River Sissar has run wild. Is the Trans-Arunachal Highway to blame?

The careless dumping of debris has changed the river’s course, flooding paddy fields and orchards in Dambuk

September 13, 2019 03:23 pm | Updated September 17, 2019 03:52 pm IST

The changing course of River Sisseri

The changing course of River Sisseri

This September, when his people from the Adi tribe celebrate the harvest festival of Solung, the 60-year-old Nanggo Saring is not sure if he will have a reason to celebrate. Saring’s paddy field is under water and his orchard has been destroyed.

Saring lives with his family in Dambuk in Arunachal Pradesh. He is the eldest of four brothers, and between them they make a living from their paddy field and an orange orchard, a fruit that Dambuk is famous for.

Last year in January, the divisional forest officer (DFO) of Pasighat Forest Division in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Siang district gave the go-ahead to the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL), a PSU that comes under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, to construct a road from Siluk to Sissiri Bridge. This road falls in the Siluk-Dambuk section of the ambitious Trans-Arunachal Highway. NHIDCL, in turn, contracted the project to a private firm called BIPL-ABL, a joint venture with Bhartia Infra Projects Ltd (BIPL).

The Trans-Arunachal Highway is ₹10,000-crore two-lane highway project that aims to connect Tawang in the west to Kanubari in the east of Arunachal Pradesh, and was conceived in 2008 and launched under the UPA regime. More than a decade since, major portions of the highway remain incomplete, with construction work often stalled due to natural threats of landslides and rains, and often due to man-made causes, including a failure to reach a compromise with landowners on financial compensation.

In the Siluk-Dambuk section, however, compensation was never an issue. Most landowners willingly parted with their land. Dambuk in Lower Dibang Valley district is cut off from the rest of the country for around six months each monsoon, so residents welcomed the prospect of actually driving over dry land instead of piggy-backing on elephants to cross River Sisseri (known as Sissar in the Adi language).

The changing course of River Sisseri

The changing course of River Sisseri

What residents did not foresee was how the project would impact their lives. It was when construction began that people began to suspect something was amiss. According to Ayem Modi, spokesperson of the Sissar-Sikang Preservation Committee (SSPC), they found that BIPL-ABL was dumping debris and mud from the earth-cutting into the river below, instead of in the designated dumping points.

Road in the river

SSPC, which consists of representatives from a cluster of villages, filed a complaint with the Pasighat division DFO, pointing out that the “illegal dumping” had led to the Sissar changing its course and endangering approximately 10,200 hectares of paddy fields in Dambuk and Bomjur.

After ordering NHIDCL to stop construction, the DFO’s office conducted an inspection of the site. Last July, it dismissed the villagers’ complaints and allowed work to resume. The river, said the DFO, had not changed course. In fact, the inspection report even alleged that the complaints were made “to blackmail the contractor”. It asked the contractor to complete the road “as early as possible”.

The SSPC then filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal. In April this year, however, the NGT too dismissed the petition in the face of concerted opposition from NHIDCL and the Pasighat DFO. The latter asked the village head of Aohali, located on the right bank of the river, to testify that the Sissar was following its normal course and nothing had changed, while BIPL-ABL denied there was any illegal dumping.

Then, this monsoon, Arunachal Pradesh saw unprecedented rains in June and July, and it became amply clear that the deposition of muck in the river now posed a clear and present danger. The Sissar had indeed changed course and was beginning to flow dangerously close to paddy fields in the adjoining villages. Saring saw his paddy field turn into a mini reservoir. “Around 90% of my field was flooded,” he says. His family’s orange orchard was also damaged when the river water came in.

Orchards washed away

Orange orchards are famous in Dambuk, and Saring says the orchard earned the family approximately ₹6 lakh every year. This year, there won’t be anything. “The orchard is completely gone,” he says. As for the paddy field, if there is flooding again in October, there won’t be any rice to harvest either.

A villager points to paddy fields on the riverbank

A villager points to paddy fields on the riverbank

Since they deal with the monsoon each year, Dambuk residents know the precautions they must take against flooding and are acutely aware of the ways of nature. “The river will rise again around September-October,” Modi prophesies. “We live here; we know how the river behaves.”

Living in loss and fear

Olik Pertin’s field was also flooded by the diverted Sissar. “We cultivate enough rice to last us the whole year. Now, it looks as though I’ll have to buy rice,” he says. Gabriel Ratan’s fields are safe for the time being, but because they are adjacent to some of the others that were flooded he too, like the other rain prophets of Dambuk, is a worried man. “When the rain comes, if the river doesn’t go back to its original course, I’ll lose my crops too,” he says.

Tabang Jamoh was the Pasighat DFO who signed off the inspection report and the letter. He has since been transferred to the Namsai forest division. When contacted, he reiterated his stand. When told of the flooded paddy fields, he said he was not aware of it but, he said, the debris could have fallen into the river due to the extra heavy rain. Or due to gravity. Such protests “halt development”, said Jamoh.

Incidentally, it transpires that the Arunachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board has been kept completely out of the loop of the road project. In a response to NGT, the Board said “this office is totally unaware of such activities and this leads to difficulty in monitoring of such projects.” It added that it would have to ascertain if any illegal dumping was indeed taking place.

Meanwhile, Modi and other farmers in the area are now trying to turn “nature back”, so to speak. In fear of the flooding they are convinced will happen again, they are trying to get the Sissar to return to its original course, using earthmovers to dig and excavate a path for the river to flow normally.

BIPL-ABL continues to deny any illegal dumping, but under pressure from residents has agreed to lend four earthmovers to help the villagers get the river back on course. It’s September now, and the work on persuading the Sissar continues. If it isn’t completed by the time the rains come again, many villagers might not have the heart to celebrate Solung this year.

The writer is an Itanagar-based journalist and blogger writing about the Northeast.

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