By Lily Tekseng
(All photos © Benefit Publishing Pvt Ltd)
The village Sissen in Arunachal is a paragon of organic farming but its sole connectivity to the rest of India is through a fragile bamboo bridge
After 7 hours of tiresome travelling, we finally see the bamboo bridge that will carry us to our destination, hanging tranquilly in the distance over the serpentine Siang River. The bridge lies 200 ft below us. This is as far as a vehicle can go. The journey to the other side of the mountain, where Sissen lies, must be made on foot.
We brace ourselves for the 5-km hike, but first we must cross the bridge. The perceived serenity of the bridge from afar is deceptive. Up close it appears daunting and dangerous. I hold on to my cousin’s arms as I try to walk calmly on the swaying platform. Barely a metre wide and about a kilometre long, the bridge is made entirely of bamboo tied to four metal ropes with thin aluminium wires. It’s precarious, with gaps large enough for a leg to slip through— only a matter of a miscalculated step and one could be bidding the world goodbye in the blink of an eye.
The stretch of road that needs to be built to connect Sissen to the nearest state highway is estimated to be roughly 13 km long. Yet the only connection the village has to the rest of the state or for that matter, the rest of the country, is through a flimsy bamboo bridge
Mercifully, we make it unharmed. The path leading to the village is less frightening but still extremely narrow and steep. We pant our way up, being led by Tajir Siram, a 40-year-old farmer with the most land and investment in the village.
Before turning to farming, Siram, who has a Bachelors in Arts from the Jawaharlal Nehru College in Pasighat, the nearest town to Sissen, is an ex athlete of the state. An erstwhile Taekwondo black belt champion, he travelled pan India to Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Lucknow, Shillong and Manipur for tournaments. Post retirement from athletics, Siram was offered a government job as a sports instructor at a monthly salary of Rs 25, 000, which he turned down to become a full time organic farmer.
A Model Organic Village
“The whole of Arunachal Pradesh is 100% organic by default. Since independence, no one used chemical fertilisers despite its promotion by the government. This because we were already self sufficient in farming”
Jombo Ratan, director of Horticulture & mission director, Government of Arunachal Pradesh
Ensconced in the beauty of the lower Himalayas, Sissen, comprising roughly 20 families, has adopted organic farming in a systemic manner. In the absence of government support, the village has taken uniformity and structure into its own hands. It has collectively fenced all the farm areas around the village by raising money through donations. Today, its people practise integrated farming, growing a wide variety of fruits, local vegetables, rice and cash crops.
“The whole of Arunachal Pradesh is 100% organic by default,” says Jombo Ratan, director of Horticulture and mission director, Government of Arunachal Pradesh (AP). “Since independence, no one used chemical fertilisers despite its promotion by the government. This because we were already self sufficient in farming,” says Ratan. While there is no concrete data regarding production quantity from the region, it is common knowledge Sissen’s oranges are exported to Bangladesh, and that its ginger and large cardamoms are sold to Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and the Middle East.
Bakin shows us around Tara tree farm
“We want to make Sissen a model village of organic agriculture—like how Jaipur is known as the Pink City (sic),” says Siram, his simplicity refreshing to the jaded urbanite. This year, Siram’s family has earned Rs 14,000 from selling onger (a leafy aromatic vegetable) and king chilli; they also earn Rs 100,000 from large cardamoms and ginger annually. Since 2007, he has invested as much as Rs 20 lac in his organic farm. Spread over 100 hectare, his farm holds 20,000 orange trees, 3,600 bamboo trees, 800 tapir trees (its seeds are a local delicacy; its wood is used in construction of Adi houses), and about 20 hectares of cardamoms. Also cultivated are rubber and banana trees, valencia oranges, sweet lime, broom plants, sandalwood, agarwood, sugandhmantri plants, leaf based vegetables, ginger, tomato, chilli, etc.
A lady farmer tending to her vegetables
How Siram chanced upon the concept of organic farming in the first place makes for a risible anecdote and serves as an observation of the lack of protocol in the region. “There were two tractors full of cardamom seeds parked across from the village. The government was trying to introduce the cultivation of cardamom to the villagers but since no one was interested, the tractors were just sitting there full of this thing,” Siram recounts. “I asked the concerned officer if I could take some and he exclaimed I could. I asked for how much and he said: Nothing! Take it all,” he adds.
Tajir Siram poses in his shed, with sacks of ginger behind him
But far has Siram come since the day he got free cardamom seeds from the government. Now being a dedicated organic farmer, he expects to make nothing short of Rs 1 crore for his produce in due time. He says, “It’s hard work and requires patience but I am committed.”
Another farmer, Taget Siram, also president of the Farmer’s Club in Sissen, owns 7 acres of land where he grows organic oranges, valencia, sweet lime, large cardamoms, ginger, agarwood, grapes and sugandhmantri.
One of the many cardamom dryers in Sissen
Tameng Taki, a young man, is a recent convert to organic farming. He moved to Sissen a year ago, devoting all his time to farming. As a young graduate, he worked with a medical NGO as a health assistant and also briefly tried his luck at student union politics. “There was no scope there, no reward, no payment for months,” says Taki.
Taki is not an anomaly. In fact, most of the farmers in Sissen are educated and hold at least Bachelor’s degrees. Between juggling education and work, Taki would often come home and hear about people in the village excitedly discussing the various cash crops they were experimenting with. He was intrigued. Now, he grows 160 orange trees, 80 valencia trees, and sugandhmantri of his own.
In 2007, Taki tried his hand, briefly, at growing patchouli. The production was high but there were no buyers, the road connectivity absent and transfer costs to Pasighat exorbitant. “I was getting Rs 3,000 for 1 truck of patchoulis, whereas the hiring and fuel charges put together cost over Rs 3,500,” says Taki. “When Delhi to Nepal has a direct bus service, why can’t a road be built for Sissen, which is part of India? *Rottung receives business visitors from Karimganj, Assam, despite the quality of produce being superior in Sissen,” he adds.
No Road, No Vote (& Vice Versa)
The Sissenese farmers come together for a group shot
The village of Sissen first catapulted into national imagination in early 2014, when it boycotted the general and assembly elections to express its anger and disillusionment with the government. Social media flooded with photographs of the people from this remote village wearing Nehruvian caps with “No Road No Vote” written across them. “We’ve voted diligently since 1977, but no development has taken place. In their campaigns, politicians always promise roads. Electricity finally entered Sissen in 2010 but it would have been better if they had built roads first,” says Siram.
The second time Sissen boycotted the elections, mainstream and local media came to cover the spectacle. The District Commissioner of East Siang, Nidhi Srivastava, a young IAS officer, visited the village herself to survey the hurdle in conducting a smooth polling and convince the people. “She has visited a couple of times—crossing the bridge, coming all the way up here. She is brave (sic),” says Siram, putting Srivastava on a pedestal for something quotidian to him.
It’s not just the government the Sissenians are disillusioned with. “We call the media *‘Saal Tak’, not Aaj Tak, as they only come once a year, when we rebel and refuse to cast votes. They came in hoards but many never bothered to report, especially the state media. We naively kept waiting to see those reports, and it’s been almost a year since,” says Siram, outlining the extent of the apathy towards them from all quarters.
Oblivious to the woes of the elders the children of Sissen play the national sport
The stretch of road that needs to be built to connect Sissen to the nearest state highway is estimated to be roughly 13 km long. Yet the only connection it has to the rest of the state or for that matter, the rest of the country (on the other side lies China), is through the flimsy bamboo bridge. The furthest villagers can go to sell their produce is Kekar Monying market, which is situated near the bridge. The farmers carry their produce on their heads and trek five to six km after crossing the bridge in order to get there. Even then, scope is limited in terms of volume. Were a road prepared for the villagers, they could have traded in Assam and beyond.
Tain Nonang, headman of the village and a prolific organic farmer reflects angst at the forced isolation of the village and the government’s incompetence in providing basic infrastructure. “All the investment from our part has been made. We are waiting only for the roads to be built which, unfortunately, seems to be the last concern of the AP government,” says Nonang. “They will continue the fight over jurisdiction between the Upper Siang and East Siang districts but will not build a road,” he adds.
“As far as the bridge goes,” smiles Nonang wryly. “The flood in 2000 took the old bridge away; what you see now is a bridge worth Rs 2 crore—at least that’s what it was worth when it was sanctioned,” says he implying funds diminished while changing hands.
Road connectivity is not the only issue plaguing Sissen. It also suffers from lack of manpower due to its remote location. Siram has seven labourers on his payroll, a number that increases to 50 to 60 in peak season. Most of the labour requirement is met by students, who work in the farms during their holidays. However, the impermanence of labour proves to be a challenge, since the terrain is unforgiving and requires extra work and labour. “No one wants to come here to live and younger people want to migrate to urban areas due to lack of basic infrastructure,” explains Taki.
Not only does Sissen lack for a road, it’s also devoid of a hospital and its only school—a small hut made of bamboo and a thatched roof has only 3 students on its roll. A lone teacher teaches the trio. “So, you see, we really are treated like stepcitizens, discarded and forgotten on every front that counts for progress,” says Taki, thankful for being heard.
The ATMA office, which trains farmers and creates awareness about organic farming in the region
Not defeated by their lot, however, the people of Sissen are clever and pounce on every opportunity available to them. They are frequent visitors to the office of the Agriculture Technology Mission Agency (ATMA), a humble bamboo hut, which is responsible for training farmers and creating awareness about organic farming in the region. “We also use the Kisan Call Centre’s assistance whenever the cell phone network is available,” says Siram. Furthermore, Ratan informs that the Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH) by the centre has been very supportive and provides vermicompost and organic fertilisers to farmers in the region free of cost.
But the question lingers: How long will this political tussle between people and politicians go on? “The MLA said in the last general meeting: No vote, no development. We will also continue our ‘No Road No Vote’,” says Taget.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for the Northeast includes making the region into an organic hub, besides improving regional and transnational connectivity. To that end, Sikkim is geared to make itself a 100 percent organic state by the end of this year. Similar ambitions have been expressed by the government of AP. “We have declared our ambition for making Arunachal Pradesh 100% organic, which is not a distant objective since already, over 90% of the state practises organic farming,” says an official from the AP government, preferring to remain anonymous.
“CM Nabam Tuki has initiated many programmes to that extent. For instance, the CM’s Agriculture Mechanisation Programme, provides expensive farm equipment such as tractors, ploughing and pumping machines with 75% subsidy. Launched in 2012, it has been hugely successful, with 4,500 beneficiaries registered so far,” says the source.
The AP govt also has marketing boards in place for both agriculture and horticulture, which procure produce directly from the farmers, thereby, acting as market linkage agents. Further, the Spices Board of India is geared to set up an office in Itanagar and will start providing organic certification for all produce from the state.
When questioned about the elephant in the room—the precarious condition of infrastructure, the govt source flounders at first, “The problem with Arunachal is that we started off late owing to the harsh climatic conditions and rough terrain.” But collecting his thoughts, adds, “The CM has made personal effort in this direction, and aims to establish economic corridors to boost the sale of organic produce from the state.”
While it’s true that due to its inferior infrastructure, Sissen has been unable to realise its full potential, the fact remains that this discounted hamlet, through organic farming, still manages economical self sufficiency—something that has bolstered a sense of courage among its people and encouraged them to seek their rights.
The village school that has only 3 children enrolled
Despite their many hardships the famers of Sissen do the best they can for their children. With the proceeds from his organic farm, Siram is educating his two children in Pasighat boarding schools. Our host for the night, Bakin Siram, is also educating his two sons and sister-in-law in private schools in Pasighat. “A lot of money goes into education but I am not complaining. I only expect them to help a little in the farms when they come home on the holidays,” says Bakin.
Bakin tends to a large cardamom plant
Meanwhile, AP is in a flux of change. Highway projects are cutting into the hearts of mountains, destroying the pristine landscape one builder at a time. “Despite the loss of land, valuable trees and forests, we are happy if we are connected to the rest of the world with a road (sic),” says Siram, his simple yet poignant statement reflecting the dire need of the Sissenese people.
*‘Saal Tak’ means ‘In a year’
*Rottung is a road-accessible village on the opposite side of Sissen
This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Pure & Eco India