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Pasighat villagers demand road before vote

- Lack of connectivity over the years has hampered development in Arunachal, feel activists

Itanagar, April 2: Trekking for miles along forest trails, crossing steep hills and tributaries of the Subansiri river, several villagers from Kurung Kumey district in Arunachal Pradesh made their way to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Ziro Valley in Lower Subansiri district on February 18.

One of the most backward districts in the state, road connectivity to and within Kurung Kumey has not seen much development. Local Nyishi tribals still use the forest trails they have used for centuries.

While Rahul spoke of road connectivity and how the UPA sanctioned the ambitious trans-Arunachal highway project, residents of villages in Nugong Banggo near the East Siang district headquarter of Pasighat in Arunachal East parliamentary constituency are threatening to boycott both the Assembly and parliamentary polls. This would be their way of protesting against the lack of connectivity.

Barely a few kilometres from Pasighat, Nugong Banggo is the place where Adi tribesmen assassinated Noel Williamson, the British assistant political officer of Sadiya subdivision, on March 31, 1911. The locals overwhelmed the British because they were unfamiliar with the terrain, which was cut-off from nearby settlements. More than a century later, little has changed.

“We have to carry supplies on our head since the road does not reach the villages and all we have is the hanging bridge to reach our homes,” said Ajay Darang, chairman of the local restoration committee of historical importance and national heritage.

Patients and villagers have to depend on the bridge built after the heavy floods a few years ago. Oja Pazing, a former anchal samiti member, said transporting cement bags costs an extra Rs 200. What compounds the problems is the incomplete bridge, sanctioned by the DoNER ministry in 2007.

Years of deprivation have forced some villagers to submit a memorandum to the deputy commissioner on their “no road, no vote” stance. They have even warned candidates not to enter the area until a road is built. However, many are wondering if the elections will change anything on the ground. Spearheading the movement is martial artiste Tajir Siram. “Panchayat leaders and gaonburahs (village elders) are ready to resign after elections, if our demands are not fulfilled. Candidates can try to persuade us but we will not compromise,” he said.

It took four days to discover the body of former chief minister Dorjee Khandu and four others travelling with him, after their helicopter went missing on April 30, 2011, near the Luguthang hills in Tawang district.

The delay in tracing the debris highlighted how severely cut-off some parts of this region were.

Connectivity to Luguthang has not developed yet, with the nearest road still a 14-hour walk.

Come April 9, it will become the highest polling station at over 13,000 feet, when 32 voters exercise their franchise for the Arunachal West seat.

Besides Luguthang, the area is fairly well-connected with roads reaching most villages and inhabited settlements of the district owing to its strategic importance (the Chinese made inroads till Tezpur in Assam in 1962 after entering through Tawang). However, Tawang is an exception as poor road connectivity plagues most of the state.

Pritam Taffo, lawyer and former president of the Arunachal Bar Association, feels the single biggest issue Arunachal faces today is the lack of proper roads. “Everything is related to roads. If communication lines open up, development will follow.”

Talking about the Rs 10,000-crore trans-Arunachal highway project, which will connect Tawang in the west to Kanubari in the east, Taffo asks, “The project will connect the highways but what will happen to the interior villages where people still have to trek on foot for days?”