Arunachal Pradesh swears by a wonder Mishmi teeta, a herb that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. The bitter plant, locals claim, can cure almost anything.
But when her mother Gutitun was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, Basamlu Krisikro went beyond the herb — that derives its name from her ethnic group Mishmi. She began giving her mother a daily cup of organic green tea sourced from a niche estate near Roing town in Lower Dibang Valley district.
But it wasn’t always convenient for her to travel miles to get the chemical-free beverage. So Basamlu, 39, decided to grow tea in the backyard of her house at Wakro.A tiny, laidback town in Lohit district en route to Hindu pilgrimage Parashuramkund, Wakro is 250km northeast of state capital Itanagar. The road via Tezpur in central Assam makes the distance 690km.
Many people in Wakro thought Basamlu was making a mistake when she planted tea on her five hectare land. They felt she could have planted oranges instead — the place adjoining Kamlang Reserve Forest was known for it. Better still, opium, that fetched quadruple the money for a fraction of the hard work, could have been a much better bet.
Four districts of south-eastern Arunachal Pradesh — Lohit, Anjaw, Tirap and Changlang — bordering China are notorious for opium cultivation. It was the outcome of an opium war the British had unleashed in the 1800s — much like the one against China’s Qing Dynasty — to make the tribal people too intoxicated to resist colonisation.
Last year, Basamlu proved the cynics wrong. She sold 8,500 kg of green tea made in a small mechanical factory she had set up. She found buyers from Canada, Australia, USA, Japan and Germany for her Wakro Organic Tea brand. More importantly, locals bought a substantial quantity of her product."Our people are being threatened by poppy (opium) farming that is fetching them money but turning them into addicts. Anti-drug agencies don’t come here because this place is too far away, and the locals prefer opium because other produce is difficult to offload owing to lack of proper connectivity," Basamlu, a Delhi University product, said. She had diagnosed the problem.
Cultivators fancied opium because they were not aware of other high-value crops. This gave Basamlu the mantra for change: get addicted to green tea, not opium. To show that she means business, Basamlu has been supplying to ‘the converts’ tea plants from Assam on a deferred payment basis, besides inking deals with them to buy their organic harvest to process in her factory.
“It’s been slow progress, but then, it is not easy to change old habits,” she said.
Today, Wakro and nearby areas sport at least half a dozen small tea gardens that include a 3.6 hectare land owned by Songelum Bam, a former opium addict.
Bam and others like him say few had bothered to counsel them on the perils of opium cultivation, its consumption and how the very existence of their ethnic group was at stake. The three sub-divisions of the Mishmis — Idu, Digaru or Taraon and Miju or Kaman — number a few thousand. The bulk of their population is in China, where they are called Deng.
Assam-based organic tea planter Binod Saharia, Basamlu’s mentor, calls her ‘cultivation crusade’ a reverse opium war. “It takes a lot of courage to go for organic tea farming in a remote place since fertilisers and chemical boosters ensure more commercial success. What she is doing, albeit on a small scale, is remarkable. More praiseworthy is her effort to change the mindset of people addicted to opium,” he said.
Basamlu’s tea venture has given the Arunachal Pradesh government ideas on how they could motivate opium growers to opt for other crops. “We have identified tea and rubber as viable options for these geographically disadvantaged farmers. But we are not doing away with poppy cultivation altogether; a few strategic farms would be given license for functioning under government control, mainly to feed pharmaceutical firms,” chief minister Nabam Tuki said.
The choice of tea has been prompted by industry reports that the fairly untouched Eastern Himalayan region, particularly Lohit and Anjaw districts, can replace the aromatic Darjeeling tea whose quality has been impacted by old and non-remunerative plantations.
Basamlu isn’t the only one in the Krisikro family working for the people to reduce dependency on drugs, campaign for generating fruitful employment among locals and save the nearby forests.
Her husband Amma, an engineer with an oil firm, son Navin pitch in. Her brother Roinso runs a school for 300 poor children from fringe villages. The lessons include the ill-effects of opium.
Some professionals and other individuals, with considerable influence in the community, have joined Basamlu’s tea party. Dr Sotutlum Nayil has planted tea on his two hectare land while C Pinjinmai, a teacher, has transformed her 1.8 hectare land.
The ‘tea lady’, however, downplays the changes her initiative has brought into the community. “Whatever I have done is for my family, my son who I want to see growing up in a healthy atmosphere, and of course my mother,” she said.
Her mother’s cancer, medical reports say, has been arrested. For Basamlu, this is just one battle won.