The flying villagers of Arunachal
The Indian Air Force is the only lifeline for many remote hamlets Nitin A Gokhale in Vijainagar, Arunachal Pradesh
As Flight Lt P Joseph manoeuvres the massive AN-32 through the high mountain ranges, he is concentrating hard as a small error could take the cargo plane beyond the short and semi-prepared runway. The Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots who fly here
can’t afford the slightest error: The runway is a jagged strip, at the height of 4,200 feet, located at the tri-junction of India, China and Myanmar.
Welcome to Vijainagar in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district. For its 7,000 people, (indigenous tribes and a number of ex-servicemen who settled here in the 1970s under a government scheme) the nearest road is a five-day walk through thick jungle. The village has no electricity, no telephone and no bank. Its only connection to the outside world is the bi-monthly AN-32 flight.
As Joseph lands with clinical precision, a motley crowd of locals, Assam Rifles personnel and a few IAF officers gather around the aircraft. At least 40 people are waiting to board the “civil” sortie to Dibrugarh in Assam but the aircraft can take only 20 at a time. So the decision as to who gets to go will rest upon A Ngwazah. A local Lisu tribal who has graduated from the Madras University, he now has a job officially described as “political interpreter”, but which otherwise involves liaison with IAF officials.
“We have an order of precedence to follow,” Ngwazah explains. The government babu, as expected, gets the first place in the pecking order, followed by patients, then people who have a death in the family away from Vijainagar and so on. It could be months before a civilian can fly either to or from Vijainagar.
Minoti Kakoti came to visit her husband, a schoolteacher in Vijainagar in April 2002 after leaving her children with her parents in Tezpur, Assam. Six months later, she is waiting for her turn on the flight!
The flight to Dibrugarh is not expensive. “The fare is Rs 676 for an individual, but with luggage-charges, it adds up to Rs 700. Even if I am ready to pay, only God knows when I will get the chance. It all depends on the frequency of sorties and on the circle officer,” says Sarah Yobin, who runs a garment shop.
The IAF is bound by technical considerations: an AN-32 can carry a load of only three tonnes given the under-prepared runway and limited take-off facility.
Flying to Vijainagar is only a tiny fraction of the Air Force mandate in this region. Every day, for 365 days a year, its Eastern Air Command is busy carrying out a wide variety of tasks ranging from the vital air logistics operations for both the army and the civilian population to training cub pilots flying fighter aircrafts. For instance the fleet of giant MI-17 helicopters carry heavy broken down pieces of bulldozers to the hard-to-reach-by-road mountainous terrain along the China border where a special project to build all-weather roads at altitudes upwards of 12,000 feet is underway. These roads are deemed vital for India’s defence along the McMohan Line.
The IAF’s civil flights are Vijainagar’s lifeline. It is the only way for the post to reach this remote village. “The last time I sent the mail bags was more than a month ago,” says postmaster Lohit Sonowal. Two nursing assistants and a field-worker run its only dispensary. The doctor is out for two months. Some say he got himself transferred. “If someone gets seriously ill, there is no way except to wait for the next sortie to be air-lifted to the hospital in Dibrugarh,” nursing assistant Gawzadu Yobin says.
At the secondary school, there are only six teachers for nearly 700 students. Physical education teacher OP Pandey’s kerosene-stock ran out more than a month ago. He asks if the AN-32 has brought kerosene. “The children of some Assam Rifles personnel come to me for tuition. I asked each of them to bring me a bottle of kerosene as there’s no shortage in their camp,” Pandey, who’s from Bihar, says wryly. BP Yadav, his colleague, is waiting his turn to get a free lift, which is allowed once a year to civilians.But for the Air Force, walking for nearly a week to the nearest bus station would have been the only alternative for Vijainagar.