Facing Floods in Assam….

I was posted in Cachar Project of ONGC during 1987 to 1991. Our company was desperately looking for oil and gas in this area. There were 5 rigs employed for these operations in different areas around the town of silchar which is located in the southern part of Assam adjoining agartala and near this town is another town called Badarpur which is a gateway to north eastern states like agartala, Manipur and Mizoram. This area where drilling operations were being conducted bordered Bangladesh. Two rivers namely Surma and Kushiara flow through this area which are actually two parts of Barak river coming to this area from Manipur. In fact, town of silchar is situated on barak river. These two parts again rejoin and enter Bangladesh where ultimately it joins mighty Brahmaputra river.

There was one site called Adamtilla where I used to go for duties on aan old Romanian rig. It was about 120 kilometers from our residence in silchar and a good 2 to 3 hours journey. Our company has hired maruti gypsy jeeps for this job.

There we did duties on 14 days on and off pattern. It means that for 14 days you will be there on the rig. Of this, first 7 days one officer did day duty from 6 am to 6 pm and other did the night duties. After 7 days pattern reverses and when 14 days are over, the employee shall go to his declared hometown and resume the duties again after 14 days. Mostly people did the off days at their hometowns from different stations throughout India.

But with me the case was different. I was well site chemist which is a supervisory duty but as my family had moved to my hometown in Chandigarh, my boss gave me 14 days chance in addition.

When the shift was off duty, the staff was put up in temporary accommodation at Patharkandi which was about 7 kilometers away. It was a good accommodation with Assam type houses for 2 people each. In addition, there was a mess for food and entertainment room with TV and VCR. There were no TV channels like these days. There was also a badminton court. But real pleasure was the flowering plants like marigolds and dahlias. All this was supervised by a gardener who hailed from orissa. In fact this residency was the first one created when the project commenced.

Buses took shifts to drill site and back. Although it was only 7 kilometers but road condition and ongoing construction of a bridge over the sunai river stretched the time to half an hour or so. Many a times the roads inside the tea gardens were blocked.

When the shift completed its tenure of 14 days, they were transported to airport about 170 kilometers away. It belonged to air force and flights operated only in the day time only. There were only two flights each day and operated between Kolkata, silchar, agartala and Manipur. Everyone was desperate to catch the flight amidst uncertainties like strikes, irregularities of flights and inundations due to floods.

I faced one such flood. We were on the rig when the news of flooding due to overflowing of the sunai river and closing of road traffic trickled in. The river was in spate. It was decided to stop the work. There was a railway station on the line from agartala to badarpur. While all the staff was sent to station we 5 to 6 people stayed back to close all the engines. The drill string was pulled up to casing shoe and BOP was closed. The plan was that staff reaching earlier will try to somehow hold the train till we reach the station. But the work on rig is as difficult to close as it is to begin. So when rest of us reached the station, the train had already left. There was as such scarcely one train daily so there was no chance till next day evening.

We returned to drill site which was now pitch black. Somehow the generator was started and light was restored. There was no food. Nothing to lie back on. Mosquitoes attacked in hordes. Cicadas chirped with piercing sounds. Whole night passed like that. In the morning, flood had not receded. Only way to colony was walking along the railway track all the way 7 kilometres. It was raining incessantly. The going was slow. There were many small rivulets flowing full and the wooden slippers were of uneven thereby increasing the chances of slipping down. Had someone slipped, he would had sure fallen into the stream. After sometimes, as energy was sapped, walking became very tiring and we had to sit in the rain for sometime.

At last, after 3 hours we reached patharkandi colony. We got refreshments and were dead tired. We were held up there for 3 days before the shifts resumed again.

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My Stay in Silchar

I have been to Assam earlier also when I was posted in Cachar in the Southern Assam. The area is bounded by Bangladesh and Tripura and North Cachar Hills separate it from the rest of Assam. We lived in a town called Silchar. Although it is in the Assam but most of the population is Bengalis. Muslims dominate the rural areas. The Barak river flows through it and splits into two rivers called Surma and Kushiara which again join together in Bangladesh.

This river is very famous for a variety of fish called illish. Although it has more bones than any other fish, it tastes great and the Bengali people whose weakness for the fish is well known are crazy for this variety.

During the days we were there, there were very few means of communications. All the flights coming into this area from Kolkata fly for most of their journey in the Bangladesh space. Traveling by train taken at least 12 hours to the capital city of Guwahati which is better connected with rest of India. The trains have to cross the North Cachar Hills through tunnels and on meter gauge. But then the whole region is sleepy and naturally gifted with great beauty.

During the monsoons the Barak river is in spate and many a times breaks the dykes and inundates the whole region. Houses are submerged, and crops are destroyed. There are tea gardens on all side and Surma valley tea is quite famous. During British times, the area produced petroleum in places like Badarpur. There were oil wells on the small hillock and crude oil flowed through channels specially made for the purpose to storage tanks on the banks of Barak river. From here the crude was transferred to the ships and sent away.

The boundary of India with Bangladesh was very near. The border was very porous at that time and people sneaked from one country to another easily. In fact many of them have relatives on both the sides. Like in Punjab many Hindus had to migrate as refugees to Silchar leaving behind their properties.

Travel travails in North East India in 1988

The company I work with is the premier in the quest of oil and gas in India. It explores oil and gas in every corner of India. The problems of logistics, politics & terrorism do not deter it in its pursuit of this highly prized commodity. In India, it was in Assam where the British struck the oil. The town of Digboi bears the testimony where the Edwin Drake prodded the diggers with the cry of “Dig boy Dig” and the place got the name Digboi. Our company is having drilling in many parts of Assam. One such place is in South Assam and is called Silchar which is the city from where it is engaged in the search of oil in the Barak valley.

In 1988, I was posted in Silchar, headquarters of Cachar district. The place was very quaint and visitors from outside feel transported to the ancient times. The district borders Bangladesh and most of the population speaks Bengali language. The particular dialect they speak is Sylhetti which is spoken in the adjacent Sylhet district of Bangladesh. At that time, modes of communication were very few. Not to talk of mobile phones, even the landline phones were available in offices only. Similarly, logistically it was very poor place. Due to the peculiar shape of Bangladesh, it was very long journey by train to reach there from Calcutta or rest of India. Even these days no trains of note run from the capital Delhi to Silchar. You have to cross the Cachar hills to reach south Assam from Guwahati in the North Assam. These are the same hills which find a mention in the Mahabharata. Here lived Hidimba which fell in love with Bhima because of his physical strength and had a son by him called Ghatotkach.  Only few trains run between Guwahati and Silchar. There were only two flights in the daytime from Calcutta which flew almost over Bangladesh.

Anyway on to the description of the journey which is the subject of this topic.

My brother-in-law was also working in the same company and was posted at a place called Nazira in upper Assam. He sent us an invitation to visit them. My wife was very happy and looked forward to the journey to meet her brother and sister-in-law. I also wanted to undertake this journey because I also wanted a break from the tough working conditions in the Silchar. We had two very small children at that time. We booked the tickets and made the preparations and boarded the train running one a meter gauge rail in the noon.  This train was supposed to reach Lumding junction at about 4 O’clock in morning where we had to alight from this train and board another train coming from Guwahati and going to Tinsukhia in the extreme East of the country. The weather was very good and became cooler as the train proceeded North.

The train crossed through the lovely picturesque  Barak valley. The farmers with chinese hats on their heads worked in the lush green fields. There were bamboo and banana groves here and there. On the Barak river there were boats sometimes looking so insignificant on the mighty waters spread in a very broad span. They were fishing boats and fish of very delicious variety is found in this river. The boats yonder looked like dots. Occasionally group of birds would take flight as if in fright. Since it was December, the days were short. Train was chugging long slowly but steadily in the plain.

It was still day as the train seemed to be running into the blue colored hills and crossing many tunnels on the way. The speed was decreasing because the hilly slopes had started. The train would stop at any place where it pleases and for a time which seemed interminably long. After a long wait, the train reached the Jatinga. It is a fabled place where on a particular night thousands of bird commit suicide by hitting themselves on the lights fixed on the bamboo poles by the villagers. The scenery at the railway station was breathtaking. The mountains in front looked like a solid blue wall. The water was making a purling sound in the rivulets nearby. As it was getting dark and chilly, fog began floating and seemed to be conversing with the trees. The smoke from hearths in the village huts seemed suspended as dense cool air made difficult for it to rise.

The train seemed to have permanently there. Passengers alighted from the compartments because a beautiful site beckoned them. Whole platform looked orange colored because it was strewn with oranges. There were heaps of them and local gardeners sold them in  special bamboo baskets. Everyone was busy in the bargaining for the oranges and forgotten the train.

By and by the night began to fall. The hill outlines became silhouettes and soon dissolved in the pitch black  night. The reality began to dawn on us that the train is surely going to reach late at Lumding and miss the connecting train. The train somehow began moving and as expected reached the Lumding station very late. The next connecting train was around 09:30 and 10:00 in the evening and specter of spending whole day at the station loomed over us. Harrowing ordeal began. These two coaches were detached and parked in the sidings. The mottled group of passengers became friendly with each other. The food was scarce. On top of it, there was strike in the town and whole town was deserted as reported by some passengers who were adventurous enough to go out. There was no facility for depositing the luggage and go out which in the present conditions was impossible. The day began to heat up causing uneasiness and restlessness among the passengers especially children.

After a wait of whole day, a train chugged into the station and our coaches were attached to it. The train was rushing into the pitch dark night towards its destination. Ultimately it reached Simalgudi station where we were to alight. It was 4 O’clock in the morning. A thick pal of fog hanged over the station and people looked like wraiths. We were complete strangers to the place and did not know how to proceed to Nazira which is about 15 kilometers. Fortunately, a Muslim boy who had become acquainted with us during the journey helped us to find a taxi. We asked him where he himself was headed. He told us that he was going to Sivasagar, which was the capital of Ahom kings which ruled Assam for a long time. We asked him how he would go there, he told that soon a bus of a company shall come and he would go in that bus. Surprisingly the bus belonged to our company and was a shift carrying bus!!!.

Such was the journey. So I called it “such a long journey”

Arsenic Poison in Drinking Water

Drinking water is hardly available to most of the poor population in the developing or under-developed countries. Water contaminated with bacteria, virus and dissolved ions in excessive amounts causes so many disease. Contamination of water can be natural or man induced. The reason for the contamination of water is that water is a universal solvent. It leaches so many chemical compounds when rocks are exposed to it. Secondly, water makes up more than 70% of the area available on the Earth surface. Life began in the water. So many reactions necessary for the growth and reproduction of life use water as the medium. So it is host to so many bacteria and viruses responsible for diseases.

Countries like Bangladesh and many parts of India where lots of water becomes stagnant in ponds and shallow wells face the problems caused by water contamination. Due to poverty and lack of resources, people are forced to drink the water from open ponds and contract the life threatening diseases. Administration then dug deep wells in search of germ free water. But this gave rise to another even more serious problem: the problem of arsenic poisoning. In the Bangladesh and parts of West Bengal adjacent to Bangladesh, there is lot of arsenic dissolved in water.

Similarly when such water is used to irrigate the paddy, the rice is contaminated with arsenic and finds its way to the stomachs because the rice is the staple food of Asia. When Hussam discovered that his own relatives—who live in a district of more than half a million people in a part of Bangladesh called kushtia—had been drinking arsenic laced water, he decided to find a solution. in 1997, he started measuring the water’s arsenic content and developing a filtration system that could remove the toxic arsenic species pumped from tube wells. Hussam and colleagues made a prototype filter that uses two buckets piled on top of each other. Water is first poured into the topmost bucket, and then it passes through a special material called a  composite iron matrix, which is a mixture of iron and iron hydroxide. Manganese in the matrix catalyzes the transformation of the more toxic arsenite to arsenate ions. these ions bind to the surface of iron hydroxide particles.

Now this contraption has been made into a filter which is placed on the tuebwell and the output water is free from arsenic. The arsenic poisoning cases have reduced and many patients been cured and regained the health by eating more protein rich food along with arsenic free water.

Forest Owlet: The new State bird of Maharashtra

I saw the green pigeons first time in Sibsagar Assam. Firstly I was confused and took it for doves. I thought may be it is due some genetic defect in this bird. On close look, I discovered groups of them hanging on to the branches of Pipul trees and eating merrily the fruits which the trees bear when after autumn  these are covered with new trees. I also observed another trait in these birds that unlike their cousins which prefer to roam on the floor and live in the houses, these pigeons never even came down and touched the earth. The birds were in plenty there. From the literature, it became known that they have Bangladesh, North-Eastern India and Burma as their habitat.

I am not sure that this is exactly the bird which is called Hariyal in the other parts especially Maharastra where the bird had been the reigning state bird.

Green Pigeon

After it dawned on the people who gives these titles to the birds that this bird is not unique to the state, the green pigeon has been stripped of this title and instead the Forest Owlet, a bird that is active during the day unlike its cousins, has upstaged the green pigeon as the state bird.
The honour is being taken away from the green pigeon because it has just dawned on the state that this bird isn’t unique to Maharashtra; it is found across not only India, but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Although this argument is arbitrary as can be seen from the fact that Magpie Robin is the state bird of Bangladesh, it is found in wide spread regions as far as Maharashtra in the Western edge of India. I am not giving arguments against the Forest Owlet being chosen to replace the green pigeon. It is us humans who tend to label the things. Neither the Green pigeon not Forest Owlet could care less about all this fuss about them.

The New Prince
Another one

On the other hand, the Forest Owlet that was struck off as extinct for 113 years, was spotted one morning in November 1997 at the foothills of the Satpuras, northeast of Mumbai.
“The recommendation to change the state bird will come up for approval when the wildlife board meets next,” said Anna Dani, additional chief secretary of the department of revenue and forest. The board, headed by the CM, last met in 2009. Later, in June 2010, the Bombay Natural History Society asked the government to take off the Harial (the green pigeon) as the state bird and elevate the snow-white Forest Owlet (duda) to that post.

Forest Owlet is also known as Athene Blewitti or Blewitt’s Owl after the man who discovered the species in 1872 in Busnah-Phooljan in eastern Madhya Pradesh, now Chhattisgarh. From 1884 the species was missing and was considered extinct. But after a gap of 113 years it was rediscovered in November 1997 by Ben King, Pamela Rasmussen and David Abbot at Shahada near Taloda in the Nandurbar District.

Now from this statement, it is clear that boundaries are for human beings not for the birds. A pigeon perches on ledges of a mosque with same ease as on the parapet of a temple. Some traits of the birds are given below:

•The Forest Owlet is slightly larger (8-10 inches) than the spotted owlet

•Ornithologists say it is bold and comfortable in the presence of humans

By the way, if you are really a bird lover then visit this exhaustive website.

It is Gurudeb Tagore all the way

Gurudeb Rabindra Nath Tagore is the only poet credited with having his poems adopted as National Anthems of two countries: India and Bangladesh. Gurudeb’s entire life was soaked in the poetry and music. If India were not divided in 1947 into India & Pakistan whose one limb was East Pakistan, Gurudeb would have been the poet of India and East Pakistan area which was in fact East Bengal.

Gurudeb Tagore’s family was aristocratic family and He did not attend the schools to get the formal education. He was tutored at home and by Nature when he was visiting his properties which are now in the Bangladesh. Otherwise they lived in Kolkata as was the custom in vogue during those days. Gurudeb is still revered in Bangladesh as in India.He started Shanti Niketan with the aim of educating the students in the natural environs. Mostly the education imparted was music, painting and other artistic streams. Many students of the Shanti Niketan attained fame in artistic fields. Students from all over India and many countries of the world study there.

Most people, like me, knew the fact of Gurudeb being the author of national anthems of India and Bangladesh. But there is surprise. When the national anthem of Sri Lanka was being played before the commencement of 2011 cricket world cup final played between India and Sri Lanka, I was a bit confused. The tune was almost identical to Indian anthem and like Indian counterpart belonged to Rabindra Sangeet developed by Gurudeb himself at Shanti Niketan.

Next day Times of India carried out a news item which disclosed the reasons for resemblance. It so happened that Gurudeb had a great impact on the Sri Lankan national anthem. Sri Lankan national anthem has been written and composed his student Ananda Samrakoon in 1939-40. It was adopted as the island nation’s anthem around 1952, though political turmoil has seen it altered over the years.

Some credit Tagore with having composed the music. It was Samarakoon’s six-month stint at Tagore’s arts college Shantiniketan that inspired him to begin the anthem. The style eventually developed to be the “first traditions of unique Sinhalese music”, wrote Sri Lankan news portal Lanka Gazette in celebration Gurudev’s 150th birth anniversary this year.
As every Indian knows,  Jana Gana Mana was written and set to music by the legendary poet and artist. The first 10 lines of his 1905 poem Amaar Sonar Bangla became Bangladesh’s anthem in 1972.

Oriental Magpie Robin

I have noticed this bird many a times. They are particularly active during the evening when the light is barely present. They make very sweet sounds. The color of the feathers is black with white on sides and at the bottom side. It is slightly bigger than a house sparrow. Particularly it is very active in the evening catching the flying insects. If I am not wrong, I have heard their sounds at about two or three o’clock in the morning.

Little did I knew that this is the national bird of Bangladesh where it is called “Doel” rhyming with “Koel” the nightingale. It has been adopted due to its sweet singing. In fact, the bird belongs to passerine family which are perching birds and most of them are songbirds. That most of us take many birds, animals and trees for granted, we never care to know their names. Visually we know that it is a such and such type of tree: size, color of leaves and flowers, color of coat, beak and telons such like traits. The peasant does not know the names of many birds and animals living in the fields. This problem is very serious in cities where there is no way to know the names of trees on the roads because generally the trees are not named. Only in Dadar Mumbai I noticed the small metallic tags fixed to trees with the names prescribed on them.

My curiosity arose when an incident happened. There was a small baby of this bird which was floundering and was caught by an crow which are so mean and ruthless in killing and eating the weak and ill and injured. They are the efficient agents of Darwin for sparing only the fittest of the living beings like the nature. The fledgling was about to torn to shreds when luckily it escaped the clutches and fell on the ground. My wife who was looking at this drama, immediately rescued it and brought it to home. It was wounded in one leg and was not able to stand properly. We were at loss how to feed her something for its survival. I dipped its beak in the water and it reacted positively. Then I opened its beak and my wife put some water with a spoon. Then I thought that it must get some food but what?. We broke one egg and were able to push small quantity into its mouth. First night we left it as such in our bathroom. In between, we noticed that it was answering calls of its parents who were outside in the trees where they are the regular visitors. But during night we were worried about its survival. Next morning, we again gave it some food and wet its beak with water. Then we put it in a cardboard box in which we made some holes and placed this box outside in our balcony. Our surprise knew no bounds when we saw the strangest thing happening. In general, it is believed that the baby birds which are touched by humans are shunned by the parents. It proved to be totally myth. The parents located the child and began feeding it through the holes with insects. Whole day this went on. In the evening we purchased a cage from the market. It was very good cage but it proved useless for feeding. This was because the baby bird was sitting inside out of the reach and it would not budge from where it was sitting. It kept opening its beak and as the feeding failed the sharp noise of desperation was visible. We again had to put it the cardboard box.

In the night we brought it inside putting it into the cage. It was sleeping peacefully even as the lights were on. Due to care and feeding by its parents it became strong and there was great action it made inside the box to break free. In the next morning, I put it outside in the balcony and its parent began bringing the insects. It was making so strong efforts that it was coming half out of the hole. I began becoming ready for morning walk, but when before leaving for walk, I noticed that the bird has flown out. We looked for it in the outside trees where the marauding crows usually sit. After sometime we were relieved immensely when we noticed that it has joined its parents and was flying freely.

The bird is found throughout the world but most commonly in South Asia. It is not in the endangered list of birds but in Singapore its number has greatly declined.