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”.

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This feature was first published in The Citizen.

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Ranganadi: Where the fish don’t swim and a legend sank

“The legend of Rikam Pada and Rinyam Yame has its roots in this place. The tawlin– a chair shaped stone –was where Rinyam Yame sat and weaved her clothes,” says Lishi Baka before adding, “That stone was submerged after the dam was built”.
The NEEPCO’s Ranganadi Hydro Electrical Project (RHEP) on the Ranganadi/Panyor river with an installed capacity of 405 megawatts near Potin in Lower Subansiri district is the only functional mega hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh. Despite plans to build over 160 hydropower projects of different scales, logistical hurdles, delays in procuring clearances and concerns over their environmental impacts from local indigenous populations have meant that most are yet to get off the ground.
However, at least two more projects- 600MW Kameng project and 110MW Pare project- (both built by NEEPCO) will be commissioned by the end of this year. NEEPCO authorities say that the two projects are run-of-the-river dams which have a lesser impact on the environment as opposed to storage dams which require a reservoir.
The Ranganadi dam too is touted to be a run-of-the-river dam. For the layman, however, one look at the dam makes it clear that it is anything but.
Commissioned in the year 2001, the project is supposed to generate 1509 mega units of power annually. The project’s senior manager, S Sharma, informed that the 1509 mega units is the “desired production” and that the actual figure varies from anything between 10 mega units a day to 1 mega unit. He also informed that the desired production unit was met once in 2004. Its impact on the ecology, however, has been more severe.
At the time when the project was signed in 1990, environmental laws did not address the need for dams to ensure that a minimum amount of water is released regularly to maintain the environmental flow ‘required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems’. This has led to the drying up of the downstream of the river, severely affecting both marine and human lives.

Ranganadi 2

Although touted as a run-of-the-river project, the impact of the dam is clearly visible as the downstream side has completely dried up.

Villagers from the area say that they have not seen fishes like the noka, tangar, ngurap, and ngoh that were once abundantly found for years now.
“Instead we have to buy them from markets in the plains of Assam,” one local resident said, highlighting the fact that the livelihood of humans is as much dependent on aquatic life as theirs on humans.
Environmental and cultural concerns aside, there is also a sense of betrayal amongst the people of the area.
The project, reportedly, was built without signing a memorandum of understanding and was commissioned on the basis of a meeting held on August 28, 1990, between NEEPCO and the then chief minister, Gegong Apang.
The discovery of this information led residents from affected villages to form the RHEP MoU Demand Committee, demanding, well, a MoU.
The committee’s secretary, Tao Tana, said that the minutes of the meeting held in 1990 had to be taken “forcefully”. He also raised doubts over NEEPCO’s recent claims that 179 local people were recruited for the project.
There are 257 affected families and at least two villages and their paddy fields have been submerged due to the project.
“We were first moved from Popu village to Rub and then to Chun on the downstream side,” says Baka, who is also the anchal samiti member from Potin where 27 families were ultimately relocated. The villagers also claim that there was no rehabilitation by NEEPCO although the public sector unit claims that it “developed Potin”. Villagers scoff at such claims, saying that NEEPCO used substandard material to build the houses for the displaced families.
Villagers also say that the streams on the hilltops of Potin are beginning to dry up. This, most likely, is caused by the seepage due to the 10 km tunnel that runs underneath their village.
Asked if the tunnel has caused any damages to their homes, Tana says, “Since we are poor we have not been able to build big houses, so the damages too have been minimal”.

Ziro to 22 kilometres: A trek to Talle Valley

Close your eyes and picture yourself in a place surrounded by lush green forests with the rays of the sun breaking free from the branches of the trees, miles away from civilization and the only sounds you can hear are the chirping of birds and the gurgling of the stream that flows gently below. That’s Talle Valley for you.

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Talle Valley offers a certain serenity, one that needs to be experienced.

Located at an altitude of 2,400 metres, around 30km from the town of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh in India’s remote north-east, Talle Valley offers the perfect escape from the everyday hustle of the urban life. Far from the maddening crowd, it is perhaps one of the last few places that offers a truly secluded experience to those willing to make the 22km uphill trek, gaining more than a thousand metres in altitude along the way. And while there are many places in the state and indeed the Northeast where one can cut off from the trappings of modern life, Talle Valley is unique in the sense that it is well and truly cut-off from a life that we have become used to. The trade-off? It’s not an easy trek.

 

Bobby Hano, one of the people behind the annual Ziro Festival of Music, organised a hike to Talle Valley in May as a launch-pad for his new travel company, Tour de Himalaya. Having never done the trek himself, Hano brought with him his friends, most of who either run their own travel companies or work as tour guides… and me.

Having heard a lot about the rich biodiversity of the valley for years, I jumped at the opportunity when the offer was made.

The first day of the trek would be spent on the trail from Monipolyang town in Ziro valley to Pange, 7km away. A steady climb, this section of the trek is not a difficult one. What does compound the issue is the unpredictable weather.

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This happened on more than one occasion.

It had been raining for the past few days and as a result, trees had broken off of the face of the hills and blocked the path on several locations. Fortunately, we were equipped with daos to chop off the smaller branches and clear the path. Even so, riding the one motorcycle carrying our food supplies proved to be a bigger ask than anticipated. Again, we were lucky to have in our team Mobing, the loud gregarious one (isn’t there always one?) who was more than apt with the dao.

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Mobing doing his thing.

Another problem that we faced was the motorcycle kept getting stuck in the mud on the trail. Overall though, it is an easy trek and didn’t throw up many challenges along the way. After about five hours of slow trek, we reached Pange where the state forest department has an office, a guesthouse, and accommodation for the staff. There is also a traditional house of the Apatani tribe made from bamboo which serves as the kitchen, where we settled in after freshening up.

The view from the camp at Pange

The ‘Pange view’.

Having gobbled up a simple but tasty dinner, we retreated for the night to collect our energy for the 15km trek to Talle Valley the next day.

Unlike the first day’s trek, the walk to Talle Valley was much more arduous. Not only is the distance doubled, the surface of the path is often muddy and almost completely uphill.

The first section of the trek is when we had to be extra careful, watching each step carefully to not step into the leech-infested mud. We had to constantly scrape away the slimy devils that were out for our blood. It is only after crossing the first four km does the true wealth of the valley begin to unfold.

Enemies of the trek- leeches

Enemies of the trek- leeches.

Our destination is actually part of the Talle Valley Wildlife Sanctuary which is spread across an area of 337 square km and lies roughly between the Subansiri, Sipu and Pange rivers. The sanctuary itself is again part of the Talle Reserved Forest (515.875 square km).

The path

The path.

Although the state government has declared these forests as protected areas, as in other tribal areas, they are actually community-owned forests. All along the trek to Talle, boards declaring the ownership of the forests were clearly visible. And while we did not meet any other people on the way, we did encounter mithuns (the semi-domesticated bovine that is highly valued by most tribes in the state) which indicated that people did occasionally visit the place. We were told that villagers from Ziro Valley do in fact trek up to gather their mithuns during the Myoko festival that is held annually in March.

Its a scary thing suddenly seeing one of these

Mithun, a gentle animal but it is scary suddenly seeing one of them.

The path to Talle certainly isn’t an easy one. A steady climb combined with the distance and the change in temperature begins to slowly creep in on you. Adding to the difficulty is the many ‘shortcuts’ that are marked along the way. These ‘shortcuts’ however, are not easy to tackle and the sheer steepness of some will leave many gasping for air. What is encouraging is the chance to catch a glimpse of the many birds that call the place home.

Binoculars help and having a good camera at hand is certainly handy to capture the beautiful birds. Even so, just the sounds of chirps and hoots can be an exhilarating experience.

Along the way, the rains had shown effect again with large fallen trees blocking the path. Since we had ditched the motorcycle in Pange, we did not need to clear much of the path this time around.

Benches that have been built with locally available products along the way allowed us to grab some rest as we rose higher in elevation. It is at the higher reaches that the true richness of the forests begins to unfold as various species of rhododendron flowers coyly show themselves and the birds begin to sound closer. While records about the exact number of species of birds and animals and rhododendron flowers found in the area remain unclear, it’s not difficult to guess the ecological importance of the place. But not all may be well with the valley.

Bengia Mrinal aka Bully, a travel agent and birding enthusiast who was with us, was coming to the valley after two years. Having visited the valley before on many occasions, he noted that the birds had “become shy”.

“Earlier it was easier to snap a picture of the birds since they used to be out in the open branches,” he told me and speculated that perhaps logging activities on the edges of the forest had led to a change in their behaviour.

Bully doing his thing

Bully doing his thing.

There could also be greater changes taking place in the valley due to human interference that could adversely affect the sensitive ecology of the place.

Logging aside, illegal extraction of various medicinal plants such as the Paris polyphylla, used extensively in traditional Chinese medicines, is said to be taking place in the valley.

Before heading out to Talle Valley, at our camp in Pange, we met three young researchers from the Bangalore-based National Centre for Biodiversity who had been there for three months. They told us that they were collecting data on how climate change is affecting the vegetation of the area which in turn is affecting the population of prey animals on which small wild cats are dependent for their food.

Currently, there are four species of wild cats found in the valley including the clouded leopard that is listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. If human interference of nature does not stop, these animals may not have a place to call home soon. Now is when one should visit Talle Valley before time runs out.

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The view from top.

For trekking queries, contact Bobby Hano at +91-89740-52594