Saturday, November 17, 2012

Arunachal: Uncertain future awaits the Chakmas of Papumpare

By Paritosh Chakma

Recently, I visited Chakma villages in and around Kakila Centre in Papumpare district of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Assam’s Sonitpur district. It was my only sojourn there so far, and the experiences are exhilarating.

“Kakila Centre”, as they named it, is the main business point and is connected by a considerably good road with Gohpur, a small town in Assam’s Sonitpur district, which is the gateway. A cute “Tata Nano passenger car” (picture on the right) took us in style from Gohpur to  the Kakila Centre which is about 18 kilometres. A good number of such vehicles ferry passengers throughout the day, the last being 5-30 PM from Gohpur if you are lucky enough. And, we were. The signboard mentioned the road was constructed under PMGSY scheme.

A small dusty road that runs through the Kakila Centre is, surprisingly, the state border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. People move freely, and we do not know whether one is from Assam or Arunachal Pradesh, and of course, it does not make any difference. For a semi-rural Kakila Centre is a bustling business hub with daily markets, where fresh vegetables of all kinds, meat and fish are readily available, throughout the day. Poor people from villages come on by-cycles to sell their vegetables. Monday has a bigger and busy Weekly Market at the heart of the Kakila Centre. Assamese is the lingua franca, although the majority of the main Kalika are the Bodos. I loved eating the “Bodo pitaa” (rice cake) prepared by the Bodo women at the Monday market. If you order and wait for some time, you can have them hot.

I enjoyed a lot of Chakma hospitality for which I am grateful. However, in this article I would like to write about the problems this small community faces in this part of the world.

Chakmas’ sojourn in these lands

The painful story goes back to the Partition of India in 1947 when the homeland of the Chakmas, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, was “gifted” by Radcliffe Award to Pakistan, despite strong resistance from the people of CHT. The interventions from Congress leaders, particularly Jawaharland Nehru and Sardar Patel couldn’t help CHT to be part of India and Buddhist Chakma tribe’s future was sealed in Islamic Pakistan.

During 1964-69 the Government of India (the process was initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru and completed by his daughter Indira Gandhi) accepted hundreds of Chakma refugee families who had to flee homes in CHT, East Pakistan due to inhuman atrocities by the Islamic State and submergence of their lands by Kaptai dam and resettled them in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang, Lohit and Papumpare districts. More numbers are presently in Changlang and Lohit and fewer (around 2000 souls) are settled in Papumpare district’s “Chakma Settlement Area”. There are about half a dozen Chakma families living in Arunachal Pradesh’s side of Kakila Centre. Some kilometers from the Kakila Centre are larger Chakma villages, or what is called the “Chakma Settlement Area”.

I am fortunate enough to meet some living souls who were young at the time of the “Great Exodus”, or “Bor Porong” as the Chakmas call it, and they came as refugees with their parents or relatives. “We entered through Demagiri, where we remained for a few weeks in relief camps. Then, we were brought to Aizawl with full armed escorts. The people had to walk the whole journey to Aizawl, except the aged and the women who were driven in small vehicles”, recalled a lady who is now in her 80s.

An aged man informed me that they had to remain in relief camps in Aizawl for two years. “During our stay, the Aizawl was bombed by planes.. There was flames all around us. We were so afraid, but our relief area was not harmed”, he told me. Immediately after I came back to Delhi, I checked the month of this aerial attack by the Indian Air Force. It was in the afternoon of 4th March 1966.

The Chakmas recalled that the Mizos were too generous to them when they travelled from Demagiri to Aizawl. All along the road, they supplied food, and water to the refugees.

From Aizawl, they were shifted to Cachar, Assam from where they were resettled to then NEFA, a Centrally-administered region of enough vacant lands, now known as state of Arunachal Pradesh.

“Then this area was quite uninhabited, wild forests, and full of wild animals like tigers, elephants, bears. We had to face a lot of atrocities mostly from the elephants .. We cleared the jungle to make it habitable and suitable for cultivation”, I was informed during a discussion with a group of Chakma elders while the others nodded in agreement. They laughed heartily. Laughter and casual discussions over glasses of home-made wine are the routine affair. But I sensed that beneath the laughters run deep-seated sorrow and concern for their future. 

The Socio-Economic conditions

I must record here that I did not see a good house built by Chakmas, except two or three in Chakma Village No. 8 which were built with cement.  Most of the houses are constructed with bamboos and already in dilapidated conditions. The houses explain their socio-economic conditions.

How do they earn their living? The Chakmas have been allotted their own house plots and agricultural lands at the time of settlement in “Chakma Settlement Area” in 1964-69. But poverty, medical needs, and other reasons have forced many Chakma families to sell off their agricultural lands to the local tribes. Those who still retained their agricultural lands cultivate these lands which are the main source of their food and subsistence. Some families have betel nut and coconut gardens which they sell in the market. Some grow vegetables. Yet some others (particularly youths) saw logs for rich local tribesmen. I met some youths who, they said, went as far as China border to earn their living! 

Others survive by gathering vegetables from the Jhum fields which are one-day walking distance away from the villages to sell in the daily markets to earn a square meal for the family. Of course, for some, earning is not enough for a square meal for the family which I found is usually big. But none has been included in the Public Distribution System.

Discrimination and neglect by the State government is all-pervading. But their situation is seldom taken into account and I have a feeling that Chakmas of this part are even more marginalized than their brethren in Changlang and Lohit districts of Arunachal. Due to their population being numerically small, they are less cared for. Due to lack of high schools and above, most students are forced to drop out. Chakma children do not get opportunity to study further. Job opportunity within the State of Arunachal Pradesh is NIL. By looking at the face of this boy, I asked myself "What is his future?"

Politically, except the recognition of the “Gao Buraa” or the village headman, the Chakmas have nothing. There are around 2000 Chakmas living in this area. Only a handful of them have been granted Indian Citizenship after nearly 50 years of their sojourn. The rest are “Stateless”. They are not even “Refugees”, as they get nothing from the Central or State government. They fend for themselves. But there are restrictions. The Chakmas are not allowed to acquire land or built houses outside the “Chakma Settlement Area” but almost half of the “Chakma Settlement Area” has been captured by Arunachalese locals by way of buying from the Chakma land owners!

“The Chakma Settlement Area” will be turned into an airport

Vast swathe of fertile agricultural land will be taken over for airport

Soon the “Chakma Settlement Area” will turn into an airport, to be constructed by the Airport Authority of India. The Arunachal Pradesh government is in full swing to acquire a vast swathe of very fertile agricultural land in five Chakma Blocks No. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10 of the “Chakma Settlement Area”, and will uproot 237 families. The process of land acquisition is being done in a very clandestine manner. So, is this a ploy to grab the Chakmas' lands in the guise of airport? We don't really know. But what we can know is that the impoverished Chakmas will have to pay the costliest price for the development of Arunachal.

As of now, all questions in the minds of the Chakmas are unanswered. As a result, fear and uncertainly were reigning in the minds of the people at the time of my visit.

Where will the Chakmas go? No idea.
Will they get compensation? May be. How much? Don’t know.
Will they get resettlement and rehabilitation? No idea.

The biggest issue is how will the Chakmas survive without their agricultural lands? Since they cannot buy lands outside the “Chakma Settlement Area” where will so many families be accommodated?

Only future will be able to tell. But the future is predictably uncertain for the Chakmas of Papumpare district! 


Biplob Rahman said...

@ Paritosh Chakma, PROTEST!!
Chakmas of the Arunachol are not settlers. In the 1960, after the Kaptai Dam, many hilly people of the CHT were bound to migrate to the Arunachol, Tripura and Mizoram also; then India government gave them citizenship. After 5 decades, it may be a political ill motive to raise this point.

Paritosh Chakma said...

Dear Mr Rahman, did I say that the Chakmas are "settlers" in AP? Did I use the word "settler" at all? Then, where is the need to protest?

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