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One of India's remotest regions launches 2G network

Aditya Sharma New Delhi
August 19, 2020

Vijaynagar in Arunachal Pradesh remains physically cut off from the rest of the world, but residents are excited they can finally make mobile phone calls. The town still has no health care or safe drinking water.

A remote border town in India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh
Image: A. Chhetri

Aaron Chhetri was seven years old when he first left his hometown of Vijaynagar. Located close to the Myanmar border, the northeastern town in Arunachal Pradesh state is one of India's most remote regions.

The 20-year-old now lives in neighboring Assam with his brother. Some of his siblings are still in Vijaynagar. Keeping in touch with family has always been a challenge. But that all changed on August 1, when Indian state-owned telecom company BSNL launched a 2G mobile network through a solar-powered tower, and residents could make their first ever mobile phone call.

"Earlier, there was no way for us to call back home," Chhetri told DW. "If our family in Vijaynagar wanted to call us for something important, they would have to go to the telephone booth in our town and wait in a queue," he explained.  "Now we can make direct calls back home. It's so much easier," he said.

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Chhetri recounted how India's nationwide coronavirus lockdown complicated matters. The local telephone booth, like all other establishments in the town, was shut down.

Chhetri had zero contact with his family for over a month, until he finally decided to head back to Vijaynagar in early May. He then witnessed the arrival of mobile connectivity in Vijaynagar before heading back to Assam.

"I used to get this feeling of homesickness each time I left Vijaynagar," he said. "But it wasn't as bad this time."

Arunachal Pradesh, Vijaynagar
The process of installing the necessary mobile and satellite equipment and solar panels was not an easy task for VijaynagarImage: Devansh Yadav

Complete isolation

Surrounded by Myanmar on one side and dense forest on the other, Vijaynagar is made up of 16 villages and is home to at least 4,500 residents.

There are only two ways to reach Vijaynagar: a six-day forest trek from the nearest town Miao, 157 kilometers (97.5 miles) away, or by aircraft and landing at an Indian Air Force operated airstrip.

Vijaynagar also serves as a base for the Assam Rifles, an Indian paramilitary force. Soldiers posted to the remote town also for a long time struggled to stay connected with family and friends.

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Challenging terrain

The process of installing the necessary mobile and satellite equipment and solar panels was not an easy task for Vijaynagar. Coronavirus lockdown measures and poor weather conditions delayed the project for several weeks.

"Coordination, at times, was quite challenging, since the logistics depended on the weather conditions," Devansh Yadav, the deputy commissioner of Changlang district, told DW.

Karte Vijaynagar EN

The local Vijaynagar administration coordinated with BSNL and the state government to transport the equipment from the Assamese city of Jorhat in June.

"We provided BSNL with our engineers, coordinated local workers and even issued travel permits for them to ensure easy movement during the lockdown," Yadav said.

"Most of the equipment has been installed. A few more solar panels are yet to arrive and once that happens, the tower will have an independent power supply," he added.

BSNL general manager for Arunachal Pradesh, Arung Siram, said the installation took about a week once all the necessary materials arrived in Vijaynagar.

"Transportation of the material was a huge task," Siram told DW. Due to the lockdown, he had to request special permission from the district administration. He also requested an Indian Air Force helicopter to help airlift equipment. Locals in the area also volunteered to help.

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No electricity, no doctors

Despite the arrival of mobile connectivity, Vijaynagar remains largely undeveloped and physically cut off from the rest of the world. The nearest road is in Miao.

According to Yadav, road construction is currently underway.

"Most construction work in Arunachal Pradesh is very limited between March and October due to heavy rainfall. Once the weather improves later this year, we'll have a better idea of how much progress we have made," he said.

There are also no doctors in Vijaynagar. Only the Assam Rifles have medical facilities on their camp site. Residents must also draw their own water.

Solar power is one of the main sources of electricity in Vijaynagar, and supply is not reliable, particularly during the monsoon season. 

Local MP Tapir Gao called on the central government to immediately construct a road to Vijaynagar to ease the lives of local residents and Indian Army and paramilitary personnel.

"The main challenge in Vijaynagar is the lack of road connectivity. Once we get proper roads, drinking water, electricity, education, and healthcare infrastructure will follow," he told DW.

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