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The Dalai Lama first crossed into India in 1959 at Khinzemane, a border point on a traditional trade route to Lhasa. It took us three days to get there from Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh. Crossing into Assam, we drove west on Highway 15 along the Brahmaputra valley then got onto Highway 13 heading north-west at Balipara. Crossing back into Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong, we started the long climb to the Eastern Himalayas. After a night halt at Dirang, a picturesque, temperate valley of fruit orchards, we climbed to the freezing heights of Sela Pass (4,170 metres)—with rows of prayer flags fluttering over the frozen Sela lake an unforgettable sight. Descending to the monastery town of Tawang (3,050 metres) for another night halt, we finally drove to Khinzemane the next day.

In driving from the warm, tropical Brahmaputra valley through temperate ridges and valleys of the lower Himalayas to the frozen heights of the eastern Himalayas and the China border at Khinzemane, we had re-traced in reverse the Chinese invasion of 1962. It had started with a fierce battle in Khinzemane and culminated in Bhalukpong. The Chinese then returned to the Line of Actual Control. It struck me how geography had intertwined with history to give Arunachal Pradesh its unique character.

Covering an area of nearly 80,000-sq-km, it is India’s largest state in the Northeast. But 82% of it is covered by forests and its elevation rises steeply from near sea level in the south to peaks of over 7,000 metres in the north. Not surprisingly, it has the lowest population density in the country, with only 20 persons per square kilometre. Another unique feature is that several mighty rivers drain the region, mostly flowing into the Brahmaputra from the northern heights: the Kameng, Subansiri , Siang, Dibang, Lohit and Noa Dihing. A third unique feature is its political geography. Arunachal is the only state that has international borders with three countries: Bhutan, Myanmar and China. The history of the 1,129km disputed border with China is what led to the 1962 war, and accounts for much of what is happening even today.

The presence of army and para-military forces and the building of roads and bridges that strengthen supply lines to the border are now ubiquitous throughout the state. These central government-led interventions are the main drivers of economic activity in the region, along with fiscal transfers from the Centre. Given this heavy dependence on New Delhi, the state’s political leadership tends to align itself with whichever party is ruling at the Centre. Such central dominance should decline once the vast economic potential of the state takes off.

Agriculture is the major private economic activity in Arunachal Pradesh. Subsistence farming is finally making a transition from shifting jhum cultivation to settled agriculture, but commercial agriculture dominated by horticulture and floriculture has great potential. At the recent Itanagar conference of the Indian Society of Labour Economics, deputy chief minister Chowna Mein and Niti Aayog member Ramesh Chand both spoke of fruit cultivation in the state, especially kiwis. Fruit orchards are indeed scattered across the state. Our home stay in Dirang was in the middle of a kiwi orchard right next to the Norphel Winery which produces and exports kiwi wine. It does not taste like grape wine, but does make a very pleasant drink. Floriculture in the state is also very promising, especially the large variety of exotic orchids. We visited the orchidarium at Tipi, one of the largest in the world, with some 400 varieties of orchids. The orchid sanctuary at Sessa is located close to it.

The state also has great comparative advantage in ecological and adventure tourism, which are still at their incipient stages. With its mountains, rivers, forests and wild life reserves, the state is a paradise for trekking, white-water rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, boating, angling, wild life safaris and bird watching. Arunachal also has enormous hydropower potential, estimated at nearly 57,000 megawatts, of which only 1,771 megawatts is being generated at present, but there is a risk. Tapping this potential through relatively small power projects of, say, 1,000-megawatt capacity or even large run-of-the river projects could massively grow the state’s GDP and revenues. But if left to public and private hydropower development companies, they would typically opt for mega dams and reservoir projects, which could lead to many Joshimaths in a very sensitive seismic region. There is also much potential for mining of coal, oil and other minerals, and quarrying for rocks, stones and sand, provided these are exploited in an environmentally responsible way.

These opportunities notwithstanding, Arunachal Pradesh faces a serious human development challenge. With a per capita income of 1.9 lakh, it is ranked No. 13 out of 35 states and Union territories, making it a middle-income state. However, it is ranked No. 34 on literacy, with a rate of only 65%, 58% for women, and ranked 25th on life expectancy at 72.4 years.

The state seems at a crossroad between two possible paths of development. Which way it goes will depend on its political leadership. If led by self-serving politicians who align with predatory developers and contractors, its future will be grim. However, if led by statesmen who prioritize human development and rising prosperity based on eco-friendly hydropower generation, tourism, horticulture and floriculture, Arunachal Pradesh could well become one of the richest states in the country.

These are the author’s personal views.

Sudipto Mundle is chairman, Centre for Development Studies

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Updated: 23 Mar 2023, 11:46 PM IST
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