Road to progress

Print edition : February 27, 2009

THE NEW LOHIT bridge at Parasuram Kund, which provides access to Lohit district all through the year and is a reason for its new-found prosperity.-

A FEW years ago, Lohit district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh was one of the poorest and least populated places in India. For half a year it used to be cut off by the flooded Lohit river. Today it is humming with hope.

The turnaround happened three years ago when a bridge came up on the river at Parasuram Kund, where the Lohit hurtles out of a gorge and spreads out over a 20-kilometre-wide bed that formed part of the tortuous ferry-sprinkled route.

Gone is the listlessness of the people. The areas of Chowkham and Namsai, before the Lohit river, are part of an industrial belt, and Tezu, the headquarters of Lohit district, is a lively place now. Instead of 30 shops a few years ago, there are more than 300, with many of them selling luxury goods. A population of about 100,000 has 5,000 cellphones. There is so much development work going on that the district has been split into two. The new district is called Anjaw, with its headquarters at Hawai, midway to the border from Tezu, which is in the plains.

THE DAYS OF ferries such as these on the Lohit river are numbered with more and more people preferring to take the new bridge near Parasuram Kund. Five more bridges have been planned on the new route.-

Most of the homes have been rebuilt with sturdy tin roofs. Schools have teachers and new facilities, and hospitals and primary health centres have doctors and equipment. Where earlier there was not a single handcart or rickshaw, there are parking lots exclusively for them. There are professional coaching institutes, automated teller machines (ATMs), Internet cafes and many restaurants.

Subsistence agriculture has been replaced by orange and apple orchards and cardamom plantations. There is electricity round the clock at Dirak, where one enters the district from Assam, and all the way beyond Walong, until the border with Tibet 280 km away. The long road that connects sparsely populated villages is always busy with taxis, trucks, buses and motorcycles plying up and down. The road is being improved with several concrete bridges. And along the river many mini hydroelectric projects are coming up.

The all-weather road has opened up possibilities of trade and tourism. The Meju and Digaru Mishmis, who inhabit the mountainous tracts, and the Khamptis and Singphos, who dwell in the plains, are aggressive traders traditionally. Until 1952 there was a Tibetan trade agent posted in Tezu and an Indian representative in Rima (now Zayui) in Tibet, about 80 km from Walong.

With a fine road there is hope among the people of a resumption of trade with China. A new road on the left bank of the river from the border until Wakhro in the foothills will soon be built at a cost of Rs.1,300 crore and this has raised optimism about an early resumption of trade. The short airstrip at Walong may also be extended for landing more tourists and trade.

The road from Dirak to Kibithoo/Kahao on the India-China border is a spectacular treat as it winds through large patches of dense forest of tall, smooth-trunk trees up to Hawa Camp, where one gets a fascinating view of the Lohit and Digaru river beds.

Over the first ridge the view is of a broad, stirring pass at an altitude of about 4,000 metres, dominated by two peaks about 700 m higher, at the base of which is a lake. It is the source of the scenic Tidding river, which meets the Lohit on the valley floor.

THE VAST BED of the Lohit river that has to be crossed to reach Tezu.-

Remnants of large forests continue to awe, as does the scale of the mindless felling that is reducing them. In such clearings, orange orchards and cardamom plantations are mushrooming even as the logs go to veneer mills at Chowkham. The new bridge across the Lohit to Hawai has stirring views of the snaking river. Around the Sarti river, the dense tropical jungle makes way for alpine forests with no undergrowth.

The State government, recognising the tourism potential of this place, is allowing tourists, both foreign and Indian, to use its circuit houses and rest houses and is building a vast tourist complex near Dong, 5 km beyond Walong, which by next year will have splendid facilities for mass tourism. The views of ruggedly beautiful, soaring mountains, abrupt rock faces and towering trees are not enough to get visitors until there is good accommodation. Some hotels are coming up in Hayuliyang and Walong but there is no standardisation or quality control.

Recently, both India and China expressed the hope that there would be increased trade by land routes. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in Tawang on November 9 that he expected a land trade route to China through the northeastern region to open soon. The Governor of Yunnan Province, Qin Guangrong, said much the same thing in an article in The Hindu of November 13.

GOOD ROADS AND orange orchards have kept the wholesale price of oranges low.-

The road along the Lohit river runs right up to the border with China at Kahao. At about 1,400 m, it is the lowest crossing point into Tibet from India and remains open throughout the year, which is good for commerce. The Chinese have a better and wider road to Rima and beyond to Kunming and Chengdu, both important industrial and trade centres. Unfortunately, this road has not attracted much attention. Most people in the North-East still hold seminars to promote the reopening of the old, 1,700-km Ledo road to Kunming, which passes through insurgent territory in Myanmar, is narrow and overgrown with trees and undergrowth, and was used only once, during the Second World War. Of late, the Indian government has been energetic in its attempts to improve facilities here and resume trade soon.

There is tremendous economic improvement among the Khamtis, the Mishmis and the Megyors (of Tibetan origin living around Walong), who now market their vegetables, oranges and cardamom in Assam. Their financial exploitation is still rife, though.

North Indian traders continue to control the wholesale trade and also own most of the shops. For more than five years they have bought oranges at the rate of three for one rupee and sold them for at least Rs.3 each in Assam. Three years ago they procured cardamom at the rate of Rs.158 a kilogram, but today the rate is Rs.60 a kg, which they sell at Rs.300 a kg.

AT HAYULIYANG'S MARKET, which is expanding slowly.-

The State government could prevent such exploitation by establishing an agricultural marketing cooperative. Instead the farmers are at the mercy of the traders. That is perhaps why opium cultivation is still common here; it has helped in the prosperity. At one stage, the All Mishmi Economic Welfare Association (AMEWA) tried to hone the trading skills of the people here, but after a couple of years of promise it stopped functioning.

If trade opens with China, they may be able to get better deals for their produce, provided they are organised. The young will have innumerable opportunities to stay close to their homes and make a good living. The improvements in communication should be used faster for the economic uplift of the people in this district, which can no longer be considered remote.

The Walong-Kibithoo/Kahao (1,400 m)-Zayui (2,325 m) border has the potential to be the most important area along the entire 5,000 km India-Tibet border; a broadgauge line runs until Rupai in Assam, merely 30 km from Dirak. This presents opportunities to draw goods from all over the country to this tract. It could also be a funnel for Chinese goods going to India. With a little bit of broadmindedness and imagination, and dynamic political pushing, this link could drive the development of the entire region beginning from Jorhat.

TO SCHOOL, AT Hayuliyang. Good roads and a well-equipped school have made a lot of difference to the lives of people here.-

The low-altitude Lohit road is a very convenient link with eastern Tibet, which is Tibets most populous side and also has the largest, and still expanding, network of roads in all of Tibet. Tibets interior is usually higher than 3,000 m, and getting fresh supplies to these places and beyond in winter is difficult. For Upper Assam and the Lohit valley, connectivity presents a good opportunity to send fresh vegetables, fruits, bamboo shoots, spices and meat to China.

The Lohit valley and the hills are made of Precambrian rocks that are rich in precious stones and are an extension of the Mogok range of neighbouring Myanmar to the east. Traces of pyrite and calc silicate have been found near Walong, raising hopes of commercial exploitation.

Around the course of the Tidding, met on the way to Hayuliyang from Tezu, are vast amounts of limestone. Marble deposits have been found in the Doloi valley, near the fast-expanding subdivision town of Hayuliyang; the now not-so-enigmatic Dau valley nearby; and Walong. Other minerals that have been detected in this district are graphite and molybedite. Their organised mining can bring sorely needed employment to youth of the district.

In the contiguous areas of Upper Assam are enormous deposits of low-ash coal. Tar for road building is an easy extract from this type of coal and it will have a ready market at Arunachals doorstep, in Tibet and Yunnan. Yunnans trade with India jumped by 45 per cent in five years, from $50.48 million to $333 million. Most of it was by the long sea route and the rest by air, through the newly opened link between Kunming and Kolkata. Once the road link is opened for trade, the entire region of Upper Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh will benefit.

A TALL HOLLONG tree in Tezu, the sole remnant of a large forest.-

Zayui also the Tibetan name for the Lohit river is the nearest town to Walong and is about 40 km from the border. Chengdu, in the central Chinese province of Szechwan, and the important eastern Tibetan town of Qamdo can now be more accessible to Indian goods and tourists, just as most Indian towns in the North-East are already accessible to Chinese goods.

Possibilities of legal trade are immense for both countries. From Bangda, half way to Qamdo from Zayui, roads go north-east and east to Chengdu and Kunming. If a route to Kunming is desired, this, although longer, would be infinitely more economical than the Stilwell road, 1,300 km of which will have to be realigned, widened and strengthened at immense cost by India.

For these plans to work political vision and will are necessary. To use security as the reason to block land routes to China selectively would be a short-sighted and weak-kneed policy.

If refineries and huge power plants can come up near the India-Pakistan border in Punjab, and more and more road and rail links are opened to that country, why cannot trade with China be resumed along the Dibrugarh-Tezu-Kahao-Rima road? Security could not be the main concern here, for several Army camps along this road have been closed down.

THE ZAYUI, AS the Lohit is known in China, as it enters India from Tibet.-

If the concern is about Chinese goods flooding the North-East, a walk around any market in the region, and many others in the rest of the country, will show that Chinese goods are in abundance, all of them smuggled in. If officialdom cannot prevent such large-scale smuggling, the alternative is to control the inflow of goods by legalisation; transborder trade can at least fetch revenues by way of duties.

Baseless suspicions and undefined strategic reasons should no longer be the excuse to block the economic regeneration of the North-East. With economic resurgence, insurgency will become redundant.

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