Running Behind Schedule
- Act East policy will remain a cliché unless key projects like the Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal railway line is completed.
- The project was to be completed by March 2018; the first section by March 2016.
- Work on the first section, Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal, is far past schedule.
- The main reason for disruption of work is rampant extortion by rebel groups in the area.
- The Manipur government is doing little to control, let alone crush the rebel groups.
The Trans-Asian Railway project can be crucial in transforming India’s ‘Look East policy’ into ‘Act East’ and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pushed for it strongly. While funds are not holding back the drive, the law and order situation is certainly hampering the project.
The plan was to extend the railway line from Imphal to Moreh on the Manipur-Myanmar border. Indian railways would then link up with Myanmar railway at the Moreh-Tamu border point. When completed, the line is expected to put Imphal on India’s railway map.
The first phase of the Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal broad gauge rail project in Manipur was to be completed by March 2016 .
However, huge extortion demands and occasional abductions by a host of underground militant groups have badly affected work on the Jiribam-Tupul section of the Jiribam-Imphal railway line.
The implementing agency, the Northeast Frontier Railway, is upset with the Manipur government for failing to provide security to companies working on the project.
A ‘Frankenstein’ Let Loose in Manipur?
In January, militants of the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) kidnapped Mohammad Munir Raza, a manager of the Coastal Projects Limited, and one of his local associates. They demanded a ransom of Rs 1.5 crore. Angry workers and frightened managers from all companies suspended work thereafter. Raza is from Bihar and his family and company’s appeals did not have any effect on the Manipur government.
Interestingly, intelligence officials say the ZUF is a small group with barely 25-30 militants now. They say it was floated by the Home Ministry as a counter-weight to the Naga rebel group, NSCN(I-M) .
The official who was behind the move is now said to be back in his home cadre, Manipur, as a senior official. Which is why it comes as no surprise that there is very little action when companies complain about threats and abduction by ZUF.
ZUF’s leader Benjamin has a free run of the area – state police does not touch him because he is also said to be close to a top tribal politician in the Ibobi Singh government .
A senior official of one of the construction companies involved with the project says there is a need for ‘direct deployment’ of central para-military forces under the army’s command to ensure completion of this project.
We want the army to conduct a sweeping combing operation here, like it once did in the Loktak area . And it should remain to command and control the central forces, so that such a crucial national project is completed in due time.A corporate boss of a company involved in the Jiribam-Tupul section of the project.
If states like Manipur mess up that way, this is something worth considering .
Manipur Lacks Tripura’s Resolve
Tripura witnessed a similar problem in extending the railway to capital Agartala -- NLFT and ATTF militants abducted and even killed managers of companies involved with the project for failing to pay up.
But then it crushed the tribal insurgency by some determined action and the moment that was done, Tripura pushed for completing the railway line to Agartala .
That resolve is missing in Manipur. With ministers and officials backing different insurgent groups, usually belonging to their ethnicity, the militants have a field day and Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal project has become a casualty.
A Bridge Too Far?
Manipur now has the only rail head at Jiribam which is an extension of the 1.5 km Lumding-Silchar meter gauge section in Assam. The first phase of the project covers 84 km of the Jiribam-Tupul section .
Railway officials say the Jiribam-Tupul section will have 112 minor bridges, six major bridges, three road over bridges (ROB) and two road under bridges (RUB). In the first phase, there will be a total of 34 tunnels covering a total length of 39,401 meters. The longest tunnel in Jiribam-Tupul section will be 4.9 km in length, while the longest tunnel in the Tupul-Imphal section will be 10.75 km.
The 12.5 km track linking main line from Jiribam to Dholakhal section and 1.20 km of loop line has been completed. But the rest of the Jiribam-Tupul project that was to be fully completed by March 2016 is way beyond schedule. The railways had told Modi government that the Tupul-Imphal section covering 27 km was to be completed by March 2018 with final location survey completed.
The Railway Board has sanctioned Rs 1,397 crore for this section. There will be 12 tunnels with a total length of 15.1 km, three major and 27 minor bridges along with two station buildings. But if the first phase is behind schedule, delay on the second one is inevitable.
(The writer, a veteran BBC correspondent, is author of two highly acclaimed books on Northeast India – “Insurgent Crossfire” and “Troubled Periphery”.)