Arunachal Pradesh is in development overdrive. China’s designs are no secret, but the government won’t risk any transfer of loyalty this side.
Hikers in the northeastern hill state of Arunachal Pradesh are advised to carry little Relispray coolant cans in their rucksacks. Possible aches and sprains apart, there’s an ever-present fear that lingers in the air, the fear of the dragon’s fiery breath from across the border, heightened nowadays as polls approach to the state’s 60-member Legislative Assembly. That China claims the entire landmass as its own is well known in these parts, and maybe that’s why the locals here are so keen on their Indianhood.
In that respect at least, Arunachal Pradesh is an exception among all the other northeastern states, according to Professor Tamo Mibang, director of Arunachal University’s Institute of Tribal Studies. “Unlike our sister states in the region, there’s no militancy or ethnic strife or communal disharmony here,” he says, “And, most important, every single member of the 25-odd ethnic tribes in the state is highly patriotic. Proof of that is that everyone is fluent in Hindi, often at the cost of their tribal mother tongue.”
Dragon slayers the locals may not quite be, but they have legends of their own to talk about around campfires. Rishi Ved Vyasa is said to have meditated on the banks of the Subansiri River before he wrote the Mahabharat. Parashuram washed away the sins of his matricide in the Lohit River. And Lord Krishna is said to have leapt across the Dibang River to spirit Rukmini away from Bhismaknagar, the capital of the kingdom founded by her father Bhismaka.
Much water has flowed down the ages, but the rivers still gush as gloriously as ever, giving Arunachal Pradesh the natural resources required to cool the dragon’s breath and reassert its membership of the Indian Union. Today, most of these rivers are sites for a series of new hydroelectric projects. To crank up the rest of the state economy, there are also a slew of other projects afoot in infrastructure, tourism, rural development, horticulture, agriculture, and even information technology.
There are signs of construction all over the place. These are part of a Rs 20,000 crore development package announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year, the unstated purpose of which was to contain any sentiment that may be slipping China’s way, drawn by the spectacle of ‘development’ that India’s larger neighbour has made of itself in recent years.
Ever since its formation in 1987, the state has been hopelessly dependent on Central doles. Local power generation holds out the promise of economic self-sufficiency. “Arunachal has always had a lot of potential. But we never allowed anyone to exploit our resources, nor did we do that ourselves,” says Professor Mibang, “In hindsight, all that was needed was for somebody to push Arunachal out of its lethargy and distrust of investors from outside the state, energise the bureaucracy and take some bold decisions.” The present Chief Minister, Dorjee Khandu, who took over the state’s Congress government in April 2007, is just the man for the job, he adds.
Tenzin Norbu, the state’s power department secretary, puts the generation potential at 55,000 MW, which is roughly a third of the country’s entire power-generation capacity at the moment. “We’ll be able to harness most of it by 2018,” he says, “and by conservative estimates, will earn about Rs 10,000 crore as revenue.” This could easily turn Arunachal Pradesh into a powerhouse.
The immediate target of complete state electrification is expected to be met by the middle of 2010. As many as 53 hydel projects that are already allotted to developers, supplying a total of 26,000 MW of power, are expected to be active by 2011. Project plans, all agree, are all very well. They look marvelous on paper. In border states, however, the bigger challenge is implementation. The acquisition of land in particular is always a big issue. Projects inevitably displace people. However, Norbu is clear that openness on this issue is the only guarantor of success. “We have the best rehabilitation policy in place for those who’ll be displaced by these projects,” he boasts. To substantiate this claim, he adds that it has been made mandatory for project developers, be they from the public or private sector, to ensure utmost care for local communities as well as the environment.
First, consider the bonanza for local communities. In accordance with the MoUs signed by developers, a fixed fraction—of 12 per cent—of their total generation is to be supplied free to the state government, which in turn promises to put 1 per cent of the revenue thus generated into a ‘local area development fund’.
This sum will be matched by an equal cash contribution by developers. Those living close to a power project must see the gains for themselves, so goes the thinking. In line with this, developers would also have to supply 100 kWh (kilo Watt per hour or units) of electricity free every month for ten years to every household affected by their respective projects, starting from their commissioning dates. Further, they would have to pay these families cash in lieu of unconsumed units—at rates determined by the State Electricity Regulatory Authority.
It goes on. There are severe penalties, for example, in case of delays in commissioning. Power developers even have to bear a tenth of the state’s rural electrification burden, wiring up areas in the vicinity of their project sites. In all, says Norbu, Arunachal has trumped the national rehabilitation policy framed by the Centre in 2007.
And that was the easy part. For complications, look at the environmental efforts. Dams mean the submergence of land, and that means drowning plenty of greenery. Says Norbu, “Under the Forest Act, double the area under forests that’ll be submerged by a hydropower project has to be afforested as compensation. But 83 per cent of our state is already under forests, and we don’t have much land for this afforestation.” True to style, here too Arunachal has hit upon a novel carbon credit-like idea. It has offered to pay other states with sparse forest cover for afforestation.
Arunchal’s splendid eye for detail is evident in its other plans as well. Motorists are rubbing their palms in anticipation of a 1,840 km-long highway that will run across the state from Tawang in the western part to Tirap in the southeast. “This will be an engineering marvel,” claims Otem Dai, PWD commissioner, “as the highway will cut through high mountains and treacherous terrain.” And that’s not all. KD Singh, commissioner to the CM, says that all district headquarters are being connected with the state capital and one another via a network of highways, even as 2,280 km of motorable roads are built to some 500 villages along the international border with Myanmar and Tibet.
In addition, there will be a four-lane highway from the state capital Itanagar to Guwahati in Assam, to accompany a 32 km railway line. Itanagar will also have a new airport. For now, the existing World War II vintage airfields at Tezu, Aalo, Ziro and Daparizo have been re-activated.Together with the soon-to-be-refurbished landing grounds of Pasighat, Walong, Tuting, Vijaynagar and Mechuka—again dating back to World War II—all this will make the state’s remotest corners accessible by air. “All these projects, to be completed in a few years, will revolutionise communication in the state and change the lives of all the people of Arunachal,” says Singh. Indeed, the current road network is patchy and barely motorable, and if all these plans materialise, the state will attract more than just adventure tourists (and the Dalai Lama).
Chief Minister Khandu sees tourism as a major contributor to the state’s economic revival. Here too, no effort is being spared to ensure that the ecology is protected. After all, the state is a biodiversity hotspot. This can even be the lure, given India’s swelling base of green tourists.
“We’re being very careful about the ecology and aspects like preservation of tribal values and culture while drawing up tourism projects,” says Tourism Secretary Bandhana Deori, “All these projects also ensure participation of local people as active stakeholders. We’re starting on a fresh canvas and that’s a huge advantage.” Her department is busy identifying and developing new tourist circuits and destinations.
There’s the little-known Mechuka in West Siang district, for instance, that can easily become the perfect hill station for holidayers bored stiff by the regular old places in the north and south India. “We not only have abundant natural beauty, a mind-boggling variety of flora and fauna and religious sites for Buddhists and Hindus,” says Deori, “but also a lot of adventure sports and an extremely rich canvas of tribal culture and life. No other state can showcase this variety.”
Be that as it may, all the action has predictably turned Arunachal into a target for environmentalist do-gooders. Most of them are from outside the state, but they are fairly articulate in raising spirited objections to all the mega projects on the drawing board and under implementation. Dams are bad, they argue, for the region’s ecological as well as geological balance. And all the construction will simply exploit the have-nots to the advantage of haves.
Professor Mibang will have none of it. “These environmentalists are wrong,” he says, “and their protests are perhaps motivated by factors far removed from their concern for the environment. Progress is a must, and for that, these projects are required.” What’s more, “A healthy balance between progress and the ecology has been struck in Arunachal and we’re proud of this.”
Professor Pura Tado, head of Arunachal University’s political science department, seconds that view. “The hype against big dams is sheer nonsense,” he opines, “Arunachal has in fact shown the way to other states in negotiating MoUs with private and public power developers.” He is all praise for the transparency adopted in the way developers are being made to plough cash into local upliftment programmes. It is this that makes the difference, in his view.
Chief Minister Khandu puts it succinctly: “No development can be sustainable without factoring in the ecological security of the people.”
Arunachal has a population of 1.1 million, and Khandu is counting on their approval. As observers say, his ascent to the Chief Minister’s office entailed something of an inner-party scuffle with the former CM Gegong Apang, and Khandu is aware that his performance would be assessed closely. “All progress in my state would be measured not in terms of GDP, but in terms of the benefits that accrue to the locals who I’m making stakeholders in the state’s development,” says the current CM, “The process of development has to be a happy one.”
As polls beckon, that means not losing sight of the common man. While taking office, the CM had promised to revive the Arunachal State Cooperative Apex Bank that turned insolvent in 2003, causing misery to more than 50,000 small depositors. It took four months, but it was done. “I had also promised to revive and streamline the public distribution system (PDS) which had failed to cater to lakhs of people in remote and far-flung parts of the state,” says Khandu.
Among other proposals, the state police’s investigating arm is slated to be given autonomy, which would make Arunachal a first among all the Indian states. With luck, it may show the way for broader reform of the country’s decrepit internal security apparatus, subject as it is to political interference (though the Union Home Ministry is keen on far-ranging police reforms).
Such autonomy would fit in with the Arunachal government’s emphasis on transparency in governance. Already, information on the status of all projects is posted online. Each department’s own website has a Citizen Information Centre, complete with a guide on how to get information under the Right To Information Act effected by the Centre in 2005. “Very soon, details of every paisa spent by the government will be available on the websites,” promises Khandu.Informational empowerment is a good way to consolidate the confidence of citizens. The technology enablers exist. It’s a matter of doing. If there’s any job redundancy, it will perhaps be of Chinese spies scraping around for word of goings-on in the state, looking for trouble. If they care to log on, they might just be shaken by a reverse ‘demonstration effect’.
It is not Arunachalis who will look wistfully across the border at the impressive structures being built. It is their cross-border neighbours who will be struck by the openness of democracy in India. This would be a psychological victory for a people who number a thousand times this little state’s population. It’s a ‘multiplier effect’ of another kind. And a terrific coolant, too.
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