Crossing the River: Adventures in India’s North Eastern States

By Rajasvini Bhansali, former Thousand Currents Executive Director, on her trip to Northeastern states of India – where Thousand Currents has expanded – to meet with potential catalyst grantees.

Geographically isolated from mainland India and socioeconomically neglected by development agencies and the government, the Northeastern states are experiencing tremendous crises rooted in militarization, land distribution, climate change, migration, displacement, political differences and violence.  These states are some of the poorest in India, but they also have many communities working on sustainable livelihood development, women’s empowerment and environmental resource management.

Along the way to the village of Kanthalguri, I experience one of the most adventurous journeys on a site visit while crossing the rushing red Aie River that connects Lower Assam to Bhutan. In addition to the Action Northeast Trust (ANT) staff member Kaushik Starkar and myself, about 20 fishermen, four motorcycles and six bicycles pile onto the open handcrafted boat. I am the only woman on the boat, and the passengers make space for me to sit in a steady spot at the far end.  As the boatman rows us over to the other side of the river, we navigate an intense current and try not to move so as not to capsize the boat.

We reach the other side only to find that the current is too strong for our flimsy boat to withstand. Kaushik and the boat “captain” have us disembark and swim or wade to the shore.  I am fully clothed in trousers, shoes and a long kurta—hardly swimming attire! But we roll up our trousers and wade to the shore anyway. Once Kaushik’s motorcycle is unloaded, we have to check to make sure it will still function after being soaked in water.  Despite the thick mud around us, the motorcycle revs up just fine.

We have been riding along for about 20 minutes without any further adventures, when Kaushik announces that we have yet another river to cross. The exact scenario repeats itself. Except this time the sun is beating down on us and the air is heavy with moisture. Once again, I disembark and wade to shore.

Although I am soaked to the skin with sweat and water, I realize how alive I feel, how completely immersed in this moment I am. However, I am also outraged for my fellow passengers. For them, this is not an occasional inconvenience, but something they must endure every day in order to make a living. If they don’t cross the rivers, their families go without a meal. And if the rivers flood, which they often do, then the families lose a regular means of livelihood.

It is for this reason in particular that the ANT has chosen to work in the more remote tribal villages, where access to livelihoods is severely limited by infrastructure, seasonal rains and poverty. A core area of work for the ANT involves organizing farmers to promote sustainable agriculture and the practice of animal husbandry. The ANT’s work to organize farmers via farmer resource centers has paid off. Thanks to their efforts, more than 500 farmers have teamed up to promote organic and pesticide-free farming practices and animal husbandry.

We finally reach the village just in time for the conclusion of an exciting public hearing on farmers’ experience with the national health mission’s rural health services. The ANT has also helped highlight the need for greater mental health services in the region, as incidences of suicides, PTSD, schizophrenia, manic depression and epilepsy continue to grow.

Since there’s so much to talk about with the community health workers and the farmers, Kaushik and I do not make our way back until after dark. Bumping along behind him on the long journey, I grin to myself thinking that at least the way back doesn’t involve anymore river crossings. As we rattle along in the humid evening, I am filled with awe and gratitude for the most adventurous of site visit days I have ever had.

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