- The Yobin or the Lisu are an ethnic group living in three countries – India, China and Myanmar. In India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, they number in the low thousands but find themselves in conflict with authorities fighting for living space.
- India’s state-sponsored policy to secure its border area with Myanmar by transporting former military men meant that the Yobin had to vacate their homes and move in to the Namdapha National Park, putting them in conflict with the tiger population.
- While the government says that they have encroached on land belonging to a protected tiger reserve, community members argue that it has been their home forever.
- For decades, the Yobin have remained cut-off for want of a road to their villages. Now, with the government approving a new road, they see a ray of hope.
Until recently, Lucheso Yobin was a full-time pastor preaching at the Church of Christ to congregations of his tribe. He now spends most of his time on pastoral activities and advocating for the rights of the Yobin people than he does on preaching the word of the Lord.
The Yobin are the same people who are known as Lisu in China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, northern Myanmar, and in the hills of Thailand. In India, they live in the remote hamlets of Vijoynagar and Gandhigram bordering Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh’s eastern district of Changlang. Like many from his tribesmen in India, Lucheso has dropped ‘Ngawazha’ and adopted ‘Yobin’ as his surname.
Combined with the remoteness of Vijoynagar and Gandhigram (the nearest town of Miao, the headquarters of Changlang district is at least over 150 km away), the absence of road connectivity, and written records, it is unclear when the Yobin/Lisu first migrated into present-day India. Conflicting claims by the different ethnic groups living in the region only add to the confusion.
Lucheso says that his people have lived here “since time immemorial”- a term used often by ethnic groups in the state to claim indigeneity to the land.
K Chithan, a Tangsa elder living in Miao, recalls that when a group of Singpho tribesmen from the adjoining areas first met them in the early 1960s, a handful of Yobin elders could speak the Singpho language. “Maybe they learnt it in Myanmar before migrating here. Now, none of them are alive and the younger lot cannot speak Singpho,” said Chithan.
The Singpho are the same people known as the Jinghpaw in Myanmar and in the People’s Republic of China. Chithan also said that there were around 17 to 18 houses back then.
It was around this time that the Indian government began to settle the mostly-Nepali retired paramilitary Assam Rifles’ soldiers in Vijoynagar to secure the country’s international border with Myanmar.
Lucheso said that the Assam Rifles personnel first came in 1962 and that the former soldiers were settled from the years 1964 to 1970, displacing a number of Yobin villagers. The official website of the Changlang district administration says the settlement began on 7 May 1961.
His claim is backed by Chithan who joined as a constable in the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau, a wing of India’s Intelligence Bureau tasked with gathering domestic information, in 1967. Chithan made his first trip to Vijoynagar in 1972, by which time the former soldiers and their families had already been living there when the state was still a union territory called the North East Frontier Agency.
As the president of the Yobin Welfare Society for the 4,500-odd people, Lucheso has much on his plate.
Official sources say that Vijoynagar is around 157 kilometres from the nearest town of Miao and in the absence of a road, requires a six-day walk. Lucheso claims that it is around 200 km and that the Yobins cover the distance in four days. For others, it takes six days. While the state government has had a long-standing plan to build the Trans-Arunachal Highway cutting across the length and breadth of the state’s landscape, the construction of a road to the villages remains an unfulfilled demand of the Yobin and the ex-Assam Rifles settlers alike.
Although successive state governments have promised to construct a road to Vijoynagar, hope grew exponentially last year after the governor, B.D. Mishra, said that it will be built by all means. But, after years of waiting, the Yobin have already moved out into the confines of the Namdapha Tiger Reserve bringing with it the issue of encroachment of forest land.
International policy needed for Namdapha
The Namdapha Tiger Reserve is part of the Namdapha National Park and is the largest protected area in the Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot- a trans-national area covering China, India, and Myanmar.
Apart from tigers, it is the only park in the country where three other big cats- leopard, clouded leopard, and snow leopard -are also reported to be found.
In 2013, the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) began working on its Landscape Initiative for Far Eastern Himalayas (HI-LIFE) to get the governments of the three countries to begin dialogues to improve the management of the area. Nawraj Pradhan, the India coordinator for HI-LIFE, said that international cooperation is important given the size of the landscape area and the variety of animal species that inhabit it.
By some estimates, there are at least 96 species of mammals and hundreds of butterflies species found in Namdapha’s over-18,000 square km of the area alone. The size and trans-national character of the area means that poaching and wildlife trade is common if underreported, phenomenon.
The ICIMOD has been working with governmental agencies to stop poaching and illegal harvesting of forest resources. Pradhan said an international policy is essential to achieve its goals. He also said that monitoring of animals in a more scientific manner is required and referred to the fact that the last time a tiger was caught in a camera trap in Namdapha was in 2015.
However, a tiger was captured on camera in December last year north of Namdapha at the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary that runs contiguous to it. Although not commonly sighted at Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary, experts say that the same tigers that live in Namdapha may have made their way north.
Namdapha’s elusive tigers
A researcher with the state government’s forest department said that there have been “(human) disturbances in the area over the years” that may have pushed the tigers outside the Namdapha area into where there is less human presence.He also said that forest rangers have caught poachers in the past but are hardly brought before the right authorities to be tried for their crimes.
“Sometimes they are caught deep inside the forests. Apprehending them and bringing them to the police means trekking for four days with another set of people to feed,” he said, adding that the judicial process can take months if not years before poachers are brought to book by which time they can get bail and never return.
In his response to questions about the tiger population in Namdapha, the state field director of Project Tiger, Tapek Riba, said that tigers are still around but that “animals are shy by nature” and hence have not been sighted in the last five years.
According to the 2018 Status of Tigers in India report, Arunachal Pradesh has 29 tigers (surveyed from scat samples), none of which were from Namdapha. Riba said that tiger pug marks are found every year even if they have not been caught on camera. While not officially recorded, he said that the presence of at least four individual tigers in Namdapha has been confirmed through scat analysis. He admits that there are issues facing the forest department in terms of collating tiger population data. “We are only able to cover ten percent of the park’s area,” he said, and that there 107 cameras installed in the entire Namdapha, “so many” of which he said have been damaged.
He officially denies knowledge of any poaching taking place within the confines of the Namdapha. The question of poaching in the Namdapha remains unanswered for fear of reaction from the Yobin who the state government says have encroached on the protected forests.
Yobin community members say home forever
Lucheso is convinced that his people have not encroached the Namdapha. “We are indigenous to the land and our parents were forcibly removed from our homes,” he said, and that it is the former soldiers and their families who should be relocated somewhere else.
Like the state government, Lucheso also claims to not be aware of poaching in the forest’s land but that “maybe it is happening”. Poaching aside, the Yobin and the government have other issues to focus on. Riba said that the Special Tiger Protection Task Force formed under the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s (NTCA) directive in Namdapha has 40 men but requires at least 210.
He said that the manpower and financial crunch along with the inaccessible terrain makes monitoring the park a difficult task. “We have sent several requests to the NTCA seeking an increase in funds but have not heard from them,” he said.
The 166 full-time and contractual employees of the Project Tiger in Namdapha had not been paid their salaries for a year since March 2019. For Lucheso, what keeps him up at night is the absence of connectivity to the villages. He said that there is only one upper primary government school in all of the Yobin-populated areas where even the teachers are paid salaries by the parents.
The Yobin are primarily dependent on agriculture for their daily needs, although some have begun cultivating cardamom to be sold to Marwari buyers from Assam in the unregulated market. Currently, farmers row bamboo rafts on the Noa-Dihing river carrying the cardamom. Lucheso hopes that their incomes will increase once the road to Vijoynagar is built.
That long-pending dream of a road to Vijoynagar will have to wait a little while longer.
Two weeks into the countrywide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 7 the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) met to review proposals seeking clearance for the realignment of the 157-km Miao to Vijoynagar road. The Inspector General of Forests-Wild Life (IGF-WL) had said that the state government has requested for realignment of the road at two stretches to ensure negotiable conditions for better implementation of the Tiger Conservation Plan. The state government had said that the realignment will provide an opportunity to create anti-poaching camps and watchtower facilities near where the Yobin live, “till they are relocated”. In response, the NBWL asked the NTCA to submit its suggestions by May 20.
As per the latest development, W. Longvah, the Inspector General of the NTCA Regional Office in Guwahati has said that recommendations will be made after thorough study and field visits along with experts from Wildlife Institute of India.
Banner image: Yobin cardamom cultivators on the Noa-Dihing. Photo by Ranju Dodum.