Tag Archives: Assam

#StateOfPlay: Barely 12, the RTI is already sputtering, needs intervention.

The Right To Information (RTI) Act 2005 turned 12 this week.

It carries a different meaning for different people.

To the poor, it is a way to ensure the government delivers what is entitled to them. To the activist, it is a tool to unearth what is wrong. To the politician, it offers a chance to play the victim and strengthen his defence. To a cheat, it grants an opportunity for blackmail. To a journalist, it remains the easiest access to a scoop without putting one’s source in discomfort.

How popular the act is can be gauged by the fact that over 6 million (and counting) applications seeking information are filed annually with authorities at the centre, state and district level. As activist and former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi told me, “At least on three occasions, the government tried changing the Act and failed. It speaks of how strongly the citizenry and civil society upholds it”. Few are aware that RTI Rating which analyses the ‘quality of world’s access to information laws’ ranks our legislation as the fifth best in the world. Mexico tops the chart and our neighbour Sri Lanka is a close third.

Let me stop you right now if your chest is swelling with pride.

The RTI Act is choking. Or as Nikhil Dey, a senior activist from the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said, “The Act has been able to withstand a lot but will it not be injured?”

At play is a devious scheme, a quiet and cunning stifling of the act’s implementation. The players remain faceless, beneficiaries too obvious to state.

The ailment can be identified by reading the superbly documented report, ‘Tilting the Balance of Power: Adjudicating the RTI Act’ by RaaG and Satark Nagrik Sangathan. Some of its points:

  • Of the over 6 million applications filed every year only about 5 per cent reach the Information Commissions on appeal. Citizens either lack awareness or resources.
  • Not more than 45 per cent of the applications seeking information are successful. Less than 10 per cent of the unsuccessful 55 per cent end up file an appeal.
  • Collective backlog of unresolved application (where data was available) as of December 31, 2015 was 187974 cases. Pendency is rising implying the time taken in attending to your appeal is growing longer. In Assam, where no State Information Commissioner was appointed from January 1, 2012 to December 2014 and not a single Information Commissioner from March 2014 to December 2014, the waiting period for an appeal is 30 years! Not too long ago, even Madhya Pradesh had a waiting time of 60 years! It didn’t really reform – it stopped sharing data on its site.

VIDEO LINK:

How has it come to this?

“Unfortunately, Act gives the govt of the day a big say in who it wants to appoint as Information Commissioners,” stated Dey.

That is when the government wants to.

In the national capital, in 2015, the centre was shamed into appointing a Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners after activists knocked the doors of the Delhi High Court. By then, the Central Information Commission was headless for over ten months.

And what happens when the government, whether at the centre or in the states want to make appointments?

Section 12(5) of the Act says ‘persons of eminence in public life’ and belonging to a wide variety of fields can be appointed as Information Commissioners.

Here is what really happens.

The report cited earlier says, “A 2014 survey says 60 per cent of the Information Commissioners (ICs) across the country and 87 per cent of the CICs were former civil servants. 77 per cent of the CICs were from IAS cadre”.

The commissions have power to punish by penalising erring government servants and ordering the release of information. But, “Only in 1.3 per cent of the cases where penalty on erring civil servant was imposable did the Information Commissioners impose the same”, says the report.

Gandhi’s experience from the time he was a commissioner made him state, “Commissions use penalty very rarely as if it was death penalty. The total number of penalties levied by all the commissioners since beginning in 12 years is 1211. Out of these I alone had levied 520 penalties”.

Understood?

Dey said, “This govt at the centre came in reaping the benefits of RTI act yet a pro-disclosure approach is hardly seen”.

I’d like to end on a positive note but the story shared by the tireless retired naval officer, Commodore Lokesh Batra, who also is an RTI activist, is difficult to overlook. Worried over growing vacancies in the Central Information Commission, Batra wanted to examine how the issue was being dealt with. In a reply dated September 29, 2017, the CIC told him, “The said subject has not been dealt with in any file”.

Since President John F Kennedy told us ‘sincerity is always subject to proof’, I ask – what do you see?

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON DAILYO:

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/right-to-information-rti-narendra-modi-diluted-information-commissioners-rti-act/story/1/20080.html

 

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#MEGHALAYA: Fifty shades of green. A photo-essay. #travel #travelogue

BY JUGAL R PUROHIT & SAPNA NAIR-PUROHIT

A discussion involving a trip to India’s north eastern region often stalls on two grounds – poor connectivity and the lack of availability of vegetarian food options. If you read this piece, perhaps you will raise your hand and beg to differ the next time you find yourself amidst such talk.

Meghalaya is known to most Indians as the Sanskrit term for ‘the abode of clouds’. Flanked by the state of Assam to its north and east and Bangladesh to its south and west, this cool, clean, calm and captivating destination needs no endorsement.

Our story begins differently. For us, Meghalaya was never the option.

Troubled by the unending strife in Jammu and Kashmir, we began looking for alternatives as the date came closer. While most destinations were ‘out of bounds’ because of the rainy season, Meghalaya was ‘open’ exactly on that account.

Since Meghalaya has no full-fledged airport (Shillong has one which does not operate regular flights), we took a flight to Guwahati. Upon landing, we hit the National Highway (NH) 40 which connects the city to Silchar (also in Assam), poking in and out of Meghalaya along the way. The joy in driving on a road like this was soon upon us – Assam was on one side of the highway and Meghalaya on the opposite. While at the former’s end there was nothing but homes and wilderness, the latter’s side brimmed with activity, petrol pumps, liquor shops and commercial enterprises to which people were flocking to. “Thanks to the lower taxes in Meghalaya, the Assamese cross the highway to make purchases,” explained our driver.

As the highway snaked out of Guwahati, chaotic streets, bogged down with vehicles gave way to a well-made, four-lane highway dotted with a sheet of tall, slender and distinct-appearing betel nut plantations on both sides. Cute, colourful stalls set up by locals selling organically-grown pineapple, banana and home-made pickles jostled for space in the lush landscape.

For those who may want to schedule a meal along the route, wait for Byrnihat, a town along the NH40. Our driver led us to a restaurant called ‘JIVA’ which served palatable fare and hygiene standards were impressive. We’d happily recommend it to anyone.

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They served palatable fare and hygiene standards were impressive.

As the sun was receding, we were inching closer to Shillong.

Whatever little we saw of it, we did not like. Narrow streets, endless traffic, littering and a town appearing quite worn down, it definitely was anything but love at first sight.

Meanwhile, our destination was a place few haven’t heard about – Cherrapunjee.

With the altitude rising, the road thinned out. The low-hanging clouds reduced the visibility. Does that cause a worry? Peek out of the window into the neatly-built colourful homes and the abundant fruit-bearing trees. For a ten rupee note, the locals will even allow you to pluck a few, juicy wood apples.

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With the altitude rising, the road thinned out.

The chill was setting in. The rainfall, however, was nowhere around.

At the end of a seven hour-long road ride, we broke the journey 15km from Sohra, the name the locals use for Cherrapunjee. At the base of the town is a hamlet called Laitkynsen and in the wilderness there is the simple yet serene Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort where we stayed. All we needed was a warm wash, a simple meal and a bed to call it a day.

 

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The simple yet serene Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort

The next day was slated for ‘sight-seeing’ (not a term we fancy too much).

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The Khoh Ramhah or Maw Trop is a 200 ft high, giant natural rock formation which resembles a huge, upturned conical Khasi basket. Legend has it that this is a fossilised stone basket belonging to an evil giant who was eventually poisoned by the people. The plains lying further from the rock are on Bangladeshi territory.

Sohra, by the virtue of its heritage, by now has a list of places to see which includes waterfalls, vantage points, caves, churches dating back to the 19th century and gardens. If you find yourself interested in these, make sure you do not venture out around the weekend as the rush can be immense as we found out. Of all the places, we enjoyed our time at the sprawling Arwah Lumshynna cave complex the most.

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That’s us!
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And that is Kishore, our wonderful driver cum guide.

We gathered that the villagers in Laitkynsen were developing a bridge by entwining trunks of betel nut trees or bamboos with living roots of the Indian rubber tree (botanical name: Ficus Elastica). It isn’t as easy though. Apart from leaving matters undisturbed, it can anywhere between ten to fifteen years for even a small section of those roots to firm up. However those in Meghalaya aware of the state’s rising tourism profile are realising it is an investment worth the wait.

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More and more people are now aware of the state’s rising tourism profile and do not mind the times it takes
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Trivia on living root bridges courtesy Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort

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The locals, from the Khasi tribe are gentle though largely inward-looking. From our discussions with the resort owner (a Tamilian born in Meghalaya), we learned how they were initially against the idea of letting tourists come closer. “They were happy selling potato chips and waving good bye to tourists but we are trying to make them realise the worth of what they have here,” he said. He began his resort after fierce opposition in 1998 and has employed several villagers in full and part time roles.

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Sohra by the day.

We welcomed the cool evening with some wafers and coffee. As the colour-changing sky darkened and the rains arrived, we shifted indoors this time in the company of a shy lot of local musicians who strummed up some wonderful melodies only for us.

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As the colour-changing sky darkened and the rains arrived, we shifted indoors.

The next morning we bid the staff farewell and began our journey for Tyrna. This village was the starting point for a trek up to the wonder called the ‘Double Decker Living Root Bridge’. As the name suggests, it is a two-tier bridge made of living roots which spans a waterfall. Located in a village which goes by the name Nongriat, the route entails a three hour trek involving ascent, descent and a lot in between.

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Sapna pointing towards Nongriat from Tyrna, moments after starting our trek

The villagers have built wide steps out of concrete which is good and bad – good since it is easier to navigate and bad because the rains can make the surface slippery. Along the way, we touched some homes which served us the local brew, witnessed butterflies of countless hues, felt our weariness disappear by sitting next to rivulets and waterfalls before starting again and crossed some mighty, roaring rivers by walking over a swinging bridge, made of metal strings! Our companions, apart from each other, were bamboo sticks – a must for hikers – which we rented from the “Bros N Two Sis’s Shop” for Rs 20 each. (This shop is closed on Sunday, by the way).

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The route entails a three hour trek involving ascent, descent and a lot in between.
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Along the way, we touched some homes which served us the local brew, witnessed butterflies of countless hues, felt our weariness disappear by sitting next to rivulets and waterfalls before starting again and crossed some mighty, roaring rivers by walking over a swinging bridge, made of metal strings!

Once in Nongriat, where the locals utilised their time in making and selling honey, we couldn’t help but wonder at the spectacle before us.

To our advantage, we learnt our home-stay was hardly ten steps away from the double decker! Some hot ‘chowmein’ into our bellies, we spent the next few hours swimming in the gentle pool of the waterfall or reading and relaxing by it. The comfort and facilities on offer were minimal. There was another couple in there with who we exchanged notes about our exploration hitherto.

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We couldn’t help but wonder at the spectacle before us

For all its allure, life in Nongriat was hardly as good. With no roads, no market or even a medical facility, just about everything in the village meant trekking nearly 5-6 hours in and out of Sohra. “Everything has to be carried on one’s back. If someone falls ill, things become really difficult”, said Charlie, who owned that home-stay.

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There are trekking destinations further from Nongriat however our schedule did not permit us to undertake them. So we lazed around longer and then started back to Sohra. It was drizzling and it made our journey muggier. However, we were back where we started this time completing the route in less than two hours!

We were definitely hungry by now!

 

 

 

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The Sohra market.

An ever-smiling Uttam Koch was the manager at Nalgre’s restaurant, a by-the-road eatery in Sohra. The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food. Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to. Mr Koch, on the day we were leaving Sohra, told us he was building rooms to stay in which would be ready soon.

Our journey thereon turned eastwards.

Heard of Mawlynnong? A Google search will tell you it is a known destination in Meghalaya because of the tag it earned – that of being, “Asia’s cleanest village”. None of the locals could explain the antecedents of this tag but more on that later.

Brightly-coloured bungalows, both big and small, neat streets, roads lined by pretty, flower-bearing plants – it looked like a postcard. We checked into a home-stay by which flowed a quiet stream.

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We checked into a home-stay by which flowed a quiet stream.

About 2-3km from Mawlynnong is Riwai and its living root bridges. The reason Riwai stands out is because that is where we learnt that the locals would charge us money to enter the village and funnel a major chunk of earning into beautification and maintenance. “The government doesn’t come into the picture. The better we maintain, the more tourists come and better we earn,” said a villager.

The manager of our home-stay, a college drop-out named Khrew was a talkative fellow. At our request, he called in the newly-elected village headman of Mawlynnong. “We have 502 members here and sanitation is something we have believed in since over a hundred years. There cannot be a household built without a toilet, it’s our rule. While most people clean their homes and surroundings, everyday a fixed number of us also do community cleaning,” he said. When we quizzed him about the title of cleanest village, he replied, “Ah you can do Google search. Even I am not sure”.

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“We have 502 members here and sanitation is something we have believed in since over a hundred years. There cannot be a household built without a toilet, it’s our rule”.

It no longer matters.

Mawlynnong, which even found a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio talk in 2015, already has its hands full. There aren’t enough home-stays to accommodate tourists. The road, Khrew told us, “Needs to be widened for so many vehicles coming everyday”.

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Nestled within the Jaintia Hills, Dawki has nothing remarkable to offer.

Dawki is a border town on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border and located at an hour’s drive from Mawlynnong. Nestled within the Jaintia Hills, this town has nothing remarkable to offer. We particularly recall the pathetic state of roads, the resulting dust and catching glimpses of the people in the corresponding town across the border. Of interest to us was a village, 8km from the town, which went by the name Shnongpdeng. The village is located on the banks of the Umngot river which we heard flowed with crystal-like clear waters. The bumpy ride turned out fruitless as heavy sedimentation in the river ensured we did not see anything like what was told. It was the wrong time of the year to visit. Anyway, we hired a boat and the 30-minute exploratory ride even though under the 12 noon sun, turned out an enjoyable experience.

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Heavy sedimentation in the river ensured we did not see anything like what was told. It was the wrong time of the year to visit.

On our way back we crossed many posts manned by personnel from the Border Security Force (BSF). The name of one such post struck me and we stopped our car. Pyrdiwah was the first in a series of Indo-Bangladeshi border posts involved in skirmishes in the summer of 2001 which led to the loss of 16 BSF men. Back then Bangladesh forces walked in and claimed the post. Happy to report that today not only does an Indian flag fly atop but also the BSF reported very cordial ties with their Bangladeshi counterparts. One point to ponder about though – the BSF, raised in 1965 and stationed there for decades, still operates out of tin roofs and shanty-like structures. The government hasn’t been able to acquire land for them or build decent facilities. When we were around, the temperature in those tin-structures felt way higher than outside. Couple this with the earlier-mentioned condition of the road in such a sensitive region. Questions our nationalistic netas must answer.

Back in Mawlynnong, we noted the sun’s descent from the confines of an open to air wooden gallery, a part of a tree house where also greeting us were gentle strokes of cool breeze. To our amazement, the owner of our home-stay very casually shared with us how it was locals who’d built those tree houses.

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To our amazement, the owner of our home-stay very casually shared with us how it was locals who’d built those tree houses.

Those in Mawlynnong have always lived a quiet and compartmentalised life, we were told. Notwithstanding the influx of tourists, six days of the week are alike even today. On Sunday, time is devoted to the church and community issues.

Something we had not encountered before – the place of our stay, (a home-stay by the name ‘Ilajong’ which means my own), had a lake in the middle. “Anyone can come, pay us Rs 100 and fish in this water”, said the owner.

Our stay in rural Meghalaya came to a close. Before we reached Guwahati for our flight back home, we wanted to closer look at the capital, the hill city we’d earlier crossed en route Sohra.

Rejecting the ‘to-do’ list, we gave Shillong Peak and Elephant Falls a miss and headed to the shopping zone of ‘Police Bazaar’, located in the heart of the city. The prices are negotiable especially where handicrafts are concerned and for about Rs 2500 we purchased a hell lot of material. Lots of restaurants offering varying cuisines, including the local Khasi, are co-located so the meals were taken care of.

Once done, we checked into an old, large bungalow in a quiet corner of the city. In addition to an affable air about it, Bo-ville also had a small garden and a fireplace.

At sundown on that Saturday evening, some research online showed Café Shillong Heritage, perched atop a hill overlooking the hill town, as the place to be. We did enjoy the fare but the ambience, the live performance left a lot to be desired.

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The descent was thrilling at first. However, we were soon engulfed by clouds. A slight sprinkle made the rocky surface extremely slippery.

Our last morning was meant to take us to a village by the name Laitlum outside of which was said to lay the most breathtaking place Shillong had to offer – the canyons of Laitlum. An hour’s drive from the city, we reached early in the morning, thanks to the humble staff at Bo-ville who packed in some hot parathas and tea for us.

Green, vast meadows, views of endless mountains emptying into a splendid valley, low-hanging clouds, plants and insects of a magnificent variety and a tiny village at the bottom as our destination, the trek at Laitlum could not have been more welcoming. The descent was thrilling at first. However, we were soon engulfed by clouds. A slight sprinkle made the rocky surface extremely slippery. A couple of close calls and mounting pressure on our knees, we decided to call of the trek. That was not the time.

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Plants and insects of a magnificent variety at Laitlum

Of course the villagers used that route daily for supplies. There was in fact a rickety pulley from bottom to top so as to lug their heavier items.

In a state known for its spices and condiments, a visit to Shillong’s Bada Bazaar, howsoever damp and filthy a place it may be is a must. And thus when we reached there, we returned with lots of spices and of course the famous Khasi red rice.

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Our journey through Meghalaya

On our final evening, we did not want to leave the quiet environs of Bo-ville. Sitting in the porch with coffee and the puttering of raindrops on the roof punctuating the conversation, we relived the minutes, the hours and days we’d spent in the lovely state of Meghalaya.

  • This journey was made in August 2016
  • The essay you read is based on handwritten notes made along the journey
  • We’d reached out to GREENER PASTURES for organising this trip for us. Their service we found was reliable and flexible even to last-minute changes. Mr Bornav was our contact. (+918404002125/+919435747471/www.thegreenerpastures.com)

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#BREAKING: Army claims arrest of ‘brain behind Dec 23 killings’ in Assam’s Chirang. READ MORE

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1. In a yet another major blow to National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction), eight hard core terrorists including Self Styled 2nd Lt Enon Bargoyary @ Erkhang, Chief Recruiting Officer of NDFB(S) and Self Styled Platoon Commander of Amteka area, Rinen Basumatary @ Majhi were apprehended by jt team of Army troops of Red Horn Division and Assam Police along the jungles of Assam – Bhutan Border,  in Chirang District on 13 Jan 15. Enon Bargoyary @ Erkhang, is the Chief Recruiting Officer of NDFB(S), Central Committee Member and 19th Batch Bhutan trained terrorist. Enon was involved in recruiting and motivating NDFB(S) terrorists, including women cadres and sending them to various camps outside the country. Enon was very close to outfits SS Chairman IK Songbijit, SS Army Chief G Bedai and Dy Army Chief Batha. Enon is believed to be the brain behind the killing of Adivasis on 23 Dec 14 in Kokrajhar District. Another important terrorist apprehended is Self Styled Platoon Commander of Amteka area, Rinen Basumatary @ Majhi, 20th Batch terrorist trained in Bhutan, who surrendered after Operation All Clear in 2003 but rejoined the NDFB(S) two years back. Four weapons incl two AKs, two pistols and large quantity of ammunition were recovered from the apprehended persons.
2. Army have been carrying out relentless operations in difficult and inaccessible forested areas of Kokrajhar and Chirang Districts which has forced the NDFB(S) terrorists to flee from their safe hideouts and move to more vulnerable areas, where they are being apprehended / neutralised by the security forces. With these and earlier apprehension and recovery of huge haul of arms and ammunition in joint ops by Army On 09 Jan 15, NDFB(S) has been substantially degraded in Kokrajhar and Chirang District.

(Text and photo by Indian Army)

#Breaking: Major success against Assam’s nemesis NDFB(S). Massive amount of ammunition & arms seized. READ HERE

10thJan,2015
2100 Hrs.
Assam-Bhutan Border
Manas Forest, Aamguri, Chirang

On specific info, CRPF troops of 156 Bn a/w SSB & S/Police apprhended 4 NDFB (S) cadres & recovered following

AK – 47 a/w Mag – 03
AK Amn – 645 Rds
9 mm Pistol – 02
9 mm Amn – 14
7.65 mm Pistol – 01
7.65 mm Amn – 05 Rds
HE-36 Grenade – 02
Chinese Grenade – 01
H/over to State Police