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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Indian Army is cranking up efforts to boost infrastructure, connectivity along LAC in Arunachal

Denwa Meyor, 40, and Kunchok Dolma Meyor, 29, are residents of Kibithoo, one of the easternmost villages in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh. Inhabited by the Meyor tribe, it is located about 7-8 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the contested line that separates India and China. Their husbands work as porters with the Indian Army, like many men here. Demwa has two children, a 13-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. Her daughter is in a hostel in Hayuliang, about 135 km away; as Kibithoo’s school runs only until Class 8 and English-medium education is limited in the area.

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By: Kanchan Basu

Denwa Meyor, 40, and Kunchok Dolma Meyor, 29, are residents of Kibithoo, one of the easternmost villages in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh. Inhabited by the Meyor tribe, it is located about 7-8 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the contested line that separates India and China. Their husbands work as porters with the Indian Army, like many men here. Demwa has two children, a 13-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. Her daughter is in a hostel in Hayuliang, about 135 km away; as Kibithoo’s school runs only until Class 8 and English-medium education is limited in the area.

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“We want better education (closer home), and in English,” says Denwa. The State-run hostel costs Rs. 60,000-70,000 a year and making the monthly trip to see her daughter is expensive.

Over the past year, the village of about 130 residents has witnessed its Primary Health Centre and residences of the school teachers being upgraded and concrete tracks being laid under the Central government’s Vibrant Villages Programme (VVP).

Nijum Manyu, 32, who came to Kibithoo three years ago as a contractual government teacher, says now, there are four teachers, and the school is being renovated, with a new badminton court as well.

Army’s demarcation:

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For administrative purposes, the Army classifies Arunachal as Kameng, derived from the name of the river that flows through the State. Tawang district is part of the Kameng area, while the remaining part of the State is considered separate and was earlier referred to as the Rest of Arunachal Pradesh (RALP).

Of the 3,488-km-long LAC, 1,346 km falls in the eastern sector, comprising Sikkim and Arunachal. While the Tawang and Kameng areas are under the Army’s IV Corps, headquartered at Tezpur, RALP is under the III Corps, which is based at Dimapur. Kameng and Tawang have seen development in the last 10-15 years, with the remaining areas only now catching up with the kind of infrastructure that China possesses.

The VVP was approved as a Centrally-sponsored scheme on February 15, 2023, with an outlay of Rs. 4,800 crore for the financial years 2022-23 to 2025-26 for the development of 2,967 villages in the Border States of Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and the Union Territory of Ladakh.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah formally launched the VVP in Kibithoo on April 10, 2023. He also inaugurated nine micro hydel projects of the State government and 14 infrastructure projects for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). “Captured the beautiful landscapes during my visit to Kibithoo, India’s first village. Arunachal Pradesh is blessed with immense natural beauty. I urge all to visit Arunachal Pradesh, especially Kibithoo, to be inspired by its history and stunned by nature’s marvels,” the Union Minister said in a post on social media platform X (formerly Twitter), after his visit, along with a video of the mountainous landscape.

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Just a few metres from where Denwa and Kunchok live, is Kibithu Bakery, staffed with four 20 to 27- year-old women, who draw a monthly salary of Rs.  7,500. It was established in 2022 by the Army with the help of the Pune-based Aseem Foundation, through funds under Operation Sadbhavna, a social welfare scheme spanning the areas of environment, education, and skilling.

Breaking bread:

The bakery sells nankhatai (a type of shortbread), coconut and butter cookies, and cake. With tourists trickling in, the Indian Army has lined up a renovation plan that will see new decor, lighting, and seating, estimated to cost between Rs. 30 lakh and Rs. 35 lakh. Once there is decent mobile connectivity expected in the next few months-UPI payments will also be made available, improving ease of payments, officials say.

Civil-military coordination is a prerequisite for the programme in border areas, says Lt. Col. R.S. Manhas, from a unit of the Punjab Regiment deployed in the area. “Our works through Operation Sadbhavna function as a feeder to the VVP,” he says. The Army has allocated Rs. 15 crore under Operation Sadbhavna for developmental projects and outreach activities in the forward areas in III Corps area for 2022-23.

The topography of Arunachal is like a wheel, the flat plateau as the hub with mountains and valleys jutting outwards like spokes. It means for travel between valleys, one must come back to the plains.

Work on the 2,400-km trans-Arunachal highway, which goes along the length of the border, is about 92% complete and the rest is expected to be completed this year (2024), another official says.

The new, almost 1,800 km-long frontier highway, on which work has commenced, will fill a critical void facilitating inter-valley movement. It will start from Bomdila in Arunachal’s west, pass through Nafra, Huri and Monigong villages, and end in Vijaynagar, near the Indo-Myanmar border. The roads cut through eastern Arunachal’s thick forests.

Another infrastructure input is the connectivity across the Lohit river, which, for India, starts from Kibithoo and flows to Tezu, and then joins the Brahmaputra in Assam, a distance of almost 350 km, dividing the stretch into east and west banks. Three key bridges across the river, to be ready by next year (2025), can handle 80 tonnes of load.

The Army’s artillery guns-M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers and 105mm Indian Field Guns – are deployed close to the LAC. The M777s, with a range of over 30 km, weigh just four tonnes and can be airlifted under slung on Chinooks, giving significant manoeuvrability in terms of long-range firepower between the valleys. Over the last few years, a range of new generation equipment ranging from SIG-716 rifles, Negev light machine guns, Sako TRG-42 sniper rifles, tactical drones, sensors and other weapons and equipment have been inducted here.

Reaching out:

Another aspect witnessing tremendous change is mobile connectivity. The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) was established with the fundamental objective of providing access to “basic telegraph services” to people in remote and rural areas at affordable and reasonable prices.

In the past, mobile phones at Kibithoo would only connect to Chinese networks. Locals would tell the few tourists here to put their phones on flight mode to avoid international roaming charges. However, now phones pick up both Indian and Chinese networks. Officials explain that while towers have been set up, optical fibre networking is in progress.

As connectivity improves, efforts are on to promote tourism. Under the Seema Darshan project, the State government, with support from the Indian Army, has approved 12 tourist circuits, including two foreign tourist ones, beyond the Kameng area. Religious tourism to Kepang La, Pasang Sonam Tso Lake, and Taksang Gompa is also being showcased and promoted, an official says, adding that passes for trekking are also being facilitated.

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