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.

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Two years since submergence, villagers still fighting for rights

Driving up from Manipur’s capital Imphal to Ukhrul district towards the site of the Mapithel dam, a magnificent view of a reservoir with the lush green Mapithel range in the background opens up. While for visitors the view offers an opportunity to take photographs and appreciate the scenic beauty of the place, locals aren’t too excited by it.

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Construction of the 7.5-megawatt dam began in 1989 and stands 66 metres high and 1034 metres long; enormous by any standards and even larger considering the considerably smaller size of the installed capacity of the dam in comparison to many of the dams planned for construction in India’s Northeast. Part of what was originally called the Thoubal River Valley Multipurpose Project, the dam is built on the Thoubal river (called the Yangwui Kong by the local Tangkhul tribe), the project was undertaken by the state government’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD) and is intended to generate electricity, provide irrigation routes and drinking water for Imphal.

Goals that have not been achieved and what some say will not be even in the next five years.

“This was meant to be a multipurpose project but they started filling concrete even before the completion of the dam. And the power station has not been built either,” informed Jiten Yumnam, an Imphal-based rights activist who has been working with residents of the five villages that were affected by the project.

The details of the project and the struggles of the people who lost their homes have been well documented. So has the state government’s arrogance when construction began and the apathy that it has shown after villages were submerged and people displaced.

Dominic Kashung, chairman of the Mapithel Dam Affected Villages Organisation (MDAVO), says that the construction of the dam was done without free and prior consent and that surveys were conducted in secret.

A vibrant middle-aged bespectacled man, the anger and frustration are clear when Dominic speaks. Smacking his lips, he says that the villagers were divided by the government right from the time that construction began in 1989.

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Dominic Kashung (standing) is currently leading the fight against the completion of the multipurpose project.

“We had protested, even burnt some of the machineries,” he says, adding that “some of the leaders were hypnotized by politicians”.

At the height of the resistance, villagers had to at times hide in the nearby jungles as security forces came cracking down on protestors, informed Dominic.

He says that visitors often speak of the scenic beauty of the place but that residents lead a difficult life. He also says that there has been pressure on the forests too.

Driving up to Ramrei from where people have to take rickety boats to reach Chadong, several small sawmills running along the road in the village of Riha greet commuters.

Since the flooding and submergence of their paddy fields, villagers have had to take to logging to make ends meet but that too is slowly taking a toll on the forest resources.

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Sights like these have become common ever since the villagers lost their paddy fields and their main source of income after the submergence.

The protest by the villagers has sustained since the inception and the project itself is embroiled in lacunas including construction work that carried on for decades without the grant of appropriate clearances. In fact, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forest only granted environment clearance for the project in 2001.

Several cases ensued in the Manipur High Court and various committees were formed, reformed and agreements signed. Currently, a case on the matter is pending before the National Green Tribunal.

Although the villagers have been fighting for their rights in the courtrooms, there appears to be little hope for fair rehabilitation.

Another prominent voice in the resistance, Honreikhui Kashung, says that in the courts, everyone is a victim.

“Both sides present their arguments as the aggrieved party,” he says.

Dominic, a lawyer himself, says that his practice has suffered since the protests began. He says that they are not asking for anything outside of the Indian Constitution and simply want their basic amenities of schools and hospitals provided to them.

When flooding of the villages began in January 2015, the paddy fields began to get submerged followed by people’s homes and schools including the United Christian Academy at Riha which was started in 2003 by Honreikhui and his friends.

A haunting image that serves as a reminder of the devastation is the Cross on the spire of the church in Chadong that rises above the waters of the reservoir, standing defiantly.

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The cross that bears testimony to the sufferings of the people.

Honreikhui says that these are reminders of their protests.

“The submergence of our schools and churches are a sign of our protest. We were told to take away our valuables but we refused.”


 

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen

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.

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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”.

One year on, closure on Tawang’s tragedy remains 

A year since the death of two men in the police firing in Tawang, a complete disclosure of events remains elusive. 

On May 2, 2016, protestors seeking the release of Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and vocal opponent of large dams in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district, had gathered outside the police station where he was being held on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery. 

A memorial that was built at the gates of the Tawang Monastery to remember the two killed in the police firing.

After learning that Gyatso’s bail appeal was turned down, the crowd got engaged in a scuffle broke with police and security personnel. During the scuffle, security forces fired shots which injured several people and claimed the lives of Nyima Wangdi (a young monk) and Tsering Tempa. 

The events of that day had left everyone shocked. Tawang, after all, is known more as a peaceful town and such a thing was rather unexpected. Following the deaths, the government did its best to pacify the situation by awarding ex-gratia payments to the family of the deceased and giving jobs to next of kin. It also paid for the medical expenses of the injured (although some feel that the amount paid does not cover all costs). One person, Tenzin Wangdi, who miraculously survived after a bullet was lodged in his head is reportedly suffering from trauma and has trouble sleeping. 

Recently, the Supreme Court sought responses from the Centre and the state government on a plea seeking an independent probe. While the state government had set up two inquiries to investigate the matter, only the report by the Jang ADC has been submitted while the state-level report that was to be prepared by current PWD commissioner, Hage Khoda, has not been submitted. 

After the incident, the government suspended Tawang district superintendent of police, Anto Alphonse (who has since been reinstated), and officer-in-charge of the Tawang police station, Lham Dhondup. 

Currently, seven security personnel are serving suspension including three Indian Reserve Battalion men and four from the Arunachal Pradesh Police. Sources also say that the West Kameng deputy superintendent of police is conducting the investigation. 

The ADC’s report has several varying accounts of the day as recorded by eyewitnesses and police. 

The report cites the police report which states that “after proper warnings, use of force was done by restrained firing. The firing was resorted to, as police force was very limited at the police station. Since the police station location is at hilly terrain, the injuries were at different parts of the body of the injured persons”. 

However, eyewitnesses cited in the ADC’s report maintain that it was after the police resorted to lathi-charge and firing that stones were pelted. 

The report also states that “the firing order was given verbally by the magistrate RD Thungon, EAC. It is further stated in the police report that the duty magistrate, RD Thungon, refused to give the firing order in writing after the incident”. 

However, Thungon said that “he did not know who opened the fire and also did not know who had ordered to open fire”. 

There are also some findings that shed more doubt than light on the events of the day. 

“The SP, Tawang’s report further states that the statement of the Platoon Commander SI Tage Tath of 3rd IRBN was contradictory in many ways as he stated in his statement before the SP, Tawang that as per the instructions of the SP he ordered that all their weapons be kept under lock in the district KOTE itself. This was done to avoid reckless handling of weapons by the IRBN personnel during the law and order problem. After the firing incident, despite of clear order from the SP, Tawang the Platoon Commander, 3rd IRBN failed to furnish individual count of missing or fired ammunitions from each of the police personnel deployed under him on that day,” the report states. 

The report also carries allegations of alarming behaviour by security personnel. 

EAC Lobsang Tsetan states that he had tried to stop one constable from firing at a civilian when “an IRBN sub-inspector, who was the platoon commander, intervened and asked the jawan to shoot at the deponent i.e. the magistrate instead”. 

The ADC’s report in its findings states that “the weapons were collected by 3rd IRBn personnel and civil police personnel in presence of the SP, Tawang”. 

It also states that “police personnel resorted to blank firing in a very reckless manner and without proper supervision and directions from any senior police officials” and that the firing was “completely reckless and indiscriminate”. 

The report also, however, partly holds the protestors responsible as well, stating “if the crowd had respected the rule of law, the unfortunate incident could have been avoided”. 

It also recommended that a thorough investigation should be made into the matter by an independent agency. 

Lax policies cause of concern for conservation

For over a decade, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been working with communities in West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh to preserve forest resources and make them self-reliant. While considerable amount of success has been achieved, without proper policies in place, successes will mean little in the long-run. 

WWF-India began its work in Thembang in West Kameng in 2004 with the introduction of Community Conserved Areas (CCA) which comprises of a village-level management committee that is given the responsibility to conserve natural resources and address local livelihood means. 

Among its goals is to engage villagers in collective dialogue and decision-making relating to conserving natural resources found in the forests of the area including wildlife. After their initial success, the WWF replicated its model in Zemithang in neighbouring Tawang district in 2007. 

Zemithang has an important role to play in conservation as it is one of the two remaining wintering sites of the black-necked crane in the state- the other being Sangti Valley. Earlier, the birds were reported to have been sighted at Ziro Valley in Lower Subansiri district too but have since stopped coming after a few of them died when they got entangled in electrical wires. 

The riverbed of Nyamjang Chhu that is the wintering site of the black-necked crane.

Kamal Medhi, the Western Arunachal Landscape co-ordinator for the WWF who has been working in the region for years, informed that there were 21 sightings of the birds from last November to March this year- a significant improvement from the past. 

The WWF’s work has also led to increased awareness amongst the people, Medhi said, and that people these days inform the WWF officials whenever they see the birds which come to the dry riverbed of the Nyamjang Chhu. The birds are of special importance to the Buddhist Monpa tribe who consider the black-necked crane sacred. 

And while game hunting in the area has never been a major issue, Medhi informed that the musk deer, called laa-va locally, is hunted for its bile which is used extensively in Chinese traditional medicine. Reportedly, the animal is hunted and its bile extracted before making its way to China through Nepal. 

Medhi said that the hunting of the deer is not an issue amongst the seven villages in the Zemithang area that are part of the WWF’s CCA but that there is a threat from villages outside of the area. 

“Villages in Zemithang have served notices to the other offending villages to curb the problem,” he said. 

There are also economic benefits that villagers are slowly beginning to witness from conserving forest resources. 

Recently, the Pangchen CCA Management Committee (comprising of Lakhar, Lumpo and Muchat villages) began manufacturing incense sticks that are used extensively by most Buddhist tribes of the state. It’s an initiative that could become an alternative to a widely used product that is currently brought in from the North Bengal area. 

Other challenges however, remain. 

The WWF currently has 1,200 square km of land under the CCA model including villages in Thembang, Zemithang and Manlaphu (which was inducted last year). But that figure is relatively small compared to the work that needs to be done. 

“We are saving a small portion of forests through the CCA model,” Medhi informed and that around 30,000 square km of land is still officially designated as Unclassed State Forests. 

“The government should come up with policies to give the management of forests to the local communities, whether in the form of CCAs or any other model,” he said. 

Aside from the lack of a clear policy on the tribal people’s rights and use of forest resources, at the policy level the issue gets more complicated due to the region’s proximity to the sensitive international border it shares with China. 

Foreigners are not permitted to enter Zemithang, even with special permits, which can affect the tourism of the area. 

Although homestays have sprung up, the place has been unable to attract foreign tourists due to travel restrictions. Recently, a group of environment enthusiasts from Bhutan who had wanted to visit the area for the black-necked crane were given a hard time due to the existing laws. 

Ironic, considering that traders and pilgrims who belong to the same Monpa community but live across the border in Bhutan regularly venture into the region with ease, as theIndian armed forces personnel are not aware of the subtle differences in the traditional attires of the cousin communities. 

All well in Mawlynnong?

‘Welcome to Mawlynnong (God’s own Garden) Cleanest Village in Asia’ declares a signboard near the gates of the village in Meghalaya.

Dubbed as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’, Mawlynnong is a perfect example of what a self-sustaining community can do for itself. From working together to keep the village clean to helping visitors, this village of 500-odd people should be the model for prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for a Swachh Bharat. Unfortunately, not all is well in this garden.

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The spotless streets of Mawlynnong.

Back in 2003, the village, located around 90 kilometres from the state capital Shillong and near the Bangladesh border, was ‘declared’ as the cleanest village in Asia. And from the first time one enters the village, it is easy to see why.

Spotless cemented pathways lined with dustbins made from bamboo, there isn’t any sight of garbage to be seen anywhere. Walking around the village, one can see that this cleanliness is not a gimmick as the homes of the Khasi people who live here also abide by this practice. In fact, the reason that the village remains so spotless is because the entire community comes together every evening and morning to clean it up after and before opening its gates to tourists.

It is unclear as to what led to this collective habit of keeping the village clean but most people speculate that an outbreak of cholera some hundred years back is what could have led people to imbibe such cleanliness practices.

Just to be clear though, the village wasn’t accorded its moniker by any world body or international organization. It was, in fact, first referred to as the cleanest village in Asia in an article that appeared in a travel magazine. Since then, the floodgates opened and tourists began pouring in to the village. With the flow of visitors there are other issues that have come up.

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Curious Khasi children from the village.

Henry Kharymbhah, who was on information duty the day we visited, informed that sometimes visitors litter the place but that they do not impose a penalty on them.

“Instead we pick up their litter in front of them to make them realise their mistake,” he said.

Kharymbhah and the villagers are proud of what they have achieved. He said that there are toilets in each of the 90 homes in the village, all of which were built from their own funds.

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Henry Kharymbhah takes a break from his work.

“Now we impose a fee of Rs 50 if someone is caught defecating in the open,” he said.

Clearly the village has benefitted from its fame. Apart from the old houses, there are at least 9 home stays that service visitors and many more are under-construction. However, the dorbar shnong (village council) which monitors the village’s day-to-day operations has been facing other issues.

While the village has been able to sustain itself thanks to the flow of tourists and the business they bring, maintaining the village’s USP costs money. Although bamboo garbage bins can be produced in the village itself, the metal frames that hold them need to be made elsewhere and that costs money. Additionally, villagers like B Khongtiang who was busy making a fishnet for himself and who regularly helps out in the village also need to be paid.

Kharymbhah said that the village council has sought help but so far the Meghalaya government has not extended any financial aid.

He said that the village is able to bear the expenses thanks to money coming in from the tourists but they still need help.

“It’s not that we don’t want aid. We just haven’t been given any,” he said.

The Meghalaya government however denies such claims.

An official from the state tourism department, P Tariang, said that there are already four projects in place and two more planned for implementation in Mawlynnong.

“In fact, Mawlynnong is the only place that is getting maximum benefits as of now,” he said.

Monks boycott Independence Day, question idea of freedom

This August 15, when India was celebrating its 70th Independence Day, Buddhist monks and nuns in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh were questioning the very idea of freedom.

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In the past, the Dungyur Mani Square in Tawang’s old bazaar has acted as a venue for street performances held during the Tawang Festival in the town that is just 37 km from the Sino-India border. On Independence Day, a large contingent of Buddhist monks and nuns along with members of the civilian population came out in protest against the government’s decision to reinstate the superintendent of police, Anto Alphonse, who was suspended following police firing on May 2 in Tawang, which had claimed the lives of two protestors demanding the release of monk-activist Lobsang Gyatso.
Gyatso, a Buddhist monk from the Monpa tribe, has been leading protests against the government’s plans to build large dams in Tawang district. He also serves as the general secretary of the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), an organisation that has a strong support base of monks and nuns apart from villagers. He had been arrested and kept in police custody from April 28 till May 2 when protestors gathered outside the police station and demanded his release. Soon after, Alphonse and other officials were suspended by the state government due to the mishandling of the protests. However, Alphonse has since been reinstated as an SP by the state government.
On August 15, members of the SMRF and other civil society bodies, including 302 Action Committee, All Tawang Youth Association, All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union, All Tawang District Students Union, held up banners questioning the relevancy of Independence Day celebrations.
Wearing black ribbons around their foreheads, the demonstrators held up placards that said ‘No justice, no rest’.
Gyatso informed that businesses voluntarily kept their shops closed and stayed away from official celebrations in the town.
“We also feel there is no freedom in the state and appeal to the central government to look into the matter seriously and take necessary action before it’s too late,” he said from Tawang.
The SMRF had earlier on August 8 written to the government demanding that Alphonse be suspended since the final report into the May 2 incident has not been released.
While the state government had set up two inquires to investigate the matter, one of which has been submitted, they have not been made public yet.
Gyatso said that about a thousand people had showed up in what was a “symbolic” protest. He also said that “the said members and people of Tawang are going (to) submit a memorandum to the United Nations to save our lives”.
While the protest was held in the bazaar square, the district administration held a prabhat pheri/Jashn-e-Azadi Run (Freedom Run). At the general parade ground, the local legislator Tsering Tashi, said that the incidents of May 2 were unfortunate and that “everyone should resort to dialogue for sorting out differences” and that “efforts should be made to rule out any communication gap”.
He also said that hydropower projects in the district would not be pursued without the consent of the people. He was reiterating what he and Lumla MLA Jambey Tashi had told members of the SMRF during a meeting on August 13. Gyatso, who did not attend that meeting, said the government is making “only empty promises”.
Regardless of the outcome of planned dialogues, one banner hanging from the dungyur mani (a stone structure with prayer wheels inside) captured the essence of the protest by the monks: “When there is no freedom, why celebrate Independence Day.”


This story first appeared in The Citizen.

Awaiting closure and reports’ disclosure in Tawang

Seated on a bed that doubles up as a sofa in the visitors’ room of the Tawang Monastery, Leki Wangchuk speaks calmly, belying any pain he feels remembering his now deceased brother, Tsering Tempa, who was shot dead by security forces more than a month ago.

Two months ago on May 2, residents of the predominantly quiet Buddhist town of Tawang in Aruanchal Pradesh in India’s Northeast woke up tense. Four days earlier on April 28, Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and vocal opponent of the government’s plans to build large dams in the district was arrested on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery, also known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse- celestial paradise in a clear night. That day, the skies were clear but a cloud of tragedy was lurking on the horizon.

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Leki Wangchuk (background) looks on as Lobsang Gyatso narrates the events of May 2.

PRELUDE

Gyatso has been leading protests against plans to build 13 dams in Tawang district, using the platform of the Save Mon Region Federation, an organisation that has a strong support base of monks and nuns apart from villagers

He is also the general secretary of the organisation and an ordained monk who studied at the Sera Je Monastery in Bylakuppe near Mysore in Karnataka in southern India. A few years after his return, Gyatso began raising concerns about the environmental impacts of the many hydropower projects planned for Tawang district.

As India looks ahead to become a global force, harnessing the country’s water resources figure highly in the government’s plans especially as it looks to compete against its neighbour China with which it already shares a rocky relationship. What’s more, India has plans to build over 160 hydropower projects in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a state that China already lays claim to as its own, with the Tawang region being particularly contentious.

On April 26, Gyatso was arrested for leading villagers from Gongkhar, the site for the 6 megawatt Mukto Shakangchu project, opposing the reconstruction of a spillway which they claimed had broken because of substandard work. He was arrested based on a complaint filed by the security officer of a local legislator for disruption of peace. He was later let out on bail the same day.

However, he was arrested again on April 28 for allegedly insulting the abbot of the Tawang Monastery by questioning his nationality and telling him to stay out of matters relating to the hydropower issue. The basis for the arrest was an audio clip that Gyatso and his supporters say was recorded in 2012 when his anti-large dam protests began but was used by his detractors as fodder for their attack on him.

Gyatso says that the powerful politicians of the area acted vindictively because the Save Mon Region Federation had managed to win a favourable verdict from India’s National Green Tribunal when it suspended the environmental clearance given earlier to the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in the district.

After he was arrested, for what his some feel was trumped up charges, his supporters waited four days until demanding his release from the police station that has two small cells.

A TRAGEDY UNFOLDS

On that morning, Gyatso was to attend court for a bail hearing. His supporters, mostly fellow monks and nuns, had begun gathering outside the police station where he was held. When his bail plea was turned down, the police took him inside the station again, this time from a different entrance. This agitated the protestors, and as per some claims, began pelting stones at the police station. In reaction, the police and men of the Indian Reserve Battalion began firing their guns in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

Apart from some police and security personnel sustaining minor injuries during the firing, at least six civilians were seriously injured and two people were killed. One a former monk the other still donning in his monk robes.

31-year old Tsering Tempa, who had recently got married after giving up his monk vows a few years back, was shot in the head. Nyima Wangdi was still a young monk of 21 years when he was killed in the police firing.

Portraits of Nyima Wangdi (left) and Tsering Tempa stand high on a shelf in Lobsang Gyatso’s house

Portraits of Nyima Wangdi (left) and Tsering Tempa stand high on a shelf in Lobsang Gyatso’s house.

While the state government had set up two inquires to investigate the matter, the exact events of the day remain murky. Varying accounts from different people blame the protestors for turning violent while Gyatso and others smell a larger political conspiracy to derail the anti-dam movement in the district.

Investigations and inquires on the matter are underway but amongst the protestors and monks, the mood is not one of positivity.

DOUBTING THOMASES

Several organisations such as the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union have called for a CBI inquiry into the matter instead of state-government constituted committees. In fact, the influential students’ body has said it will file a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a central inquiry. This distrust of state government constituted inquiries stems from the fact that they have never been able to truly provide closure to victims in the past. What could further fuel this feeling is the revelation that apart from the Tawang district superintendent of police Anto Alphonse and officer-in-charge of the Tawang police station Lham Dhondup, none of the other higher-ranked officials have been suspended even though an official statement from the government had claimed otherwise.

Broken windows of the police station where authorities claim protestors pelted stones

Broken windows of the police station where authorities claim protestors pelted stones.

Soon after the incident on May 4, an official statement from the office of the deputy chief minister of the state, Kameng Dolo, said that Tawang deputy commissioner Duly Kamduk and Dhondup were suspended, along with Alphonse. In reality though, only Alphonse and Dhondup are serving a suspension while Kamduk has been transferred to Itanagar and deputy superintendent of police Pem Norbu Thongdok has been transferred to Namsai.

While complaints had been filed against the protestors for attacking the police station, an FIR against the police for the murder of the two young men was only filed after the issue was raised with the present deputy commissioner and superintendent of police by visiting human rights activists on May 19, a full 17 days after the incident.

It was only on June 13 that five police constables and one sub-inspector were suspended for the police’s failure to “follow all the standard operating procedures for using firearms in dispersal of the unlawful mob”, again as per an official statement.

Another revelation that can heighten suspicion about the impartiality of the state-government formed committees is the fact that a report of the incident written by Alphonse has not been made public.

CONCEALMENT? 

Sources have confirmed that a report on the day’s incident written by Alphonse was submitted on May 6, the contents of which remain a mystery. In fact, it is unclear as to whether the former SP had submitted the report before or after his sacking. While the police and administration have provided a section of the media with copies of the police complaints and FIRs related to the matter, the report by Alphonse is currently under lock-and-key at the deputy commissioner’s office in Tawang.

Aside from the government’s refusal to disclose complete details, what is adding to the confusion is rumours of the police itself damaging some of the vehicles in the police station premises to falsify the nature of the protest on that fateful day.

Hearsay aside, a number of officials and civilians from Tawang town have spoken about the police and security personnel’s inadequate training and preparedness to deal with such scenarios.

Several eyewitness accounts claim that tear gas was fired initially but the shells allegedly fell beyond the proximity of the protestors. At least one shell reportedly fell in front of a nearby shop while another found its way to a farmland.

There are also shocking claims that have been made (in private) by officials from the district administration themselves narrating how some security men behaved in a reckless and callous manner, even to the point of training their guns at some junior officials who tried to restrain them from shooting at the public.

The four-week deadline of the inquiry committees to submit their reports are long up and are yet to be made public.

In fact, the report compiled by the district administration was already submitted to the state chief secretary on May 19 but details have not been disclosed yet. There is no official word yet as to when the report from the other committee will be submitted.

Until such a time, Tempa’s young widow Sonam in Jangda village and Wangdi’s family in Bongleng will have to wait for some form of closure.

(This article was first published in The Citizen on July 10, 2016. )

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

 

Buddha’s warriors: Monks take on the powerful

Standing at the entrance of the watch tower on the southern gate of the Tawang Monastery, Tashi Norbu, dressed in the traditional maroon-hued robe, explains how in the past one monk would stand guard and be on the lookout for Bhutanese or Mongolian forces while another would rest the barrel of the gun through a small opening on the wall, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. While the enemy is no longer foreign forces, the monks of the 336-year old monastery now face adversities of a different kind.
Ever since the events of May 2, the usually peaceful town of Tawang has been gripped by news of violence. Several monks from the historic Tibetan Buddhist monastery, second in size only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, located in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town in India’s Northeast have been actively involved in their opposition to plans of building 11 dams in the district (two have been dropped recently). Leading the protest in Tawang have been Buddhist monks who are known more for their peaceful chants than loud protests. Their concerns and opposition to the dams however, have been met with mixed reactions.

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A young monk peers out the watchtower.

At the inter-state check gate in Bhalukpong in West Kameng district, a young tax and excise security personnel from Tawang says that monks should stick to monastic activities. A similar view is stated by a prominent businessman in Tawang town as well. Such views are an echo of what many politicians from the region and across the state have said in the past too. Norbu and other monks though, disagree with such a point of view.
“This is not the first time monks have defended the region,” he says, visibly worked up. He says that monks from the monastery were fending off Mongol and Bhutanese forces ever since it was established more than 300 years ago with their guns called menda from their watchtowers called kochung.

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Norbu, the passionate one.

Norbu, who is also the president of the Save Mon Region Federation that has been leading protests against dams in the district says hectares of land has already been taken away from villagers for highway construction but people have not been compensated and neither have the roads been built.
“We are not asking for ‘azadi(freedom)’,” he says in reference to calls for independence from India made in some other states before adding that they just want justice.
Recently, accusations were made against the SMRF general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, that he was being funded by the Chinese. It’s an accusation that has him upset.
“How can I be working for the Chinese when the Chinese have wronged our spiritual leader (Dalai Lama) so much,” he asks.
Lobsang has been in the forefront of the protests since late 2011 and it was his arrest on April 28 on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the monastery that led to protests outside the police station by his supporters who were seeking his release on May 2. On that day, two people were shot dead and several others, including some security personnel were injured. While two inquires are currently underway, the monks are calling for a CBI inquiry instead of state government constituted inquires.

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Lobsang Gyatso.

Pema Gyatso, a 35-year old monk, says “we haven’t had proper roads since 1962. We need development and schools not hydropower”.
Lobsang is clear in his stance that the SMRF is not against smaller projects but is opposed to larger dams that will lead to loss of large areas of farming land.
Reportedly, there are over 20 mini and micro dams in the district, most of which are either not functioning or breakdown often. 
The monks appear to be fighting not just power developers or their alleged nexus with politicians but stand against corruption.
Pema says that prime land has been given away to the army and worries about what people will grow if the remaining cultivable land is given away to power developers. In fact, in Tawang town and its peripheral areas large swathes of land are used by the army and SSB. All along the way to Tawang too, various Army battalions have garrisons and camps in plush land. 200km below at Tenga Valley in West Kameng district is almost entirely a military town with few civilian residences.
In Tawang, the monks complain of politicians from every level being hand-in-gloves with power companies for their personal benefit.
Norbu says that politicians are building hotels and homes for themselves while doing little for the people.
Speaking of their decision to openly fight powerful politicians, Lobsang says that as monks they are viewed as messengers of gods and that “if we compromise on the hydropower issue, how can people have faith in the religion we preach”.
But it is Norbu who puts it in the most eloquent manner defending their actions.
Explaining how villagers routinely donate food and other amenities to the monks, Norbu says “humlog basti wala se tax khake tatti karke bethega kya? (Should we just accept food from villagers and shit it out?)”.