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Last Updated Friday, 08-Sep-2006 10:06:16 EDT

Better than Stilwell - Implications of the Bridge over Lohit
at Parsuramankund

Published in The Assam Tribune, Guwahati on the 30th of July, 2006

Soon, weather willing, the Prime Minister will be inaugurating a bridge over the Lohit river near the famous Parsuraman Kund in Wakhro district of East Arunachal Pradesh. In typically North Eastern style this bridge took more than 20 years to build. A formal inaugration pending it has already been in use for the past five months by buses, trucks, and taxis- making life easy for the people of the only hitherto marooned district in Aruanchal Pradesh. People from Lohit can now visit markets, educational and medical centers in Upper Assam throughout the year. Avoiding a 4 hour journey over two pontoon bridges and one ferry and over a 20 kms sand bed in the non rainy season. With the Namsai bridge over the Dihing this bridge is the last link to complete the now all weather road right up to the Indo-Tibet border at Kahao beyond Walong from Dibrugarh in Upper Assam. From Sama, the Tibetan village just across there is a good road deep into Tibet and all the way to Chengdu in Sczchewuan. The border is around 400 kms from Dibrugarh. International trade possibilities are limitless, provided quick and right decisions are made regardless of the security phobia that usually scuttles such optimism.

With or without Government assistance there is bound to be an improvement in the economic lives of the Mishmis and Megyors (of Tibetan origin in and around Walong) and in their health. They will be able to market their vegetables and colourful sarongs easily in Upper Assam and later perhaps in adjoining Tibet. The large quantity of vegetables that are grown in the Mishmi Hills will not rot. There is a Mishmi Ladies Economic Welfare Society, amongst many others, that was preparing for just such an opportunity. The maintenance and stocking of Primary health centers and schools will also improve. This district till now used to be cut off from the neighbouring districts of Arunachal for about 5 months in a year. Five years back I had seen, in April, exam papers being ferried across the Lohit on elelphant back. It will no longer be the most cut off district in Arunachal and the North East.

The Lohit valley and hills are a continuation of the precious stones rich Precambrian rocks of Mogok range of Myanmar. Near Walong traces of pyrite and calc silicate have been found raising hope for commercial exploitation. Then there are huge amounts of limestone around Tidding just off the Tezu – Hayuliang Road. Marble deposits have been found in the Doloi valley near Tezu, Hayuliyang and Walong. Other metals that have been detected in this district are graphite, and molybedite. Their exploitation can soon bring sorely needed employment to the youth of this area, who were leaving this district for better prospects elsewhere.

This belt from Chowkham till Walong is also an increasing illicit opium cultivating belt. Even after 60 years of independence opium is still being used for medicinal purposes by the Mishmis of the hills and the Khamptis of the plains from Dirok till Namsai as Public Health Centres are not dependable. With this all weather road enforcement will be easy and so will giving medical attention to all who need it thus hopefully spelling an end to this evil. With new economic opportunities available some of these youth cultivating opium will not need to depend on this noxious weed as their sole source of support.

A very important possibility that this bridge provides is that Arunachal and Upper Assam will have the quickest link to Tibet along the entire Indo-Tibet border. The economic benefit of such a link can accrue only when a brave policy decision is taken. Till 1952 there was a Tibetan Trade Agent posted in Tezu (before the 1950 earthquake he was in Sadiya) and an Indian one in Rima (Zayui as it is now called). With an all weather connection to Tibet available there is no reason, strategic or econominc, that these links can not be resumed. Kahao (India) is the lowest point (about 1600 m only) along the entire Indo-Tibet border and for this reason access to Tibet can be assured around the year. A few days may be lost during monsoons when there are landslides on some portions of this road. The Walong-Kibithoo (Kahao)- Zayui (2325 m) border crossing can be the most important one along the entire border 5000 kms long border. This low altitude road is a very convenient link with Eastern Tibet which being Tibet's most populous side also has the largest network of roads in all Tibet, and it is expanding too. The interior of Tibet is high altitude and getting supplies in winter is difficult. In winter Upper Assam and Lohit district can send fresh vegetables, fruit, meat etc to Eastern Tibet. It is also a much more accessible route to Kunming than the Stilwell Road, which has limited capabilities. In contiguous areas of Upper Assam are enormous deposits of low ash content coal. Sending this coal to Kunming by the Stilwell Road as many people had suggested is a pipe dream as Kunming has similar variety of coal. But to send it to Eastern Tibet is easier as they will have ready use for it. Tar for road building is an easy extract from this type of coal and with the intensified road building activity in that part of China the market for this coal will be literally at both door steps.

The closest town in Tibet is Rima or Zayui (also the Tibetan name for River Lohit). It is about 50 kms from the border. Chengtu, in the Central Chinese province of Szechwan and also the important E. Tibetan town of Qamdo can now be more accessible for Indian goods, which the resource rich industrial center of Kunming can not be. The trade possibilities are immense for both sides. From Bangda, half way to Qamdo from Zoyul a road goes to Chengdu and another to Kunming. If a route to Kunming is required this, although longer one, would be easier and cheaper than the Stilwell Road, 1300 kms of which will have to be widened and strengthened at immense cost.

For these plans to fructify political and bureaucratic will is necessary. On the 19 th of May, 2006, while addressing a press conference in Guwahati the Minister of State for Commerce, Jairam Ramesh, dismissed the opening up of the Stilwell Road as strategically unfeasible. He had given the wrong reason for the right decision. The 1700 kms long Stilwell Road linked Upper Assam with Kunming in Yunan, China during the last days of World War II. It was a one way road and was used only twice before military planners realized that supplying by air was much more effective. To reopen it would be an economically disastrous proposal. To use security as the main reason is short sighted and a weak kneed policy. What is the Indian Government worried about? That China or Myanmar will encourage insurgency? Even without their help the insurgents in the North East have survived. Do they fear that insurgents will be able to use the road to further their nefarious purposes? Insurgents will not use a patrolled road, unless security men have been bought over, and would prefer to cross through jungles.

If refineries and huge power plants can come up close to the Indo-Pakistan border in Punjab and more and more road and rail links opened to that country, why can not trade with China be resumed along the Dibrugarh-Tezu-Kahao-Rima (Zayui) road? Are the policy makers scared of Chinese goods flooding the markets in the North East? If they could only walk in any market any where in the North East and many in the rest of the country they will see that Chinese goods are in abundance in any case, and most of them have been smuggled in. A trans border road will channel this trade and at least some duties can be collected from it. Hopefully, more people in the entire belt from Jorhat-Dibrugarh upwards will improve economically and not just a few, who keep benefiting from such improvements usually. I must add that while we are too strict about even Indians visiting Walong and beyond, the Chinese have no qualms at all about letting foreigners roam at will in Zayui and even upto the border. It is the way that one looks at a situation is the key difference. For the Chinese development is the key word, while for us it is suspicion and irresponsible bureaucratic arrogance that delays inevitable change.

Strategic reasons, which no one defines or describes, should no longer be the excuse for blocking economic regeneration of the North East. With fairer distribution of resources even insurgency may be finished.

Romesh Bhattacharji