How oranges and adventure sports lifted an island in Arunachal

An off-roading motorsport event in Dambuk has gained popularity and attracts driving enthusiasts from across the country because of its challenging terrain.  (Photo: JK TYRE)
An off-roading motorsport event in Dambuk has gained popularity and attracts driving enthusiasts from across the country because of its challenging terrain.  (Photo: JK TYRE)


  • Households in this remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh have experienced an economic boost
  • Better road connectivity has fuelled both trade and tourism. Till a few years ago, reaching Dambuk meant taking three ferries. The region is now connected by a national highway.

GUWAHATI : As the sun sets on a pleasant March evening in Dambuk–34km from Roing, the last major township in the northeastern frontier of India–Toni Borang, a robust 49-year-old man, stands tall in a floppy sun hat, scanning his 10-acre orange orchard.

For farmers in Dambuk, a hilly valley in the eastern Himalayan foothills of Arunachal Pradesh, cultivating oranges has been a way of life for years. Borang is one such farmer whose orchard has earned him a small fortune. If the fruits are good, Borang said, those who have around 1,000-1,500 trees can make an income of about 15-20 lakh in a year. “I did well for three years making around 19 lakh," Borang said.

Dambuk has often been referred to as the orange bowl of Arunachal Pradesh, so much so that an adventure and music festival–Orange Festival of Adventure and Music–kicked off in the village back in 2015. Abu Tayeng, director of tourism, Arunachal Pradesh, who is also the brain behind the festival, grew up seeing the “tough lives" of his elders.

According to him, oranges were selling even before the festival, but at a small rate of 30 paise for one until 2014. “We thought the festival could become a way of promoting the oranges. What could be more attractive than a music and adventure festival in a place like this?" Tayeng asked as we sat in his vast resort overlooking the Dibang river during the seventh edition of the ‘JK Tyre Orange 4X4 Fury’. This off-roading motorsport event is a part of the larger Dambuk orange festival which usually takes place in December every year during the peak orange season. But, due to the covid-19 pandemic, the festival was on a hiatus for the last two years, and was celebrated on 3-4 March this year.

Orange cultivation, together with the festival and adventure sports, have been a blessing for the region and the communities that live here.

Arunachal Pradesh is a mountainous state, which borders Bhutan, Tibet, China and Myanmar, and is home to 26 indigenous tribes and several other sub-tribes, each with their own unique councils and customs. Dambuk, in the lower Dibang valley district, is sparsely populated and is inhabited predominantly by the Adi tribe. Besides lifting their lives economically, the festival and tourism event have integrated the remote region with the rest of India in some ways.

Barring this year’s orange festival, which due to the pandemic was primarily concentrated on the motorsport, the festival usually witnesses more than 16,000 people. It attracts drivers from across the country but according to Lhakpa Tsering, one of the organisers of the event, it’s more entertaining for music lovers as the festival hosts many bands from India and abroad.

According to Tayeng, there has been a “total change" in the lives of the locals. For instance, all the construction work that happens during the festival is executed by locals. Camps are made to host guests—they mostly employ local girls and boys for housekeeping facilities. Even the food and catering are run by the locals. “If you have 1,000 people coming into Dambuk during a particular time, then each of them spends at least ,1000. This adds to the economy," Tayeng said.

How it started

Years ago, Dambuk was like an island, cut off from the east and the west by the Dibang and Sisiri rivers. There were no bridges and roads connecting the area to the region’s major towns and cities. To reach Dambuk was a task of a lifetime. One would have to take about three ferries to reach there. Or take a helicopter. It was known as the ‘kaalapani’ (black water) of Arunachal Pradesh because of its tough terrain. “Nobody wanted to come here," Tayeng said.

Dambuk was so terribly disconnected that even sick patients, including pregnant mothers, had to be taken to the nearest Roing town through boats and ferries.

Sometime in 1979, orange farming was started by a farmer named Pangkeng Pertin, who began planting seedlings, mostly as an experiment of sorts.

“I don’t think he or the others had profit and income in mind," Borang said. But later, when his orange tree gave a good yield, everyone followed in his footsteps. Since then, orange cultivation has been a continuous and competitive process in Dambuk.

“Buyers come and verify the market. Then they ask the farmer for their rate, negotiate. That is the system of buying and selling here," Borang explained.

Tayeng’s maternal uncle and his cousins, too, were instrumental in bringing oranges to Dambuk. They were testing tea leaves because tea plantation was big in the neighbouring state of Assam. It all started when Tayeng’s uncle bought some orange seedlings and within a few years he had one of the largest orchards in the village. “They eventually found out that the terrain, the climate, and the soil were good for orange cultivation," Tayeng said.

While road connectivity remained poor until a few years ago, Dambuk is now located on the national highway 13, part of the larger trans-Arunachal highway network, a 1,559 km long two-lane national highway across Arunachal Pradesh running from Tawang in northwest to Wakro in southeast.

“Dambuk has some of the best roads now," said Gabrial Ratan, a local farmer.

Better roads fuelled better trade.

The blessing

In 2015, when the orange festival started, the popularity of the oranges, too, increased. For the first time, oranges from Arunachal Pradesh were exported to the middle-east. Indian airline SpiceJet started directly marketing Dambuk oranges—its SpiceFresh cargo service catered to the shipment of fruits and vegetables to domestic as well as international markets. They set up a cold storage near Digboi town in Assam for packaging Dambuk oranges. “Orange festival became a blessing to the people of Dambuk," said Borang. The airline shut down the service during the pandemic.

Traders from Assam’s Karimganj district visit Dambuk every year and buy tonnes of oranges. These, according to Borang, are then exported in bulk to Bangladesh. In 2019-2020, the orange business in Dambuk was worth around 10 crore, he estimates. Around 300 families cultivate oranges today.

Tayeng, who started the festival, thought Dambuk would be an ideal destination for an off-roading motorsport and music event due to its tough terrain. When the sports event began, it started with a few vehicles. “Just a few boys from Arunachal and the rest of the country," he recollected.

Sunny Kumar, an executive at JK Tyre, the company that sponsors the off-roading motorsport event, was one of the first people who came to Dambuk to find out if an off-roading championship would be possible in the area. According to him, the place was suitable because of its terrain and the support of the Arunachal Pradesh government. “It’s almost as if they are one step ahead of us," Kumar said, adding that bureaucratic permissions are granted fast unlike any other state where the process is arduous.

As the years went by, the festival progressed and it developed new formats into the game. “We were the first ones to introduce non-human checkpoints–Global Positioning System (GPS) points—where we leave the drivers, co-drivers and the machines on their own for long stages," he added.

Initially, locals were sceptical about people from outside coming to their village. It took some time for them to warm up to the idea. “We didn’t have that exposure earlier. Now, people come here with a different outlook and we also get to learn from them," Ratan, the farmer, said.

Orange alert

While festivals and the entry of tourists in the area have generated income, popularized the oranges, and benefited the local community, production of oranges has gone down lately.

Ratan, who has a small orange farm, said a lot of fruits are destroyed by insects. “Earlier, the trees were good. Now, the fruits have begun to fall on their own."

Several farmers, Ratan said, have also moved to pineapple cultivation in the area.

Borang, who is widely known as a “progressive farmer" in the state, believes that the oranges have been affected due to monoculture or single crop cultivation, which he believes, is a bad practice. “We cultivated oranges without any scientific sense, that’s why the trees are now sick," he said. This year, gardens which were producing a lakh oranges per year were yielding about 30,000-35,000.

Wakro, another region in Arunachal Pradesh, was at one point famous for its oranges, too. Today, there are no more trees—orange cultivation has been wiped out.

In order to prevent Dambuk from going the Wakro way, Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu, who was present during the concluding day of the JK Tyre Orange 4X4 Fury, said the government is planning a research centre on oranges in Dambuk, and one for Kiwis in the Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh.

“It is important to research, so that our farmers are backed up with technical know-how," Khandu told reporters at the event.

Farmers like Borang and Ratan believe that Dambuk’s climate is suitable for oranges but the deterioration in quality is due to flaws in cultivation technique. According to both, if constructive measures are taken by the government to educate farmers in the region, the oranges will survive.

The tourist plan

Most farmers and locals this writer spoke to in Dambuk said farming wasn’t particularly affected due to the pandemic. However, as tourism is a major employment generator, locals were hit since the tourist inflow stopped. “We were also sad to not see people around. It is fun to meet new people," said Ratan.

Arunachal Pradesh falls under the Protected Area Limit (PAP) and the Restricted Area Permit (RAP). An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is required to enter the state. Due to the pandemic there were further restrictions on foreign travel and local travel, too, was hit as there was an overall ban on people travelling within the state.

“But we are limping back," Tayeng said, adding that to help all stakeholders, the government had initiated a programme titled, ‘Dekho apna pradesh’ to promote homestays through which locals can make money. “We are going to continue this effort."

While tourism and festivals have remained Arunachal Pradesh’s focus, with the Dambuk Orange Festival, Tawang Festival (an annual festival that celebrates Arunachal’s cultural heritage) and Ziro Festival of Music (outdoor music festival) gaining immense popularity over the years, marketing them well has become important over time. Chief minister Khandu stressed that the idea is to make these festivals mainstream so that people from mainland Indian states learn more about the cultures and traditions of the state.

Meanwhile, India’s ministry of tourism has initiated a proposal to make the whole of north-east one circuit. “One of the most important reasons why tourism has picked up in the last few years is because of better road and air connectivity," Tayeng said.

Take Shemy Mustafa from Kerala, for instance, who won the off-roading championship this year along with three other teammates. Shemy has been visiting Arunachal since the competition began. “It used to take us two days to reach here in 2015. Now, due to better roads and air connectivity, we are in Arunachal in five-six hours."

According to Tayeng, Arunachal still has that “wild wild east" appeal which draws the offbeat traveller. “Other places are all quite commercial. Northeast is one of the few places where you will still find people who will welcome you with open arms without thinking about money," he said adding that the diversity is “mind boggling".

Each tribe offers their own culture, food, and handicrafts. And in places like Dambuk, there is the thrill of sport.

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