Gichik Tatuk walked three days from his village Tali, bordering China, and then caught a jeep from Yangte to Ziro to see Indira Gandhi’s abang-ja, or grandson, address an election rally on Tuesday.
“I heard him talk about building roads to the farthest corners of our state. Had I got closer to him, I would have told him to come to my village, which has no road and no electricity even today,” said Gichik, who reached Rahul Gandhi’s rally wearing the traditional bopa (headgear) of cane, bear fur, a squirrel’s tail and a hornbill’s beak. He is also the gaon burha (village headman) of Tali. The village of about 600 people lies in the remote Kurung Kumey district of Arunachal Pradesh.
Several others in the 4,000-strong crowd, which included about 200 gaon burhas, have trekked across mountains, some for a day, some like Gichik for three days, in the absence of roads. “My village is just 7 km from Ziro town, but about 4 km is a pucca footpath where cars cannot ply,” said Hage Manu, 60, the woman gaon burha of Michi. Pura Sara, 80, of Higa trekked about 4 km to the nearest road-head, while Nani Oma, another woman gaon burha, walked about 3 km.
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Road connectivity has long been a problem in the state, with Chief Minister Nabam Tuki repeatedly telling the Centre to connect every village on the 1,080-km China border before all villagers move out to urban centres for lack of basic amenities.
Rahul, who spoke for just 16 minutes in the Subansiri Stadium, focused on connectivity: roads, railway, air. He said it was the UPA that sanctioned a Rs 10,000-crore package in 2008, its most important project component being the 1,400-km Trans-Arunachal Highway, a two-lane road that would pass through every district.
“It is only with better connectivity that Arunachal Pradesh can march forward. We are also focusing on hydro-electric power, with this state having a potential to meet the entire country’s power demand,” Rahul said.
He recalled how his grandmother granted union territory status to Arunachal Pradesh in 1972, and how his father upgraded it to a state in 1987. “That was a great step Rajiv Gandhi took. But what I believe is the inherent strength Arunachal has is of its history, ecology, nature. We also believe in protecting its environment, its language, its culture,” he said.
Congress candidate Padi Richo too referred to Rahul’s family’s connection with the state. “The name of this town may sound like Zero. But this place has been in the heart of Congress leaders since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru,” he said. “Panditji came here way back in 1953 along with Indira. In 1957, Indira came here as I&B minister to inaugurate a drinking water project in Hari and Hong villages near here; in 1972 she came again; in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi came to inaugurate the Ranganadi hydel project.” He said his father had welcomed Nehru, his elder brother had welcomed Indira, and he was lucky to be welcoming Rahul.
Chief minister Nabam Tuki said Ziro is the zero point from where one measures the earth. “Ziro in the Apatani language means the epicenter of the earth. This is a place with zero-problem. You can see that in the smiling faces of the people,” Tuki said.