It is hard to find a travel article on Arunachal Pradesh that does not use the words “unexplored” and “untouched” to describe it. As the case is with most clichés, it is not completely untrue. For decades, large parts of this northeastern state were cut off from the rest of India.

Connectivity within the state was sparse too, requiring local residents to take several circuitous detours to get to other parts of Arunachal, often via neighbouring Assam. Many of these journeys involved crossing treacherous rivers on rickety boats. They could be undertaken only in daylight, in favourable weather.

Arunachal’s eastern parts were particularly isolated.

The region is criss-crossed by an unruly network of angry rivers. The major rivers include the Siang, Dibang and Lohit, all tributaries of the Brahmaputra, but bigger and more furious than most large rivers in other parts of the country. All these have a bunch of smaller, but equally feverish, sub-tributaries. The region had few roads – and even fewer bridges – that were motorable throughout the year.

Since 2015, however, things have started changing. A network of roads and new bridges are easing connectivity within the state and with neighbouring Assam.

With the simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha elections coming up on April 11, the question is: Will the BJP benefit from it?

Boats that used to ferry people between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, across the Lohit river, now lie idle. (Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty).

Rivers on all sides, roads nowhere

To understand how dire things really were, especially in eastern Arunachal, there is perhaps no better example than the town of Roing, the headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley district. A little over 90 km west of Roing is the bustling commercial centre of Pasighat, home to the nearest full-fledged government-run medical facility.

But the route between these two towns is punctuated by four rivers, the two major ones being Dibang and Siang. “We used to refer patients to Pasighat,” said Radesh Talan, the district medical officer of Lower Dibang Valley. “But in the summer season, it was very difficult. In fact, in winter also it was also not possible at times.”

It was not just the lack of bridges that made travel difficult, say residents. The roads, leading up to the water bodies were little more than uneven dirt tracks.

Traversing the river was no mean task either. “There is water everywhere, small streams somewhere, giant rivers somewhere else,” said Apan Tayeng, a farmer who lives in Bomjil, a village on the way from Roing to Pasighat. “We used to wade through smaller rivers, take the ferry on the bigger ones,” he said. “We used to start at 7 am, then reach Roing in the afternoon. You will not understand how much trouble we had to face.”

Things were no better on the eastern front for Roing. The town of Tezu in adjoining Lohit district is around 65 km away, even closer than Pasighat. But again the journey required travellers to cross several rivers, small and big. The largest of them is the Lohit.

Traversing the rivers from Roing to Tezu was only part of the problem. Here too, the almost non-existent roads forced people to take longer routes through Assam. The journey to Tezu from Roing, for all practical purposes, took almost half a day.

Around 120 km southwards, is the major trade town of Tinsukia in Assam. But again, it lies across one of the widest stretches of the Lohit. Those from Roing who wanted to go to Tinsukia had to start at the crack of dawn to reach the town before sunset.

Now, consider having to go to the state capital of Itanagar from Roing by road. Travellers had to cross the Lohit, travel down Assam’s plains for around 400 km, cross the Brahmaputra at Tezpur and then snake through low-lying mountains for another 150 km – a journey which, if done without stopping, would take at least 15 hours.

Bridging the rivers

But that was then. In the last two-and-a-half years, all of these journeys have become much shorter, simpler, cheaper – and even pleasurable.

For instance, Tayeng can ride his motorbike to Roing – as he did six months ago to ferry his pregnant daughter-in-law to the Roing district hospital – in less than 15 minutes, zooming down one of the newly-constructed bridges on the Dibang.

In the opposite direction too, the road to Pasighat is also almost entirely complete, save for a small portion approaching one of the new bridges on the Siang. That road then goes on to Itanagar.

Similarly, it is now possible to drive down from Roing to Tezu in less than an hour on a picturesque two-lane highway flanked by temperate forests.

The journey between Roing and Tinsukia can now be completed in three hours flat instead of the earlier 12-odd hours, courtesy the Dhola-Sadiya bridge over the Lohit river.

Yet another new bridge in the Lower Dibang Valley. (Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty).

A trunk road to ‘reduce isolation’

To state the obvious: Arunachal Pradesh is currently in the middle of a hectic highway construction wave.

The most significant among all these projects is the Trans-Arunachal Highway – a two-lane highway project connecting Tawang, a town of strategic importance on the India-China border in north-western Arunachal Pradesh, to Kanubari in the southeastern tip of the state. It ends in Assam’s Dhemaji district beside the Bogibeel bridge, which was inaugurated in December.

An official state government note on the project states that the road would “help greatly in reducing isolation of the people of the state”.

The trunk road passes through 12 of the state’s 16 district headquarters and stretches over 1,800 km in length, including the link roads in Assam. Add the supplementary connections to the remaining district headquarters, and its length exceeds 2,400 km.

Most sections of this road are being constructed under the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme in the North East launched to hasten the speed of construction by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in February 2013, a year before it was voted out of power.

A picturesque portion of the Trans-Arunachal highway in Lohit district. (Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty).

The fight for credit

But Bharatiya Janata Party leaders from Arunachal Pradesh insist that that work began in the true sense only after it took over. “Yes, it began under the Congress, but it was poorly implemented then,” claimed Laeta Umbrey, a former parliamentarian from Arunachal East who is contesting from Roing Assembly constituency on a BJP ticket. “It was never priority for them. Now there is absolutely no dearth of funds.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also seemed to suggest as much in May 2017 while inaugurating the Dhola-Sadiya bridge, which was constructed under the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme.

Crediting former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for it, Modi said, “The government changed in the middle and your dreams got paused. If work had continued then you would have had the bridge 10 years ago. In the last three years, efforts started to complete Vajpayee’s work.”

Congress leaders are, however, quick to point out that the construction of the bridge was approved by Manmohan Singh in 2009. Construction began in 2011 when he was in office. “People are not that foolish,” said Mukut Mithi, former Congress chief minister of the state. “Most of the work, more than 80%, was completed under Dr Manmohan Singh.”

A woman cleans the highway in eastern Arunachal's Dibang valley. (Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty).

What the data says

However, government statistics suggest that work has sped up under the Modi government.

From 2008 to December 2014, when the Congress was in charge at the Centre (barring the last eight months of 2014), only 120 km of the highway had been completed. On the other hand, the period from 2015 to 2018 saw the completion of 442 km.

Arunachal Public Works Department chief engineer Toli Basar, who is also the nodal officer for the project, said monitoring of work under the current regime was stronger. “It is not that work did not happen earlier, but this government is stricter about target deadlines,” he said. “I have to go to Delhi twice a month, and since there are frequent meetings, problems get solved faster.”

Toli Basar. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

‘We give credit to Narendra Modi’

Though Arunachal is sprawled over almost 85,000 sq km, the state sends only two representatives to the Lok Sabha – one each from the eastern and western parts of the state. With only 17 people living per sq km, it is by a fair margin India’s most sparsely populated state.

The frenzied highway building could help the BJP’s efforts to wrest the Arunachal East seat from the Congress – although electoral success in the state is usually dependent more on money and clan calculations than achievements.

The parliamentarian from Arunachal West is Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju.

However, public opinion does seem to be tilted in favour of the Modi government. “We give credit to Narendra Modi – construction has accelerated under him,” said Ekipi Miuli, a trader based in Roing. “Progress has happened in Arunachal Pradesh under the Modi government. If Congress would have stayed on in power, no bridges would have been built.”

Highway construction workers take some time off. (Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty).

Vehicle ownership rises

Before this frenetic wave of bridge construction, which has seen almost all major rivers in eastern Arunachal being bridged at various points, there were few permanent concrete bridges in the region. People were almost entirely dependent on bailey bridges put together by security forces to allow the movement of troops.

In fact, the only concrete bridge in these parts till less than two years ago was the one across the Lohit at Parshuram Kund, north of Tezu. Commissioned in 2006, it was built primarily to service the border posts of Walong and Kibithoo, at the northeastern tip of Arunachal Pradesh, and took more than a decade to complete.

The completion of so many roads and bridges has led to a spike in vehicle ownership in the area. “Since the inauguration of Dhola-Sadiya bridge, we have seen an almost 200% hike in car loans,” said Shekhar Prasad, who manages the Roing branch of a private bank. “Life has become worth living now, earlier your life became hell in the monsoons. So many people would die because there was just no way to reach the hospital.”

Ekipi Miuli credits Narendra Modi for the construction of bridges and roads. (Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty).

Whose road is it?

But the initial euphoria is also starting to wear off a bit. Many thought that the road connection with Assam would bring in tourists. While that has happened to a certain extent, it has also given rise to some friction.

Arem Miso, a resident of Roing town, had opened up her home kitchen to tourists, but the experience has left her bitter. “They treat us like we do not know anything,” she said. “Sometimes when my mind is fresh, I explain to them that we have also seen the world, but sometimes it just gets infuriating.”

Jibi Pulu, an anti-dam activist-turned-conservationist, concurred. “What we are getting are not value tourists, we have people coming from Assam for a day trip and dirtying our forests,” he said. “We could do without that actually.”

Besides, there is suspicion about the purpose of the roads – if they are actually meant to serve the local population at all. “The main intention of the roads is to extract hydropower, then defence, and then communication or the local population,” said Pulu.

Donyi Pulu at the Roing market. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

There is some truth to that diagnosis.

The official mission statement of Trans-Arunachal Highway projects affirms that apart from “reducing isolation of the people”, it aims to establish connections to the “sites of major hydroelectric power projects”.

There are other reservations too. In February, the night service bus from Guwahati purportedly ran over a tribal boy in Roing town, prompting a diktat by local tribal bodies prohibiting the entry of buses from Guwahati into the town.

“They drive so fast, they are so rowdy they do not even listen if you ask them to slow down,” complained Donyi Pulu, who sells pineapples and oranges in the local market in Roing.

Aseng Tayang and her husband Apan Tayeng with their new new shop in the background. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Yet, there are few who do not acknowledge that their lives have changed for the better.

“We had never imagined we would see roads like these in our lifetime,” said farmer Apan Tayeng, matter-of-factly, who has opened a tea-shop next to the bridge on the Dibang.

His wife, Aseng Tayang, got sentimental talking about the difference the roads and bridges have made to their lives. “You have seen this one,” she said pointing to her six-month-old granddaughter tied to her back. “She is the first one in the family to be born after the bridge was built. We took our daughter-in-law to the hospital through the bridge. We will never forget.”

This is the first part of a series looking at whether the BJP’s promises to bring connectivity to the North East have translated into political gains for the party.