Tensions, Dams, Development Threaten India’s Magical Arunachal Pradesh

Last night the New York Times reported that tensions were escalating in Tawang, a culturally Tibetan town in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Himalayan region has been closed off to foreigners for most of the last 50 years due to boundary disputes between India and China. But in early 2007, with the state easing its visa restrictions, a handful of intrepid travelers set out to see, firsthand, the potential for ecotourism, which was documented in our magazine by writer-adventurer Bridget Crocker. A former whitewate guide herself, Crocker was blown away by the state's big-volume rivers, including the Subansiri and Siang, which could make it a world-class whitewater destination—if the rapids survive the 22 dams slated for the region. 

We asked Crocker to give us her take on the situation.

ADVENTURE: Did you see signs of tensions between India and China during your exploratory trip?

When I visited in early 2007, I did not see any signs of tension between India and China, although after all I had read about the region I was prepared for the worst. The people of Arunachal—having been essentially exiled from the outside world since British colonial rule stopped free movement to the state in 1873—often greeted our group with tears of relief; they marked our arrival as a sign of change in the region. Before 2001, tourists weren't allowed in the area because of the intense armed conflicts, so our presence was an omen of peace for many, especially the older people we met who had experienced these conflicts for much of their lifetime.

What cultural and natural features impressed you most about the region?
Because it was isolated from the rest of the world for so many years, Arunachal Pradesh has a tangible wilderness quality that is purely magical, it's like nothing I've ever witnessed before. Nestled in the Himalaya, it has hundreds of high-volume rivers that have yet to be explored and it's home to scores of animistic tribes that still hold onto their languages and traditions.

Even without the current military tensions, what kinds of development issues threaten the region?

Until now, Arunachal Pradesh has managed to by-pass destructive practices like hydrodams and large-scale logging and mining; it's uniquely poised now to make decisions that leapfrog environmentally damaging technologies and opt for cleaner, more sustainable routes. On the way to the Subansiri River put-in, we came across a village near Along that had solar panels on the thatched roofs. It was the only village around that had electricity. Sadly, massive hydroelectric projects are planned for the majority of the region's rivers, and one has already been largely completed on the Subansiri River, displacing thousands of local people and destroying many rare endemic species, not to mention killing a fantastic whitewater river. There are efforts to stop the dams from being built, but they are overshadowed by skirmishes waged by nations to control and exploit the natural resources. How Arunachal develops from here should be up to those who live with the rivers, rocks and trees in dispute. The issue of sovereignty is the most vital feature of the region and at the heart of the conflicts surrounding its borders.

Earlier you reported that "a handful of intrepid travelers are seeing, firsthand, the potential for ecotourism." Given the current situation, should travelers stay away now? Even with an outfitter like RiverIndia?

The U.S. Department of State cautions travelers against visiting other regions in India, but not Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal is a restricted state, meaning that travelers must arrange for a special visa to enter and they must travel as part of a government-sanctioned, organized tour group. No harm has come to travelers in Arunachal Pradesh as a result of the nearly 100-year-old dispute between China and India over the region's vast natural resources. I was extremely well cared for by our Arunachali hosts and wouldn't hesitate to visit the region again today. I wouldn't take my grandparents there or recommend it for travelers who need to stick to an itinerary of five-star accommodations. The tourism infrastructure is just now being established, so hardiness is a prerequisite for travel. I think the key is to hook-up with a local outfitter such as Donyi Hango Tours (donyihango@yahoo.com) or Red Chilli Adventures (redchilli@vsnl.com) so that you tap into local knowledge and regional connections you wouldn't have otherwise.