Arunachal girls stand up to child marriage

Young girls in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district are slowly beginning to fight the evils of child marriage in the face of familial stigmatization and old patriarchal traditions.
On May 31 this year, 13-year old Jeroni Tawo had dared to walk out on her marriage to a much older man and sought help from the district unit of the Women Welfare Organisation (WWO) to end the union. Now, another minor under similar circumstances has been ‘rescued’.
Last month on July 13, Fekik Bokar had reached out to the district WWO president Veena Waii Sonam and narrated her story.
Fekik is 15-years old and a ninth standard student at the government higher secondary school at the district headquarter of Seppa. Two years ago in 2014, she was married off to Amu Chege (now 41 years old) after the exchange of gifts as is traditional amongst the Nyishi tribe, to which they both belong. Incidentally, Fekik’s eldest sister, Femi, is still married to Chege.
The couple (Chege and Femi) have been married and trying for a child for a number of years without any luck. As is customary, it was agreed that Chege would take in another wife (polygamy is a socially sanctioned practice among some of the tribes in the state although people are beginning to call for its end). Keeping in line with tradition, it was decided that it would be best for him to marry his wife’s sister. And so in 2014 the bride price was paid, which consisted of (among other things) seven mithuns, a bovine found in this region and highly valued almost all over the tribal-majority state.
After Fekik reached out to Sonam last month, she went straight to the district office of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) where the deputy director (in-charge), DK Thungon, called all parties involved.
“I counselled and advised them to resolve the matter themselves by August 1 or face legal consequences,” Thungon informed over the phone speaking from Seppa.
Today a ‘hearing’ was held and the marriage was legally nullified after it was agreed by both families that a mithun and her calf would be returned to Chege, who readily agreed to lower the value of the bride price that he had paid.

IMG_20160801_114913

Fekik (seated fourth from left) with the two families and officials from the WWO and East Kameng ICDS cell.

However, since the marriage was held with the consent of the minor girl’s family, they are presently not too keen on taking her back and Fekik has since lived with Sonam at her residence.
Thungon said that “in such cases, the girls are the ones who are left vulnerable” and has asked her school to house her in the hostel.
He has also told Fekik’s family to make sure they do not do such a thing again in future. While Fekik’s future seems to be secure for now, there are many others whose fate is unknown.
Sonam informed that the practice is so prevalent in the district that as soon as Fekik’s case was disposed off, another case has been brought to the attention of the ICDS office. However, she said that campaigns by the WWO have helped spread awareness amongst young girls.
Pooja Sonam Natung, general secretary of the district unit of the WWO, said that last year their organisation had conducted campaigns in most schools across the district which has helped girls find the courage to step forward.
She said that it is “painful to learn that such things are still prevalent” and adds rhetorically “imagine how many cases go unreported”.
However, child marriage is not confined to one district in the state alone. According to the Census 2011, there are 3245 children (1086 males and 2159 females) from the ages of 10 to 14 years who were married at the time of the survey. Additionally, 14422 children (3203 males and 11219 females) from the ages of 15 to 19 were married when the Census was being complied.
Mitali Tingkhatra, chairperson of the Arunachal Pradesh State Commission for Women and Child, said that child marriage is still prevalent although the numbers may not seem too high. She also informed that five cases were reported last year from across the state.

This article first appeared on The Citizen on August 2, 2016. Click here for original story.

Jeroni: A girl takes a stand against child marriage

Back in 2008, Jeroni Tawo was just five years old when negotiations for her marriage began to take place. Promised to a man much older than her, she was witnessing herself become a victim of child marriage. On May 31 this yearshe decided to take a stand and free herself.

Her story began when she was in the third standard and was promised to be married to Tania Pinche who was in his late twenties. Her father, Taru Tawo, had begun the process of accepting bride price from Pinche and the marriage was solemnised in 2013. This summer, when her vacation began, she was taken to Pata Cheda Village in Papu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district in Northeast India. Two weeks in, she escaped to freedom.

“She walked through thick forests to reach the deputy director’s office to tell her story,” informed Pooja Sonam Natung, general secretary of the East Kameng unit of the Women Welfare Organisation.

Jeroni

Jeroni, the 13-year old braveheart.

Last year, the WWO had organised an awareness campaign highlighting the wrongs of social evils including the archaic practice of child marriage. The campaign organisers had asked people to come forward and report cases of child marriage in that area and had also given out the address of a WWO member from the area in case they wished to approach them in private. While Jeroni could not muster the courage to do so publicly last year, the campaign message, and more importantly the address of the WWO member stayed with her and it is there that she first reached out for help.

 

Natung said that the 13-year old “escaped” on the morning of May 31 when everyone was asleep. The matter was brought to the attention of the government’s Integrated Child Development Services cell and together with the WWO and the East Kameng Social Welfare and Cultural Organization began talks to arrange for her release from the marriage.

While it is clear that Jeroni is a victim of a practice that was much prevalent at one time, Pinche isn’t exactly a villain.

Both Jeroni and Pinche are Puroiks, a community that has been marginalised for years. Awareness about their rights amongst community members is less and yet, Pinche himself willingly accepted the decision taken during the meeting which ended on June 3.

“It is a historic and bold decision by Pinche,” Natung said from Seppa and added that “if someone from the Puroik community can stand up and take such a decision, why can’t others”.

Tania Pinche

Far from a villain , Pinche is also a victim of social norms.

The amount of bride price was fixed at Rs 1,12,500 which Pinche did not want returned to him. During most such cases when marriages are cancelled, the bride’s family is required to return the bride price in full. In acknowledgement of his decision, Pinche was awarded Rs 40 thousand by the WWO.

Natung said that child marriage is not prevalent in the urban areas of the district and that most people are against it. However, in some rural areas, it is still practiced and Natung says that many cases go unreported.

One of the challenges to abolishing the practice entirely is to ensure that the victims do not find themselves in similar situations later in life. Jeroni has gone on record to put down in writing that she will not get married before she turns 18.

Speaking over the phone from Seppa, the shy 13-year old said that she wants to grow up to become a teacher.  When asked if she has a favourite subject, she initially says she likes all subjects the same. A brief pause later, “science”, she says.

The trouble with dams

Dams are not just about rivers and harnessing their power. As tribals, we are inextricably tied to the land and what happens to it. By damaging the land, we damage ourselves.

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

From the introduction of the railways in the state more than 160 years after the first train rolled out from Mumbai to Thane to grand plans of building the Trans-Arunachal Highway, Arunachal Pradesh in India’s remote north-eastern region today sits on the cusp of imminent socio-economic change.

Home to a  myriad group of tribes speaking various Tibeto-Burman languages and tracing their origins from separate sources, Arunachal Pradesh is an anthropologist’s dream destination. From Buddhist tribes to practitioners of animist faiths across the length and breadth of the state and to followers of new gods, the state is changing as we speak.

With growing changes to the socio-economic landscape of the state, come changes in the aspirations of people and what they want to achieve with their lives. Good education and an honest job that pays the bills are no longer enough as people begin to dream big and look beyond the mundane to secure their dreams. Agriculture that sustained families for generations is no longer seen as lucrative means of income-generation as newer opportunities await for this primarily tribal state. The government of the day too, is daring people to dream big and now a variety of loans for small and medium size businesses have become more accessible to a wider demographic. Despite what lays ahead, the path to prosperity is still a long way out.

Known for the rich treasure trove of natural resources, India is looking towards the state to harness all that Arunachal has to offer. With just two popularly elected members of parliament for a population of fewer than 15 lakhs, the state lacks any real political weightage in New Delhi’s power circles. Ironically, it is through power that the state is trying to gain more power.

Various studies and reports have extensively written that the state has a hydropower capacity of over 50,000 megawatts which is around 40 percent of India’s power generation capacity. For any industry to grow and bring about economic changes, it seems obvious that the state should try to tap into this large capacity. After all, almost all industry requires energy to sustain itself in order to ultimately sustain the economy.

For example, the varied climatic conditions across the state throughout the year make it an ideal place to cultivate a variety of agricultural and horticultural products which can be kept in cold storage and exported. However, cold storages require a large amount of electricity and hence the popular belief that hydropower should be harnessed to power industry.

At the outset and on the surface, it appears like a win-win situation for all. However, if you scratch the surface, or rather dive deep, the situation becomes complicated.

Before the approval of any major infrastructure project, it is required by law that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report is prepared which would assess the effect a project can have on the surrounding area’s ecology. Needless to say, the pro-project, ultra-capitalist hydropower lobby is much more financially powerful than any pro-environment NGO, giving it greater clout to not only influence policy decisions but also tilt EIA reports in their favour.

Example: The EIA study of the 225 megawatts Talong Londa Hydro Project states that “The state is blessed with major rivers which have significant hydropower potential, such as Subansiri, Siang, Kameng, Lohit, Dibang, Tirap and many tributaries such as Kamla, Ranganadi (Panyor), Dikrong and Tawang Chhu.”

The keyword in that above line is ‘blessed’. An EIA report is, for all meanings and purposes, meant to be a scientific document based on empirical data and should be devoid of romantic language. A simple line stating how several major river basins are present in the state should suffice. As trivial as this observation may appear, the fact is that it sets the tone in the minds of readers that damming these rivers is a logical and foregone conclusion.

Let us stick with the Talong project as an example of the impact it will have on the Kameng River.

The Kameng River is about 264 kilometres in length, originating from the glacial Himalayan lakes and flows down to the neighbouring state of Assam where it is known as the Bhareli/Jia Bhoreli before eventually joining the Brahmaputra River. In East Kameng district, where a large part of the river and its tributaries flow, live the Nyishi people. They have fished and harvested on these rivers for centuries.

The Kameng River

The Kameng River.

The Talong project will be built 20 km upstream of Seppa town, the district headquarters, with three units of 75 megawatts each, and will result in a Full Reservoir Level (FRL) of 488 metres. An FRL is the highest reservoir level that can be maintained without spillway discharge or without passing water downstream, i.e. in case of heavy rainfall, the water level at the reservoir may increase leading to flooding of surrounding areas. But that is speculative and so let me avoid such a conclusion. Let me stick to a basic fact.

It is well-known that dams lead to submergence of surrounding areas which results in displacement of human populations. The Talong project’s EIA report states clearly that “damming of river Kameng near village Pachi will result in the creation of 400 hectares of submergence area”.

While a hectare as a unit is used often in such scenarios, I feel it is important to actually present a visual image of how large it is.

To use a sporting analogy, most sports fields are one hectare in size. Picture an international standard football pitch which is 100 metres in length and about 50 metres in width. Double the width and you have a perfect square football pitch of 100 by 100 metres which is equal to one hectare.

Now, think of an area that will encompass 400 such altered football pitches and you get an extent of the area that will be submerged by this one project alone.

In the Kameng river basin,  46 hydropower projects have been planned which, needless to say, will lead to submergence of many more football fields. In East Kameng district alone, there are 22 projects planned for construction and yet awareness about the effects of dams amongst people living along the Kameng river basin remains basic, to say the least especially when compared to the Siang basin where massive projects of over 6000 megawatts have been planned for construction.

The reason I bring this to notice is not to talk about football fields. I highlight this point because of who we are and our relation to the land.

Regardless of where we grow up or where we work, as indigenous people, we draw our identity from the land that we belong to. Our traditions, our culture, our daily habits are influenced by the land. If we practice shifting cultivation, it is because it is the land that we live in, compels us to do so. If we fear the flowering of the bamboo, it is because the land has shown us time and again that famine will follow when it happens.

The land and the people are not separate. We are one and what we do to the land, we do to ourselves.

For tribal people, the link between them and the land is intrinsic.

For tribal people, like the Nyishis, the link between them and the land is intrinsic.

A version of this essay first appeared on ‘Laapi’ magazine which was published to mark the 37th foundation day of the East Kameng Social Welfare and Cultural Organisation on 24 October 2015. To learn more about their work, visit http://www.ekswco.com/

Where the children have no place

An incomplete rectangular hall with no roof, windows and doors stands on the north-eastern section of Eklavya Model Residential School’s campus. Inside, foliage grows wild and a scaffold table lies toppled. This is the school’s girls’ hostel that has been under construction since 2012.

The girls hostel which has been under construction since 2012.

The girls hostel which has been under construction since 2012.

The school at Bana in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district in India’s Northeast began its first academic session in 2009 after it was set up by the central ministry of tribal affairs intended to be part of 100 such schools across the country aimed at providing free education to tribal children from poor financial background through classes VI to X. However, with just four classrooms and seven teachers, the school at Bana isn’t exactly living up to its intended goal. In fact, media reports last year had highlighted the plight of the school which has seats reserved for students from all districts of the state. Principal RP Dubey says that not much has changed since then.
Last month, Union minister for tribal affairs Jual Oram told chief minister Nabam Tuki to examine the prospects of expanding the presence of the schools in the state. While another school has been set up at Lumla in Tawang district, the very first such school is languishing under poor infrastructure.
Dubey, who took charge as principal last year in June, said that despite having “written to every department” there has been “no improvement” in the school infrastructure.
One of the biggest challenges has been the delay in construction of the two new hostels for the students.
“Only the ground floor of the boys’ new hostel has been completed so far”, Dubey said, while the upper floors still need to be completed. He said that public work department officials say that funds have not been released by the Centre for the work.
The girls’ hostel meanwhile has been marred with delays for three years.

Current principal RP Dubey came to Arunachal Pradesh from Uttar Pradesh in north India more than two decades ago.

Current principal RP Dubey came to Arunachal Pradesh from Uttar Pradesh in north India more than two decades ago.

Even with just sixty students in the entire school (30 boys and 30 girls), the present hostels, he said, are “overburdened”. Once the new hostels are built, the school will be able to accommodate more students. Dubey said that in this crunch for space “poor families are losing out”.
For the moment, both boys and girls stay in the old boys’ hostel in separate sections.
Sources said that funds have been misused ever since the school opened six years ago. Reportedly, more than Rs two crore were sanctioned for the construction of multi-storied hostels.
The district’s deputy director of school education Kata Rangmo said that the problems the school is facing are not new.
“It has been drowning in problems since its inception”, he informed.
Rangmo said that the school is losing out on sixty new students every year due to the delays that have accumulated over the years.
The PWD Bana sub-division assistant engineer Kapil Natung informed that around Rs 35 lakh meant for the completion of the ground floor of the girls’ hostel has not been released by the tribal affairs ministry yet despite having written to them on several occasions.
Natung, who took charge last May, also said that funds for the upper floors have not even been sanctioned yet.
There are other issues plaguing the school as well.
The school has just four classrooms and three science laboratories- which have very little equipment.
Payment of staff salaries too has been a major problem.
Last year, the school only began admitting new students as late as September when the staff salaries were paid after chief minister Nabam Tuki intervened to have their pay expedited. This in turn affected the student intake since most schools were already midway through their academic sessions.

Apparently hunting is an issue.

As if these problems were not enough, the school’s inability to build proper infrastructure could have an adverse impact on its long term plans.
Dubey informed that the first batch of sixty students which appeared for the tenth standard examinations last year had to do so at the Government Higher Secondary School in Bana. The principal is concerned that if this trend continues, it may affect its prospects to get affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).
“Affiliation can be sought only if examinations are conducted for three consecutive years in the school”, he said. However, Dubey, who is originally from Uttar Pradesh and has been in the state for over two decades, remains optimistic and informed proudly that “our children did very well in last year’s central examinations”.

A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph. Link: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1151031/jsp/northeast/story_50622.jsp#.VjSLPrcrLIU