For years now, villagers in Dollungmukh in Arunachal Pradesh’s Kamle district have been demanding the shifting of an Indian Air Force base from the area. On Tuesday, they marched to the base, which straddles the state boundary between Arunachal and Assam, and held a protest, only to return disappointed.

“We sat in peaceful protest for more than an hour just outside the base, but none of the personnel came out to meet us,” said Rotum Tebin, president of the Dollungmukh Area Welfare Forum, which is leading the agitation.

The villagers said the base has made life difficult for them. They are forced to live in fear as the Air Force routinely conducts live fire drills which often harm people and animals.

On June 8, Bini Todum, a retired paramilitary man, was grievously injured and his home damaged when a fighter plane dropped a live bomb during a drill over Ruyu village. Todum’s home lies well outside the bombing range. Previously, four mithun, a revered animal in Arunachal, were killed in a similar drill. Angry villagers protested by burying the carcasses just outside the base. The villagers claimed they have been losing their livestock to the bombing drills for long. If this was not enough, the villagers must constantly suffer the deafening noise of the aircraft, which include the advanced Sukhoi 30. Moreover, they said, the exercises have left unexploded ordinance scattered all over the area, preventing them from moving about freely.

Photo courtesy Arunachal Times

‘Annul the lease agreement’

The villagers are aware, though, that they can do little about it. Since the greater part of the base falls in Assam, the Air Force needs only the Assam government’s permission to conduct the exercises. Indeed, the aircraft take off from Assam’s Tezpur.

The part of the base in Arunachal is on land that Dollungmukh’s villagers leased to the Indian Air Force 43 years ago. According to official records, the lease is for 50 years. “People had no idea what it meant to sign that lease agreement,” said Tebin. “We want that agreement annulled.”

They conveyed their demand to Governor BD Mishra when he visited the district last year, urging him to help find a permanent solution to the constant bombings. When Chief Minister Pema Khandu and Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju visited Raga in December 2017, the villagers submitted a memorandum to them demanding that the base be shifted. The Dollungmukh Area Welfare Forum said they have repeatedly expressed their demands to the government, but to no avail. In April, the Air Force conducted Gaganshakti 2018, a mega combat exercise to assess its operational preparedness, in the area. The drill was witnessed by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa.

In the wake of Todum’s injury and the killing of animals in the latest round of bombings, the forum’s representatives met Air Force officials, who have since constituted a court of inquiry. emailed questions about the villagers’ concerns to the Indian Air Force’s offices in Delhi, Tezpur and Shillong. This story will be updated if and when they respond.