Field Notes Society

No new year’s day to celebrate: Lockdown scenes from the Northeast

Commute by elephant: scene from a Guwahati street

Commute by elephant: scene from a Guwahati street   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Spring festivals like Bihu and Mopin have come and gone, but everywhere there’s an eerie silence in the Northeast

Guwahati

It’s taken an invisible invader to make the Assamese do the unthinkable — skip the grand Rongali Bihu celebration of April. Even in the worst years of insurgency and agitation, celebrations used to be low-key but alive. The Bihutoli or Bihu stage has been an annual fixture at Guwahati’s iconic Latasil field since 1952 and as Kailash Sarma, member of the Latasil Bihu Committee, says, “Work on erecting the stage would have started from mid-March.” With no workmen hammering away, the silence in Latasil is eerie. Just a month ago, the field was abuzz with protestors agitating against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and questioning the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Guwahati, in fact, has been under intermittent curfew since December. On March 21, when the nationwide lockdown was announced, the fears about COVID-19 seemed to edge out the tension over CAA and NRC. Now, they exist in tandem, feeding into each other.

The 19.06 lakh people out of 3.3 crore applicants who were excluded from the NRC list were supposed to get rejection slips so that they could appeal at the Foreigners’ Tribunals within 120 days. Jochhon Ali, a farmer from Goroimari, 75 km east of Guwahati, is still waiting for his slip as are many others.

The process was delayed first in February, when the Assam government started replacing some 55,000 officers who had been

handling the NRC exercise. Then the pandemic came, pushing the date further. “The next phase will be taken up when the situation improves,” says Hitesh Dev Sarma, State NRC Coordinator.

Adding to the unease of people like Ali is the economic crisis. The marketing of paddy, the major crop for some 27 lakh farmer families, has been affected because villages have erected bamboo barricades, not letting outsiders in or inhabitants out.

Officers say the lockdown, if prolonged, could change the sowing-harvesting cycle of the winter crop. Vegetable farmers are worst off, hit when transitioning from winter to summer crops.

A bigger worry for farmers, a majority of them Muslims, is a possible economic boycott because of the widespread perception that Tablighi Jamaat participants brought the virus into Assam. “It has given them a new stick to beat Muslims with,” says Aman Wadud, a lawyer who works pro bono on NRC appeals.

Meanwhile, Assam’s already ailing tea industry is reeling: the lockdown came at the peak of the first flush. “This translates into a 10-15% production loss, not to speak of a long-term cumulative impact on the 800-odd large estates,” says Sanjay Jain of Assam Company India Ltd, the oldest tea estate group here.

Gopal Krishna Khound, president of Assam Small Tea Growers Association, echoes this, “Tea is the backbone of Assam’s rural economy, sustaining 1.8 lakh small tea growers and 10 lakh workers. At this time, we would have been pruning and cleaning the bushes, which would have sprouted new leaves for the second flush. The second flush yields the best harvest, and fetches the best price. If work is not resumed soon, we will be set back by at least six months.” A few estates opened on April 11 with 50% workforce, and some others have followed suit after Bihu.

Assam is the conduit for supplies to the Northeast. The other States are on tenterhooks, but Subhanan Chanda, spokesperson of Northeast Frontier Railway, says they are ensuring that the region doesn’t suffer from shortages.

“From March 23 to April 4, for instance, the Indian Railways brought in 1,342 wagons of sugar, 958 wagons of salt and 378 tanks of edible oil,” he says.

But distribution has not been smooth, with Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya alleging that trucks are often obstructed at the borders or diverted. Right now, reassurances are all they have.

Shillong

The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium complex in Shillong is synonymous with raucous football matches, rock concerts and festive celebrations. These days it is home to some 400 migrant labourers, chiefly from the nearby Garo Hills and Assam, left stranded after the lockdown. Many such makeshift camps have come up all over town. College student Tengrik Sangma, 21, is one of the volunteers working at the stadium camp. “I help with translations and in distributing meals. We are also cataloguing their addresses to help during repatriation.”

Sangma and his team also organise activities. For instance, following the Meghalaya Chief Minister

Conrad Sangma’s appeal to the citizens to take part in a State-wide prayer on Easter evening, the boys’ hostel building in the stadium grounds erupted in boisterous song and applause. Everyone took part in an impromptu orchestra organised by the volunteers.

In another relief camp in the old NIFT campus not far from the stadium, a few young men play volleyball while policemen stand guard at the gate. Kumar, a migrant worker from the Rabha community of Assam, is staying here. “I work as a waiter in a restaurant. After we closed down, I tried to get back home but, well, here I am now.”

Just as the State looked forward to the initial lockdown phase to end, the first COVID-19 positive case was reported on April 13, and more have come up since. Shillong would have been bustling with tourists at this time of year with its blue, sunny skies, sudden showers and nippy evenings. While nature has dressed up as usual, hotels, lodges and cafés are shut and the streets deserted. This emptiness is almost becoming the new normal. Even before COVID-19, the anti-CAA protests had put a dampener on the city, and February’s border violence had reverberated in Shillong as well.

People are now getting used to the cycle of full lockdown days alternating with ‘shopping’ days, when long queues snake down the narrow streets.

Itanagar

The recipe is quite simple, but there is art to making amin, the risotto-like signature rice dish of the Galo people of Arunachal Pradesh. It’s a must-have during the annual agricultural festival of Mopin, which marks the beginning of the sowing season. This year though, things are different.

The lockdown has resulted in food supplies falling short. Essentials like groceries and vegetables are available, but regulated shopping hours and panic-buying means that by noon most shops are empty. As a result, many families have gone without amin this year or have made modifications to the traditional dish.

A key ingredient in amin is chicken, diced into small pieces. “We used soya chunks instead,” says Itanagar-based artist, Kenjum Angu. Marli Kamki, a former student leader, is thankful that he could at least get his bottle of poka, the traditional beer made from rice, roasted rice husk and yeast.

Most supplies to Itanagar and surrounding towns come from Assam. After the first COVID-19 positive case was reported there, the Arunuchal government barred the entry of vehicles, which meant vegetables could not come from Assam. On April 3, the deputy commissioner of Itanagar and adjoining towns also banned the import of fresh vegetables.

So, Itanagar is staring at shortages, with several grocers saying they are selling stocks purchased earlier. “We might soon be surviving just on potatoes,” says a woman who runs a general store.

In Arunachal Pradesh’s interiors, hunting is still a tribal custom. On February 27, the State forest department issued a directive banning the hunting and selling of wild animals and birds after rumours that COVID-19 may have come from bats. With civets often hunted for meat by tribes, the threat of cross-species infection was feared. This ban is also affecting traditional tribal diets.

Rahul Karmakar from Guwahati, Silvester Phanbuh from Shillong and Ranju Dodum from Itanagar.

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Printable version | Jul 15, 2020 2:33:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/no-new-years-day-to-celebrate-lockdown-scenes-from-the-northeast/article31363683.ece

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