23-Aug-2009 -- This was our first CP hunt outside the state of Orissa. We felt rather guilty in knocking off this one without completing all the Orissa points. I and Kashi happened to be in Bilaspur for a weekend philatelic meet. I had gone to promote my book on “Stamp Quizzes”, and with the hope that I would sell some of my high value stamps. We had made a hop, skip and jump trip from Bhubaneswar, taking the train to Sambalpur, a taxi to Jharsuguda and then another three hour train journey to Bilaspur. Bilaspur is located at 22°05′N 82°09′E just a little away from a Confluence. We had earlier located 22N 82E on the topo map, and this was just 15 kilometers away from the city, just 5 kms away from the NH 200 connecting Raipur, the Capital of Chattisgarh with Chandikhole in Orissa. We had planned our trip keeping in mind that the Sunday would be spent in Confluence hunting.
The whole of Saturday was spent among the Stamp dealers, and our resolve not to buy any more stamps was stumped, both of us had ended up buying stamps and covers and by the afternoon we had exhausted all our money. The mad hobby of Philately is one in which the thirst of new stamps and covers is just unquenchable. Philatelists at a Stamp dealers meet were akin to a whole pack of bulls in china shops. Both Kashi and I dragged ourselves away from the venue and explored the town in the evening. Bilaspur is one horse town, mostly comprising of the old railway colonies with British era buildings, slow traffic, rickshaws and the customary cows and bulls on the roads.
We woke up early to a Sunday morning and eyed the grey, drizzly sky through the chinks in the bedroom curtains and weighed the options for the day. There was a definite pull to stay nestled in bed but the tug of excitement to make a confluence expedition was even greater. Very soon the weather was bright, cool and clear after the overnight rains. We intended to knock off the CP by mid morning as I had planned to attend the Sunday Service in one of the old churches I had seen the previous evening. I had read the notice that the English service would be at 10 A.M., and as the CP was just about half and hours drive away, we were expecting to finish it by mid morning. We were out of our hotel at 7 A.M and tried hiring a Jeep, however it being the Ganesha Chaturthi, the birthday of the elephant headed god, not many vehicles were available. The ramshackle Tata Sumo’s we found outside the hotel wanted to charge us nearly a thousand rupees for the trip. Even the local black and yellow three wheeler autos were off the roads, the owners had all taken their vehicle for a good clean up and decorations, and then perform the puja.
We were fortunate to get Ranjit Masih, who agreed to take us for whatever amount we paid him. Our earlier experiences had cautioned us against taxi, rickshaw and autos drivers who would not quote their hire, and usually ended up claiming more then regular rate. We struck a bargain for three hundred rupees with the promise that we would be back by 10 A.M. The auto driver told me that he had to attend mass at the church, and was pleased when I told him that I too would accompany him.
We took the road out of Bilaspur going towards Raipur. People were buying the Ganesha Idols that were lined up in the roadside stalls. We had begun our Confluence hunts last year on this auspicious day of Ganesha Chaturthi. One year according to the Hindu calendar, and we already had fourteen CP’s visits under our belts.
There were few cars but the manic truck and their drivers with psychotic gleams in their eyes kept us alert to the road. The nightmarish drive on the highway made the short distance seem quite long. The road was all potholed and we saw many big trucks which had skidded of the roads and sunk axle deep in the mud. Huge tanker trailers zoomed past our small auto, which shivered in the slipstream as they overtook us. Most of these were transporting cement, as the abundant availability of dolomite in the nearby mines has seen the setting up of many cement plants in the area.
There were very few English road signs; every milestone had the inscriptions in Hindi. About five kilometers from town we passed by a huge palace complex spread over a hundred acres. The auto driver informed us that it was the upcoming High Court of Chattishgarh, I am sure that once this was completed , no other Indian state would have such a massive temple of justice.
It took us nearly an hour to reach Bilhamod, which is a junction on the Highway with a smattering of eating houses, tea shops and garages. The Garmin indicated the CP to be three kms westward. We stopped for tea and breakfast, and showed a few locals the Google earth images of the vicinity of the CP. There were huge water bodies which were easily identified by the locals as disused dolomite mines which had filled up in the rains. They told us that the road from the highway was very bad, and it would be better if we took a rickshaw. However fifteen minutes later, no rickshaw was found. Our Auto driver was very reluctant to enter the side roads as he gathered from the locals that the conditions were very bad. The CP was near enough for a brisk one hour walk, but the overnight rains had made the area slushy and wet. We took stock of things and then decided not to wait any longer. We had to catch the evening train back to Bhubaneswar and had to be back in Bilaspur by noon. Besides there was unfinished philatelic business too.
Our Auto driver, who was rather uneasy about the whole confluence hunting affair, was only too happy to turn back and we settled for half the amount that had been promised to him for the round trip as he had got passengers for the return journey. He promised to say a prayer for me in Church, and told us that he would be outside our hotel for a free drop to the railway station in the evening.
I and Kashi packed up our cameras in the back pack. We left the laptop and tripod with the local barber who promised to keep them safely in the small room behind his saloon.
A few of the loitering people wanted to go along with us, but I turned down their offer as experience had taught us that very soon we would have quite a crowd following us and most of our time would have gone in explaining and answering to many curious questions.
We took a small muddy road and followed the Garmin’s nav arrow. For the first five hundred metres it was a straight walk, every two steps we took bought the CP closer by a meter. It was easy walking, but hard navigating, because we were taking a meandering road, muddy and potholed, the ruts of the tractors and bullock carts were deceptively filled up with knee deep water. Besides it had started to drizzle, the faint spray was carried by the gentle breeze and felt so fresh against our faces. For a while we tried the traditional compass navigating, going in a north easterly direction, but whenever I checked against the GPS, I usually found I wandered quite a bit off track.
The small roads which were barely visible or discernible from muddy pathways through the rice fields in the aerial photos made navigation difficult but after a few dead ends we were able to pull up to a spot about 400 metres south of the confluence. The Google earth imagery had shown the confluence to be in a rice field just by the side of a fairly wide mud road. We had crossed a small bridge across the Muniyari River and walked thru the village. The Garmin indicated the CP to be at a point just about 275 metres behind the village. The villagers shot us cursory glances and pretended to keep on with their work. Not one person came forth and asked us for the purpose of our visit. In the end we went up to an old gent and asked him about the way to take. Very soon we had about half a dozen persons surrounding us, each with his own questions. Who we were? Where we were from? What was the purpose for the visit? They decided amongst themselves that we were from the Electric Company, the Cell phone Company, government surveyors for the new bridge, revenue officials etc.
The old gent led us thru a narrow path which ended on the banks of the river. Buffaloes with glistening black skins wallowed in the waters, and we could see a small temple on the other side. The river was just about 40 metres wide; however we were told that it was not possible to walk across unassisted as the flow was pretty swift. The overnight rains had raised the water level considerably. Kashi was a good swimmer and could have easily swum across. We were at out wits end, as we could practically see the CP which was only about 175 metres from the far bank. Two of the villagers agreed to hand hold me and help me across, but some old wise villagers dissuaded them as it was risky.
We were forced to return to the village and were told that we should take the roundabout road which turned left from the bridge. We trudged back to the bridge, and once again the confluence gods sent an angel in the form of Chandra Dev Nishad, on his Hero Honda Kariszma bike. No questions asked, both of us were soon perched on his bike, hanging for our lives as he drove on the rutted road. About two kilometers later we arrived at Muru Village. We stopped at the village and this time the Garmin indicated the CP to be just 490 metres north. We thanked our messiah and soon started for the point. Twenty minutes late we were at the village of Kabrakapa, and passed thru the small lanes which had nuts on both the sides. Cattle was tethered on cycle tyres that had been buried in the mud. We soon crossed the village and very soon the temple that we had earlier seen from the bridge was visible on the horizon. We walked forward, passing the village tank, another small temple with cattle grazing nearby. There was lush greenery all around, but Chandra Dev told us that this was very deceptive as there would be hardly any crop yield this year. The rains were too little and too late. The tall green stalks which swayed in the fields would only yield stunted grain. In most of these fields, cows would be let in to graze.
Steel latticed pylons carrying high voltage transmission lines stretched over the fields. We had to leave the muddy path and enter the uncultivated field. Our eyes were on the GPS. We were looking for the 82 East meridian of longitude. Got it! We walk north watching all the while for the 22 north Latitude. Somehow we kept missing the exact point; the slushy mud made it all the more difficult for getting the exact bearings. With eyes only on the GPS, it was risky maneuvering and soon I was knee deep in mud. After a frustrating fifteen minutes, we decided to take fresh bearings, and this time we got the zeroes of 22 North in place. Using the compass I targeted a brick stack lying in the field. And we tried to keep a straight line approach as far as possible. Very soon we had the zeroes in place, however we were getting only six satellite signals, and this made GPS reading inconsistent. The zeroes came and went and we clicked madly for the GPS photos. We then photographed the mandatory cardinal points, which are described asunder:
The Confluence Point was in the middle of an uncultivated field that was bordered by small trees on all its four sides. Some sort of cereal had been sown, but most of the field was weeds.
East of the CP the field stretched to the horizon with intermittent small clumps of short tamarind and soap nut trees.
West to the CP was a small flooded field with the short paddy stalks and more trees.
North to the CP was a freshly plowed patch of land, where the farmer would probably sow some late crop.
South to the field was the Muniyari River and the huge electric pylons. For no plausible reason, a small stack of kiln baked bricks were stocked in one of the fields.
Kashi had taken off his shoes but my sturdy Reeboks had taken quite some punishment in the mire. Walking was impossible with all the mud sticking; I had to drag my feet. We reached the village tank and washed our muddy shoes.
We walked back thru the village. I was curious about the yellow and black Hindi signs that were painted on most of the huts. On a small patch of yellow, the name and caste of the owner of the hut was painted along with the words Rs 2/- kilo rice. Below it was three letters B.P.L. in English. This was the giveaway. The owners of these marked huts were termed by the government as being “Below Poverty Line”, hence they were eligible for getting 30 kilograms of rice at Rs 2/- per kilo. This was the poverty stricken rural India’s true face.
Below Poverty Line is the economic benchmark and poverty threshold used by the government of India to indicate and identify individuals and households in need of government assistance and aid. They are issued a BPL card which entitles them to subsidized rice. How the poverty line is determined is wrangled in bureaucratic and political parameters which differ from state to state. Income-based poverty lines consider the bare minimum income to provide basic food requirements; it does not account for other essentials such as health care and education. It can be safely assumed that the poverty line is actually the starvation line.
About 45 percent of Indians are extremely poor and 80 percent poor by international standards. Ninety percent of these are rural poor who do not have income for their sustenance.
Various states give out doles like employment guarantee for 100 days a year, rice and kerosene at subsidized prices, free healthcare and education. Here was a stark example where the government had put the scarlet letter of poverty on the households. I remembered having read of newspapers reports where the matter of this form of identifying the poor was a subject of public interest litigation in the courts, and the courts had ruled that it was unfair to identify the poor in such a manner. Maybe the court orders had not yet reached this village for the writing on the wall looked quite fresh.
Nishad was kind enough to take us on his mobike till we met another Auto rickshaw. This time we had to share the ride with five other persons, a billy goat and half a dozen hens. We reached the highway crossing half an hour later and collected our gear from the barber’s shop. The trip back to Bilaspur was uneventful and we arrived just in time to pick up a few bargains from the stamp dealers who too were packing up.
This was out first CP outside Orissa. We had initially decided on finishing Orissa and then doing the adjoining states, or maybe does a CP hunt in each state.