By Shakya Shamik
The night was spent jamming. Bon Jovi, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jayanta Hazarika, Deep Purple and the like. It was the birthday of Samiran and a certain brewer from Tennessee named Jack Daniels comforted our souls. The cake added further spice. We slept late at night with a promise of making a trip to some nearby place the next morning. So, the sun rose the next day and our lazy bodies were still stuck to the grains we enjoyed the previous night. Our eyes opened at around eleven and after a sumptuous brunch, we hit the road. Destination Merbil. According to Anurag, this place was a horse-shoe shaped water body located near Sasoni in Dibrugarh district of Upper Assam. That was the only vague idea we all had about this place.
We halted near Bhadoi Pasali. The Patkai range on the left looked like a necklace around the vast golden fields. Samiran clicked some pictures with his camera. Jokes cracked, smoke rings clouding our sleepy faces. We ignite the engine again. Duliajan conquered in 20 minutes and we took the road towards Naharkatiya. The landscape around was beyond words to explain. The Burhi Dehing river had a shrunken appearance, rendered diseased and etherised by the dry winters. Yet it promised of freshness- the muddy, filthy look of the monsoons had passed and the river had taken its true shape and colour- like a blue python lazily resting over the earthly bed. The road to Sasoni came right after we were done treating our eyes to this amazing sight. Merbil was around 10 kilometres away. Bad roads didn’t spoil our excitement. Committed hitchhikers never compromise with the idea of travelling to a place never seen, treading on a road never taken. We finally reached and migratory fish eating birds that I had never seen, welcomed us.
Merbil is spread around 1550 bighas. Like it’s more famous cousin- the Loktak Lake, it has floating islands which, during days of heavy winds block the waterway that connects the main island and the bank. We took a boat ride to the other side. When we reached, we saw a number of families enjoying a late Sunday afternoon over luncheon. They were scattered all around the green field. Children playing, butterflies moving around the place kissing the velvet surfaces of orchids. Birds, and lots of birds fixated to tiny pinpricks over the water body searching for fish and insects. A number of cottages had been built that offer accommodation to travellers at a reasonable rate. We were guided around the place by the people who have built Merbil as an upcoming Eco-tourism hub in the region.
Legend goes that once the River God fell for the daughter of a local Sattradhikar. The latter opposed to their union shunned the God away and planned for her marriage elsewhere. An enraged River God caused the entire Sattra to drown- which resulted into the formation of a large water body. The only thing that remained of the Sattra was a Bamboo plant that still stands. This was how, we were told, Merbil was born. Till recently, it was an abandoned place. No one went there, except for migratory birds in search of fish and animals who wandered about. In 2010, some locals along with a band of enthusiastic nature lovers decided to open this place as an eco tourism hub. Conservation was the motto. They planned to make Merbil a biosphere reserve – a designated bird sanctuary. What was interesting was that the road to making Merbil a popular tourist destination, was to adopt a co-operative model. Today, the villagers are all shareholders in the project. No one owns the Eco-lodges, the restaurants. It is a common property of all residents. The food served is made by local women from nearby villages. The boat drivers are natives. So are the forest guards and the workers. No intoxicants are allowed in Merbil. Even smoking is banned. Betel nut chewing is also prohibited. Nature is allowed to flourish without any disturbance. Littering is a crime, so is driving vehicles. This is why the main land route is also banned. The people who run the place walk or take the local boats.
We had gone to many eco lodges earlier, be it the Singpho Eco Village in Margherita or the Tai Phake Eco project in Duliajan. However this was an exception. The emphasis on the eco part is immense. In fact, it was primal. Moreover, the grassroot co-operative model was something new that we had come across. Being a co-operative, Merbil has created a number of shareholders. The locals have become aware of the need for conservation and grassroot development. Youths who would have once taken the path towards delinquency are engaged in a conservation project. This holistic project not only protects the local eco-system but also becomes a live archive of native tribal cultures around. The food is ethnic, the cottages are made in traditional ‘Chung-Ghor’ style using the dying art of bamboo and cane work. Even the beds inside the cottages are made from huge ‘Bholoka’ and ‘Mokaal’ bamboo. Other facilities at the project include a boat ride around Merbil covering every corner of the water body and trekking through the forested tracts. Photographs of endangered animals adorn the walls in the cottages. Tortoises, Pythons, Numerous species of frogs, butteflies, monkeys, birds call Merbil their home. Tiny islands abound the whole water body, some of them being floating ones that keep shuttling between different corners of the Beel. The best time to be in Merbil is sunset. Dusk approaches with the mighty sun trying endlessly to seduce the clear water below and finally being able to drown its head into the tempting cleavage of the blue water. Truly, the sight is just too grandiose for the onlooker. A photograph of an everlasting union between two estranged lovers waiting to be together.
Merbil, is both an example as well as an experience. The ones who have been there would pen down their tryst with the sparkling water of the beel, the majestic birds which haughtily camp there and the warm people who run the place. It is an example because, it is a perfect case where locals have taken the initiative to preserve this rich bio-diversity zone. Without any help from the Forest authorities, they have been able to take the first step towards the permanent preservation of this magnificent place. This is in fact better and long lasting because the road towards development always stems from the grass root and not the other way round. Making locals responsible for the development of the region is a model that has been successful in many cases, be it the Alakananda Valley, the Kerala Model of grassroot democracy or the Anand Milk Union Limited (AMUL). Progress of villages is progress of the nation, as the Father of the Nation had rightly said. The cacophony of centralised planning and hierarchical government has since long submerged Gandhi’s argument.
Merbil, was once a grazing land. Reclaimed, it boasts the potential of becoming a bustling tourist hub in years to come. Moni Manik Gogoi, who heads the core group, is also a former ULFA cadre who quit the rebel organisation after getting disillusioned with the path that the ‘people’s revolution’ for a ‘Sovereign Assam’ had taken. Today, this social entrepreneur is leading the way for a new model of development in this region. The inauguration ceremony had seen a gathering of over 20,000 people in 2010. Phase 1 of the project has seen completion and now the second phase has begun. Ambitious plans of a ropeway and a Bird Sanctuary have been conceived. With the Tourism Department of the State and Oil India Limited taking interest in becoming partners in the Merbil project , the future looks bright. With careful implementation, this once oblivious place could become a major focus for tourists and nature lovers. What adds to this potential is its proximity to other tourist zones of Asom, namely Digboi (The second oldest oil well in the world and the world’s oldest active refinery), Margherita (The coal princess steeped in history with bungalows belonging to the likes of Mountbatten during the Great War and the local club, where Idi Amin once worked as a cook), the Stilwell Road, Parashuram Kund, Mayodia, Tezu, Pasighat, Majuli and the twin reserves – Dibru Saikhowa and Dehing Patkai. Members of the Core group are optimistic that their pet project would one day attain the fame of the likes of Manas, Kaziranga and Majuli. Realisation of this dream would usher a new age in Assam tourism. A photographer’s delight, Merbil has begun to attract a fair number of tourists, ornithologists and picnic goers already. Sasoni, a small cluster of around 75 villages where Merbil is located is slowly but surely moving out of oblivion. Enajori.com salutes Moni Manik Gogoi for his effort and wishes his entire team all the very best for the hurdled road ahead.