When a project to make its people self-sufficient was inaugurated in far-flung Longdaipabram in Manipur last week,it formalised a bond between an Army officer and the village forged under the worst of circumstances in the state.
Eighteen years ago,as a young Indian Army captain,D P K Pillai,had received near fatal wounds heading a team that carried out raids in Longdaipabram. It was 1994 and the Army had just re-entered the state after being pulled out and stationed in Kashmir. The NSCN-IM had taken over entire tracts,and the Tamenglong district was one such area.
While flushing out militants in Longdaipabram,Pillai was shot six times and his left foot blown up by a grenade. He was to be airlifted when he decided to stay back,insisting that two children who were caught in the crossfire be airlifted instead. While the Captain would survive and spend the next year in hospital,Longdaipabram never forgot Pillais gesture as he was to realise much later.
Many years after that,one of my friends was stationed here. He knew I had been injured here and visited Longdaipabram. They remembered me and the village head got in touch with me. I came to meet them in March 2010 for the first time since the incident, says Pillai,now a Colonel.
He made several repeat visits,and eventually decided to help change life of people in the village where he had seen near death. The two projects the officer has helped launch hope to make Longdaipabram self-sustaining. Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju,who was initially supposed to launch the projects,will now come on May 12 for a visit.
While one of the projects,taking the help of the National Bamboo Mission,will give villagers machines to make bamboo products,under another,villagers have been organised into a cooperative so that they can collectively own orange plantations.
Atounbo Panmei,the village headman who made that call to Pillai in 2010 re-establishing his connection with Longdaipabram,says the projects are a godsend. Tucked inside heavily forested mountains,residents of the village live hand to mouth.
Listing their problems,Panmei says: We usually walk four hours to get to Tamenglong,which is the closest town. There is no transportation to our area. We grow rice but because of the terrain it is only enough for us to consume. We do not sell the produce. The weather is ideal to grow very sweet oranges,but we dont have the capital to produce this on a commercial basis. Each family has a small garden with an orange tree or two for their own consumption. Most villagers are employed as labourers with the NREGS,which pays Rs 126 per day.
The colonel has enlisted Sanjeev Nair,formerly with the National Bamboo Mission and now a principal secretary in the Uttar Pradesh government, and Aseem Narain,working with the National Mission Bamboo Applications under the Department of Science and Technology.
We have engaged trainers to teach villagers to make two essential products bamboo mats and agarbatti sticks. We have been working in different states in the Northeast and across the country and it has been our experience that these are the two products in great demand, says Nair.
They have already found buyers for the agarbatti sticks,he adds,including in Thailand. In Nagaland we started selling the bamboo mats several years ago at Rs 35. Now the market price is Rs 85,and yet there is demand.
They plan to next teach villagers how to build more sustainable bamboo houses.
Regretting the circumstances in which the villagers live,Pillai says: If I was in their place,even I would become an insurgent. Peace has to be an active process and not a passive one.