Incessant rains have severely affected the Dima Hasao hill district of Assam, resulting in wide destruction, human suffering and death. Railway and road networks have been damaged as landslides uprooted tracks and washed roads away. The train station in the district headquarters in Haflong has been completely damaged and stationary trains have been derailed and carried far away from the tracks; a locomotive engine was almost submerged.
The New Haflong station, one of the most beautiful railway stations in the country, was a sight of despair. The district has lost its connectivity to both the valleys it lies between; Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters have rescued people stranded in parts of the district. The adjoining Cachar district of Assam and the other two districts in the Barak valley – Karimganj and Hailakandi – have been flooded, with the rivers in spate inundating vast stretches of land. Some bridges have also been damaged. In all, damage of such scale has not been seen in more than four decades.
New Alignments to Rail & Road Routes
Dima Hasao and Cachar are two important connecting districts for southern Assam and the states of Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram. In 1996, broad gauge conversion work was started to convert the 100-year-old, British-era rail network of 180 km from Lumding to Badarpur, which connects a vast section of the northeastern region. This was completed after several delays caused due to geotechnical constraints and militancy. But since 2016, trains have been running on these converted tracks. In the process, the states of Tripura, Manipur and Mizoram have also been connected to the national rail network. The four-laning of the road network that passed through these districts was planned during former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time as part of the Saurashtra-to-Silchar Mahasadak project. It has been languishing for all these years and is yet to be completed.
Again, this delay is partly due to technical issues and alignments, and also bouts of militancy. However, the last leg of the roadwork is ongoing and is likely to be completed in the coming year.
Both rail and road routes have seen new alignments and deviations from the erstwhile existing routes that have worked for a few decades. There is a common understanding that the erstwhile rail and road routes were planned around rivers, and hence, they lasted without much damage all these years despite the terrain.
As the recent disaster unfolded, people took to social media to post photos of the destruction. Many of them were able to alert the disaster management wing of the district administration and rescue missions were accordingly organised. Train passengers stranded were thus evacuated and people were airlifted to Guwahati and Silchar. But a vast majority of such social media posts claimed that the BG railway network and the four-lane road were the major causes of this sudden disaster; people also said that surveys were not done properly. Many said that the railway network should have been maintained with the erstwhile metre gauge route and that the former two-lane road should’ve remained as such. Social media punditry was at its peak, and while many concerns were genuine, such as that around the absence of local political leadership when such construction happened, the troll brigade didn’t shy away from resorting to even superstitions.
Were Sensitive Fault Lines Hit?
It will thus be pertinent to analyse the real facts and causes of such disasters. The Barail range of mountains covers the entire Dima Hasao district. Otherwise considered to be a stable ecosystem, the soil here is often found to be loose in many stretches. Possibly, the rail route and alignments were carried out with meticulous planning by the erstwhile Assam-Bengal railways. After the latest disaster, a proper assessment and study must be conducted to see whether the deviations have led to hitting any fault lines that should have been avoided. For that, the Railway Ministry will need to reach out to the RITES, which did the survey for the broad gauge conversion project. Similarly, the National Highway Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) should engage the organisations that it had employed for surveying and preparing detailed project reports for all stretches in the Dima Hasao district.
In addition to all this, growing activity on the hills over the years in the form of Jhum cultivation, mining and construction of buildings, is equally responsible. Jhum cultivation, which leads to burning of all green cover, impacts the soil and its retaining capacity.
Mining leases that have been provided to parties have also impacted the region; illegal mining that happens for stone and coal has also added to the problem. Riverbeds are being emptied of stones. Large tracts of land have been allocated for the construction of dwelling units and people have built houses in almost all stretches of the hills. These houses have been built with no planning, and hence, the movement of water has altered. Deep-rooted corruption has resulted in poorer quality of construction, and the slippages have given way to fragile infrastructure.
Let This Be a Wake-Up Call
It is crucial to take corrective steps. Clearly, rail and road networks cannot be wished away as they form the lifeline for people’s livelihoods. Many places in Europe and Japan have extensive mountain systems, and the communication infrastructure there is able to withstand extreme weather conditions almost throughout the year, hardly impacting speed and movement. India can take lessons from such systems. For example, the government should build proper guard rails and retaining walls to prevent landslides from impacting tracks and roads. It should be ensured that contractors are complying with technical guidelines and are not siphoning money off through corrupt practices.
The environment should be a key focus, and all organisations must review their arrangements so that the infrastructure build-up is ecologically sustainable and functional.
Even building construction should be regulated under some environment authority set up by the autonomous district council.
Photos of the ruined New Haflong railway station are heart-rending, but let this be a wake-up call. It’s time people and the government worked in tandem to protect the environment.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is a commentator on cyber and security issues around northeast India. He can be reached @subimal on Twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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