Vijaynagar, Arunachal Pradesh: An Island of State Power

I stumbled across this article a while ago and found it greatly informative and a wondeful thought piece. From a magazine run by the Indian newspaper The Hindu, it discusses a far-flung area of the Indian Union, Vijaynagar in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Located in a valley in India’s northeast, Vijaynagar boasts an air strip, an Assam Rifles (Indian paramilitary group) encampment, and schools. Nestled in the Kachin Hills, which form part of the border between India, Bangladesh and Burma, Vijaynagar is actually further east than Yangon and Naypyidaw in Burma. Given this bit of information, its unsurprising too learn that the general area in which Vijaynagar rests is surrounded on the south, east, and north by Burma (see map below). If you’re wondering, Vijaynagar is over 1,200 miles (almost 2,000 km.) from New Delhi and that’s the Euclidean distance, I can’t even fathom how far it actually is.

What makes Vijaynagar interesting is its status as an “island” of state control in one of the most remotest areas of India. As the article mentions the settlement is completely dependent on its air link for transportation and supply to the rest of India, through the airport at Mohanbari in “upper” Assam (up river). The nearest town, Miao, is 157 km. of “thick jungles” and six days away. Residents unable to catch one of the flights to the town employ “Chakma refugees”, probably a reference to the Chakma tribe in Bangladesh, to carry loads during the trek from Miao. The Chakma, incidentally, are a non-Muslim tribe from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. At one point they were engaged in an domestic insurgency until the early to mid-1990s. With continuing Bengalization in the Hill Tracts, the government sponsors settlers from the plains to the hills, the Chakma, and other indigenous tribes, are voicing concern over the loss of their livelihoods, way of life, and discrimination by Bengalis.

Vijaynagar itself appears to be the administrative center of 13 other “recognized” villages and 1 “unrecognized” villages. Recognition is probably imparted by the Indian government and probably entails benefits, right to governance and so on. I’m guessing one of the “unrecognized” villages is still considered part of one of the recognized ones. Looking at the map and the local topography, and considering the area’s reliance on air supply, we can understand the subtitle “prisoners of geography.” The area is home to another tribe, the Lisu, that initially settled the area, which they called “Daodi”. The name Vijaynagar, City of Vijay, was named by a Major General of the Assam Rifles after the birth of his son, Vijay, in the area. That general was sent to survey the area.

This island of the Indian state border Kachin state in Burma. Home to the Kachin Independence Army, which the article says, which ran a parallel government to the one in Nyapyidaw and offered military training to militants from northeastern India. I’m guessing since the establishment of Vijaynagar and the imposition of state authority through the Assam Rifles cross-border traffic has declined somewhat. But, the terrain is rough and there’s plenty of jungle passes.

As you can imagine, Vijaynagar is enslaved by the local climate, given its reliance on air transport. The article relates the effect of cancelled sorties carrying people and necessities because of inclement weather. The people are doubly encumbered by the fact that the Public Distribution System doesn’t operate there, making Vijaynagaris subject to market prices and transport prices to get their goods. Thus, as of 2009, Changlang district was seeking to revive plans for the maintenance of a forest road linking Vijaynagar and Miao. Evidently, this would reduce travel time from six days to six hours because of the ability of light vehicles to ply the route. A couple of immediate effects would be lowering the cost of goods as transport costs decrease. Of course, Chakma refugees, who act as porters, would lose a valuable source of income to the road. While its possible the Chakma refugees could operate a taxi or trucking service, I’m sure that requires more start-up capital than refugees typically have. That means that this would be a business opportunity for a middle-classer, probably to employ Chakma refugees as drivers. Moreover, other advocates pointed out that a forest road would also permit forest guards (it is a national forest) to better patrol the jungles from poachers and illegal loggers.

Creating a forest road would fundamentally alter the presence of the Indian state in the area. Currently, the “state” can be envisioned as existing in Miao and Vijaynagar separately. While there is “some” state presence in between the two, its practically nil. If I need the United States to say, save my house from burning down (as states are supposed to do), and the best they could is arrive in three days, then no, there is no state. However, if there’s a road to my house I would certainly feel the state’s presence. Don’t read too much into this, I’m not necessarily an advocate for the state, its generally corrupt. But providing economic, social, and educational opportunities to those who might not otherwise have them, that’s a worthwhile state. By the same token, some states are content to sit back and let the private sector to develop nascent infrastructure, logging companies will certainly build tracks.

The State and Hunger: North Korea’s political Geography

The Mail (citing undercover reporters with Asia Press) reported the existence of cannibalism in North Korea, the last pure fascist-Marxist hybrid state left in Asia (perhaps the world). The article suggests that a ‘hidden famine’ is occurring in the country’s main breadbasket provinces and that some 10,000 people have already died. Causes of the potential famine are listed as a drought in the breadbasket areas and the confiscation of the remaining food by the government to give to the capital city, Pyongyang. While the brutality of the North Koran regime has been long documented by a variety of NGOs, this isn’t the first time that North Korea has experienced famine. The article notes that the North undertook an “Arduous March,” a delightful euphemism, for a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands (if not a million) people.

This real human tragedy highlights important geographic links. First, there is the importance of understanding countries at a sub-regional level. A drought in a mountainous area might cause local food shortages, but it probably doesn’t have much impact on the food situation in the country at-large. Agriculture, as we all know, is typically concentrated in more temperate climates, with good soil, with reliable access to fresh water, and groups of people to work the land. These requirements aren’t typically available on mountainous slopes, though it is possible (as the Inca proved) to support substantial communities given time and effort. The North Korea case highlights the importance of a drought in an agricultural belt, lowering agricultural output in your breadbasket necessarily has a wider impact on your food situation in the entire country.

Next, there is the importance of understanding state actions during a food shortage, which reveal and highlight the political geography of the state. In North Korea’s case, confiscating food from the breadbasket provinces and redistributing them to the capital highlights the importance that the state places on the residents in the capital city. One could potentially argue that the regime is willing to let its farmers starve, with the outcome of them not able to work the land, then to let residents in the capital go hungry or starve. If we return to the organic state concept, the North Korean state (and probably most states) identify the capital city as the focus of their power – it must be protected at all costs.

Together the potential famine in North Korea highlights the importance of understanding the natural and social causes of hunger. On the one hand, physical phenomena, like droughts or flooding, can have a grave impact on local food supplies, often causing starvation and death. But these phenomena are, by their very nature, somewhat localized especially when discussing a countrywide scale. The human impact on starvation is often left out of the discussion, confiscating food, withholding food supplies, or poor political decisions often complicate “natural” disasters. Another good study of the human/political impact on famine is the Bangladesh famine of 1974 (shortly after independence) where government mismanagement of foodstocks exacerbated a local crisis. There’s probably a political element to the focus on natural causes, its easier (and politically safer) to blame the natural environment than to accept blame that your political system shares a large fault.

A Geography of hunger: India and its (too) full rice bowl

    Times of India had a really good article on an interesting conundrum in the country. On the one hand, current stocks of food grains are 2.5 times larger than the government recommended minimum stock of grains in the public distribution system and strategic reserve (India sells part of its harvest through the public distribution system at a subsidized rate to those living below the poverty line). But on the other hand, some 25% of Indians go hungry or are malnourished. The article points out that India has 43% (!!) of India’s babies suffer from malnutrition, a figure higher than Ethiopia, Niger, and Bangladesh – countries typically associated with these problems.  While the article offers some explanation to the problem, I think we can some geographic perspective to this problem.

    The article points out two problems with the public distribution system, both related to Geography. First, the article notes that the number of families living under the poverty line is still an estimate based on a projection for the year 2000, using 1991 Census returns. While this makes sense to use throughout the 1990s, why didn’t the Indian government revisit the 10-year estimates at the 2001 and 2011 Censuses? While I would love to know the answer (probably politics and bureaucraticism), the impact is under discussion today. The Indian government is cognizant of the fact that the public distribution could be missing between 80 and 100 million persons by using these outdated projections. Assuming that the ratio of those living under the poverty line remained constant between 1991 and 2011, the actual number would increase (dramatically) because of the population growth.

    The other argument is the poverty line itself. As the article suggests the current peg (18 rupees for urban 12 for rural Indians) may be too high and that those living just above the peg are unable afford unsubsidized prices. That the peg differentiates between urban and rural residents is interesting. The built in assumption is that rural Indians make less money and probably have a built-in alternative, they can grow their own food. Urban residents are unlikely to have this alternative and the higher peg permits a greater inclusion of urban residents.

    Of  course we can add more hypotheses from a geographic perspective. For instance, there could still be lingering problems in the actual distribution of food via the transportation system. Referencing the two maps below, one showing Indian railways and agricultural production the other showing instances of famine and scarcity (both from the 1930s) we can see notable areas where the transportation network didn’t quite reach potential areas or, if the network did, perhaps it was too far away from the agricultural areas to make it in time? That people can still go hungry despite the existence of breadbaskets, even bumper harvests, within a country isn’t new. During the Bangladesh famine of 1974 a million died, despite a local peak in food production.

There are also additional demographic concerns. Is the current peg an average income for the entire household or is it per household? For instance, a family of five (2 adults, 3 children) makes 20 rupees a day. The total household income would preclude the family from benefiting from the subsidy, but the household’s average income is only 4 rupees a day. I suppose some would argue that utilizing an average would cause an explosion in the population’s growth rate as people try to impoverish themselves by having more children and thus, lowering their average income. While this is valid in the short term, we should keep in mind that as these children grow they will also make money thereby raising the family’s average income back above the poverty line. While there will always be people attempting to take advantage of every system of aid, I don’t think that’s reason to preclude the existence of the system in the first place, it just needs effective enforcement.

    Besides explanations of food production shortfalls for instance due to flooding, droughts, torrential rains, or cold snaps, Geography can also add perspective to hunger in the midst of bountiful harvests. As we outlined here, the transportation network and demographic aspects of the safety net should be considered in identifying and mitigating hunger.