Suddenly, they appeared in the landscape of Chug valley: square, yellow, concrete blocks with ‘NFR’ and a number painted on them. Curious what they were, I asked around. To my surprise, these represent the alignment for a planned railway track by the Northeast Frontier Railway, placed there during a recent survey – a new railway track, extending from Bhalukpong, through West Kameng, all the way till Tawang, with a separate track into the Chug valley.
Notwithstanding the boisterous idea of constructing a railway track through the highly unstable slopes of this part of the Himalayas, I also started wondering whether this is really what the people of West Kameng, Tawang, and, in particular, the Chug valley need. How would a railway track benefit a mere 600 farmers? Is this really their development priority?
Obviously, it is not. What the people of Chug valley really need is a proper all-weather road from Khamkhar (Rama Camp) to the valley. A road first arrived in the valley around 10 years ago. It is just a 6-kilometre road till the last village, Samtu. In the intervening years, there was budget for blacktopping of the road. For some reason, the contractor started work in Samtu village, at the end of the road, and the budget was finished when reaching Duhum village, not even half-way through the valley.
Basically, that left the majority of the people with a road that creates dust storms in winter and becomes a slippery mud pool in summer. Even the people of Samtu and Duhum have to conquer the first four kilometres in such conditions. It remains one of the worst roads in this part of West Kameng district, despite the fact that it is a level road, following the valley bottom, without the twists, turns and cliffs faced in other places.
To extend this picture: the road from Bhalukpong to Tawang is regularly in the news. Ever since my first visit in 2012, this road has been ‘under reconstruction’. Different stretches are widened and realigned, and bridges are replaced in what seems like a never-ending saga. While the (much longer) Balemu to Bomdila road was opened as an ‘alternative’ road, even on this road, construction of bridges and other activities hamper smooth travel.
In this same time period, neighbouring Bhutan has improved its road network between Phuentsholing and Thimphu, between Samdrup Jongkhar and Trashigang, and is now well under way with improving the lateral road between Thimphu and Trashigang, reducing travel distance, travel time and traveller inconvenience, and improving the much-needed market access to the farming communities all across the country. The roads in Bhutan are so good that the people of Tawang are eyeing access through its Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar road for easy travel to Assam. Why is this possible in Bhutan but not in Arunachal?
I cannot answer that question. But I do feel that proper road access should be one of the priorities for any government. For small farmers like the people in the Chug valley, who need to adapt their lifestyle from subsistence farming to producing for the market because of their need for cash, good roads are a prerequisite for marketing their products.
Good roads enable faster and safer travel. The Chug valley, West Kameng and Tawang districts, and the whole of Arunachal need good roads, not some new railroad project which will likely lead to land appropriation and loss of livelihood opportunities. Its negative side-effects will be a flurry of surveys and other activities, before the project finally dies a silent death because budgets are exhausted or the geology of the area turns out to be unstable.