Arunachal Diaries – 7

And here comes the topic of Religious conversion.

It’s a complex topic, with many layers. Personally speaking, I like to remain on the side of the constitution. Who doesn’t? But our constitution is a law on a higher plain. It certainly lays out principles but it also requires contextual interpretations, it’s not as black and white as it may appear. Secondly, there is a vast difference in what we read in national media and what happens on the ground. Attaching motives is easy. I am trying here to paint what I saw and heard. None of it is my own opinion – you may call it a partial perspective at best if you like.

(It’s better to have given such declarations nowadays where labelling someone is a common practice and discourse level is down to the level beneath common sense, muddied in rhetoric, with people having no patience in general)

We all have been hearing/reading about the North Eastern theatre, its importance to missionaries, its geostrategic importance in today’s world and the new Great Game. Ram Guha explained in his book how the Baptists wanted to carve out a separate nation out of it during 1947 negotiations. In the Great Game East, Bertil Lintner talks a lot about NE and its recent history – including China’s support to Naga separatists. GK Pillai, ex-secretary to the home ministry has explained in many articles and speeches about the relevance of conversion in the whole security architecture – he even said that the NSCN people take their cue about talks with the Indian government from the Church outside India. Indian national media is rather naive and apathetic to what all happens there but it’s not entirely their fault (more about it later). In short, in NE, the religion question is not only about individual freedom and community rights of local people – it’s steeped in international games and it can’t be denied. I also feel that it’s a best barometer of Indian Republic – its unity and integrity – as the Preamble deftly calls it.

With Father Tommy of the Church of Nyokom Lapang - the first Catholic Church in Arunachal opened 26 years ago.
With Father Tommy of the Church of Nyokom Lapang – the first Catholic Church in Arunachal opened 26 years ago.

Christianity in the originally almost-tribal NE is a very convoluted subject. Frankly I had my reservations before going there, had imagined some vague picture, some arbitrary idea. While some of it has washed away, and some streaks are strengthened by the field experience. To start with, NE is a huge region with each state having its specificity. And then there is a huge diversity within. Not all Arunachal is animism/totemism following tribal. And most of them are certainly not primitive.

In the west of it (and also at some places in the east of it) there is a Buddhist majority. These people follow Tibetan Buddhism. Tawang Monastery and the claim of China over “Lower Tibet” is a well know topic. The Monpas as they are called are very sweet and peaceful people. They are in Tawang and West Kameng districts. Ranjit and Nitin were in Bomdi La who experienced their culture. I noticed two monasteries in Itanagar – one was of Tibetan style whose foundation stone was laid by His Holiness Dalai Lama about a couple of decades ago. And other was of Hinayana people. It’s said that, like baniyas from Gujarat and Marawari sahukars, these people do such grocery business; indulge in small money-lending business all over. Their problems are different. They are not worried by conversion as their original religion itself is well evolved, institutionalised and strong. They are in more in contact with Guwahati than with Itanagar because of geographic reasons. They already have a world identity.

The conversion issue is with tribal communities. Not all are equally affected. There is inter-tribal power play as well. And there is also inter-denominational competition between the Christianity too. The Father we met was bent on denigrating the Anglicans as false religion to start with and he did it more than once. Probably, it’s a part of the Catholic faith to denounce Anglicans by denying any legitimacy. His name was Father Tommy. A Keralite from Kottayam. Kottayam is kind of Pune of Kerala with the tradition of culture. Kottayam dialect is assumed to be the standard Malyalam benchmark as is Bangalore/Mysore Kannada or Puneri Marathi. Naturally, these people tend to carry some kind of air of cultural superiority and derivative moral authority. Kottayam is also the strong fort of Christianity in Kerala and Kerala is a strong fort of Christianity in India. Many fathers in rest of India are from Kerala and so were many in Arunachal too.

Catholics have their own father-creating colleges called seminaries. These seminaries teach the students about divinity, bible, and history of Christianity, impart them organisational skills and people talking skills. In the end, the students receive a degree, duly authorised by the University in Serampore. There tens of such seminaries all across India, including one in Pune from where I come. It’s called Union Biblical Seminary. Most of the students here are from NE and some from Nepal and Bhutan as well. Anyway. The important thing is their course structure. The whole education goes on for around a decade, in which they are also taught more than basics of other religions. That’s a good thing. I can hardly imagine a Ved-Path-Shala in Pune teaching the disciples about Quran and Old Testament. But the Fathers produced from these seminars are well-equipped with a strong ‘purva-paksha’, well read and knowledgeable. They are transferrable anywhere in India or abroad under the organisaiton manned from Vatican. As India administration has revenue districts and police districts, the Vatican also has divided with world into regions and provinces. Arunachal Pradesh is the only state in India, we were told, to have 2 Archbishops. Most other states have only one. I can only presume it’s because of work load in the remote land.

To be continued…

Arunachal Diaries – 6

As I said, Arunachal State finances are crippled because of lack of any substantial local revenue source. Hydropower generation is thus a very lucrative and attractive solution to put paid to this central assistance dependence. The whole state however seems to be divided over this issue. Many outside interests are involved, some giving well-intentioned support while some giving support only to advance their disguised agenda. Even the opposing parties can be divided into these two categories – concerned opposition and those whose real intentions dressed up as concerns. It’s not very difficult to apply a motive to everyone and huge sums of money are involved. The development as an industry is at exposition with all its trappings of splendour and gloom, hope and dismay.

The question of whether to build huge hydropower dams in the Eastern Himalayan region has many complex dimensions and to answer it in simple yes or no would be a pointless exercise. Firstly the basic question is of structural viability in seismic zone V which Arunachal is. Then there is the questions of water holding capacity and sustainability in the region where there is a lot of annual rain (highest anywhere in the Himalayas) which has caused loosening of the surface soil of this youngest of the alpine mountains. All the rivers carry tons of silt while landslides are frequent. The question of ecological destruction is one and that of project affected displaced villages is another. However, considering the abundance of land and sparsity of population, resettlement should not be a big issue. Social costs will be there for every development project but the mitigation of such costs in Arunachal is possible. The political mobilisation in the state is very different from the other states, its basically either along tribal lines or mostly a student politics. Tribes are geogrophically segregated and thus politically also. Its all manageable.

Famous Hornbill - killed.
Famous Hornbill – killed.

More serious is the problem of infrastructure or lack thereof. Taking huge turbines and other equipments to the actual site locations in the hilly terrain with no roads is not simple. Not everything can be heli-dropped. Moreover, the evacuation infrastrucutre too is virtually absent. The government is hoping for the consequent (presequent?) infra construction. Its a difficult job though. The proposed East-West Industrial Corridor will be at the foothills only. The road along the bank of Siang which goes in the N-W direction is only for one valley and that too is not upto the mark yet (not to forget its seasonality). Modi proposed a new border road from Tawang to Walong but it’s just a new prosoal as of yet. The Trans-Arunachal Highway is supposed to connect 11 district HQs, but it’s only a khayaali-pulao for more than a decade now. Project Beacon in Kashmir is excruciatinly slow but something is moving on the ground at least. In Arunachal, its all in the papers. BRO is good but very sluggish. GREF gets the work done but we all know about its efficiency. Private players find it difficult to come for a variety of reasons. Its primarily a state responsibility and the state has failed miserably.

If any development project is thrusted upon the local populace without its consent, it becomes like Baglihar. Baglihar dam has become something like an icon in JnK where people treat it as a symbol of ‘haughty central government attitude’. They claim (without any factual basis whatsoever) – that all the power generated is being sold to Punjab and Delhi and the locals get pittance in return and the huge power cuts continue in the area around it – one often hears it at corner tea-shops and in drawing rooms. Such animus feeling is very detrimental for future development. In Arunachal, the process has to be of consultation and consensus. However, in democracy, the more we talk, the less we do. Everyone has his own opinion. The ten-headed Ravana laughs while reeling under the pressure of Mount Kailash, nothing moves. All that the open talk shop ensures is delay and possible denial. C Northcote Parkinson in his fantastic caricature of bureaucracy has lampooned this official process. He says that if the bureaucracy doesn’t want to do some things, they talk more and talk public about their intention to do it only to ensure that it gets abandoned in the end. On the other hand, the important things are generally get done in silence.

In a tribal house at Tezu in Lohit district. The practice of shikar is still very common, its an economic need as well as a social compulsion.
In a tribal house at Tezu in Lohit district. The practice of shikar is still very common, its an economic need as well as a social compulsion.

As far as the hydropwer is concerned, Assam has some real issues to grapple with considering it’s a lower riparian state. It fears flooding as well as contraction of water flow. All the water that it receives comes from Arunachal and it does not want to lose control over it to the politicians of the not-so-friendly-neighbouring state.

International dimension of hydropower is also crucially important especially when India does not have any water-sharing treaty with China, neither does China subscribe to international water-sharing regimes. China’s occluding strategy and high-handed behaviour along with its economic might, history of successful top-directed efforts and Tibet imbroglio obfuscate the whole cooperation and breed nothing but suspicion. There are some latest reports of data-sharing and China allowing Indian hydrologists to visit the upper reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo. But these are hardly any cause of optimism and no long term solution. India wants to be an early bird by appropriating as much water as possible in probable future legal battle over the sharing. The battle is on for the future status-qou-ante-bellum. India, however, has to take interests of Bangladesh also in consideration before going ahead. India is not unknown for similar inconsiderate behaviour with her smaller neighbours in the past.

Economic viability is to be considered especially when the upfront cost is huge and about half of the projects are said be constructed by private players with certain kind of risk sharing arrangement with the government. Now this is crucially important. There are other sub-dimensions to it. In the past, it was found that the generation potential of thousands of megawatts was artificially inflated, without any serious, credible and scientific ground survey. Some private companies when reached the place after bidding found it difficult to start their operations. Second is the issue of ILP. Arunachal cant provide hundreds of daily wage labourers. Even the education system there is not well developed and neither is accepted by the society as yet as a necessary component of development (more on it later). Finding full time Arunachali employees as managers and engineers is also again very difficult. Thus any dam building and power-plant construction/maintenance will require it to employ outsider non-tribals. Simply bringing the labours from Assam and Odisha requires ILP. The turnover rate is huge and unpredictable in inhospitable land with unwelcome people. Even if the sufficient labours are found, getting their replacement and then obtaining ILP everytime may put the work to halt for some time. It becomes unsustainable from business point of view. India is not the British Raj anymore where Southern Bihar and upland Tamil country used to be the catchment areas for slaves and girmitiyas.

The city of Itanagar, situated in the hills but sprawling like any other urban space in India. It does not have a single slum. That doesn't however automatically mean that the civic services' provision is in good condition or even present.
The city of Itanagar, situated in the hills but sprawling like any other urban space in India. It does not have a single slum. That doesn’t however automatically mean that the civic services’ provision is in good condition or even present. The city is also witnessing indiscriminate use of the unsatiable JCB earth movers. The hills are being flattened. In the rains, half of it flows away as debris while other half gets covered under landslides, leaving harldy any flat tabled land behind.

This is true of not only hydropower but any future industrial development. ILP, additionally makes it impossible for outsiders to purchase land. An outsider can rent it but can’t purchase it. This has created a kind of rent-economy where in cities, all the shops/apartments are locally owned, but are rented to outsiders for operation. Most of the shops that we saw in Naharlagun-Itanagar belt were being operated by Biharis and Punjabis. Locals hardly want to do regular jobs. For any industry for that matter, it becomes a strenuous job to maintain economic activities ongoing for the lack of property right and rigid labour market.

(The conclusion of our discussion as was – Carpet policy decisions don’t benefit and the solution has to be thought differently for different river valleys. There are five of them with different geographic and social/demographic characters. It’s better to treat them differently. One or two sample mega dams can be built as model and then we can think of the rest of the state with enhanced capacities and accumulated experience. There are other ways also to generate revenue like horticulture and tourism but all of these have their own pros and cons.)

ILP thus has to be revoked say some. There are other dimensions to it as well. Father Tommy from Kottayam was at ease with it. He said it does not matter for him whether ILP remains or not. Most of the fathers come from outside, especially from Kerala but they don’t face any problem. The Churches are built on the lands donated by local tribesmen. The Arunachal Vikas Parishad (AVP) people also came across more concerned about the overall ecological impact and wanted ILP to stay to keep the Arunachal identity intact. I found their interest was more pro-conservation of tribal identity only because the modernisation onslaught was supposedly emanating from the spread of Christianity. The common people seemed to be very conscious of their tribal identity as well. Each tribe has one special word for non-tribals which are partly pejorative as well. Adis refer to outsiders as hareng. Many of them do it innocently. But the lines are drawn. They are afraid that as Bengalis, Biharis and Bangladeshi Muslims have inundated Assam, the same may happen, the Bangladeshi Muslims are stopped in Assam only because of ILP. Once ILP is removed, the land-hungry people will change the whole face of their homeland by altering its demography. This is not an isolated opinion but quite a mainstream, lots of people we talked to expressed this opinion. May be.

To be continued…
(Preview Photo – Sunset in Khonsa, Tirap-Changlang area. Credit – Mr. Aniket Marne)

Arunachal Diaries – 5

View of the Himalayas from Tezu (HQ of Lohit district). Credit - Mr. Gaurav Anap
View of the Himalayas from Tezu (HQ of Lohit district)

Take for example the precarious financial condition of the Arunachal State Government. All and sundry we met were very concerned about this. The issue of ILP and the condition of state economy are intertwined closely.

One fine afternoon we met Mr. Daulat Hawaldar (IAS, AGMUT Cadre) who is Finance Secretary to the State Government. The objective was to understand the problem of state finances. But he actually came across more as a student of social-psychology than a finance secretary. He either dodged the pointed questions as if they were insignificant or diverted some of those to ‘meta’ issues. He was more at ease with discussing philosophical and ethical dimensions. He also seemed verry much interested in dissecting human nature. Sometimes he went on comparing the social psyche of common Goans (most of his postings were in Goa) vis-à-vis that of various Arunachali tribes. Apparently, he was not very happy over his deputation in Arunachal. Very few people are. One DC, who came to inaugurate one of our district centres, openly castigated and ridiculed the locals for their inability to work. The purpose of his visit was to motivate the students to take up to the competitive examinations. On the contrary, he just foredoomed them. This was his frustration speaking.

Before leaving Pune, we were told about the ease with which one can meet and speak to senior government functionaries. It’s true. It’s very difficult for a common man to get into the office of a DC or a DM in Pune. In Arunachal, you can just walk in. As simple as that. And the officials too will entertain you, will engage with you. Half of our group went to the houses of CM and LoP unannounced, without appointment. CM was not at home then but the LoP gave around 30 minutes of his time. He also offered some tea and biscuits.

With Mr. Dault Hawaldar, Secretary Finance, Arunachal Pradesh. (IAS, AGMUT Cadre).
With Mr. Dault Hawaldar, Secretary Finance, Arunachal Pradesh. (IAS, AGMUT Cadre).

Tribal egalitarian culture (not so egalitarian actually but more about it later) may be the factor, I thought. After reaching there, however, I came to realise that other factors are much more dominant. Firstly, the tribals have very less patience with the government machinery. They tend to get their way. Mr. Hawaldar said that by the time the file reaches the top, the people run out of patience. They barge in, and ask the officers in Secretariat to sign on. If denied for the sake of due diligence or even some procrastination is hinted at, they may create a situation. He learnt to understand and solve the problems right away, in front of them, even if on the legal borderline sometimes. It takes a colonial rule after all to inculcate the sarkari habits…:)

Secondly, the officials seemingly don’t have much to work to do. At district places, people don’t come with their problems to the DC. They don’t see the government as their maai-baap. They have their own social system, basti people, tribal chief, kebang and dao to take care of daily problems. There is no single beggar in the whole state. No one is orphan, for the larger family takes care of orphaned children, provides for them. So much so that one small girl we met could not differentiate between her real brother and her neighbour. If some calamity takes place like burning down of bamboo houses (which happens regularly it seems), the whole basti comes to rescue, each family bringing ten-twenty bamboos, and build a new house in two days. Collective efforts at their best. This culture too is fast eroding due to modernisation. Army is also present at many places, creating parallel structures, especially in the eastern and the western districts of Arunachal (and border districts too).

In sum, many officers there don’t have much to do. Shweta/Trupti/Pooja could meet Industry Director of Arunachal State in local Adi Temple during weekly prayers and the very next day they were invited to his office for tea. He gave around one hour of his time. Mind well, this is Itanagar I am speaking about, the state capital. At all the coaching centres in other district places, either local DC or SP came for course-inauguration. Tourism secretary came and talked for over an hour at Itanagar centre while Chief Engineer of Public Health Department gave more than 2 hours for Naharlagun inauguration.

More interesting is the condition of non-Arunachali officers like Hawaldar sir. We secured his appointment by sending him one simple sms only half a day in advance. He asked us to come at 4 o’clock and then called us at 3.45 to ask why we had not reached his place still…! He apparently was standing in the verandah of the state guest house since then and was waiting for us. Incredible…! Away from the family in Goa, he must have felt very alone. And finding someone speaking Marathi was a kind of feast for him. He spoke for two hours, non-stop and kept speaking his mind regardless of our questions. It also indirectly indicates towards how even well-intentioned and capable non-tribal senior officers are received by locals.

We also came across some non-Arunachalis in NGO sector. They had made Arunachal their home, and Arunachalis also had accepted them as their own brethren. May it be Shekharji of RSS, Father Tommy of the Catholic Church at Nyokom Lapang, Kalyan Dutt Sir of PWD, Prof. Prakash Panda of DN College or Vijay Swamy Sir of RIWATCH. These people have devoted major part of their life for Arunachal.

Before going any further let’s first finish other and critically important dimensions of the issue of ILP. I will wind up the ILP in the next article and then move on.

Road to Tezu.  Nature's Bounty.
Road to Tezu.
Nature’s Bounty.

Arunachal Diaries – 4

Sunset @ Sundarbans (Credit - Aniket Marne)
Sunset @ Sundarbans (Credit – Aniket Marne)

It took us 4 days to reach Itanagar. At 4 o’clock in the morning, our ILPs were checked at Bandardeva. This is the gateway to Papum Pare district wherein Itanagar is located. The ITBP jawans standing at the check-post appeared very lackluster early in the morning. Our ILPs were not scrutinised thoroughly as if it was a mere formality. Actually, coming to think of it now, it’s very easy for miscreants to forge ILP to get entry into the state. It’s just a paper with one stamp and names of entrants written with pen (along with entry/exit points and duration of stay). There are no photos, no barcodes, no seals, nothing. Simple and plain paper with one stamp… And the boundary of Arunachal with Assam is very not impenetrable. As said by Gladstone –Laws only constrict the freedom of good intentioned people, for bad people, these are anyway useless.

This is one issue which has potential to dramatically stir the whole political atmosphere in the state. Afer decades of slow progress, last year, the rail service finally reached directly to Naharlagun (part of Itanagar complex). The whole nation expected Arunachal to be happy alas. However there were many protests…! Locals wanted the Railways either to check the ILP of each passenger or to stop the operations. Railway understandably refused to accept saying it to be the job of the state government, thus outside its mandate. After many protests, people forcibly stopped the railway operations. Arunachal must be the only state in India not welcoming Railway connection. And here we keep harping on our old tune of lack of infrastructure in the NE. Finally, some arrangement is made with the state government where ILPs will be checked at Naharlgun before un-boarding. This news came in when we were about to leave the state.

The issue of ILP is a very complex and its history very contorted, chequered. The tribes in Arunachal were (and are) very ferocious. The British could not tame them. The Sahibs actually didn’t even intend to rule over this inhospitable area for lack of its economic value, hardy terrain and brawny people. Not only it was very arduous to tame these tribes, the constant inter-tribal warfare never let the land rest in peace. Intention of the Sahibs was two-fold. To secure the plains of mighty Brahmaputra from raids of upland people and secondly to keep this area as buffer between India and China which was being approached from north by Russia at that time. William Moorcroft was sent to explore the higher Himalayas, Tibetan plateau and then to Central Asia at the height of the Great Game during the times of the Hon. Company. From then till the time of 1911 Treaty with Russia, the outer Himalayas served the purpose of a buffer. Meanwhile, the tea plantations in the doors of Asom turned out to be very profitable (along with the trade in elephant of course). Asom also served the purpose of passage to the Pegu/Burma which had to be safeguarded. British were satisfied by restricting the troublemaking tribes to their own lands. (Anglo-Abor war was one terrible mistake) And thus they introduced Outer Line Permit and Inner Line Permit. These permits regulated the movement of people in these areas in these protected areas.

The OLP was revoked sometime later. The ILP continues till date. It disbars outsiders from entering the area without special permission. The intention at the time of independence to continue this ILP regime was sort of idealistic – to save tribal identity. Verrier Elwin persuaded Chacha Nehru that the pace of modernisation has to be different in different areas and the Arunachal (then NEFA) was not yet ready for outside influence. The current situation however is somewhat anomalous. The urban and town living tribals have costliest of the gadgets in their pockets, wear latest fashion jeans, speak English, watch BBC, purchase China-made illegal goods. Some of them even own apartments in Lavasa. Many go outside Arunachal for some years – mostly for educational purpose. Modern communication has rendered such artificial sagregation of any part of the word impossible and in turn a part of the ILP argument invalid.

On every possible opportunity we asked this question. Ranging from simple students to Finance Secretary Arunachal, a father of the first Catholic Church in Arunachal, an RSS Pracharak, an AVP Head, and Director Industry Arunachal to one senior person in PWD. The answers vary and so do their reasoning. The question is very very delicate. It has many facets – cultural, political, economic. It’s at the root of Arunachal-Assam boundary problems, it’s connected to economic backwardness and it’s also connected to many other identity issues.

The beautiful Siang river near Pasighat. Its called Brahmaputra after it enter the plains of Asom and other rivers like Lohit meet with it.
The beautiful Siang river near Pasighat. Its called Brahmaputra after it enters the plains of Asom and other rivers like Lohit meet with it.

The ILP makes non-tribals and non-Arunachalis a sort of secondary citizen within Arunachal with no property rights and voting rights. We were told that the tribals are exempted even from paying income tax and outsiders working temporarily working in the state (like University professors) have to pay it. This inequality has now assumed very intense political dimension with entrenched interests. Mind well, Arunachal is a state with area even larger than that of Assam and population less than 15 lakh (of which only around 8,00,000 are tribals). Assam, on the other hand, is bloated. Bengalis, Biharis and Bangladeshis are everywhere. People are land-hungry. If you look closely at the map, Arunachal starts where Himalayas start. All the plain area is in Assam (except at two places, one of those being Pasighat area). Assamese thus till the land upto the very boundary further from which they can’t buy any land. Arunachalis on the other hand, are hungry for plains and many of them are now turning to farming in the plains. The state is also looking desperately for some plain area. Arunachalis can go into Assam and buy lands adjacent to the boundary. They can do whatever they want and then get back into their safe hideouts in the mountains. (Sometimes, inter-tribal affairs pour out into Assam) If Assamese try to track them down; they can’t even easily enter Arunachal without ILP. And getting ILP takes time, needs some local contact and there is a whole procedure for it. This has created a lot of problems. Continuous boundary disputes, riots, gang-wars. Such unequal rights and mutually contradictory needs are at the basis of Arunachal-Assam boundary disputes.

To be continued…

Arunachal Diaries – 3

Group of 16 on the arrival in Kolkata. The morning of 5th Jan 2014.
Group of 16 on the arrival in Kolkata. The morning of 5th Jan 2014.

We finally reached Kolkata after traveling by Azad Hind for around 30 hours. Few amongst us were coming out of Maharashtra for the first time and their reactions were worth noting. So excited was Shubham that he used to loudly utter one word after every few minutes jumping simultaneously in his sit. ‘Didi’ he would exclaim suddenly and then remain quiet for a minute or two. Then, out of nowhere, he said say ‘Roshogulla’ and again went on silent mode. After a few minutes ‘Ganguly’, silent, ‘Howda bridge’, silent, ‘Tagore’, silent, ‘Eden Garden’, silent. At least, these were some positive notes. Later on he switched to ‘Sharada scam’, silent and then even ‘Bangladesh.’ It was so funny watching him… after 20 minutes or so, he stopped as he must have felt emotionally exhausted.

Our first visit was to Shri. Santosh Nimbalkar (IPS) currently posted as ADCP Airport, Kolkata. He had made our local arrangements. We had a fantastic chat with and he also delivered a very motivating speech. Answered almost all of our questions patiently and gave us sufficient time. In the end, he kept insisting us on asking more till we ran out of questions. The topics ranged from his earlier postings in Maoist areas to many of West Bengal’s current issues – law and order, political and otherwise.

Santosh Nimbalkar (IPS) - an inspiration for all. Currently ADCP, Airport, Kolkata, he talked genuinely about various subjects and gave his perspective on many issues.
Santosh Nimbalkar (IPS) – an inspiration for all. Currently ADCP, Airport, Kolkata, he talked genuinely about various subjects and gave his perspective on many issues.

Our way back to Howda station was a unique experience. The rear axle of our Sumo broke down bringing the vehicle to grinding halt. The PI then arranged for another vehicle. Meanwhile we had lost precious half hour. And then were we stuck in the notorious Kolkata traffic. One vehicle went ahead with the police banner while the replacement vehicle was being driven by some civilian, who was not so dashing. For travelling around 10 km distance, it took around 2 hours. We almost missed our train by hair’s breadth.

During the second stay at Kolkata on our way back, we consciously avoided Kolkata traffic. It needs some serious work. The trams are actually useless for they travel very slowly, don’t carry many people, are poorly connected and act rather as speed reducers in the midst of the roads. Premier Padminis and Ambassadors are plentiful everywhere. The oldest Metro rail in India is in Kolkata but its expansion is so slow that it has only one north-south line, leaving most of Kolkata unconnected. Even on the famous Hooghly River, there are only three bridges, one of which was built before independence. Vidyasagar Setu, built relatively recently is so badly designed and located that it has created additional problems instead of solving some. Downtown infrastructure is also very pathetic. Only the area around erstwhile Fort Williams is in good shape. Just a stone’s throw away from the Park Street starts Chowrangi Lane with all its ramshackle houses on both sides, with semi-open gutters and roadside hawkers selling food to no one. If you want to shoot Mrinal Sen’s Interview (1971) or Kharij (1982), it can be done very cheaply as there is no need of any film studio or set. You can go in any alley and start shooting. Nothing has changed since then. Some old buildings, same old hoardings and same old people with same old behaviour.

I had an opportunity to see the hinterland of West Bengal in 2010 when I had visited Shanti Niketan. The road was so tardy and the scenery around was so gloomy. Even Kabi Thakur’s (Tagore’s) Shanti Niketan is in disrepair. The whole West Bengal appeared so lifeless then. This time, we visited Sundarbans. The boat fare for around 400m ferry ride to cross one Ganga channel in the delta region to reach an island was beyond my comprehension. It was mere Rs 1..! Anything above that and people either can’t afford to pay or the old communist habits won’t allow. Such artificial depression of prices has stopped the growth. Thankfully this time we did not face any habitual bandh or hartal. The whole region starting from Canning to Godkhali is like another planet. The bounties of nature have turned into a curse. The region once had issues of Malaria and communication. Even today, half of the homes seem not connected to electricity grid. The roads were not paved but of bricks. The vehicles were custom-made – by attaching one small diesel engine and a chain to a cycle. There are no dredgers and thus no all-time river-channels to cross islands. One has to depend on high tide for ferries to get started. Everything is very slow. People do watch TV and know all that is happening around them. But nothing reaches them. There is only one ambulance-boat which does not work after sunset. If on some island a medical emergency erupts, it’s all in the hands of god till the morning with high tide. Even the Sundarban tourism seems not to have benefited the local populace. Some guides are from local villages but most of the forest machinery is from elsewhere in Bengal. The boat-riders are locals but there are hardly 40 boats giving employment to less than 200. And total number of guides is only 40. The Royal Bengal Tiger can’t even support 1000 families..! In addition to that, there is a continuous migration to this inhospitable terrain, from Bangladesh and from lower Odisa where living conditions are even more precarious. These people have made many islands in Subdarban their home and delivering services at their house-door is very difficult.

A typical house in Sundarban islands...
A typical house in Sundarban islands…
Boat ride in Sundarbans - from Dobanki to Sanjekhali. (Khali probably means khadi in Marathi, and there are many khalis - Godkhali, Sanjekhali and even Naokhali)
Boat ride in Sundarbans – from Dobanki to Sanjekhali. (Khali probably means khadi in Marathi, and there are many khalis – Godkhali, Sanjekhali and even Naokhali)

Minor forest produce has long been the mainstay of these people. Some communities are acknowledged for their skill in collecting honey. These people are awarded licenses by the forest department. Almost every small roadside vendor had bottle-full honey on sale. Sundarbans also produce timber – hard as well as soft – used from local boatbuilding activity to some newsprint. We could not meet any local government official. On the positive note however, we noticed three things giving us some optimism. First, fresh water is so easily available there that they take rice thrice a year, like in Kerala. (Sometimes though, floods bring brackish water into their fields and make those useless for some years. This is a severe problem there.) Secondly, many of the houses are using solar panels. And lastly and most importantly, almost every house had devoted a portion of their plot for horticulture – they grow beautiful flowers and vegetables – probably for Kolkata which is around 90 km away. Things (and people too) are moving but the pace is excruciatingly slow.

But this was all while our way back home from Arunachal. We took Kamrup Express to reach Guwahati where we received our ILPs and then by bus it took us around 10 hours to reach Itanagar via Tezpur.

Just two days earlier, violence had erupted in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar. On our way to Arunachal.
Just two days earlier, violence had erupted in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar. On our way to Arunachal.