Mr. Sachi G. Dastidar
Distinguished Professor, State University of New York & Chairman of Probini Foundation

Our first Sponsor from U.S.A.

Writes up from Mr. Sachi G. Dastidar:-

Some people in the world – including India – may have heard about Mizoram, but very few would have heard of Tuichawng in Mizoram. Mizoram is a state of India located in hard-to-reach Northeast India; formerly the Lushai Hills District of Assam State, renamed Mizoram after an insurgency and subsequent peaceful resolution. Mizoram is sandwiched between Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh with the northern part connected to Assam and Manipur states of India. Even today the landlocked area has only two connections to the world – by air through the small airport and through a road through the hills connecting her to Assam and rest of India. There is no formal border crossing through its long international borders with Burma and Bangladesh. The state is evergreen and picturesque, heavily forested with a large number of mountain ranges and valleys that straddle the land from north to south. It is still one of the areas of India that remain inaccessible especially because of a rule that requires a permit, like a visa called Inner Line Permit, to outsiders including other Indians  to enter the state which is available from a handful of places in India. Mizoram was created as a Christian-majority state with a substantial number of Buddhist-Chakma peoples living in the southwest of the state bordering Bangladesh. (Bangladesh has a large area that is Chakma majority; as is the neighboring Indian states of Tripura and Arunachal.) To give Chakmas cultural-religious-linguistic protection a small area within the state was designated as Chakma Autonomous District under Indian Constitutional provision, as was given to predominantly Christian Moro peoples. Most Chakmas live outside the Autonomous area including Tuichawng.

 Tuichawng is 75 kilometers southwest of Lunglei in the shaded area, close to Bangladesh border

Lunglei is 235 kilometers south of Aizawl on the National Highway 54

Through a network Probini Foundation was approached by Mr. Sudip Chakma, Volunteer of the Ultimate Truth Preaching Mission (UTPM), as they were planning to build a community school called Ahimsa (non-violence) English School in Tuichawng village, adjacent to a Buddhist temple on top of a mound that lacked funding. Tuichawng is practically all-Chakma with a handful of Mizo-Christian arrivals. They also indicated that Tuichawng is an extremely poor area by any measure. Most of the residents are subsistence farmers with no more than a few hundred square feet, and most families with six to ten people earn no more than $50 dollars a month, as we were told by hosts, where cost of living is very high as everything has to be imported over a long distance.

The Trip: As Probini does not support any organization without a firsthand report, this writer was entrusted to do the visitation (at his cost.) While I was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in the fall of 2012 I discovered that there were a number of Mizoram students on campus and that there was a Mizoram House nearby who gives the permit. Later I was to be in Kolkata (Calcutta) from where there is a direct flight to Mizoram capital of Aizawl, so I got the permit in case I was able to travel. Ironically the state celebrates January 11 as a State Holiday called Missionary Day when two English Christian missionaries J. H. Lorrain and F. W. Savidge arrived in Mizoram on January 11, 1894 to convert Mizos from their nature-worshipping Hindu-like religion to Christianity. British colonial powers restricted other Indians from traveling to the area and the same tradition is still practiced in free India. Mizos are grateful that Christianization brought Westernization, Roman script and high literacy to a backward area.

In January of 2013 a two-hour flight east over Bangladesh took me to Aizawl airport, 29 milometers from the city. Mr. Daneswar Chakma of Tuichawng and Mr. Zaba, Private Secretary of Minister Nihar Chakma were waiting for me at the airport. Honorable Nihar Chakma is a deputy minister of the Indian National Congress Party government of Mizoram elected from a constituency that includes Tuichawng who welcomed in his office later that afternoon. As the flight arrived in the afternoon I had to wait till next morning for the trip to Tuichawng, a 12-hour journey by road. I spent the afternoon visiting Aizwal, a city that clings to mountain ranges full of big churches. The capital has over 25% population of state’s one million people. From top of many of the hills that dot the city one can have a spectacular view of the city. But for a visitor city visit comes to an abrupt halt as stores close by 5:30 in the afternoon as darkness fell. A common refrain from the locals is “we have no night life except for few days between Christmas and New Year.” The state is completely dry because of church opposition.

          To get to Tuichawng one has to go south taking the National Highway 54 to Lunglei, the largest town in the south and a district headquarters. The highway runs through picturesque forests, mountains and valleys but must be a nightmare to any driver making turns every hundred feet. Normally this journey of 165 kilometers (103 miles) by shared taxi takes 6 hours with a break for breakfast. The winding road follows mountain range, at times skirting valleys and gorges that are thousands of feet deep. Most of the taxis leave Aizawl early morning so that those who are traveling further can catch a connection during the day time. We were ready at 6:30 in the morning as dawn broke in the winter time. We stopped for traditional Mizoram breakfast of rice, chicken and greens at Muipang where there is a government tourist resort. At midday we stopped at Lunglei for lunch where the washroom of the restaurant hung 40 feet above mountainside. Lunglei to Tuichang is a mere 75 kilometers (47 miles) by a state highway yet takes another bone-shattering 6 hours, is a real hell. I don’t know if I have seen anything like this anywhere in India, or anywhere in the world. It is a real example of Indian incompetence, neglect community by a state government according to many residents, corruption (as funding for the road repair has presumably been approved but held up), marginalization of remote areas and governance failure. The scenery was extraordinary if only one could take the eyes off the road. As we reached the village in late afternoon the entire population was waiting for our arrival as Daneswar’s cell phone gave them regular updates every few minutes. (One remarkable feat in India is the cell phone that is available even with people earning $25 dollars a month and reachable in very remote corner like Tuichawng.) Most of the homes in the village and elsewhere are built on wood platforms with bamboo mat walls and hung on the side of the road with back rooms often rested dozens of feet above ground depending on the slope of the mountainside. Our welcome was headed by Mr. Rajesh Chakma, President of UTPM, whose home was our first resting place. I was invited by Mr. Rajesh Chakma and his wife Samita Devi into their home for my stay there. After a walk in the village it became dark but lines of visitors continued until real late, and hot tea never stopped coming past midnight. The Rajesh residence had a remarkable view from their kitchen as tops of cocoanut and mango trees could be reached from the window. It felt like we were on a tree house. 

Homes in Hilly Tuichawng

Next morning started with a meeting at the UTPM office discussing various issues facing that poor and struggling community. The entire community joined in the discussion. After the meeting we headed to the old 120 sq. ft. one-room school at the street level at a private home that was abandoned as student enrollment rose. The school had no toilet. Then we headed up a hill to the present 250 sq. ft. one-room school that runs grades 1 through 4, that is already overcrowded, and still has no toilet. After official presentation several children sang Chakma and Hindi songs. Apart from many core subjects kids also take Chakma, Mizo, Hindi, Bengali and Assamese languages. (Chakma, Assamese and Bengali have the same script. This writer was asked to discuss in Bengali as students and parents can read and understand it.) After a presentation by this writer everybody headed to the site where the new Ahimsa English School is to be built. This is on the side of the hill that is being dug out to make a flat surface for school construction. Parents, neighbors and older students are taking part in clearing earth for their new school. This was followed by a prayer and discussion at the Buddhist Temple adjacent to the present school which is rented from the temple. In the midst of further sessions a boat trip was arranged in the fast-flowing Tlang River that joined Karnafuli River. Karnafuli empties in Bay of Bengal through Chittagong City, Bangladesh. Small villages dotted river banks. Many locals told us that the state is changing many of the native Chakma-Buddhist names to Mizo-Christian names like MatriCharra to Belei, and Demagri to Tlabang. We spent quite a bit of time in MatriCharra as there were many people from there at our meetings earlier and as they invited me into their homes. Anywhere one went the hard-scrabble life and a marginalized existence was evident, but there were no dearth of smiling faces and hot tea. In many villages the literacy rate is barely 30% as visitors were told, and a high dropout rate in upper grades as the language of instruction changes from Chakma-Bengali to Mizo-English which students do not understand. Banks of the rivers and streams were lined with small-scale farming, some barely a few hundred square feet, upon which vast majority of people depend for survival. (After Bangladesh built a dam on Karnafuli River creating Kaptai Lake in the Chittagong Hills Tract region to produce electricity for Chittagong city but flooded majority of Chakma farming areas. This pushed over 250,000 Chakmas to seek refuge in India.) Some farmers have to walk over 5 kilometers to work on their tiny plots of land. As India is building a fence along Bangladesh border to prevent illegal migration huge trucks could be seen plying the wretched road carrying supplies. Soon Chakmas will be isolated from their majority cousins in Bangladesh. A major center like Tuichawng has no bank, no gas station, no doctor, and no health clinic. There is a health clinic on paper but the attendant just came for the day of appointment and then left for her home in the big city, but still receiving monthly salary, was mentioned to visitors. Sometimes this is a problem too in schools if the teachers are non-local. They too would sign up for the salary but never to attend is a common complaint. One Rabindra Chakma works as a paramedic as he was taught how to administer first-aid. During my stay there was an accident when a little girl had to be transported for six-hours to Lunglei over the derelict road and at heavy cost. Rabindra told me that each monsoon 14 to 16 people die of malaria because of unavailability of drugs and care. There is piped water, electricity, a bazaar, bottled gas supplied by India government, a public elementary school and two new Church-established Christian schools; one Presbyterian and the other Baptist, and very important that the remote area was connected to the world through Internet via cell phone technology. (Even families with income of $35 dollars per month have cell phone.) There are many churches and one Buddhist temple. The state has limited resource, many residents are engaged in substance agriculture, barely any industry and massively depended on public sector jobs. Unless the lifeline road to the southwest is rebuilt the residents of southwest will find themselves in a prison-like ghettoized condition when their main connection east to the world via Lunglei is fragile while their economic access to Bangladesh on the west is sealed off.

Probini Visit to the New School Building Site

For the return trip we had to leave Tuichawng at daybreak. The journey was made enjoyable by the driver Mr. Pu, and two students – Dibbar heading to a college in Shillong in the neighboring Meghalaya state, another 12 hour journey by bus from Aizawl, and Sonju for a college at Aizawl. A large number of villagers -- men in trousers and women in sarong and sankha, pola wedding bangles of married women and sindur vermillion mark on scalp -- were present with folded hands in that early hour to say “aabar ashben: Come back again.”

May 2013