Livelihood Crisis: Story of Chakma Ration Porters

VIJAYNAGAR in remote Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh is the eastern most inhabited land of our country. As there is no road connection to the area, people are dependent on limited Military Helicopter for essential services and requirements but due to inclement weather conditions, the limited Military Helicopter can’t manage the supply chain.

Here come the Chakma Porters, the “Live-Savers”: they walk on foot with head load or back load of supplies for 157 km from the nearest administrative block Miao carrying essentials for the people of Vijoynagar for about 7 days. During rainy seasons, the journey takea around 10 days. 

Such is the terrain of this 157 km long trail that probably even Bear Grylls of Man vs Wild fame would not dare this treacherous journey! One misstep or your foot slips a little, could plunge you 1200 meters straight down.

One can probably understand the risk and the danger involved in this journey from the fact that in Vijoynagar, Common Salt is sold at a minimum of Rs 150 per Kg and Sugar at Rs. 200 per Kg. Please take a look at the following video.

Retired Soldiers Pay Rs 200 For Sugar & Rs 150 For Salt In Isolated Vijaynagar

The work of these Chakma Porters would be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. It is extremely risky, difficult and dangerous as they have to go through unexplored deep jungles, canals and streams carrying heavy loads ranging from anywhere between 40 kg to 80 kg on their backs out head. Pushing heavily loaded bicycles is by no means easier on the terrain!

The ration porters would sleep in jungles amidst fear of wild animals, poisonous snakes and insects. Though they are the Life-Savers, many die during the journey due to dehydration, illness and falling off the narrow, slippery and muddy mountainous channels.

But why do the Chakma youths have to take up such risky jobs where life is like “water on elephant ear plant leaves”, as the local adage goes?

This isn’t for fun or adventure; it is the ever deep livelihood crisis that has forced Chakma youths to take up such employment.

This livelihood crisis of the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh needs to be looked at from a historical perspective. Chakmas, a South Asian ethnic indigenous tribe faced series of religious violence and persecution by the then erstwhile East Pakistan Government and in the wake of construction of Kaptai dam which inundated their prime agricultural land, they were forced to flee Chittagong Hill Tracts to India. They were then given refuge, transported and rehabilitated by the Govt. of India in the then NEFA (North East Frontier Agency now Arunachal Pradesh) from 1964-69 under a definite “plan of rehabilitation”. The Govt. of India helped them with every possible support to rebuild their shattered lives as citizens of this country. 

Chakma porters pushing their loaded bicycles through the muddy road to Vijaynagar.

Initially, free ration was provided followed by land grant of 5 acres per family, seeds and saplings and cattle grant for engaging in subsistence agriculture. Gradually, trade licenses were given for those who wanted to conduct business, gun licenses for self-defense and protection from wild animals. Ration card was issued, and they got PDS items from the government. The eligible Chakmas were inducted in government services including Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), CRPF, Assam Rifles, Police and other various central and state government services.

The Chakmas were happily living as full-fledged citizens of India at par with locals and the rehabilitation process was almost seamless until the anti-Foreigner agitation of 1979 in neighboring Assam changed the course of their destiny. Little did they realize that there was a twist in the tale – and that there would be a reversal of the rehabilitation process!

As NEFA became a UT and subsequently a full-fledged state with federal powers, in the fire of anti-foreigner agitation, employment of Chakmas in government services was officially banned in 1980 through a state govt notification, ration cards were stopped in 1991 and appointment of Chakmas as village panchayat Gaon Burahs was revoked in 1997. Economic blockade was imposed, and Chakma students were thrown out of the schools and colleges. They were now branded as “refugees”, unwanted “foreigners” and equated with Tibetan refugees.  

Chakma porters passing through thick jungles with backs full of ration for the residents of Vijaynagar.

The Tibetan refugees came to India from the neighboring Tibet province of China and chose to remain as ‘honored guests’ and get refugee benefits in India, while the Chakmas, on the other hand, are on their own having been rehabilitated and accepted as de-facto citizens of India with all rights at par with the local population back then after completion of rehabilitation in 1964-69.

The physical struggle that these life savers have to go through is a sad reality of the emotional struggle that Chakmas have to go through every single day only because they have been systematically denied and deprived of their rights and no one is there to hear their voices. It is sadly a man-made political tragedy and the poor and illiterate Chakmas continue to be at the receiving end for no fault of theirs. Ironically, they are the “life savers” for the residents of Vijaynagar in dire need of essential supplies but the question is – who will bring respite to the lives of these Chakma ration porter ‘life savers’?

How the duly rehabilitated Chakmas were de-indianized and their rights de-recognized is another story but that would be in our next post. Stay tuned!

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