It was quite clear that ‘mafias’ were at work and that no effort was being made to check them. Pristine Arunachal Pradesh was being raped
Non- Stop India
Allen Lane/Penguin, 2011
`499, 257 pages
The day after the inauguration of the Buddhist Pagoda we set off for Mamang’s home town of Pasighat, travelling along the beginnings of a new West–East Highway that was being constructed to run across Arunachal. Much of the rough track had been cut through thick forest, and the charred earth and foliage along it showed that the road-builders had resorted to ‘slash and burn’ to force their way through. Wild banana plantains, gigantic bamboos and dense undergrowth were already beginning to reclaim the road. Orchids and creepers embraced trees forty metres high. The SUV slithered and slid along the mud track, made precarious by recent rain. It was tempting to stop and examine the jungle more closely, but the dark clouds were getting lower and Mamang was anxious that we at least reached the halfway point in our journey before the rain came. The car didn’t have four-wheel drive, there was no mobile phone connectivity, and there would be no one in this remote area to help us if we got stuck.
So I sat back and enjoyed the wind whipping through the windows, and the intense green of the forest. I wondered how long it could survive. The Indian government has drawn up ambitious plans for a network of roads to make Arunachal’s border with China easier to defend. Then there are the roads being built to construct hundreds of dams to generate power. Roads in India, on the whole, spell disaster for forests. They open the way for corrupt contractors in collusion with corrupt officials to reap a rich harvest of timber. I remembered one Chief Minister of the Western Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh who was known by the sobriquet of ‘Lakri Chor’—‘Wood Thief ’. Roads also encourage settlements, with the new residents using local timber to build their homes and fuel their fires. And yet, I told myself, without roads people say there can be no development.
One answer to this dilemma is to combine community participation with law enforcement by the government that will prevent roads causing the destruction of forests. The Arunachal Pradesh government has started a movement called Apna Van, which means ‘Your Forest’, to encourage communities to protect the forests around them. But if the example of the rest of India is anything to go by, there will also need to be effective law enforcement as villagers on their own cannot be a match for the timber mafia, as they are known.
|Mark Tully, Writer|
‘How wonderful to see you. I totally forgot you were here or I would have told you we were coming,’ she greeted him.
For all her convent education and sophistication, tribal traditions remain very important to Mamang. She is a member of the Pasi clan of the Adi tribe and we found that wherever we went we ran into people she introduced as ‘brothers and sisters’ who turned out to be more distant relatives known as ‘clan brothers and sisters’. This gentleman was one of them. He and Mamang went into detailed discussions about the journey. His brow furrowed and he was clearly worried by our plans.
‘I will get my vehicle,’ he told Mamang. ‘Better to have two, and I don’t think I could relax if I didn’t know for sure you had arrived. This rain will make it very difficult.’
After lunch, he climbed into the front seat of our SUV beside the young driver, who we now discovered was new to his job and had never attempted a journey remotely on this scale, and began to give him encouragement and advice. His own Jeep followed behind as we set off down a straight but more or less underwater track through ramrod straight trees. With his guidance we managed to reach the banks of one of the perennial rivers of Arunachal, the Dibang, down whose valley the Chinese had advanced in their 1962 invasion. There was a small queue of cars standing on the bank in the cold wind waiting for the ferry. Dark clouds glowered over the hills upstream where it was obviously raining hard. The river seemed to swell as we watched.
I was alarmed to see that the ferry carrying two cars consisted of a pair of traditional wooden boats lashed together to form a makeshift catamaran that required constant bailing to keep it afloat. It was being propelled by six men with bamboo poles. I couldn’t see how the crew would control their vessel and prevent it being swept away downstream. But no. Just before the ferry reached midstream, where the river was flowing very rapidly, the crew hurriedly exchanged their poles for oars, rowed for all they were worth and managed to edge the ferry into the far bank. Then they struggled to tow it up to the landing point, which was just two planks. When it came to our turn I noticed with trepidation that all three waiting cars were being loaded, not just two. The crew obviously doubted whether the rising river would make it possible for them to make any more crossings and they didn’t want to leave anyone stranded.
We all decided we felt safer outside rather than inside the SUV, so we stood in the rain. Approaching midstream I looked down anxiously at the dark foaming water I could see through the gaps in the planks beneath my feet. The ferry started to roll and veer round in the current but once again the crew’s drill was immaculate. They were at the oars in no time, rowed feverishly, controlled the ferry, and brought it safely to the other bank. The only casualty was one passenger’s hat that flew into the river. Even that a crew member rescued by fishing it out with his punting pole.
Once away from the river we were back in the jungle, with the car skidding along the uneven muddy track until we reached the hills that Mamang said were the prettiest section of our journey. Although she was anxious to get as near as possible to Pasighat before dark, we stopped to look down on the thatched houses-on-stilts of an Adi village still famous for taking up arms against the might of the British Raj. Soon we were in complete darkness pierced only by our headlights. Eventually we made out the scattered lights of Pasighat ahead of us and crossed a new concrete bridge over the Siang river, as the Brahmaputra is called in its upper reaches. The Pasighat bridge is one obvious sign of the development of infrastructure now beginning in Arunachal. But past lack of development isn’t the only reason that Arunachal Pradesh has conserved more of its natural richness than other parts of India. The state is more sparsely populated than any other in India. The density of population in Arunachal, when the 2001 census was conducted, was thirteen inhabitants to every square kilometre. In neighbouring Assam the figure was three hundred and forty people per square kilometre.