The fruits of India’s economic boom are obvious in the cities where malls and SUVs have sprouted like mushrooms after a shower. But in the nation’s remotest areas there is a conspicuous absence of the most basic services.
It’s a stormy May evening in Arunachal Pradesh, the mountainous state bordering China and Myanmar, also known as Burma. A thunder storm sways the trees and lightning creates bright patterns in the evening sky.
Living in darkness
Hemanto Lal, a farmer, scurries for shelter as the storm hits his fields. Back in his single room hut, his wife lights a fire which serves many purposes: it dries their wet clothes, heats water for tea and provides light.
“We’ve had no power here for a week. The electric pole fell in last week’s storm. And nobody has come to fix it yet,” he complains.
Arunachal Pradesh is the site of some of the country’s most ambitious hydro electric schemes. More than 150 dams across the state’s enormous mountain fed rivers are in various stages of planning and construction. However the electricity generated from the massive schemes is destined to be sold to neighbouring Bangladesh, despite the fact that the majority of AP’s own villages have a 40% power deficit.
Hemanto Lal, like many AP villagers has had to adapt to the situation: “As the sun sets, we wrap up work and go to bed,” he says, “we wake up with the sun at around four a.m. and head to the fields. That’s how we live here, not like you in the cities, where life begins at 10 in the night.”
A youth drain
22-year-old Suneesh, is Hemanto Lal’s neighbour. He studies Business in Kerala in south India and comes home just for summer vacations. “I live and study really far away. It took me three days on the train to reach home,” says Suneesh who is back just for the summer vacation.
Arunachal Pradesh has a population of 1.3 million, but only two universities and twenty affiliated colleges. Even government schools at the primary and secondary level don’t fulfill the needs of the population. So there’s a steady flow of young people heading out of the state in search of better opportunities.
Suneesh has no plans to return to his village in Arunachal Pradesh. “I want to score good marks in my exams and get a good job in some city. That way, I can send home money and take care of my mother and father. What will I do if I return here?”
Suneesh’s fluent English is a legacy of his Christian missionary education.
The huge void left in the education sector by the government is largely being filled by Christian missionaries, Baptists as well as Catholic, who have built many schools in the state.
Hemanto Lal leased out some of his land to the Catholic Church for a school. “I am a Buddhist and I believe that there is only one God. So I don’t care if someone doing good work is Christian or Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist,” he explains.
But the Church organizations are controversial. One estimate claims that under their influence, nearly 30% of the predominantly tribal population has converted to Christianity. Over the years across India, there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence in response to Christian conversions, so Church authorities are tight lipped about the subject.
But one member of the Catholic Church responded on conditions of anonymity: “The state accuses us of conversions. But that’s not the point. We are providing people with basic needs that they aren’t able to provide,” adding “and then if people want to choose our way of life, is it our fault?”
On the road
I accept the offer of a ride with the official on one of his visits to a tribal community 60 kilometres away. The journey takes over six hours.
“The rules are different here in Arunachal. Time has a different meaning,” says my host. “The state has been planning to build bridges for many years, but don’t be surprised if you return 10 years later and there’s still no bridge.”
People are often forced either to drive to neighbouring Assam to cross the river there and return to AP, or use the ramshackle boats that are a risky substitute for the shortage of bridges.
The church representative has been working in Arunachal Pradesh for decades now and though he refers to AP as India’s ‘deprived child’, he’s hopeful.
“A lot has improved here in the past 25 years. Today, we can at least drive in cars here. There was a time when we had to walk two days to reach here,” he says.
Improvement moves at glacial rate in Arunachal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not noticed.