The wooden ferry boat’s engine sputtered and died four times as it chugged five kilometers north-bound across the Brahmaputra, evoking nervous grins from the 30-odd passengers. The contraption’s bad mood immensely enhanced the appeal of the under-construction Bogibeel bridge in the distance — but in 17 years, only a line of pillars has been erected along the water, so there was no point coveting it.
Once off the ferry (cars crawled down two long wooden planks placed just so for the wheels to balance on), the drive towards Pasighat town on NH 52 was much less strenuous, particularly after a hearty meal at a Mishing tribal home along the way: fried pork, rice from the fields, fresh vegetables on brass plates, and, of course, homemade apong, or rice/millet beer, to wash it all down.
Then, on the road again, Arunachal Pradesh’s mountains loom above the plains like light at the end of a tunnel. The mountainous state, North-east India’s biggest, hosts too many rivers, streams, hills, mountains and forests and no single road, as yet, connects all its towns or districts without entering Assam somewhere before looping back inside.
Challenging the “hump” downed almost 600 transport planes during World War II and killed more than twice that number of airmen, but what man has been unable to defy with roads, nature has slashed through with water — the Subansiri, Siang, Lohit and Dibang all rage down from Tibet to form one of India’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra.
And so, there we were, gliding over the last stretch of a two-lane highway before the hills and the slivers of mountain roads began, our spirits high with the audacious intention of trailing the Siang river in the opposite direction. In a few years, more than five dozen dams that China and India plan to build across it will ensure it never flows down here the same way again.
It is ironic, because the honorific “mighty” has been bestowed only upon the Siang, the Brahmaputra’s main tributary and sole link with the Yarlung Tsangpo, which begins its journey to the Bay of Bengal near Mount Kailash in the Western Himalayas. After flowing more than 2,000 km along the Tibetan plateau, the Yarlung Tsangpo makes a U-turn to enter Arunachal Pradesh where it is respectfully called Aane (Mother) by the Adi tribes people who populate its basin, an 18,000 sq km area covered by forests through which flow 11 rivers and 88 streams to merge with the matriarch’s cold waters. “I like the title Aane Siang, and it is not only because everything else here exists because of her,” said Aini Taloh, when we pay her a visit at her home in Pasighat, a regular pit stop for us, school friends of her two sons.
Taloh is the head of the women’s wing of the Aadi Bane Kebang, an apex traditional committee like those that have governed the Adi tribe for centuries. Pasighat, where she lives, is where the Siang enters the plains of Assam, and is one of the state’s most important towns and administrative centres. The urban centre that marks the end of the plains and the beginning of the mountains hosts a bustling market and modern shops dot the part of town cut through by NH 52. Tourism, however, appears less than fully-developed. Only two hotels exist, but even these seem like luxuries, given their almost total absence in towns and villages further up the highlands.
“My mother used to tell me a story about the Siang when I was little,” said Taloh, a nostalgic smile spreading on her cheeks, under the woollen hat protecting her from the chilly end-November morning air. “An Adi man and woman fell in love, but with their families against the relationship, they eloped, only to be killed and buried on opposite banks of the Siang, so that even their mortal remains would forever remain separated. A year later, tribespeople found two creeper plants growing from where the lovers’ graves lay, inexplicably branching across the Siang with no support and meeting mid-air, their vines intertwining,” she reminisced.
Folklore such as this abound in the Siang Valley and Arunachal Pradesh. There are numerous stories about the origins of earthquakes, a common occurrence in the entire North-east, designated Zone Five on the earthquake map. An Adi tale goes like this: water once covered the entire world. A spirit made a mithun, or gayal (a semi-domesticated bovine), dig a hole for the water to drain into, so land could appear. But the act killed a fellow-spirit who lived in the water. His corpse turned into a mountain, and it became the place where men flourished. But when man forgets these spirits and fails to offer sacrifices, the spirits try to turn the earth into water again by churning it.
The last time the spirits shook the earth with brute force was in 1950 — the Assam-Tibet earthquake was accorded a magnitude of 8.6 on the Richter scale, with numerous aftershocks that exceeded magnitude 6. In India, the earthquake and consequent floods killed almost 700 people. In the Adi hills alone, 70 villages were wiped out. There is no telling what the toll was in Tibet.
That earthquake marks an important event in the life of Talut Take although he was yet to be born. “My parents told me I was born five years after the earthquake, so I must be 69 years old?” he asks. Take belongs to a generation of Adis who still revel in the hunt. To him, the construction of a dam means little and he is unaware of the proposed number of dams on the Siang and its tributaries. “Two?” he asks with an embarrassed smile. He shakes his head when told that there are plans to build a total of 44, and another 20, further upstream in Tibet. “The pro-dam and anti-dam people tell us dams are going to be very good or very bad for us. What can people like us think?” he asks, puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette. Then he says, “Maybe the company will build a road to our village.”
Take’s village, Sissen, has been at the forefront of the demand for a motorable road connecting hamlets on the Siang’s eastern bank. The village boycotted the last parliamentary and state elections held simultaneously in Arunachal Pradesh, with the slogan, “No Road, No Vote.” Sissen, and seven other villages on the ridges that run parallel to the Siang on its east, are connected to a road on the river’s west by structures that typically make it to photo collages of the state — narrow bamboo bridges that sway precariously over raging rivers.
Once on the hanging bridge, I realised crossing it was no mean feat. With each step or gust of wind, the bridge swayed over the deep green waters that foam as they crash on the rocks on either bank. There were gaping holes in the bridge where old bamboo had decayed and fallen off. After all the huffing and puffing across the bridge, the 1.5 km climb up a steep hillside path through forest and jhum fields that leads to the village, nestled in a meadow, was almost a walk in the park. Well, almost. I trudged up trying to forget the sharp upward alignment, reminding myself that I too was born and brought up in the hills — urban life has made me just a little rusty for these excursions.
The hanging bridge connecting Sissen to the road (which, though motorable, is so thoroughly marked with potholes that a local, who mans a small roadside tea-shop, joked that distances between villages and towns along it are better calculated in time taken than in kilometres) begins near a spot that marks the Adi tribe’s symbolic resistance against subjugation by an outside power. The Anglo-Abor War of 1911, between tribesmen wielding swords and soldiers with guns, began with the killing of a British officer, Noel Williamson, and several others, only to end in defeat for the Adis.
According to late anthropologist Verrier Elwin, the Adis were once known by the derogatory term “Abor”, or “unruly”, as they “have always been proud, independent people, resentful of interference”. But later, an “astonishing change” saw them transformed into a “friendly, cooperative, progressive community”. That friendliness was on display when we reached the village one overcast noon.
Baskets of sugarcane, oranges, sweet potatoes and pounded rice wrapped in leaves waited neatly on a pair of rocks that served as tables on a hilltop just outside Sissen. Several men pulled out their swords from their intricate bamboo scabbards and slit open poles of bamboo, piling them atop the fire. The women sat on their haunches and pulled their shawls tighter.
One suddenly stood up.
A pair of runners in red T-shirts, shorts and trainers, jogged up the narrow path leading up from the village, smiling and waving as the women broke into song — moteng among loke ngo adung ku (I have come from a land far away). The woman runner, Melina Mellino from Perth, Australia, joined them, putting her hands on her chest at ngo, the word for “me”. From far below, the deep roar of the Siang rose through the forest, as if to say, “Me too!”
The three-day ‘Run Siang’ trail run, covering 100 km by crossing three hanging bridges, past seven villages that have never been reached by vehicles, may however turn out to be goodbye as much as hello. “The area we are running through is spectacular and unique and without attention, awareness and education, it will be lost,” the Run Siang website rues.
Once the dams are built, the Siang basin will never be the same again; official studies by the Central Water Commission point out the 44 planned dams within India will change the natural flow of the water in up to 29 rivers and streams. As of now, these rivers and streams stretch out over almost 514 km. Once the dams are built, all of it would be altered — 353 km will turn into reservoirs, and close to 161 km will be converted into tunnels.
This would inevitably change the basin’s 15,000 sq km of forest that hosts an astounding number of flora and fauna. The Siang basin is home to 11 different kinds of forests, 1,349 plant species and 1,197 animal and fish species. The official assessment of the dams’ cumulative impact predict that much of this wildlife will migrate, some perhaps forever. Fish species too would find life more difficult once the natural flow of water changes.
Up to 24,000 hectares of the immediate forest vicinity is expected to be inundated, choking up much of the natural nutrient supply that feed the fish and other water animals, while cutting off the natural routes of some fish species that migrate far to breed. And when men and machinery move into the forest and river banks to begin construction, much more forest cover is likely to be lost since approach roads would reach forests further afield.
As we drove ahead, all along the road northward, the Siang roared in a deep gorge below, and offered some spectacular sights. For the Adis, the impact of the dams is still unimaginable. “I want to see the dams. I have never seen one,” said Tajir Tali, headmaster of the upper-primary school at Parong village, as he and some neighbours harvest rice from their terraced farms, the bubbling Siang keeping them company from below. No villager knows how many dams are being planned, but they all wish to see the narrow road passing through their village improved, so they can market their agricultural produce.
Back in Pasighat, Taloh weighs the impact of the dams and concludes that the progress it will bring may outweigh any adverse changes. But there is one memory that sticks out. It was a “cool, sunny day” in June 14 years ago when the Siang flooded, killing at least 30 people. More than 100 went missing. “I did not sleep for two days because I had to get the animals to higher ground. All our relatives came to our house with their belongings. No one expected the flood. There was no rain, and no one believed the government’s warnings,” Taloh recalls.
An AFP report a month later confirmed what the Indian government had predicted — a dam had burst in Tibet.