Kherepe Meme gestures with her hand animatedly. She vividly remembers and describes the Great Assam Earthquake of 1950. The epicentre of this 8.6 magnitude earthquake was in eastern Tibet along the Sino-Indian border, a few hundred kilometres from Kebali, Meme’s home for about 80 years, the whole of her life.
Kebali is one of the many remote villages located near Roing, the main city of the Lower Dibang Valley district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, about 2,500 km from New Delhi, and the furthest of India’s north-eastern states.
Kherepe Meme was a young girl at the time of the earthquake, but still recalls how the earth shook violently, as if it was the end of the world.
The disaster devastated landscapes and villages in the Eastern Himalayas, killing about 5,000 people, leading to flash floods in the Subansiri, Siang, Dibang, and Lohit rivers of Arunachal Pradesh, and the rise of the riverbed of the Brahmaputra in the plains of Upper Assam.
Meme lives very close to a river, known in her Idu language as Ephe, a tributary of the Dibang. During the peak monsoon season, the sounds of the river remind her of what she heard during the earthquake.
The Idus, along with the Miju and the Digaru communities, comprise the larger Mishmi tribe. They have a symbiotic relationship with the various tributaries of the Dibang and the Lohit rivers, which meander and tumble down from the Mishmi Hills. The rivers are often described by locals as mad, thunderous, and impassable during the rainy season.
For many old women like Kherepe Meme, crossing rivers during the monsoon, even in their youth, required tremendous strength and courage, sometimes using suspended bamboo bridges built by locals.
In other times, they simply stay away from the ferocious river, letting it have its peace of mind. Kherepe Meme has never ventured out beyond Roing. She cannot comprehend the new bridge built over the Lohit river about 70 kms from her home, now connecting Arunachal Pradesh and its neighbouring state, Assam.
A geopolitical connection
On May 26 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated India’s longest river bridge, named after the legendary Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika and connecting just over 9 km between the Dhola and Sadiya towns in Assam.
The development of roads and bridges has been seen as a concerted effort to strengthen the war preparedness of the Indian armed forces, given that China contests India’s claim over the territory of Arunachal Pradesh. In April, Beijing even renamed six places on its official map, stating that Arunachal Pradesh belongs to South Tibet, triggering New Delhi’s anger.
To match China’s infrastructure in Tibet, New Delhi has simultaneously invested in road-building constructions, directed at enabling better conditions to carry heavy machinery, including turbines to dam project sites. These are part of India’s ambitions to stake its riparian rights over trans-boundary river water conflicts with China over the Brahmaputra.
But when asked about it, local inhabitants seem doubtful.
A bridge feared by the local community
Jibi Pulu, a 45-year-old Idu Mishmi local leader involved in conservation activities in Roing, told me that these projects will have many implications for his community. Because of their very small population (about 12,000 to 14,000), the Idu Mishmis fear a demographic change as infrastructure work—such as those planned for the Dibang dam project—will bring in more labourers and engineers who usually hail from different parts of India.
The Idu Mishmis speculate that the migrants will easily outnumber them and that this will lead to a loss of cultural and linguistic identity.
At the same time, they also hope for positive changes such as greater market access, health care, education, and jobs. The Mishmis have missed out on various economic benefits in the region since the 1950s.
Sadiya, in Assam, was at the beginning of the 20th century an important river port for the British economy (aimed mainly at tea and oil exports in this region) to maintain control over eastern Assam and the Mishmi Hills, then known as the Sadiya Frontier Tracts.
But after the earthquake, the riverbed of the Lohit and the Brahmaputra moved up. And this reduced the navigability of the river, making this region lag behind in overall development.
Roads have also been a major priority of the Indian government. The Trans-Arunachal Highway Project, announced by the previous government in 2008, aims to internally connect the districts in eastern Arunachal Pradesh and has seen some stretches of excellent roads being built.
But because some critical bridges have not been completed yet, these roads are not that usable. From May onwards, during the monsoons, the river is high so people cannot cross below these half-built bridges. They then have to take the old roads back through Assam, for instance through Sadiya.
This is the case for the bridge going over the Dipu Nallah, connecting Roing in Lower Dibang Valley district with Tezu in Lohit district, both inhabited by Idu Mishmis. This bridge is only about a tenth of the length of the Bhupen Hazarika bridge. But while its construction started at the same time, it is yet to be completed.
During the rainy season, residents and goods need to travel 400-500 km downstream from major towns of eastern Arunachal Pradesh like Roing, on the north bank of the river, and all the way through parts of Assam on the south bank, in order to cross the Brahmaputra river at Tezpur to reach Arunachal again via its state capital Itanagar by land. The entire journey by bus from Roing to Itanagar in this circuitous manner can take 16-18 hours.
Locals left out
The bridges and roads that are supposed to help connect this region have actually been priorities for military and hydropower projects over local needs.
And, as Jibi Pulu laments, the Idu Mishis—as well as other small tribal communities such as the Tai-Khamtis, the Singphos, the Meyors—cannot contribute. They lack the knowledge, the education, and the formal training of engineers or semi-skilled technicians needed for these infrastructure projects.
They also lack the information to take a stance over majority decisions that are eventually imposed upon them. Often, they are consulted only when there is a problem due to land acquisition aspects of such infrastructure development.
While India looks at these mega-bridges, roads, and hydropower projects for strategic reasons, it needs to develop an inclusive model for the local inhabitants, too. Otherwise, tribal communities will be left behind as doubly marginalised under the weight of such fast-paced development goals.
In the meantime, Kherepe Meme still listens to the river flowing beside Kebali. Whatever India’s ambitions, she knows that the waters cannot be tamed.