Prisoners of Geography

Source: Written by SUSHANTA TALUKDAR (The Hindu, Vol 20, Issue 20).

In a frontier settlement in Arunachal Pradesh that has no link with the rest of the country other than IAF flights.


An AN-32 aircraft at the airstrip in Vijaynagar, where life revolves round IAF sorties.

“UNPREDICTABLE” is the word to describe life in Vijaynagar, a picturesque valley on India’s eastern frontier veiled by clouds and surrounded by majestic mountains. A trip to this remote, inaccessible settlement in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh is a lesson in how human beings survive extreme conditions.

Located at the tri-juncture of India, Myanmar and China on the periphery of the world famous Namdapha Tiger Reserve and National Park, Vijaynagar is a completely air-maintained human settlement. The colourful, little-known Lisu tribal people are its first settlers. They migrated from Myanmar in the 1930s. The Nepali residents of this once ungoverned territory are ex-servicemen of the Assam Rifles and their families, settled there by the Government of India between 1963-64 and 1970-71. An Assam Rifles outpost was opened in 1962, and the first batch of ex-servicemen was flown there in 1963. Three more batches were moved in by 1970-71. The Nepali settlers were given incentives in the form of cash, cattle, implements, houses, land and free air travel, besides jobs in the Assam Rifles.

There are 13 recognised villages and one unrecognised one in Vijaynagar. The Lisus are concentrated in four villages, Gandhigram being the largest Lisu village.

Apart from the two civilian sorties, there are some three sorties a month for the soldiers guarding the strategic frontier.

Narrating tales he heard from his grandfather, a local Lisu leader, K.D. Yobin, said the Lisus living in Putao in Myanmar used to frequent the jungles of Vijaynagar to hunt wild animals. Between 1935 and 1936, some Lisu families cleared some patches of jungle and settled down here. In 1962, an Assam Rifles aerial patrol detected smoke billowing from the thick jungles. Later, an Assam Rifles team, after a long foot march, located the Lisu families.

Yobin says Vijaynagar was called “Daodi” by the Lisus. “It was later named Vijaynagar by Major General A.S. Guraya of the Assam Rifles after his only son, Vijay, who was born here. Major General Guraya was deputed by the Government of India to survey this area,” he said.

Maintenance work in progress at the Advanced Landing Ground in Vijaynagar, which is among the toughest ALGs for IAF pilots.

India shares a border with Myanmar on three sides of Vijaynagar. On one side stand the Mugaphi hills. On another are the Kachin hills, which separate Vijaynagar, an island of peace, and the Kachin region of Myanmar, which used to be a dream destination for armed cadre of militant outfits of north-eastern India, who went there to receive arms training under the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel outfit of Myanmar that runs a parallel government there. For the entire duration of the Frontline team’s stay in Vijaynagar, between April 2 and April 7, the Mugaphi hills were capped with snow. These hills often hide behind rain clouds, which can disappear as quickly as they come.

The jungles on the hills are rich in fauna and flora. Families of Hollock gibbon, the only ape found in India, roam the jungles on bright days. Skulls of monkeys and horns of wild deer and other animals displayed in some Lisu homes point to a tradition of hunting, which the Lisus have not yet given up.

Horses are often used to carry cement and sand to Vijaynagar from Miao.

Having lived side by side over the past four decades, the Lisus and the Nepalis have started sharing each other’s skills. A wooden pestle used by the Lisus called “aje chidu”, which pounds without human interference, using the pressure of running streams, has been adopted by the Nepalis.

AN-32 – The lifeline

People of the tribe return home after collecting firewood in Dowdi village. In the absence of cooking gas and electricity, they depend on firewood for fuel.

The transport aircraft AN-32 of the Indian Air Force, known as the workhorse of the IAF’s transport fleet, is virtually the only mode of transport for the about 6,000 residents should they wish to travel out of Vijaynagar. The IAF usually operates two civilian sorties every month from the Mohanbari airport in upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district. In addition, there are some three sorties a month for the Assam Rifles personnel guarding the strategic frontier.

For the pilots of AN-32, the Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) at Vijaynagar is one of the toughest. Life in Vijayanagar revolves round the AN-32 sorties. Residents look out for the red flag that the IAF puts up on the Air Traffic Control tower of the ALG to indicate that the weather is fair enough for the plane to land. However, the weather is so unpredictable, particularly during the rainy season, that thick rain clouds and fog may suddenly engulf the valley, forcing the IAF to cancel scheduled flights. Sometimes, the residents watch the aircraft circling above the high mountain ridges and then returning as the pilots fail to see the ALG through the thick envelope of clouds. The residents can tell just by looking at the sky if the aircraft would land or not.

Another displays the claws of an eagle he killed.

Whenever they see the aircraft descending for a landing, the residents rush towards the ALG – some to receive family members, some to avail themselves of the opportunity to fly to Mohanbari. After quickly off-loading the passengers and parcels, the pilots and the cabin crew get the aircraft ready for take-off after 20-30 minutes.

Residents who manage to travel out often have to wait at Dibrugarh for days, weeks and sometimes even months to fly back home. The sick and the aged get priority. On many occasions, Assam Rifles officers have asked their jawans to postpone their leave and wait for the next sortie so that the sick and needy residents could be flown to Dibrugarh. When the flights get cancelled for too long and homes start running out of provisions, Assam Rifles and IAF personnel share their own rations with the villagers.

A Lisu tribesman shows off a traditional hunting implement.

After the cargo aircraft takes off, the centre of activity shifts to the post office nearby – the only financial institution in the entire administrative circle. “People bring in all kinds of goods, from grocery items to clothes to household goods, in parcels weighing 30 kg at the most. The salaries for the government staff and the pension money of ex-servicemen also come by the sortie and is disbursed by the post office,” says Bidyadhar Baruah, the postmaster who has been serving there for the past two years.

No road

The only alternative to air transport is a six-day trek through a 157-km stretch of thick jungles through Namdapha, to reach Miao, the nearest town. Residents hire Chakma refugees to carry grocery items and other household goods from Miao. The porters charge Rs.50 for every kilogram of the load, which they carry on their heads. Thus a bag of cement costs Rs.3,000 in Vijaynagar. During our visit, salt cost Rs.80 to Rs.100 a kg while mustard oil was Rs.150 a litre. Two Maruti Gypsy vans, one belonging to the IAF and the other to the Assam Rifles, are the only vehicles that ply within Vijaynagar.


A Lisu fahter with his two little children.

The public distribution system (PDS) does not work in Vijaynagar, which means the residents have to buy provisions from the market at exorbitant prices. For four months from April, residents coped with an acute shortage of salt and rice as heavy rain made the IAF’s civilian sorties impossible. On August 6, 20 bags (1,000 kg) of salt were off-loaded from the AN-32 flight, while two special sorties in Pawan Hans helicopters brought supplies of rice meant for the midday meal scheme for schoolchildren, about 500 kg of salt, medicines and textbooks.

Every civilian sortie by AN-32, which is requisitioned by the Deputy Directorate of Supply and Transport (DDST) of the Arunachal Pradesh government, costs about Rs.2.24 lakh an hour. From Mohanbari to Vijaynagar, the AN-32 flight takes about 45 minutes. Even if the flight cannot land at Vijaynagar because of inclement weather, the DDST must pay the entire amount to the IAF. As these sorties are heavily subsidised, each passenger is charged only Rs.676 for a one-way trip. The incoming trips bring registered parcels and a maximum of 24 passengers while not more than 10 adult passengers and three or four children can fly out from Vijaynagar in each trip.

Shifting a patient out of Vijaynagar for treatment with the help of an IAF aircraft. A file photograph.

There is no electricity supply in this frontier settlement. The Power Department of the State government installed a generator set but it lies unused because there are no funds to buy diesel. The district administration has undertaken the construction of a micro-hydel power plant with a generation capacity of 100 kilowatt at Gaherigaon, with two turbines of 50 kilowatt each. This will perhaps be one of the costliest hydel projects of its size. All the building materials must be transported by porters or carried by elephants. Kul Bahadur Newar, a local businessman, has rented out his three horses to transport cement bags and sand to the plant site to earn some extra money.

As the residents eagerly await the commissioning of the hydel plant, solar plates, subsidised by the State government, serve as an alternative source of power. The residents can illuminate at least one room and switch on television sets with their help. Some of the residents have also installed dish antennae.

Satellite phones

Vijaynagar is not covered by landline or mobile phone networks. The Circle Office had one INMARSAT satellite phone. Before it went out of order in February this year, each call was charged at Rs.50 plus for the “hello” and Rs.5 a minute. The facility was restored on July 23, when a Digital Satellite Phone Terminal (DSPT) system was installed. “For using the new DSPT, the residents are no longer required to pay the extra Rs.50 and the call is charged at Rs.5 a minute,” said Circle Officer Rakesh Rai. In addition to the DSPT at the Circle Office, two more DSPTs have been installed – one at the market area and another at Gandhigram. Children can study up to Class IX in Vijaynagar. For further studies, they have to go to Miao. It is mostly the boys who go out.

There is only one public health centre with one doctor for all the 14 villages. Dr Mopi Loyi, who has married a Lisu girl, is very popular. In emergencies, the patients are carried on stretchers to faraway Miao if airlifting them is not feasible. Vijaynagar did not have a full-time doctor for about three years before Loyi arrived. A former student of the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences at Imphal, he left a posting in a hospital in Delhi and arrived in 2006 to serve in this remote location.

The Assam Rifles helps in organising medical camps. Changlang Deputy Commissioner S.B. Deepak Kumar told Frontline that one of his priorities for Vijaynagar was to impress upon the Ministry of Environment and Forests to revive the 157-km Miao-Vijayangar road as a forest road so that light vehicles can ply on it. “If the Government of India agrees to have this forest road revived, then the six days of journey on foot will be reduced to barely five to six hours of journey,” he said.

A wooden pestle used traditionally by Lisu tribal people in Gaheri village. As water from a stream fills the hollowed end of the pestle, it goes down. It empties itself and comes up, and the other end goes down. This process repeats itself and helps grind rice kept in a mortar at the other end.

The Arunachal Pradesh Public Works Department started building the road in 1972, and it was formally inaugurated in 1974. However, the road was abandoned after less than two years as the PWD could not maintain it. Forest experts are divided on whether it should be revived. Some experts say it will adversely impact the conservation efforts in Namdapha, but others say that a forest road will allow better vigil by forest guards.

The Field Director at the Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Yogesh, when contacted, said that the Government of India was in favour of a forest road, but one that was not blacktopped and was not more than three metres wide. He felt that the movement of light civilian vehicles could be allowed and that such a forest road could serve both conservation and communication needs.

A forest road can go a long way in giving these prisoners of the frontier freedom from unpredictable and irregular sorties and dependence on porters and elephants to meet their daily household needs. The revival of the road is also vital for food security as there is no government storage for stocking foodgrains at Vijaynagar. In the event of a major crop failure coupled with a long period of inclement weather, residents might face starvation.

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