Guwahati: The Brahmaputra has always been an intimidating river for me.
I remember the times I used to take a train from Delhi to Guwahati , get down at the railway station, head off to the banks of this mighty river to kill time for three hours before taking the overnight bus to Aizawl, where my parents work.
Each time, I stood there on the banks of the Brahmaputra, I would be amazed at just how wide and intimidating the river looked. And the mere thought of taking a boat on the river used to make me really scared.
Cut to 2012. I am standing on the banks of the Brahmaputra near Jorhat, where the river is even more intimidating than it is in Guwahati. I am here to cover the floods in Assam, and the first story I want to do is out of Majuli, the river island on the Brahmaputra, among the largest in the world.
On the way to Majuli, I meet ex-serviceman Sonaram Saikia, who has spent many years of his life on the ferry to and fro Majuli. A ferry is the only way to get to this island, in all these years the government has not managed to build a bridge to Majuli.
Mr Saikia tells me he has seen worse floods, but not in the last decade. He also tells me he has mastered the art of predicting a flood. Hence, when the Brahmaputra breached its embankments a few weeks ago, Sonaram and his wife, and a few belongings were already safe, on higher ground. Sonaram's two sons don't live on the island. They instead stay on mainland, in the town of Jorhat. Sonaram says both his kids never took to life in Majuli anyway.
In Majuli, getting around takes a Tata Safari and a very bumpy ride. As I get to some of the worst affected villages, some people come up to me and my cameraperson Sanjoy-da, thinking we are government officials. One of the villagers asks me if I can give him money to feed his children. He has lost his entire crop, and says government grants will stop in a while and that will leave his family penniless.
I mumble something about how we are journalists and are here to tell his story to the world. I wonder if it was the right thing to do, though. Anyway, most people I meet tell me different versions of what is basically the same story - how they escaped the fury of a river, that breached many embankments on the island.
I also notice that the Assam government had started work to fortify the kaccha embankments on the island, but like typical government work, the pace was too slow to match the might of the flooded Brahmaputra.
Will the government wake up and do better now? Will these villages, think about relocating to the mainland given how this seems to be a recurring situation. The answer to both seems to be a vehement NO!
The next day, Sanjay da and I are asked to do 24 hours from a flood affected district. This basically means staying in the flood affected areas for 24 hours and documenting how people are going about their lives.
I will not touch upon all the places I went to, but two things linger in my mind, and both have to do with children.
At the National Disaster Response Force camp in the Sootea village of Assam's Sonitpur district, the image that stays with me, is of hundreds of children stretching their hands and paper plates, for a limited supply of pakoras, cooked by the NDRF jawans after pooling in money, so that the children and their families don't have to depend only on government ration. At the camp people tell us government relief is coming in, but some of it is being pocketed by middlemen and high ranking district officials. Relief, incidentally, is three kgs of rice and half a kilo of dal per family every two days, irrespective of family size.
The other image that's stayed with me is of a young boy in an adjoining village, hell bent on drying all his textbooks he could save from the flood water. It's summer vacation in his school right now and when his school opens in a few days, the boy does not want to go empty handed to school. He lost some of his books to the water, but whatever is left, he says he will.
In the end, I can only say this, the flood may have destroyed thousands of homes in Assam, but the ability of the people of this beautiful state to regroup and rebuild has certainly not been crushed.