Narang Yania, 75, an Apatani from Ziro valley, is perhaps one of the last from her generation who can turn the humble paddy straw into a flute. Yania was at the Ziro Festival of Music (ZFM) with her friend Onya, 73. Pointing to the undulating fields of golden paddy almost ready for harvest that formed the backdrop to the venue, she said, “This is our music. The present generation is slowly losing the connect we have with our fields, a connect that allowed us to play the paddy stalk [called a -lu in Apatani language] as a flute.” The music of these straw flutes not only provided the Apatanis with entertainment during the back-breaking days of harvest but also pacified the infants on their backs.
At the ZFM, just as Yania and Onya started playing the flute, a Dornier D-28 light aircraft flew past, distracting the assembled listeners. On September 30, the first day of the festival, the Dornier aircraft of Alliance Air made its first successful landing attempt at Ziro ALG airport, which has been non-operational for quite some time till now. Chief Minister Pema Khandu tweeted, “I had promised my sisters & brothers of Lower Subansiri district regular flights for Dibrugarh from Ziro. The wait is going to be over now!”
With connectivity improving, one can expect a lot of change to come to the Ziro valley, which was nominated for shortlisting in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. Ziro is known for the Apatanis’ sustainable lifestyle combining paddy cultivation with fish farming, which evolved from the tribe’s need to make optimal use of land and water resources when they migrated to the water-scarce valley ages ago. The Apatanis still use all the organic household and livestock waste, ash from burnt rice stalks and decomposed weeds to cure their terraced farms, which hold a little over 10 cm of water. At the right time (roughly June-July), they release common carp hatchlings into the fields.
With two crops of paddy ( mipya and emoh) and one crop of fish ( ngihi), the Apatanis are a self-sustained lot. According to a 2018 estimate by Department of Agricultural Economics, Nagaland University, 200 to 400 kg of fish can be produced per hectare per season in the fields of Ziro. The Apatani people also manage their own forests, especially trees like pine and oak, and bamboo (called bije, the bamboos, spread over 16 per cent of the land, are unique to the valley). Their traditional houses are made utilising wood and bamboo from the forest.
But these days there are cement houses, too, in Ziro. According to Chiging Pilia, a young man in his 30s who is researching the Chinese pangolin in Arunachal under the Bengaluru-based Nature Conservation Foundation, people are moving away from the Ziro valley for work, as he himself has done. “The land for agriculture is slowly shrinking as more and more houses come up on fields,” he says. The old ways of farming using ploughs are also changing as farmers opt for small tractors which, many Apatani elders believe, may damage the fragile ecology.
Ziro is also at the centre of an infrastructure push, which includes not just the soon-to-be-starting flight service under the Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) scheme but also the 2,407-km-long Trans Arunachal Highway, running parallel to the Sino-Indian border, that passes through Ziro valley. It’s only recently, in the last five years or so, that a single-lane metalled road flanked by paddy fields has given way to the double-lane highway. However, after a few kilometres, the road, which seems to be under construction forever, is marked again with slush and giant potholes.
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“These developments will have an environmental impact, especially on farming. Anticipating good roads, people are buying vehicles. Traffic jams and parking issues—things once unheard of in Ziro town—are increasing,” said Habung Payeng, a former Aam Aadmi Party member. The road construction project was also marred by corruption, leading to the arrest of an official.
Paddy to kiwi
However, Payeng, like several people from the valley, does not blame the highway alone for the adverse changes. “People are opting for government jobs, moving away from the paddy fields. There is also a shortage of people to work in the fields,” said Payeng. Paddy farms along the highway have given way to resorts or storage godowns for construction materials such as sand and stone.
Padi Hana, a research scholar from the Department of Sociology, Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar, who conducted a study on urbanisation in Ziro valley, said that the gender ratio of those involved in agricultural work had become skewed, with women doing most of the work now. “Due to road constructions and felling of trees in the jungle, both the quantity and the quality of water are decreasing. The polluted water enters rice fields and destroys the crops and fishes. The agriculture fields existing near the construction site are most affected,” Hana stated in his research findings published in 2019.
To augment the supply of water in the valley which has no major rivers, the Arunachal Pradesh government is creating artificial lakes under the Amrit Sarovar programme. Khandu recently inaugurated the Sii Lake and three more lakes are being planned. However, demand for water has risen, too, with crops like kiwi fruit and cardamom catching the fancy of farmers (kiwi wine is one of the attractions of ZMF). According to the District Irrigation Department, while demand has surpassed 16 million cubic metre, only about 12 million cubic metre of water is available for consumption.
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Payeng and others say that corporate companies coming in from other parts of India, especially from big cities like Mumbai, prefer large plantations. “Kiwi and cardamom cultivation started a few years ago. The returns are great but they [the corporates] will require more land under these crops to make it viable for them to procure from Ziro. Do we have to give up paddy for kiwi?” asked Payeng.
Anupam Chakravartty is an Assam-based independent journalist specialising in ecological and developmental politics.
- With connectivity improving, one can expect a lot of change to come to the Ziro valley, which was nominated for shortlisting in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
- Ziro is known for the Apatanis’ sustainable lifestyle combining paddy cultivation with fish farming.
- The Apatani people manage their own forests. Their traditional houses are made utilising wood and bamboo from the forest.
- But these days there are cement houses, too, in Ziro.
- Ziro is also at the centre of an infrastructure push, which includes not just the soon-to-be-starting flight service under the Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) scheme but also the 2,407-km-long Trans Arunachal Highway.
- Paddy farms along the highway have given way to resorts or godowns for construction materials such as sand and stone.