklessly over the past few decades is equally to blame for the degradation of a beautiful city to the point of making it practically uninhabitable.
There is very little that the government itself has done by way of flood control during the last three or four decades. If anything, the government must take the blame for all the fragile embankments that routinely collapse every year causing untold misery and taking several lives all over the State. What is indeed inexplicable is that the same unscrupulous contractors who build and repair embankments every year that they know are destined to collapse are rewarded with contracts year after year instead of being blacklisted and punished. They are able to carry on playing this game with human misery with impunity because they have godfathers in the right places. Even if the government is incapable of doing anything significant to control floods, it can at least stop permitting human misery to be used as a means of earning easy money every year by unscrupulous and irresponsible contractors.
M.C. Mary Kom, today is a household name not just in Manipur or the Northeast, but in the entire country. A child of an impoverished landless farmer parents, fighting against all odds to rise to sporting stardom by her sheer indomitable perseverance, grit and talent would be material for inspiring romance anywhere in the world. Indeed, she struck just this very chord in the international arena, prompting boxing commentators during the recently concluded London Olympic to christen her Magnificent Mary. And magnificent she was in every bout she fought even though she was punching above her natural weight against opponents who were heavier and taller.
Much has been already written about the background of this five time world women’s boxing champion in the 48-kg class, how she was initially attracted to martial arts but ultimately came to be drawn into the world of boxing inspired by the achievement of another stellar boxer from the state, Ngangom Dingko, who too belonged to a similar impoverished background, having grown up in an orphanage and then risen to be Asian champion before a hand injury ended his boxing career. Without repeating what is now obvious and commonplace, it would be worthwhile to try an assessment of Mary’s achievement and the nature of the contribution she has made to sports in the country, but more specifically Manipur and the Northeast.
On the national arena, such an assessment would be best done after the dust of the Olympic has settled, and the ritual national self inquisition on how a country of 1.2 billion has consistently had to be satisfied with only a handful of medals, especially in the wake of neighbouring China rising to be a world sporting power. To be a little more optimistic however, let there at least be the hope that this time around there would be a shift in the national as well as institutional attitude to sports. While a change of heart of the Indian public will not be so easy to predict, how the government responds to the challenge at least will be visible loudly and tangibly at the presentation of the next Union budget in March, 2013.
Mary is a pioneer in women’s boxing in India. She was five time world champion in her 48 kg weight class, but it must be remembered this achievement was before women’s boxing became an Olympic discipline, and therefore attracting much less interest amongst athletes around the world. It was only about four years ago that a decision to include women’s boxing in the Olympic in a few weight categories came about. It was a foregone conclusion that the competition standards thenceforth would suddenly take a steep climb, and it did, as was witnessed in the London Olympic. That Mary lived up to expectations in the changed scenario is all because of her perseverance and talent, and though not a gold, her bronze medal performance without doubt is a stupendous feat. The point is, the sport is still maturing and its standard has still to reach a plateau so that by the next Olympic in Rio, competition level would have reached a new height. Where the standard stands today will no longer be the standard of champions four years later, so that the next generation of aspiring Indian women boxers would have to rise to that new standard to be in contention. This would apply to Mary too. She has done her job of paving a pioneering path but it would be a different challenge altogether to remain at the top competitive level henceforth, now that the entire sporting world is interested in women’s boxing and would be diverting their resources into it.
The story was very much the same for women’s weightlifting a decade or so ago. Before it became an Olympic sport, athletes from the impoverished fringes of the sporting universe, desperately looking for an opening, did extremely well. During the time the sport occupied only a niche space, the premium for which was on talent and determination alone. Natural sportspersons from unknown corners of the world, in which the remote North Eastern Indian state of Manipur has a prominent presence, then held sway. Pioneers like Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi too emerged as world champion materials, but as the prediction now goes for women boxing, the standard of competition for women’s weightlifting too suddenly rose by several bars after it became an Olympic sport, and the more resourceful nations with better and disciplined sports administration, began wresting away all the top honours.
Understandably, because of the shining path cut by Mary Kom, there would be a spurt in the interest in women’s boxing in India. At least it is almost a certainty that by the next Olympic, there would be a fresh crop of young female boxers from Manipur joining Mary’s league. But they would all have to realise that it is a moving target they chase. Reaching today’s world standard would not be enough, for the bar of international standard in the discipline would have been raised considerably by the time they walk into the international rings. Thankfully, Manipur and other North East states, including Mizoram, are good in boxing, and it would do the morale of aspiring boxers here good that the standard of boxing they are exposed to at home is of world standard. The young Laishram Debendro too could with a little luck have easily returned with a London Olympic medal around his neck, and he and other equally promising boxers from the state who did not make it this time, can very well do so in the next if they do not lose focus and allow a slip in their standard.
Men’s boxing and wrestling have been around for a long time, and therefore their standards too have long since been at a plateau. There can possibly be little more for the standards to rise from where they are, unless a rare Usain Bolt phenomenon explodes in them too. Traditional boxing powerhouse nations, namely Cuba, USA, Russia etc do not any longer appear the giants they use to be and Indian boxers were measuring up to them very well in the London Olympic. In wrestling the story is very much the same. On their good days, Indian wrestlers in the London Olympic, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar, could have walked away with gold medals. It was only a matter of chance that the former returned only a bronze medal and the latter a silver medal this time. Since India has a long tradition of wrestling, it would not be unreasonable to imagine there would be, or at least can be, an unending line of wrestlers of their standard in the next Olympics, of course given the commitment and vision of sports administrators in the country.
To return to Mary Kom, the ace athlete is 29 years old today. She would be 33 by the next Olympic. Hopefully she would be able to retain her competitive form then. But by virtue of her achievements so far, she is more than a sportsperson now. A BBC reporter described her as the possible bridge between mainland India and the Northeast: That though she lost her semi-final bout, she won 1.2 billion Indian hearts. She earned public praises from some of the best known Indians, including Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachhan, Burkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and more, apart from congratulatory notes from top officials and leaders of the country. In response, she too has expressed the wish she wants to enter politics to promote sports in the Northeast. If the Manipur Assembly ever gets to have a Vidhan Parishad (Legislative Council), perhaps a nominated member of this House, would not be such a bad idea. It is unimaginable she can compete and win a Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) seat from a reserved Hill Constituency in the extremely ethnically riven polity of Manipur, as she belong to the very small Kom community. The fact is, the Manipur government has promised to promote her to a Superintendent of Police, SP, in the Manipur Police. Obviously she would not be expected to do routine policing duty and would be instead given the latitude to act as Manipur’s goodwill ambassador from that position. This too would be a good lever for the kind of politics she envisages for herself as a champion of sporting aspirations in Manipur and the Northeast.