Adarsh Misra, IAS, AGMUT
A Tiger at Barep Point on Road to Lazu in Tirap Distict, Arunachal Pradesh (erstwhile N.E.F.A.)
Arunachal Pradesh, erstwhile N.E.F.A., is situated at the northeastern-most tip of India. Tirap District is the area which curls in like a sock turned back towards India at the tip of the map of India on North Eastern side. Tirap is situated amongst the Eastern Patkoi range of the Himalayas and the headquarters, Khonsa, are at around 5000 feet height. The average valley is at about 3000 feet and streams and rivers meander through at different points and junctions. The district has many undulating vales while the unforgiving rock of the mountain looms harshly over them. Access to most parts of the district was largely on foot. Most of my touring as Additional Deputy Commissioner (Independent Charge) Changlang, with headquarters at Khonsa was on foot after reaching specific drop points by four-wheel drive. My one-and-a-half-year-old son accompanied me invariably as the treks were long and the boy too young to be left behind without his mother. He would be tied to the back of an Auxiliary Labour Corps jawan, snug in a tea basket, slung across the ALC’s back. Uphill, downhill, slithering on narrow pagdandis, balancing across many swinging bridges, which were woven from reeds. Treks involved going across streams, stopping to get rid of the leeches that attached themselves to one’s ankles; marching uphill again and eventually halting for the night in temporary huts made of bamboo. This was part of the normal life while on posting in Arunachal for around five years.
Except for the main arterial roads, measuring the distance to any place in the district, whether sub-division or village, meant calculating how fast you could trudge up hill and down dale. Many of the roads in Tirap District, Arunachal Pradesh, were initially laid out as Self-Help Roads with significant contribution of labour provided willingly by the local villagers in exchange for food and kerosene, salt and tea, etc. Officers of the Indian Frontier Administration Service, were the key leaders of the movement to increase connectivity through self-help roads in the isolated interior areas of the district.
One of these arterial roads was incomplete for some time due to aggressive blasting resulting in a dangerous and potentially unstable overhang. I took on the task of completing this PWD road with the help of local tribal labour. The rock overhang could be chiseled by expertise of Rajasthani and Oriya labour and road cutting was to be done through self-help by local tribals.
A team of officers drawn from different departments including PWD, Irrigation, Agriculture and Revenue was formed in early 1975 and we proceeded to Barep Point, till where a road of sorts had been prepared through blasting by the PWD. The first patch of the road also had to be inspected for identifying areas for clearing and increasing road width through chiseling. Due to frequent rockfalls and washing away of the road, I made each trip to Barep Point with my heart in my mouth, all the while keenly on the lookout for which way I should roll in case the jeep slipped off the road. Often the jeep would have to negotiate the road at 45-degree angles with barely any inches left on the cliff side of the road. To reduce the time needed to finish the road a date was set for inauguration and it was decided that I should camp out at a convenient place for supervising the road construction up to Lazu, a major sub division.
It was decided to camp at Barep Point at 26 kilometers from Khonsa and somewhat midway for a 40-kilometer road. It was situated in a valley, was near a river of the same name, and was surrounded by three forested mountains. Night would fall early but it was convenient for daily inspections and supervision up to Lazu,
The camp was made of temporary huts from local foliage, mostly bamboo, and beds and tables too were made from the same material. Behind my hut, and some 15 feet away, a ‘privy’ had been set up with a door which would latch and a deep hole in the ground. A bathing space had been created within my hut.
Barep Point had about 8 such huts for the officers and accompanying staff including Assam Rifles staff, who were in charge of raising and lowering the National Flag every morning and evening. (I mention this as it was a rare privilege in the early days in Arunachal Pradesh as it established the legitimacy of the Administration. On the vehicle one travelled also one flew the National Flag.)
Also staying with us in the large camp were many villagers/tribals from villages of the Lazu sub division, including the Chota Raja of the said village, the Bada Raja having stayed back at Lazu end. Work was allotted from Peg 1-to 40 between different villages, depending on manpower which had willingly turned up to do the job. Gradient and contours were laid out by engineers and inspections included the provision of a deep-water trench by the mountain side to contain the run off of rain water, thus preventing the road from being washed away. After cutting a width of 8-10 feet, and where possible 12 feet, an additional two feet were provided at the edge of the road for future travel in safety by vehicles.
The days were hectic and busy. Breaks for meal times were common only after dusk, when one could no longer see sufficiently well to cut without injury. Food was cooked in a common ‘kitchen’ in the open and shared by everyone.
Being a woman officer had its handicaps. My feet hurt something terrible in the thick Hunter shoes without which we would not be able to walk over the rough terrain. My trousers were invariably bunched into the top of the boots to keep out the many creepy crawlies on the hillsides. This made for wearisome walking and long marches sometimes uphill and back gain over long grass from 3000 feet to 5000 feet leading to inevitable slipping and sliding, much to the loud merriment of the kani (opium) chewing Chota Raja of Lazu who had made it his business to see me across and over every obstacle. He would laugh uproariously and one was willy-nilly compelled to join in, so infectious was his laugh.
From time to time we would hear roars of wild animals at nights. Being Delhi bred, I could not discern the noises as distinct from each other and depended on the horrifying tales told by the Political Interpreter. These were gory and frightening enough to scare the most intrepid veterans of the hills and included tales of mauling and being chewed to the bone by tigers, or bitten to death by snakes or being covered with hillocks of leeches. Though one could not take these tales seriously in broad daylight, once dusk settled into night it was difficult to repress a shiver at the wild forest noises all around.
As luck would have it, some Burmese tribals visited us from over the mountains, and a brisk trade between tribals from our camp and the Burmese tribals, resulting in our tribals acquiring three goats. The Burmese tribals returned over the mountains to Burma (Border trade up to three kilometers on either side was generally allowed), while our newest acquisitions – the goats, were tied up to the flagpole in the center of the camp.
This, it turned out, was a mistake as the Camp site was a favored watering hole of the resident tiger. The tribals had reported the presence of the tiger lurking across the river; they were quick to tell us that the tiger resented our appropriating its watering hole. Added to this, we had inadvertently added the tempting smell of domestic goat to the mix!
The first night the tiger approached across the river, but the tribals made a loud and thundering din at which he retreated. The second night no sight or sign was heard or found of the tiger, but as may be surmised, a goat was missing in the morning, and pugmarks were clearly visible around the huts. The third night the tiger came a bit closer and roared right outside my hut wall. As my bed was attached to the wall you can imagine my terror. I promptly ducked under my quilt to still my breath and tried my utmost to be silent, thus giving least cause to the tiger. The tiger kept up his roar while he circled my hut. The Assam Rifles’ men let loose a volley of bullets thereby scaring the creature away.
Next morning the Assistant Engineer (Line Irrigation), whose job it was to lay out the gradients for chiseling and measuring the berm cutting, upped with his baggage and threatened to leave on the grounds that while I had a husband also earning, he was the sole bread winner for his family and he would not stay to be eaten by a tiger. The other officers and staff started supporting the thought of leaving the camp for safety of their homes.
Despite the pug marks around my hut and around the privy, being a woman officer, I could not allow my night’s fear to show on my face, and with equanimity promised each of them disciplinary action if they decided to become derelict in their duties. I asked the Assistant Engineer whether he wished to wear my bangles, as it seemed that he was more afraid than a woman. At this, his face fell; he looked down abashedly, shuffled his feet, and dropped his bag. The other officers who had been wanting to join him slowly left the line and disappeared to do their respective jobs. A firm voice and unflinching stare at each of them did have its effect and we stayed tiger-less another 20 days to finish the remaining part of 40 kilometers to Lazu. To this day, I don’t know whether it was the Assam Rifles’ firing that kept the tiger away for the remainder of our encampment, or whether the tiger had witnessed my dressing-down of the other officers hidden in a thicket!
The Lt. Governor of Arunachal Pradesh inaugurated the road later. The inaugural drive was momentous; villagers running alongside the jeeps both crying and laughing, and many a teary-eyed officer, myself among them.