Outpost of empire

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The sleepy capital of Arunachal is now a bustling commercial hub but still gets treated like a protectorate, says Teresa Rehman

Seeking solace Monks at a Buddhist monastery in Itanagar
Photos: Teresa Rehman

IT’S AN interesting dichotomy, one in which the different facets of Itanagar are well captured. On the one hand, you might well encounter an unlikely pedestrian on the busy streets of the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, someone who looks like an illustration out of an anthropology textbook: A quaint lady from the Apatani tribe, with two huge black circular nose plugs(yaping hullo) and a traditional elongated black tattoo on her forehead (done to make her look unattractive to men from other tribes). On the other hand, you are as likely to find shops, vehicles, big billboards and young people in trendy urban attire: All the accouterments, in fact, of an emerging commercial hub.

Tucked away in the eastern-most frontier of India, Itanagar is described by old-timers as a ‘cluster of settlements’, which evolved into a bustling mercantile nucleus. Itanagar usually surfaces in the national media only when the Indo-China border issue crops up. But in just five to six years, its character has changed enormously: With department stores, fastfood joints, hotels, apartment blocks and cyber cafes coming up apace. A training institute, eyes firmly fixed on helping local youth get jobs in the hospitality, aviation and IT sectors, has been a big hit with the young.

Life in greens A bird’s eye view of the city of Itanagar

Earlier, buying patterns were based mostly on the criteria of quality and durability; now, it’s about buying what’s trendy. As average Arunachali urban youth have become more health conscious, there’s also been a proliferation of gyms and health clubs. A dash of Tibetan culture and cuisine has crept in, with a number of ‘Tibetan refugees’ opening restaurants in Itanagar: Dolma Nawang, a Buddhist from Tawang runs the popular ABC Restaurant. There are also eateries with signboards that advertise the availability of ‘tribal food’.

But if you ask any of the residents of Itanagar about their city’s growth and the visible changes, the one word they use to describe the change is: traffic, traffic and more traffic. They say there was a time when hardly two or three vehicles could be seen on the road at a time. Now, there seems to be no parking space available in the city. Part of the reason for the proliferation of vehicles is easy car loans and the availability of stolen cars at cheap rates. “New notions like peak and lean hours and traffic accidents have become the order of the day,” says Nani Bath, who teaches at the Rajiv Gandhi University at Rono Hills, close to Itanagar.

Geographically, Itanagar’s location is a bit like a see-saw: it slopes down and then rises. The quaint capital at the foothills of the Himalayas came to be known as Itanagar or ‘town of bricks’ after it was declared the state capital in 1972. It’s said that it derives its name from the archaeological remains of the Ita fort, which dates back to the 14th century.

The population has grown exponentially, as people from rural areas come in search of jobs. But urban infrastructure has struggled to absorb this escalating rural migration. Water, sanitation, transport and electricity are under pressure. And there’s a rise in petty crimes like burglary and theft.

Ethnic pride A tribal woman wearing traditional nose plugs

The earlier concept of building box-type utilitarian houses has changed: the traditional houses have remained only a symbol. “Now, people are building trendy houses with different architectural designs borrowed from design magazines or big cities. There is a gradual shift to interior designing and outdoor aesthetics,” says Nok Tsering, a government official.

Itanagar is actually an extension of its ‘twin city’ Naharlagun, which is about 10 km away. In fact, Naharlagun was home to important government offices which were later shited to Itanagar.

The population comprises both government servants and traders. But a worrying phenomenon is the rampant encroachment of government land by private parties. The lackadaisical attitude of the authorities has encouraged government servants to even construct personal houses within their government-allotted premises!

RATNADEEPA, A Buddhist monk, feels that this haphazard growth means there is a dearth of open spaces: “There is only one park called the Indira Gandhi Park and two picnic spots (the Zoological Park and the scenic Ganga lake).

Ask anyone in Itanagar about the city’s most visible change, they will say: traffic, traffic and more traffic

Pradip Kumar Behera, editor of The Arunachal Front, a local daily, first came to Itanagar from Delhi in 1983. He recalls: “There were a few shops. Except the Raj Bhawan, there was dense greenery all around. Earlier, wild animals could be easily spotted on the highway.”

Modernity has crept in many other ways into this repository of tribal culture. Traditional attire is now increasingly reserved for festivals and special occasions. Behera says there was a time when a visitor was offered Apong (the country liquor). “These days, people offer tea, coffee and cold drinks,” laughs Behera.

Small manufacturing units like steel rolling mills, bakeries and, of course, units manufacturing Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) have mushroomed. The media has also grown, with five English dailies being published from Itanagar. The only FM station, Radio Ooo la la, is a superhit with the locals.

Tourism has immense potential but is yet to be developed. There is a Buddhist temple on top of a hill that was consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself. However, one deterrent is the Inner Line Regulation, initiated by the British, which is still in force: All Indian non-residents need an Inner Line Permit to enter and are prohibited from owning land and fixed assets. As a result, this mountain city remains off the tourist map.

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