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A Train Stops at Naharlagun

Days before the first passenger train to Arunachal Pradesh was suspended, we took a ride from Tezpur to naharlagun to find excitement and curiosity, and conflicted feelings about the railway line — and the outsiders it would bring.

Written by Adam Halliday | Updated: May 18, 2014 12:47 am
Eastward bound: A woman at the Naharlagun railway station Eastward bound: A woman at the Naharlagun railway station

The drizzle picked up as the train pulled out of Dekargaon station near Tezpur, Assam, on a cool morning, the rain seeping in through the windows. On the first passenger train service to Arunachal Pradesh’s just-opened Naharlagun station, with a ticket for only Rs 35, the experience was novel, but the nine coaches were  not.

The walls were stained and rusted, and dust covered the seat cushions and wooden planks. Slowly, scenes began to flash past – Balipara’s wilting tea gardens, houses with sloping tin roofs, children gawking at the locomotive, women in wraparounds carrying wares to sell.

At Uttar Kathani, 15 stations into the five-and-half-hour journey, an elderly couple boarded the train. “Our neighbours told us about this new train. So we are taking a romantic trip,” said 62-year-old carpenter Kaneskeshwar Neog with a smile. His wife Mahkon, 55, joined in with a laugh. “This is our first trip to Arunachal. And our first time on a train,” she said.

Neog and his wife were joyriders without a plan. But even if they wanted to stay on and marvel at the lush, primeval green that rings Naharlagun, a town in the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh’s mountains, 10 km from the capital Itanagar, they would have been turned back. Without the “pass”—or the Inner Line Permit (ILP) — no outside resident can enter the state — Mizoram and Nagaland are the other two states in the Northeast region where such restrictions are in place.

GS Barua, an amiable, moustachioed constable with the Arunachal Pradesh state police, walked along the train’s narrow aisles with a lathi, mingling with passengers, and telling them about the piece of paper they needed. “You need a pass to enter Arunachal. If you don’t have one, you can step out on the platform but not outside the station,” he said.

As he spoke, a man in an oversized dark-blue T-shirt, rubber chappals and worn shorts heaved a gunny bag full of bananas on the seat nearby. “I travel by this train every day to sell bananas, up and down the journey,” said Moni Das, a Bengali who spoke fluent Assamese. “ I also sell some at the station, but I don’t have a pass. If I did, I would have liked to stay in the town.”

The new train service started on April 7, with much fanfare. Before the 179 km broad gauge line, the only railway link Arunachal had was a 1.26 km line till Bhalukpong in East Kameng district. The 21.75-km-long Harmuti- Naharlagun line is the new stretch, and has been a long time in the making. First surveyed in 1997, it was approved by the state government nine years later.

As it wound north from Harmuti through Assam’s Lakhimpur district, the train entered the Subansiri valley, ran along the Dikong river’s bank, and headed towards Naharlagun. In the distance, all around rose forested hills with blackened patches, signalling the annual jhum season when the woods are cleared and burnt to make way for hill-side farms. The river did not complement the scenic hills, though. It was strewn with garbage.

The excitement had been palpable among the passengers as the train began its slight ascent from Harmuti. The hills began to appear.  They clung to the windows and doors, gaping at the green hills and the rivers running below the 56 bridges that the train crossed.

When the train finally reached Naharlagun station, sub-inspector Damodar Bhuya positioned himself near the station entrance and announced through a bull-horn that passengers without a “pass” must not go past the doors. A posse of armed policemen in camouflage fatigues and boots filled the platform.

But the people mingled, nevertheless. Hundreds of passengers from Assam got off the bogeys to look at the hills surrounding the river valley, while carloads of Arunachalis, just arrived at the station, boarded the train. They were not here to travel by it, but to examine it. “We came to see the beautiful hills,” said Kanaklata Pegu, 23, a Mising tribal from Assam, as she breastfed her baby.

Kanaklata journeyed almost two hours from Dubia in  Lakhimpur district with her sisters, Manju and Sapna, who too clutched infants to their bosoms. The housewives from farming families walked around the station but took no pictures because they didn’t own a camera between them. Nearby, a young Arunachali woman used a tablet to click a picture of her friend who posed at a carriage door — striking in her red dress and heels.

T Dabhi and his wife walked past merrily with their two teenage daughters and niece. “I’ve ridden trains lots of times, but they have not seen one,” said the middle-aged teacher as he gestured to the girls. “They got into the bogeys and took pictures. It was like a family picnic.”

But barely 10 days after the Dabhis’ railway jaunt, the train stood suspended  indefinitely. The official reason: law and order problems in implementing the ILP system. That disquiet had been blowing in the wind, even on that laid-back train ride: in the posters that said all “non-APSTs (Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes) are strictly prohibited to enter the state without ILP and directed to go back to their native place”, and the swarms of policemen at Naharlagun station.

In the complex ethnic politics of Northeast, a railway line is not an unadulterated boon.  It brings with it the fear of an influx of outsiders, and demographic change. In Meghalaya, another state where an ongoing agitation for an Inner Line Permit system has sparked violence against non-tribal residents, there is stiff resistance to a proposal for a railway line. It appeared, at first, that Arunachal Pradesh was going down a different track but similar fears have followed the train.

In the last weeks of April, a human chain of students at Naharlagun railway station made sure that passengers without passes did not step past the station entrance. Students’ unions were at the forefront of scanning the passengers. Memorandums were submitted, public statements made and physical blockades enforced.

At one meeting, chief secretary Ramesh Negi was told that more than 28,000 people had been turned away from the station and sent back to Assam in just three weeks. Soon after, the government promised to cordon off the station with barbed wire fencing, and install CCTVs. But, clearly, that was not enough to douse the fears. The student unions insisted on suspending the service till a mechanism was in place to screen passengers. The government gave in.

“We don’t want Kokrajhar to happen here. Or Tripura,” said Biri Tabing, president of the Students Union Movement of Arunachal Pradesh (SUMA), referring, respectively, to the Bodo dispute and the only Northeastern state where the tribals are a minority.  “I am for the railway. It will bring progress because it connects Arunachal with the rest of the country. When the goods trains start running, it will lead to an economic boom. But we are thankful to the central government for the ILP. We tribals are the real minority here,” he said.

Arunachal Pradesh is the only state in the multi-ethnic frontier area that has not seen violent ethnic insurgencies. Pidgin Hindi is the lingua franca of this vast state, and the official state anthem is Hamara Arunachal (though few appear able to recite the song beyond the first line).

But several new projects have stoked the fears in the region’s largest state, also India’s most thinly populated one.

Naharlagun is a sleepy town, with unpaved and dusty roads and garbage on street corners. Like most of the state’s less hilly towns, it hosts a large migrant population. Many of them run shops, the main symbols of commerce in a state where most of the revenue comes from Delhi and there are hardly industries to speak of. Newspaper classified ads carry the “non-APSTs preferred” qualifier, and shops and buildings are owned by natives but leased out to non-residents.

Before the railway line, the many dam projects had stoked the fear of the outsider. “They will stay five, six, maybe 10 years. And what is the guarantee they will go back?” asked Azing Pertin, a local journalist and anti-dam activist.

“They” refers to the workforce needed for the scores of large and medium-sized hydro-electric projects being built or planned on the state’s numerous rivers. Publicly-available impact assessments for some of the projects show that the concerns are not off the mark. The 500 MW Hirang hydro power project would host 4,200 workers (plus their families) in an area with just 881 local residents.

The 2,700 MW Lower Siang project would need 8,000 migrant workers for almost a decade in an area currently home to 1,667 native families. Several of those who oppose dams in Arunachal Pradesh admit that their first concerns were loss of land and demographic pressures, unlike in Assam where riparian rights and downstream ecology are major concerns.

“The problem is also with our people,” said Tabing. “Our politicians tell them, ‘I will give you a card, you give me the vote.’  It is true, the state will not develop without outside labour. But they should never get the vote. They should just come to work. ”

If they do, it will be a while before they can take the train to Naharlagun, from the vast plains of Assam. n

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