We might be wondering which television series to binge watch next weekend. However it is a different world at the north-eastern tip of India. The district of Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh has minimal internet access even at the district headquarters, Anini.
Poor internet is only one of the many challenges faced by the district administration. Being located at a remote mountainous terrain and sharing a long boundary with China, Dibang Valley is also the least populated district of India. In such adverse conditions, the man who is leading the road to development in this bordering district is the Deputy Commissioner of Dibang Valley, Shri Minga Sherpa IAS.
Minga Sherpa is a 2017 batch IAS officer from AGMUT cadre who hails from Darjeeling in West Bengal. He draws his inspiration from his father who had been an IPS officer posted in the Uttar Pradesh cadre. “From childhood, I used to see him out on the field for 14-16 hours a day,” he described. “When I was a kid a person approached me and asked me whether I am the son of this police officer. Then he narrated to me how my father had unknowingly helped him. This incident left a lasting impression on me. I decided to join the civil service as it is one of the avenues to bring about positive change in society,” he said.
The task in hand
Ensuring connectivity, physical as well as digital, is one of the ways of bringing Dibang Valley to the development map of India. Ensuring proper roadways to the distant villages especially at the international borders is vital to ensure effective communication and hence is one of the priorities for the district administration. The cost of building infrastructure is high given the remote location poses a challenge as well.
“There are only two mobile towers in the entire district of Dibang Valley. A handful has access to mobile connectivity,” the Deputy Commissioner informed.
As part of the Digital India Program, the Bharat Broadband Network Limited plans to provide high-speed digital connectivity to rural areas. Solar-powered user terminals will be provided at each user terminal as part of this program. Dibang Valley has around 12-13 VSATs (very small aperture terminal) operational in the district headquarters, Anini. Since VSATS need electricity to function it cannot be used in the villages as most villages do not have access to electricity.
Being the lowest populated district in India with a population density of 0.9 persons per square kilometer spread over 130 census villages it becomes challenging for the district administration to ensure last-mile delivery of government services. To picture the situation, only 10 pupils attend a school or a PDS or ration shop caters to only 10 individuals. However, it is important to keep those services functional.
In the age of digital learning
Online education may seem to be convenient to many students who are used to the Open Book Examination pattern. However online education is an impossibility at Dibang Valley even at the district headquarters.
As the pandemic has forced schools to remain closed, the district administration and the education department teams, with the help of the Arunachal Pradesh state government, are getting all the study materials printed out to be distributed to the students.
A specialized counter has been opened at the DC office where students who are studying outside the district and have some urgent homework or an online examination could download or upload using the DC office internet facility.
However, in the long run, the district administration is in the process of installing VSATs at the higher secondary schools so that students for Dibang Valley can avail the facility of smart classrooms and can catch up with the rest of the country with online education.
A stretched border
The Galwan crisis has shifted our focus on the bordering areas with China. The border with Arunachal Pradesh is one of the sensitive issues of contention between the two nations. Dibang Valley being a bordering district has a large presence of security forces like the ITBP or Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau. According to the Deputy Commissioner, “Coordination with the authorities is the key. We also take care of the special needs of the Army.” Minga Sherpa IAS was honoured with the GOCinC Commendation Card for fostering civil-military cooperation.
“Whenever the Army lacks accommodation, we are always forthcoming to provide them accommodation at whatever government building we have. Similarly, whenever we have any infrastructure needs, we have, we coordinate with them,” the Deputy Commissioner informed.
In the pandemic times, this bond with the military was further strengthened. “When the Army and ITBP were running short of sanitisers, masks because their supply chain was hit, we provided them with masks on the promise that they would replenish our stocks. When soldiers had to go to the forward posts and needed to get vaccinated immediately, we provided them with our civilian stocks. Similarly, the ITBP doctors helped us with our vaccination efforts,” Minga Sherpa, IAS explained.
The presence of the Army has helped the locals to get employed as porters. Since the bordering villages have no electricity the Army has DG sets and provides some limited hourly supply to them.
Transporting the life-saving doses
In the second wave of the pandemic, the district reported only one case of fatality. Given the rudimentary medical infrastructure available at this far-off district, vaccination has become the only way out to fight the pandemic. However, the challenge is to transport the vaccines to reach Anini and then administer the doses to every citizen.
It is well known that once the vaccines leave a facility it needs to reach the next cold chain facility within 12 hours. Thus, maintaining the supply chain of vaccines is one of the most important components of the whole process. At Dibang Valley where the roads get blocked due to frequent landslides and calling up someone on phone is not an option, a multipronged logistics approach is followed.
All the highway contractors along the way are informed in advance. “We order the highway companies to stop construction activity for a certain amount of time to prevent any chance of landslides due to construction activity,” the DC informed. Government staff is posted along the route along with a local highway contractor who escorts the vaccines up to 40-50 km of stretch. Then the vaccines are escorted by some other government staff along with some other highway contractor. This is because the highway contractors have their walkie-talkies and can inform the construction companies up to a certain range. So, the vaccines have to be relayed on with the help of several highway contractors whose walkie-talkies serve the purpose of communication and relaying the information that vaccines are on the way. In the event of a landslide, the administration makes use of all their machinery to clear the road.
Vaccinating the population
The district administration has vaccinated around 95 percent of the population with the first dose. Many elderly people are living in remote areas. The medical team reaches the villages and holds the vaccination drive. Their details are noted down manually and then they are fed into the Cowin portal from the district headquarters.
Based on the guidelines issued by the government to vaccinate People Without ID cards many vaccinations have been carried out.
Vaccine hesitancy is an issue that is faced by almost every population. In Dibang Valley to this phenomenon was common among the senior citizens staying in remote areas. “Fake news spread through word of mouth. This is also due to a lack of information and active intervention from our side. To get any message to the people need to start one week in advance because they are spread manually,” the DC said.
The Panchayati Raj members and the Gaon Burras were vaccinated on priority. “Local leaders were the most trusted by people. This gave the confidence in people to get vaccinated and helped in dissipating the message,” Minga Sherpa, IAS said.
Back to the new normal
The second wave of the pandemic has started to decline, and economic activities have resumed at most places. In most cities, we have noticed a lack of COVID-19 appropriate behaviour among the people. In Dibang Valley to a similar trend has been noticed. “This is due to a sense of complacency,” the DC remarked.
The IEC mechanism which was used to get the people to receive the vaccines is being used to dissipate the message that one can still contract the virus even after receiving their shot. Moreover, parents are being urged to follow Covid-19 appropriate behaviour so that their children remain safe since those below 18 years of age are not yet eligible to get their doses.
The economic activities should resume along with COVID-19 appropriate behaviour to get our lives to some form of normalcy. Drivers are urged to get tested weekly and post their COVID-19 negative certificates on their vehicles. Similarly, passengers who must travel regularly are urged to get themselves tested at regular intervals. “In the first wave, there was a sense of taboo if someone tested positive for COVID-19. Now the situation has improved, and people are forthcoming,” the DC informed.
Coordination is the key
In a district like Dibang Valley where there is a lack of private sector involvement, almost everyone relates to the government in some way or the other. The district has almost 500 to 800 government servants. Every family or every village has multiple government servants among them.
Since there are no multiple agencies it is easier to get messages across. Since the NEFA days, the Dibang Valley district administration has been a single-point agency that coordinates with everyone else, be it various central government agencies or different departments in the district.
“In Dibang Valley one cannot work in silos. Everyone needs to come together, pool our resources and then we can be successful,” the DC shared.
A learning experience
There is a general feeling among aspirants that clearing the UPSC examination and making it into the Service is a destination. Minga Sherpa IAS clarifies, “The UPSC exam and what you learn at LBSNAA is just for your knowledge. This would act as a tool. You need to apply that based on the local conditions.”
India has diverse regional cultures and subcultures. “One should keep an open mind and learn from everyone, be it the senior-most staff of the government or even from a villager. Many of our traditions and cultures are based on common sense. One needs to value the wisdom of the local people where you are serving,” Minga Sherpa emphasized.
Dibang Valley had one of the lowest vaccination figures in the state. Today it has the highest vaccination figures in the state. As the Deputy Commissioner pointed out the population might be small, but the challenges are enormous. “When people appreciate the efforts which you are putting in it gives you satisfaction,” he shared.
Talking about his experience as the Deputy Commissioner of Dibang Valley he said, “The district has given a lot of opportunities for a young IAS officer to serve society. Compared to huge metropolitan cities where there are multiple organizations present, at Dibang Valley there is a lack of manpower, infrastructure and a lack of set rules and regulations which gives us a unique opportunity for officers like us to come and impact society in the way we can.”
In a world experimenting with 5G technology and the internet of things, Dibang Valley offers a reflection of the issues faced by people in 21st century India and the challenges in extending the benefits of good governance to them as well. Let us think of the realities on the ground and consider these situations as well while framing our national policies.