Fighting alcohol in Arunachal

Nabam Serbang is on a mission. Earlier this year, the former software engineer travelled across the length and breadth of Arunachal Pradesh’s mountainous terrain to rid the state of alcohol.

Alcohol sale in Arunachal Pradesh is not illegal as it is in Manipur, Nagaland (both in the north-east), Gujarat and more recently, Bihar. In fact, alcohol is easily and freely available in stores that dot the state’s landscape. A running joke being that there are more liquor stores than chemist shops in the state.

But apart from consuming Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), the indigenous tribal populations also brew a variety of rice and maize-based alcohol that are an integral part of many ceremonial practices and festivals. Which is what makes the efforts of Serbang and others a bit of an anomaly.

After working as a software engineer for seven years in Pune, Delhi, Bangalore and California, Serbang returned home in 2014. In his own words, he left his job where he earned over one lakh rupees each month “to contribute to society”.

“I want to improve the quality of education in the state but the environment has to be good,” he says. The 31-year old feels that the “environment” will improve with the introduction of prohibition.

Serbang was in the last stretch of his motorcycle journey and had clocked over 6000-km (over a course of over 50 days) when we met in a small dining room at hotel Dolma Khangsar in Tawang town on May 18. A small white flag with the words ‘Dry State, Quality Education, No Early Marriage’ was neatly laid out on the table as the bespectacled man claimed that alcohol is “destroying our youth”.

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A state free from alcohol, Serbang feels, can end many of the state’s problems.

“Alcohol is more easily available in our state than life-saving medicines,” he explains passionately and adds that liquor stores do not follow the law when they sell alcohol to people under the age of 21.

“There are responsible drinkers but their numbers are less,” he says and that “IMFL and beer are not affecting responsible drinkers because they are aware of their health and economic impacts”, perhaps in an attempt to dispel any notions that he is against alcohol consumption entirely.

Serbang says that his crusade against alcohol stems from his belief that “our society is socially not matured” and that “our present society is not even 100 years old”. However, there may be another reason that drives him to pursue what he is pursuing; something more personal.

Originally from Hojuriangpa village in Sagalee, some 90km from the state capital of Itanagar, Serbang is the eldest son from a brood of 14 surviving siblings. His father, a gaon burah, has three wives (not divorced). Polygamy is still practiced among many tribes of the state and amongst the Nyishi community to which Serbang belongs, it is a common practice. He is the son of his father’s ‘first wife’ and now lives in Naharlagun, 10km from Itanagar, with his father, a few of his siblings and his “second mother” (his father’s second wife).

Serbang’s eldest sister passed away some years back and he looked after her four sons’ education.

“Now her sons are also graduating this year,” he says of his second mother’s children and that he looked after many of his other relatives’ education as well.

His high-paying job may have helped finance his relatives’ education but at one point his own education was under threat.

“My father was an alcoholic and was not able to spend a single penny for my education,” he says. His mother would sell vegetables in Naharlagun to raise money for his education.

“My mother and other family members would constantly quarrel with my father for my educational expenses since he was drinking all the time,” he says. His father has now been sober for more than two years and has become, according to Serbang, “handsome, caring and loved by all”.

He says that alcohol was “conquering” his father and that there are “countless” others like his father who are spending their money on alcohol and “taking money from their wives”.

Having helped his siblings earn their graduation degrees and inspired his father to go sober, Serbang is now focussed on his crusade against alcohol and has opened an NGO, Drug-Free Arunachal. He wants to take his fight to the streets.

“This journey is to engage with other NGOs and get signatures” for his campaign. If he has enough people supporting him, Serbang will seek a referendum on the issue.

Travelling without a tent in his 150-cc Hero Achiever, Serbang says he’s had to rely on the help of people he comes across during his journey. Astonishingly, he travelled without any financial funding.

“I ask for free fuel from the petrol stations explaining them my situation,” he says, adding that he approaches NGOs and public leaders for help if he is ever refused, which has happened on some occasions.

The former software engineer says that he slept where his day ended of his experience of often shacking up at people’s homes.

He is also not too bothered by the loss of tax revenue that the state is bound to experience if prohibition were to be imposed, dismissing it as not being a large enough amount to affect the economy.

But Serbang may have an uphill task ahead of him considering that even in the remotest of villages where pharmacies and gas stations are rare to come by, liquor stores are ubiquitous. And while there isn’t any data available on alcoholism amongst the populace, there is other related information that indicates that there could really be something to be addressed.

According to data from the National Sample Survey, on an average, each Arunachal citizen spent Rs 127.32 each month from July 2011 to June 2012 on alcohol. The national average for the same period was Rs 20.26. In the 2011-12 financial year, the state’s monthly per capita income was Rs 6,007.58 per month, which means that people spent more than two percent of their income on alcohol. This is not taking into account money spent at bars and on locally-made rice beer, the sale of which is unregulated.

For the financial year 2014-15, the state government earned more than Rs 55 crore as tax from alcohol sales. That revenue however, also went into funding the ambitious Chief Minister’s Universal Health Insurance Scheme that provides health coverage of up to Rs two lakh to residents of the state. However, some argue that if people stop consuming alcohol, healthcare expenses will come down anyway.

 

PERSPECTIVES ON PROHIBITION

While Serbang is optimistic about his mission and has been enthused by people’s willingness to help him in his journey, there are mixed reactions to the idea of introducing total prohibition in the state.

Dr Nani Bath, professor at Rajiv Gandhi University at Doimukh, supports the idea and calls Serbang’s effort “a great idea and initiative”.

The prohibition crusader has also found support from the Adi Bane Kebang (ABK), the top community organisation of one of the largest tribes in the state- the Adis.

Every year during the Christmas and New Year season, the ABK asks liquor store owners in Adi-populated areas to shut shop in an attempt to cut down alcohol-induced crimes.

The ABK’s women wing president, Yalem Taga Burang, says that their campaign against alcohol is driven by the need to eradicate the proverbial ‘social evils’.

“The root cause of all crimes is IMFL,” she declares confidently over the phone.

In most tribal societies of the Northeast such as the Adis, women are held in high regard and enjoy a great amount of freedom than in most patriarchal societies. Not surprising therefore, that the women leading the ABK have tasted much ‘success’ in their campaigns against alcohol.

Since 2013, no new licences for bars or liquor stores have been issued in East Siang district, home to a predominantly Adi populace thanks to the ABK’s campaign. As if that were not enough, the women often conduct unannounced ‘raids’ to apprehend people violating their diktats against drinking alcohol in certain places such as on the banks of the Siang river during after hours.

Buoyed by their success, Burang informs that they now want the three districts of Siang, East Siang and Upper Siang where the Adis are in a majority to be declared as “dry districts” on a “trial basis”.

“We have the memorandum ready and are waiting to meet the chief minister to present our proposal,” she says.

However, not everyone is in agreement that a total ban on alcohol is the right way to go.

Joya Tasung Moyong, one of the founders of Women Against Social Evils, says that prohibition can be counterproductive.

“I fear that prohibition will drive youngsters to drugs and so we must try to control consumption and create awareness about the harms of alcohol instead,” she says seated on a comfy cane couch.

Moyong and her colleagues founded WASE after a falling out with the ABK over ‘several issues’ which included, but not confined to, differences over the style of functioning.

“We were quite aggressive in our approach to ensure alcohol is not sold illegally or to minors,” she says, adding that some of the locals have labelled her new group ‘Gulabi Gang’ after the more famous women activists group from Uttar Pradesh.

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Moyong and her colleagues are also against alcohol abuse but she is unsure if prohibition is the answer.

The way that the WASE works is that they conduct awareness campaigns trying to educate people about the harms alcohol can have. When not raising awareness, the women conduct raids.

Moyong says that they have a network of informants in and around 15 villages and localities around Pasighat town in East Siang district who tip them off if unlicensed stores are selling alcohol or if underage children are seen drinking. It’s highly efficient and they even have their own witness protection system in place.

“We never disclose our informers’ identities, even to each other,” she says.

Enthusiastic as she is (Moyong has collected information of people who have died of liver cirrhosis and alcohol-induced accidents from the area in the recent years), she appears to be a realist as well.

While she admits that rehabilitating alcoholics is a difficult task since alcohol is so freely available, she still says that at the end of the day it is awareness and education that will be their biggest tools.

These recent efforts are however, not part of an entirely new movement. Even before Serbang had begun his crusade, villagers in Karko had already prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol.

A sign in the village reads ‘Possession/Consumption of Indian Made Foreign Liquor Is Strictly Prohibited at Karko Village’.

Dry village Karko

Booze-free Karko village?

Efforts are also being made of late to keep a check on the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants in twin capital towns of Itanagar and Naharlagun.

Recently the town’s administration had issued a circular directing bar owners to shut shop by 10 PM with a view to curb illegal sale of liquor and to clamp down on alcohol-related crimes.

Tagru Ponung, who owns and operates a bar in the town and is president of the super inclusively named Arunachal Hotel, Resort, Restaurant and Bar Association, says that the rules have to be updated along with the changing times and that trouble-makers usually stay out of bars anyway.

“Those who create law-and-order problems don’t come to bars. Instead, they hang out in under-construction buildings, drinking low quality booze,” he says.

Aside from the economic benefit the state earns from alcohol sales taxes, Ponung hits home another issue when he says that he employs 20 people in his bar.

“What about their livelihood,” he asks.

Although the ABK women’s wing president admits that family incomes will be affected if prohibition is brought into effect, she retorts that “there are other methods to earn a living”.

Pasang Sona, an MLA from the state, says that introducing prohibition will not help the state.

Sona, who was one among the many legislators who had vocally opposed a motion to impose prohibition in the state Assembly in 2013, has not heard of Serbang’s journey but cites Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur as examples of its failure.

Even Bath, who supports Serbang says that “no state is practically a dry state”. Case in point are the states of Nagaland and Manipur where although prohibition is in place, alcohol is freely available.

 

NEIGHBOURHOOD VIEWS

Ramanand Wangkheirakpam from Manipur (where prohibition has been in place since 1991), incidentally was at the same hotel in Tawang in May,  and warns against introducing prohibition.

Drawing from his home state’s experience with the law, Wangkheirakpam says that it has led to adulteration of alcohol which lowers its quality. He also talks about the cultural significance of alcohol stating that “every society has always made its own brew which captures the essence of that society”.

For the record though, Serbang isn’t opposed to locally made brew such as the famous apong, which can be made from rice or millet. His fight is only against IMFL and beer.

Last year, the Mizoram government lifted total prohibition on IMFL and beer after two decades. Now, people above the age of 21 are issued ‘liquor cards’ with which they can purchase six bottles of the oxymoronically termed Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and ten bottles of wine and beer every month. The liquor cards cost Rs 300 each.

One government official from Mizoram, not wishing to be named, says that total prohibition can never be successful.

He says that alcohol was sourced from outside the state when prohibition was in place but that there were many complaints of people falling ill due to adulteration.

While the churches in Mizoram continue to oppose the lifting of the total prohibition, the people are clearly elated with the decision.

Since total prohibition was lifted, 57 licenses have been issued for liquor stores in the state and 46 are currently in operation. In one year alone, by last count, 80,000 people had been issued liquor cards. Mizoram’s population according to the last Census is a little above ten lakh, meaning that nearly 8 percent of the people have liquor cards.

In Nagaland, where the churches play an important role in people’s lives, prohibition is still in place, at least on paper.

While the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition (NLTP) Act that has been in place since 1989 prohibits its sale, alcohol is easily available across the state for a slight premium. In the capital, Kohima, one can see rows of shops where the only products on sale appear to be bottled water which are neatly stacked and lined up on shelves. A little probing can get you anything from a bottle of Johnnie Walker to a can of beer.

Since the church is opposed to lifting the NLTP Act, very few voices come out in opposition to prohibition. That however, is changing.

Daniel Swu from Nagaland says that the law is not relevant anymore since alcohol can be purchased “everywhere”. He also says that the ban is impacting the state exchequer since it cannot tax something that technically isn’t being sold.

A scan of the newspapers from Nagaland also reveals a growing discontentment with the Act and the state government too seems to be honed into these voices as it had considered reviewing the law recently.

The church though, is firm in its position of opposition of any proposals to lift the Act.

Dr Zelhou Keyho, secretary of the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, says that the church “looks forward for a healthy discussion” on the issue but that they are opposed to the idea of lifting the ban.

Keyho says that the Act has failed because it is not implemented properly, even though it is “an excellent act”.

Admitting that the church needs to “do more” to encourage people to adhere to the ban, he says that it is the state government that should implement the Act more stringently.

“Church does not have the power to implement the Act,” he says.

Speaking from the NBCC headquarters in Kohima, the reverend says that “responsible behaviour does not need to be defined by law alone” and that people need to act responsibly themselves.

The church in Nagaland also appears to be adamant in its stance as it is not open to the idea of regulating legal sale of locally-brewed beer, known as zutho and thutse.

“The ban has to be total as evil comes out of zutho as well. We cannot say that only liquor from outside is bad,” he argues and clarifies that even traditionally brewed alcohol should be judged on the merits of its benefit to society.

One of the strongest arguments made by those opposed to the ban, such as Daniel Swu, is that the sale of liquor can bring in revenue for the state government. Currently, bootlegged alcohol is smuggled into Nagaland from neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The church however, takes a moral high ground on this argument, with Keyho stating that there are better ways to earn revenue.

Will the church in Nagaland be open to the idea of partial lifting as was done in Mizoram?

Keyho’s is of the opinion that people of Nagaland are “not ready” for a similar move.

“What is good for Mizoram may not be good for Nagaland and vice versa,” he says. On the other side, Swu questions why Nagaland cannot implement a partial act if Mizoram can.

While in Nagaland this debate has been brewing for almost three decades, in Arunachal it is just starting.

Over the years, as people began converting to Christianity, many claim to have quit alcohol since it is frowned upon by the church.

Tai Ete, an evangelist with the Revival Church here, says that that the churches “do not appreciate alcoholism” and that they instruct congregation members against alcohol consumption whether foreign or home-grown.

While the churches have never publicly sought to ban the sale of alcohol in the state, they also do not permit anyone involved in the sale of liquor to hold any positions in the church administration.

 

FAITH AND ALCOHOL

Ete also claims that 90 percent of the members of the Revival denomination in Arunachal Pradesh are teetotallers and that “perhaps 10 percent are drinking secretly”.

Appreciative of Serbang’s effort, Ete calls it “encouraging” and that “we must work together to help society”.

It isn’t just the Church that discourages alcohol consumption though.

Bengia Augung, president of the Donyi Polo Faith & Cultural Society, an organisation protecting and promoting the indigenous Donyi-Polo faith of five major tribes of the state, also advocates prohibition.

“Alcohol is harmful and it should be phased out,” he says but clarifies that he is referring to IMFL. Since locally-brewed apong and its varieties are an integral part of tribal festivals and rituals, Augung says that its use should be permitted on those days alone.

Although Serbang is a Christian himself, he says he is not driven by any religious motives.

Dismissing any attempt to link his fight with his faith, Serbang says he is a “nominal” Christian (meaning that he is not an active church goer) and that he has “no affinity with any religious organization”.

On that cold night in Tawang, just before he gets up from his chair to return to his shelter for the night, I give in to the temptation of asking him if he has ever taken a swig of alcohol even once in his life.

“Never.”

Versions of this story appeared in The Dawnlit Post and The Citizen.

 

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The trouble with dams

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

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kameng River

The Kameng River.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Route to roads- Can dams bring development in an area neglected for years?

It is late November and the harvest season has arrived in Arunachal Pradesh. Tajir Tali, the headmaster of the government middle school in Parong village of East Siang district, has taken time out from work to tend to his golden-hued paddy field on a hill slope.

As he and the women from his family go about harvesting paddy to last them the year, the Siang flows steadily in the gorge below. While environmentalists and NGOs raise concerns over plans to construct over 40 dams on the Siang, Tali appears unaffected. In fact, he says he is looking forward to it because he has “never seen a dam before”.

Flowing parallel to the eastern Himalayas, the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India through the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh before merging with the Brahmaputra in the plains of Assam below. On its 294-km journey through Arunachal Pradesh, the river is known as the Siang. Along its banks are lush green hills teeming with wildlife, living alongside members of the Adi and Galo tribes.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

Of late, concerns have been raised that a way of life that has sustained itself for centuries may be lost forever if plans to bring about modern infrastructure development materialise. But in many villages, people voiced support for the dams as well as for the possible losses.

Located 138km north from the East Siang district headquarters of Pasighat, Parong is one of the several villages along the river where residents do not face the immediate threat of displacement from the proposed hydropower plants.

Over the last few years, several anti-large dam organisations have taken shape, but many villagers not living along the banks of the Siang appear unaffected by larger environmental concerns. What villagers like Tali are worried about is the slow pace of development of their area. And they believe that if hydropower plants are set up, development will follow.

As Tali speaks of how he “wants to see dams”, a young villager sporting a cowboy hat makes his way to the paddy field. He introduces himself as Elung Tapak and is angry that the size of the road running through the village has remained narrow since Independence.

“How will the army carry large ammunition if the Chinese attack again?” he asks, referring to the 1962 Chinese aggression, when PLA forces had occupied most parts of the state for nearly a month. Another villager, Tamat Pabia, a friend of Tali’s, says he has “heard that the Chinese have built helipads on the “other side”.

While all three villagers want dams to be set up because they feel hydropower projects will bring development to the area, there were other concerns raised.

Tapak feared that the dams may wash away large swathes of land below on the foothills of the village and Pabia said the water channels from the upper reaches of the surrounding hills have been drying steadily over the last few decades. However, such are the immediate needs of the people that across villages they are willing to lose land, even villagers whose agricultural fields would be submerged by the dams.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Up north in the village of Peging Bote, sitting inside a Mizo Presbyterian missionary’s home, Opang Tali, a recently converted Christian from the village, says he is not concerned about land submergence that the dams will bring because it’s not his land. What of his fellow tribesmen who will lose their ancestral land? “We can sympathise with them,” he says.

Down south on the way to Pasighat, Talik Taki, a resident of Sissen village, is so desperate for proper road connectivity that he is ready to forego parts of his agricultural land.

Earlier this year, the village of 20 homes made headlines after voters refused to participate in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections to voice their anger over the absence of a motorable road to the village. Apart from crossing a rickety bamboo hanging bridge over the Siang and walking up a 1.5-km footpath, the only other way to reach Sissen is by walking on a centuries-old link trail cutting across eight villages of the Nugong Banggo area. It is on this village trail that Australian event manager Melina Mellino recently organised a three-day 100-km hike called Run Siang.

The hike gathered professional and amateur athletes from India and abroad running back and forth across six villages for three days from November 26 to 28. Villagers were told beforehand to ensure that the runners were given a warm reception with food and water to replenish themselves. At Sissen, Taki and other villagers welcomed them with roasted sweet potatoes, oranges and grounded flat-rice cakes. While they extended their hospitality, even performing an impromptu welcome song and dance called the ponung, the villagers said they did not understand why these people were running so much.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Chewing on some of the roasted sweet potatoes on the return hike, Melina said she was taken aback by the beauty of the place when she and her partner Vince Radford first visited the area in December last year. “It’s such a beautiful place so we started thinking of ways to bring people in to see it,” she said.

The event website that was created explains that “the area is spectacular and unique and without attention, awareness and education, it will be lost”.

This sense of what may be lost is felt by Taki as well; he has to walk 6km to reach his paddy fields.

He says the financial compensation for his land can never replace the loss. But in the same breath, he says that perhaps his village will finally get a road once the dams are built “because the government will build it for the power company and then maybe we can use it too”.

In the original story published in December 2014, the distance from Pasighat to Parong was erroneously mentioned as being 38km instead of 138km. Link to the story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141206/jsp/frontpage/story_2367.jsp#.VexSa_mqqkp 

A village fights back- The story of one village’s battle for road in the 21st century

Tanung Siram and Ponung Tamuk remember the old days.

Tanung Siram and Ponung Tamuk remember the old days.

Best friends Tanung Siram and Ponung Tamuk, both in their eighties, talk to each other and soak in the sun. “I don’t remember the first time I voted,” Siram says.

Reminiscing about his days at the community dormitory for young Adi boys, called the musup, Siram feels that everyone has forgotten his village, Sissen.

“The other places nearby have all seen development but our village has remained where it was 60 years ago,” Siram says, as Tamuk, the quieter of the two, nods in agreement.

The tiny village of Sissen — with just 20 households and around three hours’ journey away from the East Siang district headquarters of Pasighat in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh — decided to boycott the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections on April 9 in protest against the lack of development.
The bridge over the Siang that connects the village to the world outside.

The bridge over the Siang that connects the village to the world outside.

Apart from a rickety hanging bamboo bridge, there is no direct road leading to the village from the nearest highway. When polling officials tried to enter the village on April 9, they found themselves unable to cross the Siang because villagers had damaged a part of the hanging bridge.

The state election commission announced its plans to try and hold fresh polls in Sissen and also to conduct repolling in 33 other polling stations across four districts today.

A compromise was reached to allow election officials to set up a polling station in the village. While the villagers did not try to obstruct polling officials from doing their duty, they did not budge from their stand either.

There are 140 voters in the village but nobody pressed the electronic voting machines (EVMs) though the polling officials said they could also exercise the None of the Above (NOTA) option.

“For 37 years we have been hearing promises from politicians,” complains Tajir Siram, the president of the Sissen Welfare Society which is spearheading the “no road, no vote” movement.

Angered by the FIR that was lodged against the protesters who had damaged the bridge on April 9, Siram says, “The laws don’t apply to the rich. Why should we be forced to vote?”

The sentiment reverberates across the village with almost all residents going about their daily routine donning handmade paper caps with the words “bedang kamang, votekamang (no road, no vote)” written on them.

Adi women doing the Ponung dance wearing the 'no road, no vote' caps.

Adi women doing the Ponung dance wearing the ‘no road, no vote’ caps.

Taget Siram, a former autorickshaw driver in Pasighat now making his living as a farmer, says the villagers will not budge from their stand.

“We will boycott the 2019 elections if roads are not built by then either,” he says.

“After all, we are also a part of India. Development should take place across the country and not just in some select areas,” he says.

The deputy commissioner, Nidhi Srivastava, says the villagers’ demand is genuine but is quick to add that they could have opted for the NOTA option.

Tayin Nonang, the gaonburah or village chief, is dismayed by the lack of political will to bring change in the area. “As our votes don’t seem to matter to the government, we might as well stay away from the elections,” he says.

Nonang also clarifies that the decision to boycott the polls was a collective one.

The unanimity of the decision is made abundantly clear by Milo Siram, a Class II student who proudly says that he studies at an English medium school in the nearby Pangin village. Wearing one of the “no road, no vote” caps while he plays carom with his friends, young Milo appears visibly excited.

When asked if he has any idea what the commotion all around the village is about, Milo, who probably has to wait another 10 years before he is eligible to vote, says, “bedang kamang, vote kamang”.

This story was first published in The Telegraph in April 2014. Link to original story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140420/jsp/northeast/story_18258615.jsp#.VexPRvmqqkp