Laya Madduri was seven months pregnant when she was posted as Deputy Commissioner of tea town Dibrugarh, Assam. Instead of going on a long maternity leave, she took on the challenge and joined work when her baby was just two months old. Her parents came from Warangal to look after the baby for six months, her staff were extremely supportive and she did everything WHO recommends a young mother to do including “exclusive breast-feeding the child for six months” – she intends to continue breast-feeding for two years. With her hubby away in Guwahati, her heart breaks everytime she leaves her baby to the care of a nanny, but she has a job to do, a very important one at that, trying her best to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
A mechanical engineer from BITS Pilani, this dynamic woman from Andhra Pradesh cleared IAS in 2010 and was allocated to the Assam/Meghalaya cadre. Ever since, Madduri was posted in Majuli, Tezpur and now in Dibrugarh, thoroughly blending with the Assamese way of life – so much so that she not only speaks fluent Assamese but is also learning traditional Assamese Borgeet
And oh, she paints – oil on canvas and watercolours on hand made paper. She also unwinds reading travelogues, William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns on her bedside table now. And did we tell you, she has also compiled a coffee table book on Majuli!
Here, Madduri chats with Ocider’s editor-in-chief, Nishiraj A. Baruah, and shares her Assam experiences and her plans to develop tourism in the Dibrugarh region.
How has the going been in Assam?
I have been in Assam for six years now and it has been a wonderful journey. My posting at Majuli gave me several new experiences. I love this place that has so much greenery all around, fresh air and great cultural diversity. In these few years, I gathered lot of experiences, tackled several challenges like floods, law and order issues, and I continue to learn something new everyday.
That’s nice to hear. So what are the tourism projects you’re working on in Dibrugarh?
Being situated on the bank of river Brahmaputra and well-connected by air, rail and road, Dibrugarh acts as gateway to several tourist places in upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Also, Dibrugarh is a heritage city with a 180 year old history. It has many firsts and that includes the first medical college and the first tea plantation in Assam. There are several remnants of its history too here such as John Berry-White school, Christian cemetery, and so on. We have taken up several projects recently to restore these structures and turn them into tourist attractions. Dibrugarh has also got a new addition to its list of temples – Jagannath Temple in Khanikar. You must visit this place. We are now working on a project for the development of the Brahmaputra river-front.
That’s a brilliant idea. Any other tourism initiatives?
Dibrugarh has several rivers criss-crossing its length and breadth. We are working on promoting water sports in river Sessa.
Also, it is blessed with Jokai reserved forest and Jeypore rainforest that are home to several plant and animal species like Royal Bengal Tiger, Hornbill, Hoolock Gibbon, Clouded Leopard, etc. Jokai reserved forest is famous for various butterfly species. We are developing Jokai Botanical Garden with activities like trekking, nature-interpretation, etc. The water-bodies here host migratory birds during winters.
The eco-tourism resort in Merbil offers pleasant experience for all bird-lovers. Merbil also has a forest protected by the community and has become home to several big cats.
Dibrugarh has the highest number of teagardens compared to any other district in Assam. So tea-tourism is another area we are looking at. In fact, we have managed to convince several tea planters to open up their gardens, tea estates and factories for tourists. Some tea estates still have those British era Chang bungalows and guest houses which can offer unique experience to tourists. We are planning curated tea trails, tea tasting sessions, etc., based on tea gardens here. Most of the planters and tea companies are open to these ideas. Some estates have golf courses, too.
Besides tea tourism, we’re looking at developing ethnic tourism in Dibrugarh area. The district has several ethnic communities like Tai-phake, Sonowal Kachari, Deori and Mishing. Their cuisine, lifestyle, culture, and handloom textiles are of great interest to tourists. Namphake village in Naharkatia is declared as the cleanest village in Dibrugarh in 2017 by the District Administration. With a Buddhist temple on the bank of river Dihing, this village is one of the more famous tourist destinations in Dibrugarh. We are trying to promote homestays in these villages.
But there must be a lot of challenges in promoting tourism?
Yes, there are. Infrastructure and road connectivity within villages are issues we working on now. With plenty of wildlife around, we also need to develop wildlife tourism infrastructure such as accommodation facilities for tourists.
What’s the way forward?
We have to develop tourist circuits. We have to integrate tourist destinations in Tinsukia (Dibru-Saikhowa, Margherita, Sadiya, Digboi), Sibsagar (ancient structures of Ahom kingdom) and Arunachal (Parushuramkund, Roing) with Dibrugarh. We have a great scope to promote rural tourism. Integrating tourism with employment generation for local youth will go a long way in reviving the rural economy here.
Dibrugarh is also a medical hub. There are a large number of business travellers who visit the town and areas around it thanks to the presence of Oil India, ONGC, the tea and coal industry. If proper tourism infrastructure is developed and promoted, they will definitely have a great time staying in Dibrugarh.
We are offering tax rebates and special loans to those interested in developing touristic infrastructure like hotels and homestays. We are also planning to offer incentives to Bollywood to shoot films here and showcase Assam in other parts of India and abroad.
Are there sufficient trained manpower, be it in the hospitality sector or be it tourist guides?
No. That needs to be developed too. We have roped in experts on tourism and entrepreneurship from Dibrugarh University to train the local youth. We also take feedback from the tour operators for promoting the tourism industry.
Are you happy with the progress being made so far?
I’m happy that a lot of things are happening simultaneously. At the same time I wonder whether I would be able to see the completion of these projects during my tenure in Dibrugarh.
What’s that one moment/experience that defines Assam for you?
It is difficult to choose one moment. I am somehow deeply connected with River Brahmaputra. Watching sunsets on the river, the migratory birds are visuals that have planted themselves very firmly on my mind. Celebrating local traditional festivals in villages and tasting ethnic cuisine are my all time favourite experiences.
What about its people?
People are warm and friendly. They are great hosts. It is culturally a very vibrant place. People here care about preserving their traditions. I haven’t seen a place where so many communities, with such great diversity, live in harmony. Almost anybody can dance or sing! I think that is amazing!
As a woman officer, have you ever faced any bias?
No. I haven’t. I work in a very conducive environment. It is difficult for women to maintain work-life balance, but people here understand and appreciate my situation. They show great respect for women officers. So far, it has been wonderful working here.
What do you do on weekends?
I work on weekends! Whenever I do not, I explore new places and meet people. Once in a while I watch movies. These days, my kid takes up whatever little free time I get.
Tourism apart, what are the other areas you are passionate about?
Improving quality of education, campaigning against illicit-liquor and addressing anemia among women are few of my priorities.