Route to roads- Can dams bring development in an area neglected for years?

It is late November and the harvest season has arrived in Arunachal Pradesh. Tajir Tali, the headmaster of the government middle school in Parong village of East Siang district, has taken time out from work to tend to his golden-hued paddy field on a hill slope.

As he and the women from his family go about harvesting paddy to last them the year, the Siang flows steadily in the gorge below. While environmentalists and NGOs raise concerns over plans to construct over 40 dams on the Siang, Tali appears unaffected. In fact, he says he is looking forward to it because he has “never seen a dam before”.

Flowing parallel to the eastern Himalayas, the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India through the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh before merging with the Brahmaputra in the plains of Assam below. On its 294-km journey through Arunachal Pradesh, the river is known as the Siang. Along its banks are lush green hills teeming with wildlife, living alongside members of the Adi and Galo tribes.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

Of late, concerns have been raised that a way of life that has sustained itself for centuries may be lost forever if plans to bring about modern infrastructure development materialise. But in many villages, people voiced support for the dams as well as for the possible losses.

Located 138km north from the East Siang district headquarters of Pasighat, Parong is one of the several villages along the river where residents do not face the immediate threat of displacement from the proposed hydropower plants.

Over the last few years, several anti-large dam organisations have taken shape, but many villagers not living along the banks of the Siang appear unaffected by larger environmental concerns. What villagers like Tali are worried about is the slow pace of development of their area. And they believe that if hydropower plants are set up, development will follow.

As Tali speaks of how he “wants to see dams”, a young villager sporting a cowboy hat makes his way to the paddy field. He introduces himself as Elung Tapak and is angry that the size of the road running through the village has remained narrow since Independence.

“How will the army carry large ammunition if the Chinese attack again?” he asks, referring to the 1962 Chinese aggression, when PLA forces had occupied most parts of the state for nearly a month. Another villager, Tamat Pabia, a friend of Tali’s, says he has “heard that the Chinese have built helipads on the “other side”.

While all three villagers want dams to be set up because they feel hydropower projects will bring development to the area, there were other concerns raised.

Tapak feared that the dams may wash away large swathes of land below on the foothills of the village and Pabia said the water channels from the upper reaches of the surrounding hills have been drying steadily over the last few decades. However, such are the immediate needs of the people that across villages they are willing to lose land, even villagers whose agricultural fields would be submerged by the dams.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Up north in the village of Peging Bote, sitting inside a Mizo Presbyterian missionary’s home, Opang Tali, a recently converted Christian from the village, says he is not concerned about land submergence that the dams will bring because it’s not his land. What of his fellow tribesmen who will lose their ancestral land? “We can sympathise with them,” he says.

Down south on the way to Pasighat, Talik Taki, a resident of Sissen village, is so desperate for proper road connectivity that he is ready to forego parts of his agricultural land.

Earlier this year, the village of 20 homes made headlines after voters refused to participate in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections to voice their anger over the absence of a motorable road to the village. Apart from crossing a rickety bamboo hanging bridge over the Siang and walking up a 1.5-km footpath, the only other way to reach Sissen is by walking on a centuries-old link trail cutting across eight villages of the Nugong Banggo area. It is on this village trail that Australian event manager Melina Mellino recently organised a three-day 100-km hike called Run Siang.

The hike gathered professional and amateur athletes from India and abroad running back and forth across six villages for three days from November 26 to 28. Villagers were told beforehand to ensure that the runners were given a warm reception with food and water to replenish themselves. At Sissen, Taki and other villagers welcomed them with roasted sweet potatoes, oranges and grounded flat-rice cakes. While they extended their hospitality, even performing an impromptu welcome song and dance called the ponung, the villagers said they did not understand why these people were running so much.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Chewing on some of the roasted sweet potatoes on the return hike, Melina said she was taken aback by the beauty of the place when she and her partner Vince Radford first visited the area in December last year. “It’s such a beautiful place so we started thinking of ways to bring people in to see it,” she said.

The event website that was created explains that “the area is spectacular and unique and without attention, awareness and education, it will be lost”.

This sense of what may be lost is felt by Taki as well; he has to walk 6km to reach his paddy fields.

He says the financial compensation for his land can never replace the loss. But in the same breath, he says that perhaps his village will finally get a road once the dams are built “because the government will build it for the power company and then maybe we can use it too”.

In the original story published in December 2014, the distance from Pasighat to Parong was erroneously mentioned as being 38km instead of 138km. Link to the story: 

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