Drinking during lockdown

It was around 9.30 pm when the phone call came.

“Dodum sir, police ka danda khake leke aya hain saman ko hum (I was thrashed by the cops but I got the stuff),” the voice on the other end of the line in his Assamese-accented Arunachali Hindi said. I knew instantly who it was (mostly because his number was saved on my phone), and what it was that he had brought (only because it could not be anything else).

By any standards a phone call from your local liquor guy, let us call him ‘Tom’, post-nine pm hardly seems like an urgent one. In a town with just about one lakh people in a state in India’s north-eastern corner during a COVID-induced national lockdown, it feels a tad unnecessary.

Yet, here I am, 11 minutes past three in the morning writing about that very phone call with a shot of what is clearly a knocked down version of a more famous coconut-flavoured rum.

Since the national lockdown began, which now seems like two decades ago, a slow realisation of the things we really need has begun to sink in.

Slowly, we’ve realised that we can live without that pair of Adidas Originals sneakers that a few months back we thought we just ‘had to have’, or that a two-year-old Chinese-branded phone with a 2,000-megapixel phone can take similarly high-resolution photos that the iPhone 48 can and be bought at one-fourth of its price.

And so far, in all honesty, alcohol has not been much of a casualty in Arunachal Pradesh.

When the lockdown was announced to begin on March 25, few paid heed or even cared about how long it would last. Groceries aside, most of us in the state knew that our tippling needs will be taken good care of, and so far it has.

Yes, liquor stores have officially been closed for a month now but who in the state can honestly say that they have been deprived of their need for alcohol. Liquor stores continue to operate, handing out booze to those patiently stalking the side entrance of their stores and signal to their ‘man’ to sneakily sneak out that bottle of whisky or the now over-priced beer cans.

It’s all happening, and we all know it.

‘Tom’ knows it; the driver of that government-issued Toyota Fortuner whom I saw less than a week back buying a large consignment of alcohol for his boss knows it. Who are we kidding?

Around two weeks back at a press conference, I asked our chief secretary if alcohol stores will be allowed to sell their wares.

Not wanting to seem frivolous, I carefully said that this may seem like a trivial question but it was one I wanted to ask.

His response was one that seemed wholly reasonable as he said that it was not a trivial question since the state government does earn a lot of revenue from it.

And he is right.

Arunachal Pradesh has one of the highest documented per capita spending on alcohol across the country. Two years back, the state government earned close to Rs 1,600 crore in revenue from alcohol sales alone. So don’t tell me it’s a matter of less importance.

Until I received that phone call from ‘Tom’, I hadn’t given much thought to how his business will handle the lockdown. By all accounts, I had been told that the liquor warehouses and those with licensed bonds to sell alcohol had enough stock to keep the state’s citizens tipsy for two months at the least.

But with ‘people’s movement’ restricted, it was not going to be an easy task to keep the business flowing, so to speak. That realisation hit me more recently when Tom told me that he’d have to sell cans of beer to me, one of his (I am assuming) favourite patrons, over and above the MRP.

It’s at that moment when it hit me that the lockdown, while necessary, will affect us in ways that we in smaller towns and areas have not even begun to fathom.

Pro-prohibition activists will probably rejoice at the fact that selling alcohol has become more difficult than ever now. They have a reason to celebrate, and in some cases, rightly so. Perhaps they lost someone dear to them to alcohol abuse (meaning someone who would get withdrawal symptoms when not drinking or someone would wake up and rinse their mouth with brandy instead of waiting till the sun sets). Those people have a right to promote anti-alcohol advocacy.

But since the law, in normal times, does not prohibit the sale of alcohol, how do people who have solely sold it for 15 years cope with a sudden ban?

Anti-alcohol activists often argue that those selling alcohol can easily move their trade to some other business. Perhaps they could but does something of that nature happen overnight?

Do you ask someone in the hydropower sector to suddenly shift to the cotton industry? Bad example. Let me try to be more ‘local’.

Say there’s this aunty next door who has been married to this good-for-nothing-constantly-playing-rummy-or-carrom husband for the past 20 years. The only way that she has been able to earn enough money to provide her children with formal education has been through twice a month trips to Dimapur, loading up five-XL black airbags of gaudy clothes and shoes to be sold at villages and small towns, and making the night-super bus ride a living hell for her co-passengers.

Are you going to tell her to till the farm, earn the same amount of money by selling cabbages and local patta as she did selling those god-awful clothes?

No, you’ll give her time; perhaps train her in some other vocation so she can settle into a new trade. In the meantime, what about those clothes manufacturers, the shipping people who bring those clothes in, the wholesalers who paid for those clothes?

It’s easy to make a judgement or even make a judgement call by subtracting the collateral impact of things.

Unfortunately, events in this global economy do not take place in isolation.

As another set of examples, what happens to those in the gig economy where freelance work and short-term contracts is the norm? How are those who are dependent on events in times of social distancing supposed to take care of themselves and their families since it is considered non-essential?

Travel is not necessarily considered ‘essential’ (although I would disagree) and is probably not advisable at this juncture. Even if the scenario does improve in the near future, will it still be advisable to travel? What happens to the tourism sector and places dependent on it to run its local economy?

To ensure that the pandemic and the resultant lockdown do not bring about unforeseen damages, governments around the world will have to ultimately provide economic stimulus packages for sectors considered non-essential.

And in an era of WhatsApp forwards, Twitter re-tweets, and Facebook shares that reach a massive audience, will journalism still be considered a non-essential service? I am not sure. But till the time Tom keeps my ethanol needs satiated, I will keep writing.

‘Meating’ people’s cravings during Covid

As India entered the 21-day period of lockdown to curb the spread of Covid19, in Arunachal Pradesh two divergent developments took place.
The nationwide lockdown began on March 25 following the March 22 janata curfew announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But even before the prime minister’s announcement, the states of Nagaland and Mizoram had already decided to extend the curfew. The state government here had announced the continuation of the janata curfew from the evening of March 23 till March 31 which has since been extended.
With shop timings being regulated, the scramble for groceries began as people had a hard time sticking to social distancing measures. While the administration got strict with the implementation of the curfew, online delivery services swooped in to fulfill the shopping needs of residents of Capital Complex.
Doni Riba began his ‘Hungryji’ food delivery service in February of last year, filling in an area that Zomato specializes in. Having gained experience from Hungryji, he started flirting with the idea of a delivery service to cater to the town’s population.
While the development of the idea began in April last year, the Dukandada app was officially launched on March 10, just days before the country entered the lockdown period.
Since then, he and his team have been kept busy.

Doni Riba and his Dukandada team Pic sent by Doni

Doni Riba and his Dukandada team

Even before Dukandada though, 30-year-old Epie Jamoh had launched her online delivery service for Itanagar and its adjoining towns.
In January last year, U Tell Us was officially announced (think small-town Urban Clap). What started with a staff of 17, in one year’s time the company now has 37 employees providing various services including ambulances for hire.
Its CEO, Dhananjay Morang, said that since the lockdown began, they have seen a surge in orders.
“Earlier we used to get around 50 calls a day but now there are around 500 calls coming in daily,” Morang said.
Even though calls have increased, the relatively small staff means that they are able to fulfill only around 200-plus orders on a daily basis.
He said that the endorsement from chief minister Pema Khandu certainly played a role in bringing publicity to online services like U Tell Us and Dukandada.
The overwhelming response from the people meant that Riba had to close orders in the Dukandada app by 2 pm.
“We were getting around 300 orders at first but had to limit the number to ensure we are able to meet the demands,” said Riba.
In smaller towns where panic and rumours spread fast, Riba faced a unique problem when a number of his delivery staff stopped coming in to work.
“We had 15 delivery boys but most of them are not being allowed to leave their homes by their families,” he said.
Riba had to make rapid hirings to continue the service.
And while the businesses are doing well, they’ve had their own share of issues.
The services may have received the chief minister’s endorsement but on the ground, the constant stopping by police at checkpoints is hindering timely delivery.
Riba said that there seems to be a lack of coordination between the administration and the police.
“The police don’t seem to be aware of the administration’s orders regarding the lockdown,” he said, adding that things will get more confusing with the implementation of section 144 of the CrPc starting today.
The U Tell Us’ CEO is even more miffed with the police.
“In our meeting with the administration, we were told to ensure that the staff wears their uniform including the cap with the company logo. Even then the police stop us,” Morang said.
He alleged that recently two of the company’s female staff were stopped and ‘harassed’ by the cops.

Epie Jamoh of U Tell Us Pic from Facebook page

Epie Jamoh, the woman behind U Tell Us

Elsewhere in smaller towns and rural areas of the state, lockdown appears to have been better accepted.
In the Adi tribal areas, local residents began implementing the traditional lockdown system called ‘Pator/Motor’ a day before the national curfew.
In areas where the Galo people live, the villagers implemented the Ali-Ternam prohibiting the entry and exit of people into and from the villages two days after it begins.
In both cases, the lockdown begins with the reading of the liver of chickens- a ritual called haruspicy in Latin that was also practiced in ancient Rome and Greece- by a shaman.
These traditional lockdowns involve barricading villages with bamboo gates and the sacrificing of certain animals.
Ayem Modi, a local youth leader in Lower Dibang Valley district’s Dambuk town, and his friends have been taking turns on sentry duty since March 23.
“We have two teams of five people on roster guarding the gates,” he said.
The ancient pator ritual also involves the sacrificing of an animal- in this case, a dog -which is then hanged at the gates.
The fact that a dead dog was left to hang and rot in public space did not go down well with the district administration and the deputy commissioner had to issue an official order prohibiting it.
That has done little to deter villagers though.
“We don’t do this for celebrations. This ritual is done in times of calamities including epidemics that inflict animals,” Modi explained.
In Kamki village in West Siang district, no dogs were harmed but at least five chickens and one pig was sacrificed to keep the disease at bay.

Kamki Village Pic by Bomdo Kamki

The gate to Kamki village. (Pic by Bomdo Kamki)

Bomdo Kamki from the eponymous village had to cancel his plans to visit Itanagar when the Ali-Ternam was implemented. He is with 300 of his clansmen and women currently under the lockdown.
Both he and Modi said that these are not new to their tribes and that these traditions have been in place for generations. The belief is that the ritual keeps the bad spirits in abeyance and stops it from harming the villagers.
The ‘bad spirit’ in this case is the coronavirus.
As for their ration needs, the villages are better equipped considering that most families grow their own grains and vegetables. Many even keep chicken, pigs, and the bovine mithun which can feed the meaty desires.
“We only need to make sure that the supply of salt does not stop,” Kamki said.

Battling hassles, hate, & finding hope

Amidst the nationwide lockdown and in the aftermath of the news of the first positive case of the COVID-19 from a person residing in the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a slew of concerns and questions began arising from healthcare workers and citizens alike.
A 31-year-old man was put in isolation at the zonal hospital in Lohit district’s headquarters of Tezu after he had tested positive for the disease. The man, a migrant manual labourer, had attended a religious event at Delhi’s Nizamuddin which has become an epicentre for the disease.
At least 28 people across Northeast India who had attended the Nizamuddin Markaz had tested positive for the novel coronavirus .
Apart from the first positive case from the state, six more people from the neighbouring Namsai district have tested negative. While the man and his family have been quarantined, he remains asymptomatic.
However, the work for healthcare workers and administrative and police officials is far from over.
PERENNIAL PPE PROBLEM
Dr Tumge Loyi, the media spokesperson for the State Task Force for COVID-19, said that apart from the shortage of Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs), there is also a shortage of staff in the field survey teams.
“Since one person has tested positive, we need to conduct contact tracing to find out who has come in contact with him,” he said, adding that logistical challenges outside of the state capital is another issue.
While a new consignment of PPEs has arrived that will be distributed across the state, it still remains a formidable task for doctors, nurses, and others.
One source said that the PPEs that arrived are not in sufficient numbers and more will be required.
Loyi said that one major issue is the absence of a testing facility in the state.
Samples of suspected cases are collected and sent to either the Regional Medical Research Centre in Dibrugarh or Gauhati Medical College in Assam.
Even collecting samples is another challenge as the state’s stock of Virus Transport Media (VTM), where cotton swab samples are collected and shipped, is limited. At last count, the total number of VTMs was at around 700.

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Dr Tumge Loyi of the State Task Force

Medical guidelines dictate that a person has to be tested at least twice and Loyi said that the man who tested positive has come in contact with at least 40 people.
If the samples of each of those 40 people are to be collected, 80 VTMs will be used for just that one case.
He and other health experts say that the priority should be on testing as many people as possible to control its spread by identifying and quarantining them.
Till recently, the Tomo Riba Institute of Health & Medical Sciences (TRIHMS) in Naharlagun near the state capital, Itanagar, had no ventilators in its intensive care unit. The TRIHMS has been assigned as a COVID-19 hospital and will exclusively deal with all cases related to the disease.
One senior doctor said that ventilators are for the final stages and that the government’s priority should be on preventing the spread of the virus.
A doctor in Namsai district on quarantine duty, who has been in close contact with the suspected cases who had travelled to Nizamuddin and others who came in contact with them, said that they have been working without PPEs.
“I just have my gloves and an N95 mask,” the doctor said.
A nurse on quarantine duty in Naharlagun said that “frontline health workers have not been provided with N95 masks either”.
With the news of the state’s first positive case, came the eventual stigmatisation.
Even before an official announcement was made by the state health department, the test result of the man had been leaked which revealed his identity.
Dr Raja Dodum of the State Task Force for COVID-19 said that this is a breach of patient privacy.
“How are the testing centres releasing this information without officially sending it to us first,” he said.
CONTROLLING VIRUS & HATE
While healthcare workers remain concerned about the spread of the virus and information, residents in and around the state capital began to panic over the pandemic spilling over from outside quarantine centres to their residential colonies.
On Thursday evening, at the entrance of Polo Colony in Naharlagun, residents engaged in a ‘lively’ conversation with the Additional District Magistrate (ADM) and Chief Estate Officer (CEO), Talo Potom, asking him to move those housed in the quarantine facility in their locality.
Fearing for their safety, the residents claimed that they are not safe if the people quarantined are not moved to a different location.
“Our water supply comes from near the quarantine centre…what if they contaminate it,” said one man in the crowd, his mask doing little to hide his anger.
Potom had to eventually assure them that they will be moved to another centre.
Across the state, at the gates of residential colonies in urban centres and villages, barricades have been placed by good-intentioned people but in the process, disrupting the entry of government inspecting groups including doctors in some cases.
The issue has such a hindrance that the Itanagar deputy commissioner had to issue an official order asking them to dismantle and allow the movement of essential services or regulate their movement.
Rumours about the disease and how it spreads have caused panic and led to fears amongst sections of the public. While some landlords have exempted their tenants from a month’s rent, many who continue to work are reportedly being subjected to suspicion.
President of the state chapter of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Lobsang Tsetim, said that several healthcare workers are being told by landlords and neighbours to not venture out to work.
Many have allegedly even asked nurses staying in rented accommodations to vacate their apartments.
PETTING PROBLEM
As people turn on each other and hostilities begin to surface, pets and stray animals have become unlikely victims as a result of the pandemic.
With the lockdown changing people’s consumption patterns, stray animals that often-scavenged food that was thrown out as garbage are finding it difficult to scrape by. The problem was noticed by a number of young animal-lovers who have since mobilised and taken it upon themselves that the furry four-legged friends do not go hungry.
Kobyum Zirdo has been on a daily round covering at least 60 km of the capital and its adjacent areas looking for strays for almost a week.
Tending to a puppy outside of a privately-run veterinary clinic, Zirdo said that some pet owners are abandoning their dogs if they appear to show signs of illness.
On Friday afternoon, she picked up the puppy with a collar around its neck that had developed a form of a severe rash.
She said that because treatment is difficult during the lockdown period, she’s had to euthanize four dogs in five days.
Not an easy task for someone who has over a dozen cats and dogs at home.

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Kobyum Zirdo and others like her are on a mission to ensure stray animals stay safe during the Covid crisis

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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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!