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Road to nowhere: Agitating Mizoram landowners, escalating costs, dearth of records stall Kaladan project

The strategic multi-crore Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project in Mizoram, envisaged as a key component of the Act East policy which will link India’s landlocked North East to Kolkata through Myanmar has hit a snag that could take time to resolve. Residents of some villages near the state’s border with Myanmar are in no mood to allow the project to be implemented unless they are compensated for a slice of land to be acquired as part of the 87-kilometre highway originating from the district headquarters Ini. The Lawngtlai District Land Owners Association has even fixed 15 March as the deadline for the government to decide on the quantum of funds to be disbursed.

The bone of contention is over a plot measuring 40 acres near a border outpost of the Assam Rifles at Zochachhuah with over 300 landowners now demanding compensation. Meanwhile, the Mizoram government has approached the Centre, asking it to release funds.

“Once the Centre disburses the funds, we can give the compensation to them (landowners). Then the issue would be resolved and the project can move forward,” Lawngtlai deputy commissioner Dr Arun T told Firstpost. The demand surfaced soon after the survey for the project was completed in the border region in 2012. Bandhs have been called and blockades staged on several occasions in the past couple of years as the process of land acquisition began. With the passage of time, the number of claimants and associations demanding money from the government also swelled, leaving the government in a fix.

The budget for the Indian component financed by the Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways has been revised for the third time with the initial estimate of Rs 507 crore swelling to Rs 1011 crore. Two deadlines for the completion of the project have also been missed and it is extremely doubtful if highway can be completed ahead of the third deadline of 30 December. Only 70 percent of the project has been completed between Zorinpui and Lawngtlai as per official records.

No land records

The imbroglio at the border also stems from the dearth of land records with the government. The land is a subject administered by the Lai Autonomous District Council: One of the three such bodies in Mizoram. The council has 18 subjects under its jurisdiction with a separate set of laws as provided under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Issuing land pattas is a complex and cumbersome process that also involves the village councils. An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that many landowners demanding compensation for the Kaladan project did not own even land in the region. He said many huts have suddenly sprung up near the alignment of the highway at the border.

Some landowners were compensated by the government a couple of years ago, but that only opened a can of worms with an association lodging a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Bureau that funds were disbursed to fraudulent persons. Echoing that official is David Thawngthanga, a senior functionary of the powerful Young Lai Association (YLA), who made a case for an immediate meeting between central government officials and the elected representatives of the autonomous council. “Otherwise, the problem will continue to drag and the idea should be to revamp the land administration. The district will have to be made ready for the ambitious project,” he explained.

Road to Nowhere

The demand for compensation has held up work on the highway for 3 kilometres from Hmaungbuchhuah to Zorinpui at the border. But work is on at a steady pace on the stretch beyond to Lawngtlai where men and machinery are deployed late into the evening hours after sunset. So, sooner or later, this highway would be completed. But what next?

No scheme has been sanctioned so far for widening National Highway 54 from Lawngtlai to the state’s border with Assam, which covers a distance of 515 kilometres via Aizawl and Kolasib. Although road conditions were found to be better than other hill states such as Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, it is unlikely the highway would be able to handle a large volume of traffic in current conditions. There were patches of unmetalled roads and potholes along the entire stretch considered the lifeline of Mizoram. At some places, it was difficult for two vehicles to pass one another without caution and deft manoeuvring.

The state government has submitted a proposal to the ministry for widening the highway till Silchar in Assam, which is also the point where the East-West Corridor begins. After it is sanctioned, a new survey would have to be conducted, land acquired and tenders floated: Which certainly would take a few more years.

In Myanmar, it is not known how and when the deadlock for construction of the 109-kilometre highway from Zorinpui to the river terminal at Pale`wa. According to a recent report in The Assam Tribune (, the Indian government has drastically slashed aid to Myanmar from Rs 400 crore to Rs 120 crore, citing non-awarding of works related to the road component of the Kaladan project, Trilateral Highway Project and the Kalewa-Yargi Road.

Travelling on the Kaladan highway in south Mizoram evokes an opinion that swings to the extreme ends. The road is undeniably among the best in terms of quality but the smooth drive is often interrupted by incomplete and bumpy segments in the entire stretch.

In a terrain as inaccessible as it is harsh, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project in south Mizoram has battled heavy odds to cover a long distance from the district headquarters in Lawngtlai to a point just three kilometres from the border with Myanmar, which will eventually link the landlocked North East to Kolkata. However, blacktopping of the road has been completed for only 41 kilometres so far.

But all this has been achieved at a high cost to human lives and equipment resulting from a combination of many factors. Situations at times have come to such a pass that the progress of the scheme had remained stalled for weeks due to the dearth of human resources and equipment.

One of the firms engaged in the project has lost as many as 30 workers either due to diseases, accidents or lack of treatment in time. Reaching the civil hospital in Lawngtlai could take at least a couple of hours and even more from the areas near the border.

"The working conditions are hostile in this region. Malaria has taken a heavy toll on the workers in the project," recalled BP Chaurasia, a project engineer of RDS Projects Limited engaged with the construction of the highway. He informed that apart from the loss of human lives, machinery worth crores of rupees have either been damaged or rolled down the hillocks never to be retrieved.

Officials working for the firm narrated interesting details about the hurdles in the project that surface at regular intervals, how they were overcome and about the situations that often spin out of control. Unlike other regions in the North East, southern Mizoram is not afflicted by militancy or demands of extortion by local groups but the distance and lack of accessibility have been hurdles in the smooth execution of the project.

Rains and raw material

The rainy season in the North East allows work for only five months, from November to March, which explains why some projects have faced an inordinate delay in the region. The labour force is usually discharged during the monsoon and asked to rejoin in October. In the past, daily wagers have been reluctant to work for the project in south Mizoram which necessitates a search for new workers from different parts of the country. A workforce of around 2,700 employees including engineers and operators has been recruited by the firms implementing the project.

More than workers, the supply of raw materials like stone, sand and cement has been a constant dilemma for the firms. Cement is sourced from the manufacturing units in Meghalaya located about 400 kilometres away from the construction site. Supply has been erratic and the few transporters willing to carry the item charge exorbitant rates.

Shortage of boulders and sand has been a crippling factor in the project. Separate teams comprising locals have been constituted by the firms to search for the items in the region. Whenever a source like a river or a hillock with boulders is spotted, an approach road is built for the vehicles to reach the spot for transporting the item. Heaps of boulders were seen at different locations near the highway waiting to be crushed and used for construction. Stone dust has been used in many sections of the highway as a substitute for sand.

Spare parts and fuel

A range of expensive machinery is assembled for the construction of a highway, which includes excavators, dozers, graders, pavers, crushers, hot mix plants and weight mix macadams. While most of the equipment has been sourced from Gujarat, some machines like the dozer and grader have been imported.

Equipment that breaks down can be repaired in a short span only if parts are available in Guwahati or Kolkata. But it is often a long wait of many weeks for the imported items since parts have to travel all the way from Singapore and other South East Asian countries.

"About a year ago, a grader had to lie idle for more than three months since no spare parts were available in the country. They had to be imported from abroad at expensive rates," said Rakesh Singh, an operator with an excavator in the highway.

Replenishing the fuel stock is also not easy for the machines and generators supplying power to the office and residence of the employees. Diesel is supplied from the depots in Vairengte where the army's Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School is located some 400 kilometres away from the project. In times of crisis, tankers travel all the way from Guwahati in a long journey that takes as much as three days to reach the construction site.

The author is Rajeev Bhattacharyya, a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men
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