The Border Villages of Arunachal Pradesh: A Story of Neglect

Katenala in the Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. Rajeev Bhattacharyya
08 December, 2015

A one-and-a-half day journey from Itanagar by road, on the bumpy and meandering hill track, is Limeking—a village inhabited by the Tagins, an indigenous tribe living in the Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. Just 12 kilometres further north is a smaller settlement, Katenala. At Katenala, the concrete road comes to an end and with it vanish all other traits usually associated with villages: independent economies, electricity, schools and medical centres.

In November this year, I was part of a motley group of ten hikers that was on their way to Taksing, a village in the same district that is three kilometres from the Chinese border. We camped at Katenala for two days while arranging for rations, porters and a local guide. According to news reports, last year, the Chinese had come menacingly close to the Indian army establishment in this region with armoured personnel vehicles last year. My plan was to examine the details of the incident and confirm if the media reports were actually true.

While we prepared for the rest of our journey, we noticed around thirty wooden huts built on plinths that were lined up on the banks of the Subansiri river, along with a few shops selling essential items such as food and supplies. The Subansiri flows from Tibet through the Upper and Lower Subansiri districts in Arunachal Pradesh, before joining the Brahmaputra river in Assam. It is one of the biggest tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The 300-metre long settlement was flanked on either end by two small army camps with medium-sized artillery pieces covered with camouflage nets. In 1962, during the month-long Sino-Indian war that ended in a ceasefire, a column of the Chinese army had descended from the border into Arunachal Pradesh through at least four regions that included Upper Subansiri. The Indian army appeared to be ensuring that it is not caught on the wrong foot again.

Although the icy winds and a perpetual thin mist made for an eerie stroll, it was made eerier still by a pall of neglect that seemed to hang over Katenala. There was no school in the entire village. It lacked health facilities and electricity, even though it is not located in the hills. There was one PCO (Public Call Office) in the village that is run by the government telecommunications company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). It provided service only for a few hours in the evening and was often occupied by army jawans who were eager to talk to their families.

Tapak Mara, a local resident, lamented that no government existed for the people who live in Katenala. “It is only during the election that we see political leaders visiting these places and making tall promises,” he said, before adding, “This state of affairs would not have existed if India felt that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of the country.” Mara told me that the situation was worse near the border, a fact he believed I would be able to confirm with ease during the course of my reporting, once I reached Taksing.

According to government data, there are 1,555 villages in border blocks—administrative units that are smaller than subdivisions or districts—in Arunachal Pradesh, with a population of 2,71,189 people. These settlements are located at varying distances from the confusing Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is supposed to demarcate the boundary between India and China. It is not known how many of these villages are in the same state as Katenala.

We made our way for Taksing, two days after we reached Katenala. We had barely started our journey before we were forced to re-trace our path because of the treacherous terrain. We halted at a small army establishment at Tame Chung Chung, 20 kilometres ahead of the LACThe track that lead to Taksing kept getting narrower. Sometimes, it was only three to four inches wide, chiselled into the side of the hill with a steep drop. A fall would have meant hurtling more than a hundred metres down into the gorge below. An army captain, we met on his way back from a border outpost at Maja, revealed that a havaldar had fallen from the cliff two years ago and was never found again. According to locals I spoke to, many of those belonging to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBF) that has been deployed at the border since 1962, also met with accidents while negotiating the terrain. In the winter of 2011, I had spent close to four months in hills of Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, that are nearly inaccessible, while reporting on a rebel base. This mountain route was harder to negotiate than the trek I had undertaken then.

The locals we met on the way to Tame Chung Chung on the other hand, were at absolute ease as they wandered through these paths. Many of them were barefoot and walked briskly despite lugging heavy loads. Curious about what was being transported, I asked some of them about their burden. “We have to carry rice and other foodstuff from Katenala after every three weeks when the stock gets depleted,” responded a woman from the group. “There is no other source of food supply for us.  In the border areas, only a few items such as apple and kiwi are grown for our own consumption.” This task, she added, became particularly hard during the rainy season and in winter, when it snows. To reach Taksing under these conditions many of them would have to make the two-day journey that spans across 40 kilometres at night as well, using only flashlights and crossing numerous hanging bridges over the river. Had our group been able to proceed further, it would have taken us at least four days to cover the same stretch.

Another member of the group, a young girl admitted that their plan to shift to “safer places” was not feasible due to the lack of financial resources. In other districts of the state, such as the Dibang Valley, that has a population density of 1 person per square kilometre according to the 2011 census, several villages have already migrated to new locations near towns and district headquarters to avoid the hardship and danger of living near the border. Last year, at a conference in Neew Delhi, the Tribal Affairs Minister of the state, Kalkiha Pul noted with alarm that a “Kargil-like situation was waiting to happen in Arunachal Pradesh” given the number of people moving away from the borders. Pul’s fear that the paucity of people in the villages near the border may allow a Chinese incursion to go undetected may not be entirely without merit. In 1999, the Pakistani army had followed a similar modus operandi when it first encroached the border in the run-up to the Kargil war.

Youth from the region do not have many options open to them. Some, I was told by the locals, aspire to join the Arunachal Scouts, a newly created infantry regiment in the army. However, they also told me that not a single person from the Taksing Circle has been inducted into the regiment on the grounds of failing to fulfil the recruitment criteria. Their only regular source of income comes from working as daily wagers under the General Reserve Engineer Force—which has been entrusted with building roads to the border at several places in the hill state—or as porters for the army and the ITBP.

The pitiable condition of these villages owes much to the centre’s reluctance to not develop the regions close to the border. It was assumed that connectivity and roads would only facilitate further incursions by the Chinese. This stance seems to have been reversed in recent times and efforts are underway to connect these settlements by road wherever feasible. However, two of Arunachal Pradesh’s former chief ministers have already been arrested for corruption and misappropriation of funds (Gegong Apang in 2010 and PK Thungan in 2015). Nabam Tuki, the current chief minister, is now battling similar allegations. One does not have to look far for evidence of misgovernance, which along with improper allocation of resources, have contributed in equal measure to the state of affairs in Arunachal Pradesh’s border villages.