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Monday, August 30, 2010

The Decreasing Rice Fields of Assam

Assam has been one such state that has the vast potential of becoming the rice basket of India. Every year, Assam witnesses heavy rainfall for months which is the most essential requirement for the proper growth of rice. Added to this, the soil conditions is such that there is much larger scope for Assam to produce rice more than the other leading producers of the country. But today, the area of rice cultivation in Assam is fast decreasing. And this has aggravated the problems that are already plaguing the rice farmers of Assam.

The total area under rice cultivation in Assam, which registered a bumper record production of 40.7 lakh metric tonnes of rice in 2008-09 — an all-time high — has been shrinking over the past decade and more. From 26.46 lakh hectares in 2000-2001, it dwindled to 24.84 lakh hectares in 2008-09, with the state having the lowest area under rice cultivation — 21.90 lakh hectares — during 2006-07. Likewise, the rice yield has also witnessed a sharp downward trend in the past one decade, coming down from 39.98 lakh metric tonnes in 2000-2001 to an all-time low of 29.10 lakh metric tonnes in 2006-07.

It is not a new thing that Assam is the victim of yearly floods. Every year, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries submerge most areas of Assam for months altogether. Heavy soil silts are deposited and there is heavy erosion of soil and rocks that affect the topography heavily. One might think that the presence of rivers like the Brahmaputra and the heavy rain cycle would be enough to improve the situation for rice cultivators of Assam. But the truth is that these heavy floods destroy the rice fields beyond imagination. The absence of a proper irrigation system to salvage the waters of the Brahmaputra and tributaries during the flood season is a big issue for rice cultivation here. This year’s heavy floods has caused great damages to the agricultural areas of the state; especially in Dhemaji district that has the damage of 60% of its agricultural lands.

Apart from floods, there are other factors that are responsible for the decrease in the agricultural area of Assam. Over the past one decade, Assam has seen a huge spate of industrialisation. There has been acquisition of lands for industrial purposes. This has resulted in the loss of agricultural lands and has also reduced the scope of farming among its traditional holders. With industrialisation, there is also an emergence in the urbanisation phase of the state. Cities like Guwahati, Tezpur and Jorhat have grown up to be huge urban centres of the region. This has resulted in the decrease of the farmlands that have been based around these areas. If we take the case of Guwahati alone, then we find that the areas of Amingaon and Palashbari have been big sufferers in this respect. There have been many cases of agitations by farmers when their lands were taken over by the BSF to build base camps. These two areas, which are close to Guwahati, have lost huge tracts of farming lands over the decades. And due to this, the city’s easy access to foodgrain from the neighbouring areas has lessened down. Similarly, a mega gas cracker project in Dibrugarh has also recently sparked off protests from farmers who have lost their lands due to this.

Highway building has also its fair share in causing harm to the agricultural areas of Assam. The trend which we are seeing now in states like Uttar Pradesh is something that Assamese farmers have been suffering for years. Highways like the four-lane East-West corridor from Srirampur to Silchar has caused heavy damage to agricultural areas which had to be sacrificed for it. Many farmers lost their lands to this and this resulted in the reduction of agricultural lands in the state. This is a fact which was recently admitted by the state agriculture minister Pramila Rani Brahma. The minister had recently asked the Public Works Department to ascertain as to how many farmers had lost their land due to this project.

Farmers in Assam grow three major varieties of rice, these being ahu (autumn rice), sali (winter rice) and boro (summer rice). Though farmers in Assam have been traditionally used to growing only one crop a year, efforts are now being made to motivate them to go for at least two rice crops. Irrigation is not yet a popular concept in Assam. While canal irrigation has remained almost a non-starter, sinking several thousand shallow tube wells some 10 years ago has come as a big relief for farmers, especially in the lower Assam districts.

Although the present situation of rice cultivation and overall agriculture in the state has not given way to chaos, it is not to be forgotten that if the present ways continue then Assam will terrible times in the near future. Land has still to be retained for agricultural purposes and the growing urbanisation has dealt a heavy blow to the farmers of Assam who have not been able to cope with the situation properly. Added to this, the heavy influx of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into the state has also resulted in the grabbing of lands that were originally meant for farming.

Let’s hope that things improve in Assam and the once thriving rice belt of the Northeastern region soon regains its lost glory.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ambubachi Mela: When the Goddess beckons...

June is not exactly the perfect time to visit Guwahati. It is the rainy season which sees the mighty Brahmaputra in its full fury. It is also the time when the humid heat becomes unbearable with everyone sweating themselves out. But still it is during this June month that one sees a frenzied rush to Guwahati of people who are seeking religious solace and peace. So a drive around Guwahati at this time will reveal a sudden growth in the population of sadhus and ascetics. Trains loaded with pilgrims arrive in frenzied numbers at Guwahati making things rather uncomfortable for the authorities there. Afterall, it is the time of the yearly Ambubachi Mela.

Over the years, the Ambubachi Mela has taken the form of a “Kumbh Mela of the Northeast.” It is rather a phenomenon to see thousands of pilgrims turn up for this event which takes a colourful shape at the Kamakhya Temple atop Nilachal Hill at Pandu on the outskirts of Guwahati. Traditionally the Kamakhya Temple has been one of the most sacred Shakti shrines of India. It is perhaps the most important temple in Assam today where the Tantric cult of Hinduism is prevalent. As per traditions, when Shiva’s wife Sati passed away he carried her body around the world in a fit of grief. The various body parts that fell down on the earth became the various shrines of Shakti (Mother Goddess) worship all over India. And here on the Nilachal Hill, fell Sati’s “yoni” or vagina and so sprang forth Kamakhya, the goddess of sexual desires and tantric worship.

Every year during the month of June for a period of three days, the goddess goes through her annual period of menstrual cycle which renders her unclean for that period. During this period, the temple doors are closed. All religious activities are suspended and farming works are not undertaken. The small stream which flows from the temple becomes red signifying the blood flowing out of the goddess. For these three days, a sort of religious fair or a “mela” takes place outside the temple which sees devotees coming in thousands from all over India, especially from the states of West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. After the three days period, the goddess is ritually bathed and her purity restored. The temple gates are thrown open to the devotees to worship and “Prasad” is distributed either in the form of Angadhak- sacred white water or Angabastra- pieces of red clothes symbolic of the goddess’s feminine power.

Over the years, the Ambubachi Mela has assumed a character of gigantic proportions. Thousands of pilgrims converge in and around the premises of the temple. Traders come over to sell their wares which include a wide range of carnelian beads and other traditional items used for religious purposes. Guwahati city sees an uncanny horde of tourists in the form of the many sadhus and ascetics. Apart from them are the regular pilgrims who are normally householders and also the Bauls who are the singing minstrels of Bengal. Blouseless, impoverished old widows, mainly from Bengal and Orissa, also turn up for the event. The area around the Nilachal Hill does not sleep for a period of about two weeks around the mela. There are so many activities going on that it takes a rather colourful shape in the forms of continuous singing by the Bauls, tantric practices by ascetics which attracts hordes of crowds and the resulting mayhem that ensues gives the authorities sleepless nights for this period.

The sadhus and ascetics are the biggest crowd pullers during the mela. Sadhus of all shapes and sizes turn up at the temple premises and most of their outlandish getups end up getting all the attention that most people may die craving for. Most of these sadhus keep returning to the mela every year and hence many of the annual pilgrims have got familiar with most of them. Perhaps the most well known among them is the one who has the longest matted locks of hair. I have been seeing him from the last two years when I started attending the mela and I know that I will be seeing him for many more years to come. Apart from them, there are also the rituals that the tantric ascetics perform around the temple complex. Most of them end up smearing ash all over their bodies and performing wild dances in total frenzy. Also there are pilgrims who are from abroad mostly from European countries who have taken to the Hindu way of life. Most of them dress up like ascetics and attract lots of people who love to interact with them. During the last mela, I remember meeting a guy called Renault from France and it was his third outing at the Ambubachi Mela. Renault, a masters degree holder in philosophy from the University of Paris, took the life of a sadhu eight years back when he first came to India. The Ambubachi Mela for him was a way to experience the mystic grace of the divine goddess Kamakhya. Indeed the Ambubachi Mela is more than what it seems.

Apart from the sadhus and tantrics are the many hundreds of pilgrims who are regular householders. Most of them stay in makeshift tents and camps during the mela period. The sight of so many people at a particular place is a breathtaking sight in itself. Many of these pilgrims have been coming to the mela for a number of years and their devotion towards the goddess is mind boggling due to which they journey in overloaded trains and come to Guwahati every year. For the three days period, you hear people mostly speaking Bengali or Oriya around the temple complex for most of the pilgrims who camp around the area are from those states. Truly, the Ambubachi Mela has become symbolic of a uniting platform for the Hindus of eastern India where suddenly people from all walk of life mix with each other in the hope of attaining divine bliss from the mother goddess.

As I conclude this article, I have a message for the readers who have not been to the Ambubachi Mela yet. Just reading this article is not enough. You have be there to believe what I have written here. And whoever has been to the mela has always kept coming back each year to it. I myself started going there two years ago and I can confidently claim that I will be doing it for as long as I can.