COVID, community and challenges ahead

With the country stepping up efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for a nationwide lockdown, it has become imperative that the ramifications of not practicing self-quarantine is made clear to everyone.

Tuesday marked the first full day of the state-wide partial lockdown that was invoked by the Arunachal Pradesh state government. And while the government had advised the public to exercise caution, those appeals have landed on deaf ears with hordes of people choosing the mostly-empty roads of the capital to go on joy rides.

Most businesses in the capital did stay close but with government offices still officially remaining open, police and security personnel had a difficult time trying to convince people to put on their masks and stay home.

At the naka point at Ganga near the non-functioning clock tower, police had to stop several people (mostly young men and women in two-wheelers) and actually advise them to wear their masks even as all of them apparently had some urgent work somewhere or the other.

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In fact, in the morning hours, there were actually traffic jams across various places in the Capital Complex as people made a beeline to buy groceries and other commodities despite assurances from the government that they should refrain from hoarding. One source said that a prominent businessman from the capital had bought enough rice and other items to last an entire year.

The question to ask at this time is, are we as a state ready to deal with an invisible adversary?

INFRASTRUCTURAL CHALLENGES

Let’s face it, as far as our health infrastructure goes, the state is simply not equipped to deal with a possible outbreak. Given the fact that there has not been a single positive case reported from the state, we are not even dealing with the issue of containment of an outbreak but rather the reporting of a possibility of an outbreak.

From reports from the ground, at the various check gates, a normal temperature reading is enough to enter the state and go home. Although the state has been placed under a lockdown, i.e. no new ILPs are being issued, students and those who were travelling before the announcement have been allowed to return.

Given the fact that many students studying outside the state have been told to vacate their hostels and rented accommodation, it would be harsh to turn them away too. But given that young students are more likely to have stronger immune systems and be asymptomatic, a simple thermal reading of their temperature does not necessarily mean that they are not carrying the SARS-COV-2 virus that is responsible for the disease.

It is a very real possibility that even those not showing any visible symptoms may very well be carrying the virus. Even if those returning are responsible citizens and exercise self-quarantine, they are putting their family members at risk of being exposed to the virus, especially the elderly who have been found to be most prone to fatalities from the disease.

The ideal course of action in such scenarios will be to put everyone coming back under quarantine in isolation wards/centres and put under observation for 14 to 21 days- the incubation period of the disease.

However, is that a possibility in the real world?

Speaking with doctors and health department officials reveals that the state is definitely not equipped to cater to such demands.

Since screening began, over 21,000 people have entered or returned to the state. It’s a figure that state health machinery is simply not equipped to deal with.

So far, since people have been asked to exercise home-quarantine, isolation centres that have been identified by the state government have no dedicated staff to look after the possible inmates.

We have been fortunate that there have no positive cases yet. But in the case that even one person is tested positive, how will they be treated?

In the wake of this pandemic, a shocking revelation to come out was the fact that the state does not have a single functioning intensive care unit in any of its hospitals.

One senior doctor said that although the Tomo Riba Institute of Health & Medical Sciences does have a unit, it is devoid of any useful equipment.

CONFUSION IN COMMUNITY

One of the key steps that the state government had taken following the Janata Curfew of March 22 was to announce a partial lockdown to curb the unnecessary movement of people.

In a functioning democracy like India’s, invoking a full-on lockdown can never be a real possibility. At the end of the day, we have to rely on common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is a commodity hard to come by.

The morning after the state government issued the notification about the partial lockdown, the expected panic-purchasing began.

Even though it was stated that essential commodities including groceries and fuel will be available, it did little to deter residents from flocking to shops and piling up on a year’s supply of food. By Monday evening, the petrol stations had been exhausted.

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This happened despite a specific plea from the chief minister to not rush to petrol stations and the fact that people have been advised not to venture out of their homes. Even after being actively told not to go out, people still thought it necessary to fuel up their cars. It is unclear as to where they plan on travelling.

However, it must be pointed out that the government order left things a little ambiguous as well.

While it said that no public transportation will be permitted, the directive on the movement of private vehicles was unclear.

Since security personnel were asked to restrict the movement of private vehicles, they did as they had been told to. And as government offices remained open, it meant that several government employees had to stop and explain that they had to report to work.

The order had only said that commuting to hospitals and entry points would be permitted but was not clear on other vehicular movement.

More clarity on this front is required.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

In the face of these challenges, it is important that all stakeholders are consulted by the government and all efforts are made to work out steps to ensure the disease does not have an outbreak in the state.

The first step that needs to be taken is for the government to allocate at least two sites in each district for isolation to place all those who are returning to the state, regardless of whether they show symptoms or not.

The samples of the people need to be taken and sent for testing; it’s a task easier said than done though.

For one, there simply aren’t enough kits available in the state to take 21,000 tongue swabs.

Secondly, health workers who are working putting themselves on the line need proper protection.

It has already been reported that there is a major scarcity of Personal Protection Equipments across hospitals in the state and it must be ensured that the gap is met sooner rather than later. After all, if we are asking doctors and nurses to protect us, they should be provided with a fighting chance to do so.

The identifying of isolation centres and providing protective equipment go hand-in-hand.

It must be ensured that doctors, nurses, and all auxiliary staff working in these isolation centres will also have to remain in quarantine to avert the risk of them returning to their homes and possibly infecting their families. For them, the quarantine will remain in effect long after the pandemic has died down.

Another area that the government has to look into is ensuring that the state does not fall into a state of complete chaos. Unfortunately, if past experiences are anything to go by, that is an eventuality we must all be prepared for.

So, how does the government ensure that people are able to buy their groceries without a riot-like situation arising outside of grocery stores?

Regulating the timing of markets will only mean that more people will gather for limited periods of time to stock up on supplies that they do not require.

In the absence of household data even inserting a provision that only one person per household will be permitted to step out of their homes, will not help.

Again, one can only hope that civic sense prevails.

Apart from these challenges, what happens to the daily wage-earners who are dependent on hard cash for their day-to-day survival? Of course, they can be provided with a stipend but that will only benefit those registered with the labour board. What happens to the thousands who are not?

They will probably die of hunger alone.

Year of the peoples’ protest

Over the 365 days of 2019, Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India witnessed several key events that had an impact on the collective lives of people, either directly or indirectly. But, if one had to sum up the overwhelming theme of the year gone by, it would be one marked by the power of popular protests.

From the continuing pro-democracy ‘umbrella’ protestors of Hong Kong to worldwide climate change protests led by students, this was the year of protests across the globe; and Arunachal Pradesh was no exception.

After the end of the festive season in January, as the state geared up for continued celebrations for Statehood Day in February, the recommendation of a government-led Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) to grant permanent resident certificates (PRCs), under certain conditions, to six communities not recognised as indigenous tribals led to wide-scale protests concentrated in the capital.

Those protests eventually cost three young lives.

Additionally, damages to property worth crores of rupees were incurred, an entire commercial building (Takar Complex) was damaged which also housed the Centre for Cultural Documentation that had (ironically) archived the state’s rich tribal history and culture, the deputy chief minister’s residence was razed, and eventually, the government said that it will not be raising the issue in future.

One of the several cars that were burnt down in the anti-PRC protests in February.

While the government’s announcement helped diffuse the violence, it does not solve the issue at hand.

Denying PRCs may protect indigenous rights and benefits, but we cannot wish away the communities who have been demanding it for decades. Ultimately, an alternative must be found.

The February protests also led to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) drawing widespread criticism across the board for its stance on the issue.

While the state government had not actually given any commitment that the communities in question will be given PRC and that the JHPC’s recommendations will be tabled and discussed in the Legislative Assembly, it did little to douse people’s anger.

The fact that the AAPSU was part of the JHPC did not help the union’s image as people took to Facebook to openly criticise the body. It has not recovered since then as has been evident by protests that took place in the fag-end of the year.

The February protests may have led many outside the state to believe that the BJP government may face problems in the upcoming elections but when the state went to polls and the results were declared, no one in the state was surprised.

In a state where ideologies and affiliations are the last thing in the minds of politicians, it hardly occupies space in the minds of the electorate and thus the BJP was overwhelmingly voted back into power in the state and the Centre.

The protests in the early part of the year showed us the power of people’s protests and it became the norm to sit at the tennis courts in Indira Gandhi Park in the state capital, with some issues bordering on the frivolous, even.

It also led to the state government holding open public consultations on the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (later Act).

Such open consultations in the state were almost unheard of earlier but the violence and the anger that was on display in February may have led the government to taking such measures.

Better safe than be sorry.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in both houses of parliament brought to light the distance and lack of understanding of those in the ‘mainland’ and the Northeast. Even the motivating factors in the protests that were held across major cities varied vastly from those held in the region.

As unconstitutional as the new Act is, and goes against the secular fabric of the country, in the Northeast, the protests in the region and in Arunachal Pradesh were characterised by fears and concerns over what impact an influx of foreigners can have on vulnerable indigenous groups that have faced years of marginalisation.

Assamese protestors in Itanagar protesting the Indian government’s decision.

The concern was evident in the over 30-km unprecedented march that students from Rajiv Gandhi University and NERIST undertook.

While the regional protests have been termed ‘xenophobic’ and ‘non-secular’ by some sections, the question to be asked is whether protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bangaluru, and other places would have taken place if the Act had included persecuted minority Muslim sects, including the Rohingiya from Myanmar.

In the region, the fight is one for our identity; for a culture that is constantly suffering the onslaught of the 21st century. Assam has already lost five sons in the protests which have since taken a more peaceful turn, with sub-nationalistic patriotic songs becoming a key feature in them.

How long can they continue such?

Safdarjung soirée

The air feels different now than it does in the heat of the day when it is crisp, dusty, and the lanes littered with locals while the night owls from my neck of the woods choose to laze around in their small apartment buildings cramped against each other in the colony occupied by victims of The Partition who now make a healthy living thanks to the first wave of students who came looking for better education, some for a better life, some just bored and stay on working night shifts and odd hours that ideally should not make biological sense but here in the chaos of the city, the metropolis, it works,

and many others stay on long after they’ve got their degrees and now hang on pursuing trivial vocational courses in institutes with the word ‘International’ ‘American’ prefixed or suffixed to their names because home beckons, but the heart is not quite there yet and an excuse is needed to linger on here otherwise daddy dearest will stop sending money that has not been earned, and some of those faces that still linger on working strange hours have a hint of familiarity to them while others seem unfamiliarly familiar as the question: “do I know that person” quickly zips by, and then there are those visionaries who saw that possibilities to conquer a market filled with people who yearned for the taste of home without actually returning home and quickly set up shop selling shoots, stems, and cigarettes, and others followed suit opening restaurants cooking and selling food that not too many years ago was prohibited from even being cooked at our homes, I remember and now, this,

This change that has come to this small part of this large racist city where being Black or someone with East Asian features can get you killed for nothing other than being you, in this same large city in this small part there is a change while the lanes remain the same- small -and overhead electrical wiring that is a major safety hazard and an accident waiting to happen and yet, there is a change as,

The taunts and the judgemental looks have gone away and some of them even dress like us now, wearing the kind of clothes I never would have imagined ‘them’ a decade back, and some eating at restaurants that do not serve naan and tandoor but most still play safe and stick to Tibetan food, perhaps rolled up flat noodles is still more palatable to many than fermented soybeans will ever be as it was always bound to be the first introduction to food that wasn’t deep fried but was adventurous enough to claim bragging rights for the next time they are there with other uninitiated to act like they ‘know their stuff’ and

Probably have that one friend who introduced the group to this food that can never be cooked under the watchful eyes of their mammi and pappa who will end up having a heart attack to see pork, beef, and food that is all manners of strong odour being cooked in the same kitchen and kadhai where the palak paneer is cooked for nani ma

“But why are you so angry?”, I am asked a few nights later, and I say “I am not holding onto personal anger but only angry over the things that I should not be” and then I tell her I am angry about things this country should not give me reasons to be angry about but almost on a daily basis it does, whether

I am lazing comfortably back in Arunachal on the worn out faux leather sofa in my TV room watching journalists morph into high-paid pseudo-intellectual pundits praising the prime minister or

A prime minister turn into an actor while an actor turns into a journalist, and hence, I say,

“I will be angry about all these things,” and I turn away to way back to my night through the dark alleys that don’t remember well so I jerk out my phone and ask for directions which lead me through ways that are unfamiliar because they end in dead ends until a sense of familiarity sinks in again and I

Remember the road wherence I should be treading and I am back on the path and no sooner does the foul odour of the garbage basket(?) calls me home telling me that I am close and as I turn I see a brother, a homeboy, a tribal from that part of the woods agitated as his friends try to calm him down when by this time I am near an autorickshaw and a bunch of local smart alecks are telling another of their kinds to calm down asking him if he really wished to fight him and trying to make him understand that he would be beaten black and blue to which even he admits that “yes, that is true” but by now I see another bunch of locals who aren’t smart alecks as much as they are smart asses, I know because one of them asks if the others want to get in on the action and pick a fight with “those chinkies”- “THOSE CHINKIES”-

I am not angered or agitated because it is well past bedtime and I am intoxicated, as are the five of them, and to express my anger over that racist comment which I had grown so accustomed to in seven eight years ago taught me to be on guard rather than be on the offence, and as I climb up the godforsaken four flights of stairs I wonder if this place has changed at all…

Rising from death, debris, and destruction

We are all familiar with the narrative of how as a collective population, us Arunachalis are perhaps the most patriotic lot in the entire country. Any and every time politicians from New Delhi come calling, it has become mandatory for them to invoke the same repeated line that Arunachalis are so patriotic that they greet each other with calls of ‘Jai Hind’.

Whether that is true or not is beside the point. While the ‘Jai Hind’ rhetoric may simply be just rhetoric (and an example of jingoism), the fact is that Arunachalis really are a patriotic lot. In a region of the country where ethnic and tribal divisions mark out clear cut interests, and where sub-nationalism is a strong defining character and occupies much space in the public discourse, Arunachal Pradesh is somewhat of an anomaly.

So famous is the proverbial patriotic Arunachali that even the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, cited it in a recent meeting.

The how and why this distinctive characteristic came into being require a discussion for another day. In light of the recent events that brought the state capital to a standstill, what is needed now is an explanation and introspection on how even the ever-patriotic Arunchali turned against the state.

THE IDEA OF IDENTITY

Where and how does an individual, a group, or a community draw its identity from? How do we distinguish the ‘us’ from the ‘them’? Is identity fluid? Are we members of a tribe for most parts of the year and don the suit of the collective anonymous Arunachali when we require it?

The issue of giving permanent residence certificates (PRC) to non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (APST) is hardly a new one. It is a demand and a topic of debate and opposition that has lasted for decades.

The recent protests, violence, deaths, and excessive display of force by security personnel were played out amidst growing concerns that the state government was seriously mulling awarding PRCs to the six non-APST communities in question.

Although the Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) was to submit its report and recommendation that PRC should be awarded but with certain riders, there was never a Bill that was listed for passing in the Legislative Assembly. The chief minister later did say that the report was listed for discussion only.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the JHPC had recommended issuing PRCs (with or without terms and conditions) did not sit well with not just organised unions and bodies but also with the general tribal populace of the state.

For tribal communities, the idea of identity is one that is drawn from the land that they belong to. Without getting into the philosophical aspect of whether we belong to the land or the land belongs to us, suffice to say that as a collection of tribes, we are of the land, for the land, and from the land. It is the land that gives us a sense of who we are.

For communities like ours where even stretches of rivers and entire mountains can belong to an individual or a clan, the connection to the land and the people are inseparable. Is it really surprising then that the idea that we may have to share this land and its resources with those perceived as not being indigenous to the land ignited the kind of reaction that it did?

THE ‘OTHERS’

Much of the anger that fuelled the protests came from the perception that the six communities in question are ‘others’; that they do not fit into our idea of who is indigenous to the land.

The question that we must ask here is what factors go into deciding what makes someone indigenous to the land and someone else, not.

Representatives of those communities argue that they have been living in certain parts of present-day Arunachal Pradesh for generations and that all that they are asking for is a proof of address that they are domiciles of the state. That they have been living inside the political boundary of the state of Arunachal Pradesh when it was a union territory, separate from Assam.

Of course, the issue is not as simple as that and that PRCs will simply make it easier for members of the communities to apply for central government jobs (since they are already issued temporary residence certificates).

Acquiring PRCs will also bring with it other benefits and ease businesses for the communities in question. The JHPC on its part did say that awarding PRCs will not equate to extending tribal rights. The Committee even went further to add in a clause that the communities will not make any demands seeking APST status or seek benefits meant solely for APST persons such as reservations in state government jobs and educational institutions in the future.

One of the arguments from the other side has been that there is no guarantee that the communities now seeking PRCs will not demand APST status in the future. Indeed, one of the communities- the Deoris -did temporarily hold APST status until large-scale protests led to a retraction two decades back.

Perhaps it is ironic that some of the same people who argued against awarding APST status for the community are part of the JHPC that recommended awarding PRCs.

Another oft-cited argument is that awarding PRCs will lead to an influx of members of those communities who are living on the Assam side of the interstate boundary.

A state where large swathes of uninhabited fertile land exist, the idea of migrating here is an enticing one. While the JHPC recommended adequate checks to ensure that it does not happen, every true-blue Arunachali and anyone familiar with the astronomical levels of corruption that exists in the state knows that such measures will be compromised at the slightest of chances to the highest bidder.

WHAT NOW?

The violence that took place in Itanagar and Naharlagun has certainly left citizens shell-shocked. Perhaps only once before in recent history has such violence taken place that left the capital paralyzed the way it did. That protest too ended in death, as has this.

Whether the protests were sustained by motives other than those of pure emotions is something that may perhaps be revealed at a later date. What is undeniable, however, is that the anger was palpable. There is no doubt that anger had been fermenting for quite a while now and that anger spilled over to the streets.

As people took to the streets and damages were brought to several government and commercial buildings, security forces indulged in excesses and actions that should have been avoided. As of now, it is unclear what laws were invoked to incite such military action and as to who ordered the firing on the crowd of protestors in several places.

Amidst the protests that left at least three young men dead and several others injured, a number of people saw the chaos as an opportunity to update their wardrobe and electronic appliances. Cartful of clothes were being rolled away from one shopping centre while some made good with LED TVs and refrigerators.

On the other end of the two towns, the families of those who had died mourned.

So, where do we go from here? Is the outright rejection of the JHPC recommendation a permanent solution to the decades-old question? For now, the issue may have been diffused and the capital may be limping back to normalcy but it is bound to dominate discussion and debate come election season. And it is an issue that will be raised sporadically.

Can the issue be wished away? Or is greater debate, not destruction, required lest we want to see more young lives laying waste to the barrel of the gun?

Also Basar: Life in monochrome

From the fag end of October, five artists from various fields and I spent four weeks in the small town of Basar in Lepa Rada district in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Artists Residency of the Basar Confluence.

While we all worked on different projects (mine will be uploaded shortly), this was a small side project that I wanted to work on due to my interest in photography despite a complete lack of skills.

Home to the indigenous Galo tribe, Basar and its adjoining areas isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis. However, as in elsewhere in this state, much (if not the entirety) of its commercial life is operated and dependent on a large number of migrants from different parts of the country.

Businesses aside, there is also a high proportion of migrants who are also employed in several organisations, government offices, and/or working with religious organisations.

As it often happens with those of us who identify as being ‘indigenous’ to the land, many of the people I met held a singular identity for me, although in reality each of them has a story to tell.

Some of the subjects were born and lived their entire lives in Basar alone, while many have even married into Galo families. The images I captured don’t do justice to their lives and is perhaps a reflection of my myopic view: That the migrant among us lives his life in monochrome.

(Camera: OnePlus 6)

Disclosure: Basic editing done in Google Snapseed.

 

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Scenes of the night

Kasablanka Bar, Aalo, West Siang, Arunachal Pradesh, India, November 23, ten minutes to 9 PM, two young couples dancing to crappy Bollywood music and flickering disco lights and annoying bar underlight,
A group of five men from the plains on the first couch smiling, some looking around condescendingly, one possibly the “host” for the night probably a telecom employee, they settle on Heineken, I order my second peg for I don’t have much of the night left because I forgot to take down the hotel receptionist’s number,
Stupid,
‘Alcohol will help,’ I lie to myself one more night, convincing no one,
The night may end up long but I must be careful for it was outside this bar where a murder happened last year in March when,
the man who owns the hotel and the bar came in defense of his brother and shot dead the man who had fought with him earlier that night,
the man who was also his friend,
Dead,
A young woman walks in cautiously into the bar inquiring to another woman manning the bar about something and after a moment another woman patron with beautifully tied hair and a stunning body rushes out quickly as if to attend to a call and returns in a jiffy while I try to subtly check her out but the light from my phone screen where I am typing this betrays me as she catches a glance of me looking in her direction,
‘Damn you, phone’
I settle on four ice cubes and a mild cigarette,
‘Mild,’ I think, what makes a cigarette mild really, I wonder
What’s the gimmick, I wonder
I wonder why I didn’t follow up on what happened to that murder as my mind repeatedly wavers to that night when
the woman from before walks to the bar with a man she’s been dancing with for a couple of shots that she struggles with taking in at least three sips defeating the purpose of ‘shots’ before walking back to join their friends and to loud conversations that have to be had and had only in bars that fills up with the sound of loud Punjabi music that most people in the room here do not understand fully-well but incidentally enough the lone Sardar from the earlier group of five men from the plains isn’t exactly jumping with excitement as I had thought which is interrupted by a phone call from an old friend that I use as an opportunity to take a piss to return to the sound of the couple of couples echoing the hooting part of the song that’s been playing for that is probably the only part of the song that they know and now the bar door is open
with one man peering into the guest list for some reason who takes out a plastic zip lock bag with some khaini and disappears and the waiter brings me my third glass and instead of ice some iced water in a weird container that leaves me as clueless as what to do when I hear Anu Malik sing “Unchi hain building” and the waiter tells me that the weird jar has ice cubes and shoves in a pair of tongs before quickly walking back to fix the bill for customers leaving for he realises that attending to me with care is futile for I will leave no big tip, clearly he has no clue because hurting my ego will get him exactly that and someone in another table breaks a glass,
‘What happened that night’,
Was it not our responsibility as journalists to follow up on what happened or do I constantly tell myself that he is the brother of my sister’s good friend and whom I consider, think of as an elder sister too and so I must be considerate and that someone else will hold up our end of the bargain to write and report because that is our collective responsibility but would we have reacted as leisurely if the man who died that night was our brother, our son, our uncle, our father, someone we loved and wish to see again but never can and
what must the man who killed him be going through himself for the guilt must be killing him too, every day, each minute
this night is getting too trippy when I realise that I’ve downed 180 millilitres of scotch in less than an hour which is a quarter of a bottle which, in all honesty, is very little for man who can gulp down more than double that amount with ease on most days but I am in a strange town alone and after more than 30 years walking this planet you learn that its best to retire early when you’re in unfamiliar territory or when the guy on the dance floor has begun shouting ‘next’ because he doesn’t like the song playing out of the sound system and a Frenchie-sporting Asian man is unabashedly hitting on the only woman bartender to be constantly but politely thwarted but he will be back, his body language tells me and clearly she’s too used to such behaviour to be even slightly be impressed by a drunken man’s attempt to what can only remotely be considered “flirting” as I wonder why for heaven’s sake is Vengaboys’ “Shala la la la” and some other crappy song that I don’t remember the name of which this young man who was probably too young too even listen to when it first came out is playing, and damn,
I must leave before the bill does anymore damage and so I hand in the cash and leave a proper tip for I will be back on some other night, in some other year, for a different reason and he must remember me otherwise how else can I expect the royal treatment that I falsely think I am entitled to everywhere but then who doesn’t really for aren’t we all princesses and princes in our own worlds but paupers for everyone else,
Shit,
time to leave really cause I am a little drunk and beyond tipsy right now
And,
As I leave I catch a glimpse of an A4 size paper pasted above the wall of the entrance door that reads: Guns and other weapon not allowed inside the bar.

Quenching a forest’s thirst

Back in 2008, an official with the Arunachal Pradesh government’s horticulture department noticed that the water streams and rivulets that fed a number of villages were drying up near his hometown. In a place that has been blessed with natural bounty, water scarcity was a phenomenon that the tribal Galo people in Basar were unaware of. Now, that had become a very real danger.

Nestled at an elevation of 2,299 feet in the recently created Lepa Rada district in central Arunachal Pradesh, the Basar administrative circle has a population of 12,224, per the 2011 Census. Home to the Galo people, the town of Basar and the adjoining villages is criss-crossed by three rivers- Kidi, Hie, and Bam Hila.

The breathtaking view of Basar Valley from the hill.

While these rivers serve as a primary source for water supply, much of people’s water needs are satiated by rain-fed streams and rivulets that bring groundwater from the green hills to the villages that dot the landscape.

That began to change ten years back when unabated and unsustainable farming practices began to have an adverse impact on the life of the villagers.

“Around that time we realised that the villages were staring at water scarcity,” says Egam Basar.

The 43-year-old head of the State Horticulture Research and Development Institute is a native of Soi village in Basar. A decade ago, he was transferred here when he noticed that the streams that fed his and surrounding villages were drying up.

The man himself- Egam Basar.

Together with his nephew Gomar Basar, who was a student then and is now an assistant registrar with the Rajiv Gandhi University near the state capital, they formed an environmental group that would later go on to become the EB Project (EB as in his initials).

Egam had a plan to revitalise the streams and the rainwater catchment area in his village by digging “recharge pits” that could hold water that will seep into the soil and keep the fields irrigated.

Large-scale jhum cultivation practices and unchecked felling of trees meant that the hills could no longer hold rainwater and would just flow down.

The first hurdle that Egam faced was gaining ownership of the lands.

Funding was difficult to come by and so he had to purchase the lands from the money that he had saved up over the years.

Egam, who has a penchant for hats which he says he wears to hide his greying locks, doesn’t indulge too much into the details of how much of his personal income was spent in acquiring the lands that would eventually become the EB Project.

In total, he acquired 60 hectares of land and stopped jhum cultivation and deforestation. Since the project started, Egam and Gomar said that the forest and wildlife has been rejuvenated.

On the climb up the hilltop we were informed that there has been an increase in the wildlife population in the area with barking deer, clouded leopard, and reportedly even a tiger now call the place home.

Apart from the wildlife, Egam informed that there now plans afoot to introduce rare medicinal plants in the area.

Along with his advisors and support staff, the more immediate goal now is to reach the 1000 pits mark.

Digging of the metre-deep pits began in 2011 but it would take seven more years before the stream in Soi village did not dry up in the winter months.

There are currently 200 such recharge pits and plans are underway to adopt the system in other villages and their surrounding hills as well.

“Sustainable development,” Egam says, “is not possible without sustainable irrigation”.

– – –

This feature was first published in The Citizen.

Debating the deities

Someone please explain to me why illuminated red Devil’s Horns are a thing during Durga Puja. How is it that on a festival that literally celebrates the killing of a monster, the go-to symbol of evil has become the in thing to sport? Like, how?

The wearing of Devil’s Horns is just one of the several questions I have about Durga Puja and its celebrations in Arunachal Pradesh.

How is it that in a state in the far remote corner of India that is home to close to 30 indigenous tribes (a majority of who originally practiced animist faiths), Durga Puja is even a thing?

Let me put out a disclaimer and say that I hold absolutely nothing against the celebration of Durga Puja or any other festival regardless of its religious affiliation. I also realise that since the state actually does have a large non-tribal population for whom the festival holds great significance, Pujo time is a rather big deal.

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Make-shift stalls serving snacks pop-up everywhere in Itanagar during Pujo time.

The grandeur of the festival is no surprise either because obviously, people chip in to fund the beautiful pandals that abound the streets. Such a large population also translates into a possible vote bank and it makes sense to make sure for the powers that be that the people have fun at least once a year.

Still, I wonder how young and beautiful teens influenced by modern Korean culture who spend the majority of the year greeting each other with ‘annyeonghaseyo’ and ‘oppa’ can suddenly be so fascinated by the kirtan.

How do you go from watching surgically-enhanced K-pop stars to being transfixed by the neighbourhood mechanic as he performs to the beat of the dhol that we, for some reason, are all familiar with? Like, how?

One of the ‘must-do-things-during-Puja’ is to buy new clothes. I’m not exactly sure if that is a brilliant marketing ploy thought of in the office of an advertisement agency with pretentiously minimalist interiors or if the Goddess herself ordained it, but nevertheless, it’s a thing that is not restricted by communal lines.

Tribal, non-tribal, rich, poor, everyone is up for buying new clothes during Pujo.

In fact, my Adi colleague currently sitting on my left watching a YouTube series is wearing a newly-purchased patterned-dark blue shirt. I ask him if he buys new clothes during Solung and the answer is in the negative. He makes some lame argument about how he had to buy a new shirt anyway but I’m not convinced.

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A ‘band’ from Siliguri was invited to provide the beats for the kirtan and Pujo at one of the several pandals here. I asked them how they landed up here and the cheeky one in the group said, “by car”. Not Amused. Not. Amused.

It isn’t the celebrations of any festival that makes me question things but as a person with conflicting ideas of self-identity and lack of knowledge about my own community is what concerns.

Puja celebrations shouldn’t die down. Nor should the celebrations of any festival regardless of the religion it originates from or the community that it ‘belongs’ to. In fact, if there is great leveller and breaker of barriers between communities as us Arunachalese, it is Durga Puja.

All of us visit at least one pandal every year but when was the last time you joined in on the celebration of a ‘central’ festival celebration of any other tribe that you don’t belong to unless you were specifically invited by a friend.

Nahi, hum toh woh tribe ka nahi hain na, hum kyun (insert tribal festival name here) mein jaiga (No, I am not from that tribe, why should I visit the celebration of [insert tribal festival name here],” is something I’ve heard way too often.

As stated above, I hold nothing against the celebrations of any festival that offers people an opportunity to come together and revel in merry-making. I will also continue to hold questions about how Pujo got so ingrained in Arunachali culture.

While some will argue that its part of the greater identity of what makes us Indians, I will say its a form of unintended indoctrination. Others, as I learnt last year, are at the pandals for the kheechdi!

Purple Days or (No Lasik For Life)

It’s just two minutes shy of 10.30 on a Tuesday night. The purple haze from what was surely meant to set a sexy mood feels like how every seedy place across the globe does. As in everywhere else, a familiar scene plays out here too: Young men trying to cavort with young women and old men trying to cavort with even younger women.

Some will succeed. Some will go home to the comfort of their right hand; snug in the knowledge that tomorrow is a new day and that tonight will be forgotten by the time the birds begin to sing.

The bartender lives up to the stereotype: moving about, chatting to customers, shouting out orders to his subordinates- the ones who aren’t on the same level of bartending skills as he is.

I once heard a character in a movie say that a quiet bartender can make patrons nervous. I agree.

My new frames seem to mask my identity a bit. No one bothers me until they get a close look under these lights.

I know, choosing a bar where I half-expect to know half the patrons and wishing to be left alone doesn’t make sense. But here we are. Here I am.

A young lad I am acquainted with looks through me, not recognizing who I am. For now, I let it be.

A young bunch of people I am supposed to know are sitting across the room behind me. But with my back to them, I don’t know who is who until one of them walks up to the bar to get the next round of orders. He doesn’t recognize me.

Thankfully.

Some days, I want to alone by myself. Some days, I want to be in solitude. Today, I’m not sure what I want.

My life, so far, has been a series of extempore speeches. Stumbling from one sentence to the next, leaving in the wake a line of “aahs”, “umms”, and “wells”. Not the most eloquent, I know. My autobiography wouldn’t read well. At all.

“Ranju Dodum: A Life in Extempore Speeches”.

Punctuated with ellipses; exposing the uncertainty that is my life; attempts to hide my insecurities, my fears, and all of that sadly makes up who I am.

Am I ashamed of who I am? On most days.

The new glasses may change the way I look, but can it change my vision metaphorically? Correct it even?

I suppose there is No Lasik For Life? I suppose not. #NLFL

Why do I write? I have never given that any thought until I find myself sitting on a bar stool with a pretty young girl who subtly asked me to move my messenger bag from the stool next to me so that she could sit there.

No, she’s not the least bit interested in me. No, her attention is reserved for the men beside her and her equally young friend. All of them bespectacled and half of me- both in age and in weight.

I would like to think in intellect, too. That’s one of the things I like to hold on to.

Although age may take away my youth, and the sparkle in my eyes may fade (the glasses help me hold on to them, barely), I hope to retain my mind with its memories and experiences (both the horrific and the honourable).

I think I write to unintendedly chronicle my life. What will we be if we didn’t experience all that life could offer? And not remember the life we’ve lived.

After all, that’s the one thing older people have an advantage in- a head start in life.

It is an hour into the night, hip songs off of Bollywood films have been blaring through the speakers. The dance floor holds up well to the stomping of high heels and platform shoes.

My mind wavers into thoughts: Do Arunachalees realise how indoctrinated they have been to what is mainland Indian culture?

Two hours into the night. Five pegs of whisky and one shot later, the mood is lifting, subtly.

But only momentarily.

The alcohol is doing what it’s meant to. My words are losing their way. The sentences, becoming shorter.

These “chapters” are getting smaller. Right now it is almost 3 AM. I am home. The rice has been set at the electric rice cooker with the faux chilly chicken resting easy inside the carton.

This is my night.

Rewriting records and retelling history

A massive carnival concluded recently at Gujarat, seemingly to celebrate the ‘ancient’ link between mainland India and the country’s mostly-neglected Northeast region (a term that is more reflective of a region rather than a single cultural unit).

On March 25, on Ram Navami, the annual Madhavpur Mela kicked-off at Madhavpur (Ghed) in Gujarat’s Porbandar district and lasted till March 28. What caught most people’s attention, thanks partly due to the unending tweets by Arunachal West Lok Sabha MP and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, was that this year’s fair would ‘re-enact’ the ‘heroic kidnapping’ of princess Rukmini by Lord Krishna. While plays depicting legends and myths are a regular fare at religious carnivals, what made this year different is the ‘revelation’ that princess Rukmini was a member of the Idu-Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh!

The ‘legend’ of Rukmini being a member of the said tribe has been propagated since around the 80s, thanks mostly through schools in the state that later even managed to make its way into the official information brochures of the state government’s tourism department.

While most sources state that Rukmini was the daughter of king Bhishmaka of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), a myth has persisted in Arunachal Pradesh that she was, in fact, an Idu-Mishmi, probably sporting the traditional bowl haircut that was prevalent amongst community members earlier.

Where did this myth originate? No one within the community is quite sure or willing to go on record. The basis of the myth, however, is the ruins of the Bhismaknagar Fort, located near the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary around 25 kilometres from the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarter of Roing.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the Guwahati circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the fort is believed to have been built by the Bhismaka dynasty of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom that had a stronghold in the Sadiya region of present-day Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. The kingdom is said to have existed from around the 12th to the 16thcentury.

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PC: Guwahati Circle of Archaeological Survey of India website.

D Dutta, deputy director of the state directorate of research (archaeology), said that the remains of the fort have not been carbon-dated and could date back to the 9th century. Archaeological evidence too, he said, suggests that there is no connection between the style of that found in the Arunachal Pradesh site to that of those in Vidarbha.

“Perhaps there was another king by the name of Bhismaka and perhaps his daughter’s name was also Rukmini,” Dutta said.

Ginko Linggi, president of the Idu-Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, informed that he and his friends began hearing about the myth when they were in school in the eighties.

Linggi said that there are no records or mentions of such a myth as per the traditional oral history of the indigenous tribal community.

Like many others from and outside the community, Linggi said that proper scientific research is required before any conclusion can be made on the veracity of the myth. One of those was Vijay Swami.

Swami has been a long-time resident in Arunachal Pradesh, having previously worked with the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya for 15 years and is now the executive director of the Roing-based Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage. More importantly, Swami acted as a liaison between the state government and organisers of the Madhavpur Mela and was in attendance at the carnival.

Having reached Guwahati from Gujarat, Swami informed that a team of 22 people, including 15 members of the cultural troupe, five tribal shamans called igu, and two community elders, had attended the event.

While admitting that the myth does not match the archaeological evidence (considering that Lord Krishna was supposed to have ‘left’ Earth somewhere around 3100 before current era (BCE) and that the fort ruins are from a much later period), Swami said that stories of the myth are a recent trend.  Detailed studies, he said, are required and that the fair is an attempt at ‘national integration’.

And therein lays the crux of the matter.

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Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu rocking a pagri (turban) at the fair.

Myth or fact, the idea of ‘re-enacting’ the ‘heroic kidnapping was clearly driven with the motive to promote ‘national integration’ which would help cement Northeast’s ‘ancient link’ with the rest of the country and thereby somehow defy China’s constant claims over much Arunachal Pradesh’s territory.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, is reported to have said that the fair is a way for people “in far-off frontiers will have a sense of belonging and relate to rest of the states”.

One news report quoted Khandu as such: We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.

As the mela concluded, a letter arrived from the ASI stating that the Bhismaknagar Fort is not demarcated and that the ASI does not have a revenue map of the site. The letter, erroneously addressed to the deputy commissioner of Dibang Valley district instead of Lower Dibang Valley which was created in 2001, sought “information regarding the demarcation of boundary, revenue map, and land records”. The letter further noted that it had “on many occasions earlier faced difficulties in taking up developmental works at the monument/sites” and directed the government to schedule a joint-inspection.

As myth and history were being inter-woven in Gujarat, the foundation on which the legend is based on suffers from a lack of attention.