The story about Chakmas, an indigenous tribe from Bangladesh, is truly a sad one. A grim reminder of our inhuman approach towards progress and development. In 1963 their native land in the Chitagonong hills was completely submerged under water, falling under the catchment area of a hydel dam. Displaced from their homeland they were compelled to seek shelter in safer lands. Being a minority community in a Muslim dominated Bangladesh, they were compelled to migrate to various pockets of North East India; mainly in Arunachal and Mizoram. Seeing their grim situation the Government of India allotted them small tracts of land for rehabilitation; one such being on the outskirts of Namdapha Tiger reserve in East Arunachal.
Namdapha, a biodiversity hotspot has the richest diversity of flora and fauna found on the Indian subcontinent. Home to such endangered species like the Hoolock Gibbon, Clouded Leopard and White Winged Wood Duck, it spreads over 2000 sq. kms in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh . The Tangsa and Singpho are the two main tribes which inhabit the area around Namdapha. Over the years the population of Chakmas in this region has grown manifold, creating a sense of insecurity within the Singpho community. Feeling threatened by the growing numbers, the Singpho tribe has started showing animosity towards the Chakmas. There is considerable friction between them, despite the fact that both communities are Buddhists. The problem is further complicated by the fact that Arunachal government does not provide them with a legal status, despite the fact that the government of India has now granted citizenship to the Chakmas. This has left the Chakmas completely isolated, with no economic options besides labour work and marginal farming.
From the Namdapha gate to M’Pen (10th Mile) there is a settlement of around 98 Chakma houses, residing on the banks of the Noa Dhing. Due to political issues they have been disallowed from taking admission in the public schools in Miao since the past few years. The denial of a proper education has created further tension between the two communities. There is one primary school in the Chakma basti near 10th mile, which caters to neighboring households. The level of teaching is not all that great but the kids are extremely enthusiastic to learn portraying a genuine thirst for knowledge. To add to their woes the school gets washed out in the heavy monsoons every year, since it is only a temporary structure.
Looking at the plight of the Chakmas and the negative effect their alienation is having on the bountiful forests of Namdapha, Help Tourism came up with the idea of building a school for them. Help Tourism’ commitment to conserve and protect Namdapha since the past couple of years has been phenomenal. After all it was on their request that I came to volunteer over here for a few days. The purpose behind constructing the school was not only to provide better primary education but also to sensitize the children about the importance of conserving the forests in whose labyrinth they resided. The school would also serve a secondary purpose of being a base / shelter for researchers working in the forests of Namdapha. The project has been primarily funded by Help Tourism and is being implemented in conjunction with a local NGO SEACOW ( Society for Environmental Awareness and Conservation Of Wildlife), which is mainly into environmental education. Since many of the active members of the society are Singphos, the project would serve as an ideal platform to build up ties between the two communities.
This was by far my most challenging assignment till date, despite the fact that I spent only fifteen days over here. The purpose behind working on this project was twofold; first to supervise the construction of the school and second to interact with the Chakmas. It was hoped that my presence would speed up the snail paced progress of the construction, which unluckily did not happen. There were several challenges due to the tight budget coupled with the remoteness of the location. It was hard to find good masons who were willing to work in this remote place under challenging conditions. Suppliers were unwilling to deliver the material to the construction site due to the apathetic conditions of the road. I myself had a tough time staying over there though my host Sudhadan tried to make my life as comfortable as possible. I really didn’t mind the very basic accommodation, or the fact that there was no electricity or having a bath in the nearby stream. It was only the food with which I had a problem, somehow I just couldn’t get used to the taste and odor of their oil. Had to make do with plain rice for all my meals rice as I had a difficult time ingesting other food stuff.
Most part of the morning I used to spend at the site, trying to help out in whatever limited way I could. Watering the pillars, nailing planks together, anything to garner a greater sense of responsibility within the local people. To escape from the mid afternoon heat I used to go for a walk within the cooling canopy of the rain forest which was pulsating with life. The hooping Gibbons, chirping birds, fluttering butterflies and mysterious insects, welcoming me in their surreal world. Time would begin to drag as the evening sun gave way to the night. In the cool breeze of dusk Sudhadan and I would sit beside a small fire talking over the happenings of the day.
A good deal of my day was spent in speaking to Chakmas from various age groups. Most of them understood Hindi so it was easy to make conversation with them. The elders I mostly questioned on their past history, to comprehend the difficulties they had gone through. Their tales were always those of infinite strife, but the amazing thing was that they never gave up, always fought back the challenges with staunch determination. Albeit, all of them wanted a better future for their children. With the younger generation it was more about their hopes and dreams. Their keen determination to get a good education so that they could move up in life.
The school is just the first step in creating a harmonious relationship between the Chakmas and their neighboring communities. Though a good education is imperative, the importance of economic options cannot be undermined. In my opinion all measures would fail without providing them with adequate economic opportunities. In this regard much more work needs to be done in the coming years.