Debraj Bhattacharya is an alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, and currently is with Institute of Social Sciences, a civil society organisation, where he researches on contemporary development issues. He has earlier edited a book of essays, "Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia" (2008) and has written several reports on rural development issues of India. He also writes in more popular vein in newspapers in English and Bengali.
Arunachal Pradesh: Urban migration and rural development
Posted on: 06:22 PM IST Oct 25, 2013 IST
It is by now a reality in India that there is a steady stream of people moving out from rural areas to cities in search of livelihood. It is also well-known that remittance from such migrants to families back home forms an important part of the rural household economy. We usually tend to understand the impact of rural-urban migration in terms of individual remittances to the family back home. However recently I encountered a case where there was a community led initiative for the collective well-being of a remote rural area which was made possible as result of the effort of a section of the community migrating to the city. This opens up a new area for understanding the impact of rural-urban migration on rural development.
Recently I had an opportunity to visit Arunachal Pradesh with a colleague of mine. Our task was to document the work of two award winning Gram Panchayats. One of them was a place called Mengio, which is about 204 km away from the state capital Itanagar. Our first stop in the trip to the state was Bordumsa in Changlang district neighbouring Nagaland. We finished our work there and then took an 11 hour trip by car to Itanagar during which we had to cross the Brahmaputra. We arrived in Itanagar tired and exhausted but found ourselves in a nice hotel arranged by the state administration. The nodal officer of the Government visited us in the evening and said that the next day we have to start at 4 a.m. in order to reach our destination, i.e. Mengio. We will be accompanied by the administrative head of the Mengio Block, Ms Tana Yaho. Being a late riser I did not enjoy this news.
The next day me and my colleague started from our hotel at 4 a.m. and picked up Ms Yaho and a colleague of hers from another place in the city. And so we started our journey. Ms Yaho and her husband are both from the Nyshi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh and both work in the administrative service although in different departments. As we talked in course of our journey I came to hear about a society that is part of India but very far away from the dominant discourses on India. Men have to pay a bride price in the form of Mithuns to the father of the bride in order to marry a woman. "What is a Mithun?" we asked. We came to know that Mithun is a semi-domesticated animal, somewhere in between a cow and a bison. The prestige of a family depends on the number of Mithuns a family has. Unlike cows, Mithuns however are not kept at home. Once they are born they are fed a certain kind of black salt by which they come to recognize their masters. After a while they are set free and allowed to roam around in the nearby forests. A person is hired to keep a watch on the Mithun or find the Mithun when required. The Mithun also revisits the home of the master once in a while and then again goes away. Mithuns are not only given as bride price but are also a form of investment. Ms Yaho, whose parents live in a village but she herself is a cosmopolitan city person, told us that she has bought several Mithuns.
Soon we reached a lush green hilly terrain and our car began to move upwards along the hills. I realized that the mobile tower is gone and the driver of the car had to negotiate with a road that was just about motorable.
We reached Mengio at about 12 noon. There is only one motorable road here, which we took and this too was made only about five years back. The Block has no mobile connectivity; only one satellite phone exists in the main block head quarter. We are not sure whether that works or not. There are villages in that Block which does not have any road connection with the Block headquarters and only the porter tracks or lampias which cut through the mountains are there. These tracks are usually used by the local people while traveling. It sometimes takes a day to travel from a village to reach the Block head quarter. There is a Public Health Centre run by a NGO in collaboration with the Arunachal Pradesh Government in the block headquarter. Patients are sometimes carried on the back by porters along the lampias in order to reach the PHC. Even then it is difficult to find doctors who are willing to stay here for more than two months. We did find a doctor though who has a homeopath degree. There is a commercial car pool service which charges Rs 500 for a trip to Itanagar, a fare that is mostly out of bounds for the poor villagers. The villagers (mostly of the Nyshi tribe) we met at Mengio carry small swords which they use for cutting shrubs while traveling and also for self-defense if necessary. There is no police force to protect them. There is no bank either for protection of their money. There is very little cash transaction; the economy is mostly subsistence oriented. The Nyshis are the dominant tribes but there are also the Puroiks, who were originally the slaves of the Nyshis. Now slavery is gone but Puroiks continue to be the poorer section of the society. Those who live in this block do so in traditional huts made of bamboo and thatched roof.
Yet it will be mistake to think that this is some kind of "unchanging India". Cash crops such as ginger and cardamom can be found. These are sold to middle men who make massive profits through buying these crops cheap and selling them for a much higher price in Itanagar. Clothes are changing and traditional tribal attire is kept for festival occasions. The old system of traditional Panchayats has been replaced by a new system of elected Panchayats. More importantly the well-off section of the village have moved out of the village and live mostly in Itanagar and maintain a dual existence - a city dweller like any other Indian city dweller but they also maintain a home back in the village where they go once in a while. Some have their parents living in the village while they have become urbanites. However they have not forgotten their rural roots.
One such person, Mr. Taw Nikam, now lives in Itanagar and is contractor for building roads. About 8-10 years back once while living in his village his wife became seriously ill. She had to be taken to the PHC on the back of porters and she once even fell down. Luckily nothing went wrong and she was able to get proper treatment. But this experience led Mr. Nikam to start thinking about a road that will connect his remote village to areas where good facilities are available. Gradually he was able to convince others in his community and the Gram Panchayat. The community, which has a tradition of being self-sufficient, realized that waiting for the government to do something will be a waste of time. So they decided to raise funds and build the road themselves. A massive mobilization of funds and human resources followed. They made plans to build a 25 km long road connecting three remote GPs. Through community meetings it was decided that every household would contribute either financially or through other means. Those who were relatively better off chose to contribute more than others. Six specialized earth cutting machines (popularly known as "JCBs" after the name of the company which produces them) were hired thanks to the connections of Mr. Nikam. In all about 1 crore worth of funds were mobilized and the community started to build their own road by cutting down the hills. In 2011 the road was completed.
However all problems were not solved. The road is still not an all-weather road and cannot be used during monsoon months when it becomes muddy. A newly laid road in this land-slide prone zone is usually kept as it is for about three years before it is made into an all-weather black topped road. Mr. Nikam also complained that the Government had promised to reimburse the funds but it is yet to happen.
The effort of Taw Nikam and the people of the Mengio Anchal Samity (Block level Panchayat) did not, however go unrecognized. The effort was selected for a national award by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj of Government of India. With the money from the award the community built a community hall at Mengio.
A couple of days after our field visit to Mengio, we were discussing the experience with one of the officers of State Institute of Rural Development. He told us there are still many places in the state where one has to go on foot for four-five days before reaching the destination. Arunachal Pradesh Government's priority is now to build roads but there is also the danger that such development activities will disrupt the fragile eco-system and lead to environmental damage.
That of course is for the future to decide. For the time being Mengio has a new road thanks to its community spirit which has not died even though some section of the population has moved to Itanagar. There they have prospered but have not forgotten their rural roots and have done something special for their village.
Are there more such stories from across the country? Are migrants to the cities doing anything for the collective well-being of their villages?