Mayhem in Arunachal

  • 30/10/1998

Just what is sustainable development for Arunachal Pradesh? For the 865,000 people who live in Arunachal Pradesh, this is indeed a very important question. It came up recently at a seminar, jointly organised by the United Nations Development Programme and the Arunachal Pradesh government in Itanagar, to mark the release of the latest World Development Report that focuses on global consumption patterns.

For years the people of Arunachal Pradesh had limited contact and trade with the rest of the world and had developed a consumption-production system that was largely built on the use of natural resources available in the immediate environment.

But now that the state is getting integrated with the modern economy, the traditional consumption-production pattern is slowly getting torn apart. What you have then is a slow descent into economic and political mayhem.

I asked myself the question: How would one organise a modern economic development strategy for the state? I soon ran into innumerable problems. The state is in a remote part of the country with limited access to external markets, which will be necessary as the domestic market is still very small. As the transport infrastructure is also extremely limited, one could begin with a massive programme to build roads. But if industry was slow to take off because of lack of a market, then these roads would become excellent corridors to siphon off the existing natural resource of the region, its forests. And if cultural and social modernisation was not accompanied by creation of new jobs and wealth, the 'modern' Arunachali himself would see a lot of money in ransacking the forests. Moreover, roads, unless built very carefully in this exceptional ecological terrain, themselves would become a major source of landslides. None of this, however, would be new or surprising to anybody who knows the ABC of 'sustainable development'. But it still leaves the question unanswered: What would I do to promote a sustainable modern economy?

I would develop the economy by focusing on developing a non-exploitative mode of wealth generation. I would go slow with the building of a transport infrastructure and I would ensure that the development of the infrastructure goes along with a strong educational system that maintains the traditional pride in and recognition of the local natural resource base. And I would ensure that an effective forest and biodiversity protection system is set up which would again have to be developed by reinforcing the traditional, community-based systems with as little intrusion as possible from the external, British-created, Indian forest management system.

But as a modern people will not care much for their resource base if it only yields them fuel wood and fodder, I would look for low volume, high value products that could be developed from the local resource base which would need a limited transport infrastructure to reach external markets. There are numerous opportunities to do that. One, I would exploit the state's extraordinary biodiversity to sell medicines across the country. If the state wanted to increase its per capita income by US $100, then all it needs is a Rs 365 crore modern herbal industry, which is less than half of the 1997-98 turnover of one Indian herbal company, Dabur. The state's forest department is the only one in the Northeast which has a forest research institute which has undertaken an impressive exercise in documenting the biodiversity of the state. Its knowledge can be used to develop a biodiversity enterprise that involves thousands of households to grow and produce herbs which are locally packaged as much as possible and then sold across the country.

Two, I would use degraded lands to grow bamboo plantations and sell high-value products made from that bamboo. I would not sell a single bamboo to the low value pulp and paper market which provides a pittance. At the same time, I would ensure that no building is made with imported cement concrete in the state. Every house is made from traditional materials like bamboo and wood, even if it is made in a modern style, so that a domestic market is also created for the bamboo and wood grown on plantations.

Three, I would develop a robust eco tourism programme which brings in high value tourists who come to witness the beauty of the region even as I would keep them away as far as possible from the local culture and society. I would put up the local environment for people to gawk at and not the local culture. Over the next ten years, Arunachal should easily be able to develop a Rs. 2,000 crore tourism industry in current value, thus increasing its per capita income by another US $500 at least.

I think sustainable development is possible for Arunachal Pradesh even with a modern economic paradigm but it will require a mindset which keeps away the modernism that most sarkari babus spread. Otherwise, political, economic and ecological mayhem will also stare into the face of Arunachal Pradesh just as it is doing in the rest of the Northeast. The Planning Commission must realise that the money it throws at the region and the manner in which it is used only helps to subvert its current realities and push it into a deeper abyss.

- Anil Agarwal

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