Tamenglong: During the monsoon, it takes a 20-km trek through treacherous mountainous terrain for residents of Phellong, a village in Manipur, to reach the nearest district headquarters at Tamenglong. Poudinbou Niumai, a 28-year-old resident of Phellong, said he last trudged through the route in July, when he needed to use the ATM.
“During the monsoon (July to September), when hopes of a car reaching our village are close to nil, we don’t leave unless we really have to,” he told ThePrint, adding that they have the option of driving down in the summer and winter.
Located atop a hill, Phellong has a pool of houses with gabled roofs, a small school, a church and a prayer hall. But it doesn’t have much else. The only way to access basic goods or sell their produce is to walk long distances.
Fifty years ago, the villagers were required to walk over 150 kilometres to Imphal. In 1969, the distance was reduced to 20 km when the Tamenglong headquarters was established. Forty-eight years later, in 2017, earth diggers were used to widen the path enough to accommodate a car. Another route to the headquarters exists, but residents say it is a kutcha road that adds four to six hours to the journey.
Promises of building smooth, black-top roads in the district have remained unfulfilled for various reasons, including the difficult terrain, lack of funding, loss of political interest, and disruption by underground groups operating in the area.
The dream of a proper road has been passed on from generation to generation — not only in Phellong, but across villages in Tamenglong’s interior, where no car can go.
Tamenglong is considered to be Manipur’s worst-connected district, with the few roads that run through the headquarters either crumbling or under repair.
In 2020, the proposal for a 100-kilometre road connecting Tamenglong to Assam was broached. It would connect 10 remote villages in Tamenglong to Haflong across the border.
But there was a hesitation — the cost. The project cost was estimated at Rs 1,895 crore, officials in the state government told ThePrint. Of this, over Rs 500 crore was compensation for the land acquired.
“There were several rounds of discussions with the district administration about how and where the road would come up, and also the costs. If we insisted on compensation, we ran the risk of the road being cancelled, as it has been so many times before,” said Phellong’s secretary Gujirang Newmai.
Deliberations took months, and, finally, all 10 villages came to a decision.
“We decided to give up the land for free,” said Newmai. “It is a sacrifice. But you don’t know what it is like living without a road. The hopes and dreams of thousands are depending on this.”
A road to prosperity
When villages decide to give up compensation — there’s only one other case apart from Tamenglong — it is motivated by years of involuntary isolation. In 2019, 10 villages in Arunachal Pradesh bordering China declared they were willing to give up compensation so that a 150-km highway could be built on their land.
At the edge of the country, the villagers had been living without roads since Independence and were desperate to fast-track the process.
Most of Tamenglong is similarly marooned, with nearly 50 cent of the villages in this district not served by all-weather motorable roads.
Bordered by Assam in the northwest and Nagaland in the northeast, nearly 90 per cent of the district is covered in dense forest.
Its landscape is pristine, with verdant hill ranges stretching as far as the eye can see. But its beauty conceals the hardships faced by people living within the forests, who have paid heavily for lack of development in the area.
A survey of 18 villages in the district by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, a government institution, found that lack of connectivity had badly affected healthcare and education. Medical facilities were available in only 25 per cent of the villages surveyed, and only 21 per cent could be connected by bus.
“We’ve suffered for decades. My father and his father suffered. We walk by foot for seven to eight kilometres to reach the hospital. Sometimes we don’t go because the route is so bad,” said Hiamkamang Gonmei, secretary of Dailong, whose ancestors established the village in 646 AD.
Dailong is only 10 kilometres from the district headquarters. But in the monsoon, it takes up to an hour to cover the distance because of the road’s changing textures — from patches of smooth road, to gravelly broken black-top, to muddy marsh, to no road at all. Only a gypsy or four-by-four vehicle can handle the terrain, and that, too, if the vehicle is repaired regularly — a luxury few in the villages can afford.
Development at a cost
A road from the Tamenglong district headquarters to Haflong was first planned in 1980, with the North Eastern Council (NEC), the nodal government agency for the economic and social development of the region, taking responsibility for the project.
The pace of the work on the highway slackened over the years, and, by 1997, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) had reportedly been entrusted with the task of finishing the job.
The BRO found the road’s alignment infeasible, and proposed a change. They also directed the Manipur Public Works Department (PWD) to conduct an inquiry and “fix responsibility for the faulty alignment”, but the latter put it off, according to a 2008 report in The Sangai Express, a local paper. By 2008, the NEC had reportedly suspended funds for the road, which was never completed.
“We’ve been lured by promises of a road time and again. When the work starts, it either doesn’t finish, or the road is of bad quality and can’t withstand the heavy monsoons,” said Nehemiah Zeme, an activist with the Tousem Students’ Organization. Tousem is Tamenglong’s worst connected sub-division, housing 53 villages, including Phellong.
“Once in a while, roads will be constructed using MPLADS funds. But there’s not been a concerted effort to connect the district,” Zeme added.
Manipur is a low-revenue earning state. A five-year analysis by PRS Legislative Research reveals that 90 per cent of its revenues are transferred from the Centre, with only 10 per cent coming from its own taxes and resources. Between 2015 and 2021, Manipur spent just 4.2 per cent of its budget on roads, much less than other states in the northeast — Arunachal Pradesh 15.8 per cent, Mizoram 9.2 per cent, and Meghalaya 7.3 per cent.
In 2012, Tamenglong deputy commissioner Armstrong Pame (then a sub-divisional officer) organised a crowdfunding drive to build the Tamenglong-Haflong road the PWD failed to build. But it wasn’t an all-weather road, and soon fell into disrepair.
“When I was young I would have to walk from my village to the Tamenglong headquarters to go to school. Because my village was so far, it was a two-three-day journey,” Pame, a Tamenglong native from Impa village, told ThePrint. “As an IAS officer, it is my dream and duty to see this road materialise.”
Pame travelled to Delhi to persuade the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), the government company that oversees roads in states with international boundaries, to construct this route.
He argued that the road would not only give remote villages the accessibility they so desperately needed, it would also cut travel time to Guwahati — a major trade hub — by seven hours. Such a road could bring tourism to the district, and prove to be strategically significant since it could also connect to Myanmar via Imphal.
But the Ministry of Roadways, Transport and Highways was sceptical if traffic would ever build enough to make up the cost of the project.
Rajeev Sood, executive director of the NHIDCL in Manipur, told ThePrint as much, saying, “The ministry would not have agreed to it (the project) if they asked for too much (compensation).”
Pame conveyed the NHIDCL’s hesitation to the villagers whose land would be affected, and deliberations to give up compensation began in early 2020.
In Tamenglong, decisions over land are made collectively, and not individually because village land is commonly owned by clans. Village authorities, recognised as legal entities authorised to adjudicate on local disputes, also played a part in mediating the decision-making process.
The final terms the villagers agreed to, which they signed in October last year, are unusual. According to documents accessed by ThePrint, not only will land owners give up compensation, their future kin cannot ask for it in later years either.
But the contract adds that should the road be expanded in the future, all additional land acquired would be duly compensated, and as many trees regrown as felled for the project.
“Cultivation is our livelihood. There were disagreements at first, and it wasn’t an easy decision. But we have wanted this road for so long — this road will cut our costs, it will make educating our children easier. If development comes with this road, then there is no need for compensation. That would be all the compensation we need,” Ramdiyang Gonmei, a land owner in Dailong village, said.
Most people in the district earn a living by cultivating paddy and other crops through jhum cultivation, where patches of land are abandoned after years of cultivation due to soil erosion.
A part of the highway’s proposed route will pass through such abandoned land, but it is not clear yet how much.
Although the land owners say they have no misconceptions about what they have given up, a lingering desire for their sacrifice to be recognised persists.
“It’s a great thing if the highway is coming up. If the road comes, there is no need for compensation. But if the government can, it would be nice to get something for the standing crops we will lose,” said Ramdikamang Pamei, a land owner and former member of the village authority in Phellong.
Oilang Pamei, 68, said he wanted the road, and would have liked compensation too. “This is a choice we have made, given the circumstances. What more can I say?” he added.
If project proposals are anything to go by, Tamenglong seems poised to shed its label as the state’s “most backward” district. Not only is the Tamenglong-Haflong highway in the works, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is collaborating with the state government to make a shorter road connecting Tamenglong and Imphal. A newly commissioned railway station, Vaigaichunpao, is expected to be fully functional by next year.
But the signed paperwork and timelines must be reconciled with Tamenglong’s harsh realities: The three all-weather roads connecting Tamenglong with other districts are all in dismal condition, beaten down by relentless monsoon rain, with repairs incomplete despite having gone on for more than two years.
Along one of the routes, on National Highway 37, construction workers were allegedly abducted by underground groups and held ransom — a “rampant” occurrence that plagues the district despite a ceasefire signed with the central government.
“All developmental works are illegally taxed and therefore the work either remains incomplete or is substandard, further giving rise to the perception of bias and non-inclusive policies of the government,” a survey by the think tank Vivekananda Foundation noted in 2017.
The timeline for the Tamenglong-Haflong highway appears ambitious given this context. The road has already been sanctioned, with tendering underway. Four of six packages covering the road have been awarded to three construction companies, which are bound by a stringent contract: Once signed, roadwork is expected to be completed within 18 months, failing which the companies will have to pay for the construction out of their own pockets.
“We are hopeful that seeing the sacrifice of the people, the underground groups will also not collect undue tax and let the roadwork happen,” Zeme, of the Tousem Students’ Organisation, said.
In the meantime, it’s an anxious wait for the 10 villages that have given up their land — first for the roadwork to begin, and then for it to finish.
“We don’t know what to expect,” said Gujirang Newmai. “We have lived without a proper road for so long, how will it transform our lives? We will see.”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)