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Why a visit to the world’s largest river island is a must

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Bamboo house of Mishing tribe

By Natalia Ningthoujam

Kamalabari (Majuli), Feb 5: Assam’s Majuli faces flood fury — and the threat of erosion — whenever the mighty Brahmaputra river swells. So take a break from your high-tech lifestyle and hop on that double decker boat to live the simple life in the world’s largest river island before it loses the title.

Cruises on luxury vessels can take you to your destination, but to understand the locals’ lives, it is best to travel like them on a rickety motor boat, which can also carry cars, bikes and anything that can’t swim, from Neemati ghat to Kamalabari ghat.

First timers might fear for their lives but for the frequent travellers, it’s like any other public transport. Some are so carefree that they even play cards.

After the half-hour ferry ride, you will reach the shrinking island, which is located over 300 km from Guwahati, Assam’s main city, and is home to approximately two lakh people consisting of Brahmins, Kalitas, Mishings, Deori and more.

Visitors can stay in various resorts, which might remind you of your hostel days due to availability of only basic amenities, or limited homestays.

While driving to your accommodation, you will see paddy and mustard fields, and bamboo plantations along the roads.

Out of the various house forms, the bamboo stilt houses — with an open fireplace in the middle — of the Mishing tribe, are quite unique, and you will see women working on looms made with bamboos and a cycle’s wheel.

Unlike the people of Sualkuchi, a silk-weaving village in Assam, Mishings here make “mekhela chador” and other traditional outfits only for their own use. And men use their physical strength to make beds out of bamboos or other furnitures, when they are not farming.

Majuli, a hub of the Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture, has many satras (religious and cultural institutions).

“Earlier, there were over 60 satras in Majuli but due to erosion, there are currently just 32 satras here. Auniati Satra is the biggest one in Assam. The land measures up to 500 bigha,” Anant Kalita, the satra’s museum guide, told this visiting IANS correspondent.

“We don’t call ourselves monks or pandits. The ones who stay in satras are called Vaishnavs. We worship lord Krishna. We dance, pray and do dramas, which were created by (saint-scholar) Sankardev,” he added.

The satra is open to all — Brahmins, Kalitas and people from other communities of Assam.

“Even Muslims can come. Ladies can come but can’t stay in the satra. After marriage, people need to stay out of the satra.

“There are 350 people in the satra. Vaishnavs and bhakhts stay in satras, the ones who are outside are called disciples,” said Kalita, who has been here for the past 18 years.

The Samaguri Satra, on the other hand, has kept alive the tradition of mask-making.

Its studio houses numerous masks, like those of Narasimha, Ram and Laxman that are used during festivals and Bhaona, which is a traditional form of entertainment through which religious messages are shared.

Explaining the process of mask-making, popular mask artiste Hem Chandra Goswami’s brother Tilak Goswami said: “The masks are made of mud, cotton cloth, cow dung and vegetable colours. One mask takes about 15 to 20 days to make.”

“Our entire family knows how to make masks. We have been making masks for the last six generations,” added the 65-year-old.

After learning the craft here, some even go to Dibrugarh or Guwahati.

It’s not just the people at satras who are warm and welcoming. Once the local children spot new faces, especially with DSLR cameras, they will happily follow you and strike a pose.

You might have to use a lot of hand gestures while communicating with the locals as they aren’t fluent in English or Hindi, but they will leave you overwhelmed — irrespective of their financial condition, they will not let you leave empty handed.

A cup of tea or a plate full of home-made sweets (rice flour pitha) is the least they can offer, and a request: “Please visit again.”

IANS

Business

AISAM likely to take key decisions on Air India divestment on Saturday

But Air India, with vast pool of international flying slots and running overseas operations under the Vande Bharat scheme, is expected to get some investor interest.

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Air India 777

New Delhi, Oct 23 : The Centre’s top group of ministers looking into Air India divestment is slated to meet on Saturday with the agenda ranging from extending the process to allowing greater debt re-structuring.

These key decisions might come at a time when the divestment deadline of October 31 is fast approaching.

The meeting of the AISAM (Air India Specific Alternative Mechanism), headed by Home Minister Amit Shah, will be conducted via video conferencing. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal amongst others, will be participating.

As per sources, extending the deadline for submission of initial bid or expression of interest (EoI) till December is on the cards.

Another significant change that might be put forth for AISAM’s approval will be a change in the deal’s financial structure, especially concerning the airline’s debt.

Under this change, sources said that the bidders would be given the option to decide on the quantum of debt on the Air India books that they will like to absorb rather than freezing the debt amount and seeking investors’ bids.

As per the Air India EoI, floated by DIPAM in January, of the airline’s total debt of Rs 60,074 crore as of March 31, 2019, the buyer would be required to absorb Rs 23,286.5 crore, while the rest would be transferred to Air India Assets Holding Ltd (AIAHL), a special purpose vehicle.

With the proposed changes, buyers will decide on the level of debt that they will take and the one taking the largest debt may be considered favourable to be declared winner.

The Centre is, however, said to be finding it tough to get investors on board.

A Tata Group-led consortium was considered the favourite to take over the airline earlier but its interest lately has been subdued. With foreign airlines bleeding over fall in air travel during the pandemic, getting investors would be difficult.

But Air India, with vast pool of international flying slots and running overseas operations under the Vande Bharat scheme, is expected to get some investor interest.

Air India has been been unprofitable since its 2007 merger with state-owned domestic operator Indian Airlines Ltd, and since then is flying on government budgetary support, adding pressure to central resources.

Air India disinvestment will be a key component of this years sell target of Rs 2.1 lakh crore. The government has so far mobilised a mere Rs 5,500 crore as disinvestment receipts.

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India

Govt restores all existing visas, barring electronic, tourist and medical categories

This includes flights operated under ‘Vande Bharat’ mission, air transport bubble arrangements or by any non-scheduled commercial flights as allowed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation

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Indian Passport

New Delhi, Oct 22 : The government on Thursday decided to restore with immediate effect all existing visas, except electronic, tourist and medical categories, almost eight months after their suspension following the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent imposition of a nationwide lockdown

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) also announced giving permission to all Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) and Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card holders and all other foreign nationals to visit India for any purpose, except on a tourist visa

The ministry said in a statement that in view of the situation arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government had taken a series of steps to curtail the inward and outward movement of international passengers since February, 2020

The government has now decided to make a graded relaxation in visa and travel restrictions for more categories of foreign nationals and Indian nationals who wish to enter or leave India

Under this graded relaxation, the government has decided to restore with immediate effect all existing visas, except electronic visa, tourist visa and medical visa, the statement said

If the validity of such visas has expired, fresh visas of appropriate categories can be obtained from Indian mission or post concerned

Foreign nationals intending to visit India for medical treatment can apply afresh for a medical visa, including for their medical attendants

Therefore, this decision will enable foreign nationals to come to India for various purposes such as business, conferences, employment, studies, research, medical purposes etc

The government has also decided to permit all OCI and PIO card holders and all other foreign nationals intending to visit India for any purpose, except on a tourist visa, to enter by air or water routes through authorised airports and seaport immigration check posts

This includes flights operated under ‘Vande Bharat’ mission, air transport bubble arrangements or by any non-scheduled commercial flights as allowed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation

All such travellers will, however, have to strictly adhere to the guidelines of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare regarding quarantine and other health/COVID-19 matters

While the restrictions on visas were imposed following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in February, commercial flight operations were suspended when the nationwide lockdown came into effect on March 25

However, the government has been allowing limited operations of Air India flights under the ‘Vande Bharat’ mission for certain categories OCI and PIO card holders and those Indians who were stuck due to COVID-19 outbreak since June.

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Govt may sweeten deal further for Air India sale bid

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Air India 777

New Delhi, Oct. Oct 21 : The government may further extend the date for submission of bids for Air India sale date beyond October 30 to give investors more time to make an offer while sweetening the deal terms further, finance minister officials privy to the development said.

The submission of initial bid or expression of interest (EoI) may be extended by 45 days to two months to December. Also, officials said that bidders would be given the option to decide on the quantum of debt in Air India books that they will like to absorb rather than freezing the debt amount and seeking investors bids.

As per the Air India EoI floated by DIPAM in January, of the airline’s total debt of Rs 60,074 crore as of March 31, 2019, the buyer would be required to absorb Rs 23,286.5 crore, while the rest would be transferred to Air India Assets Holding Ltd (AIAHL), a special purpose vehicle.

With the proposed changes, buyers will decide on the level of debt that they will take and the one taking the largest debt may be considered favourable to be declared winner.

Disinvestment secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey has also hinted at changes in the current structure of Air India transaction process in an interaction with journalists last week.

For the government, Air India has now become a test case on how to get investor interest in adversarial market conditions. While the airlines financials are already under severe pressure, the Covid -19 pandemic had further dented the prospects of the aviation industry putting the sale process under further problems. The bidding process for the debt-ridden airline has been postponed four times earlier and of October 30 deadline is changed now, it would be fifth such extension.

Sources said that changes in the structure of the sale process to facilitate investors would go by the principle of letting buyers decide the enterprise value of Air India rather than its market cap or using other valuation methodology. The enterprise valuation determines the value of an entity based on its market capitalisation and also debt in books and cash balances.

Sources said that changes in the valuation method has be approved by a CGD (Core Group on Disinvestment) headed by the cabinet secretary at its meeting last week and now it would be has placed before AISAM (Air India Specific Alternative Mechanism).

For Air India, the government is finding it tough to get investors on board. A Tata Group led consortium was considered favourite to take over the airline earlier but its interest in the airline lately has been subdued. With foreign airlines bleeding over fall in air travel during the pandemic, getting investors would be difficult. But Air India, with vast pool of international flying slots and a running overseas operation under the Vande Bharat scheme, is expected to get some investor interest.

Air India has been been unprofitable since its 2007 merger with state-owned domestic operator Indian Airlines Ltd., and since then is flying on government budgetary support adding pressure to central resources.

Air India disinvestment will be a key component of this years sell target of Rs 2.1 lakh crore. The government has so far mobilised a mere Rs 5,500 crore as disinvestment receipt.

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