Road to nowhere: Kaladan project chugs ahead on treacherous terrain at high cost to human lives, resources

Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-part series on the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project in Mizoram envisioned to provide an outlet to and link the landlocked North East to Kolkata through Myanmar.

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.

 Road to nowhere: Kaladan project chugs ahead on treacherous terrain at high cost to human lives, resources

Workers removing dust ahead of blacktopping on the highway. Firstpost/Rajeev Bhattacharyya

"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.

Kaladan. A stretch of the highway that has been completed in Lawngtlai. Firstpost/Rajeev Bhattacharyya

A stretch of the highway that has been completed in Lawngtlai. Firstpost/Rajeev Bhattacharyya

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.

Read Part 1: Agitating Mizoram landowners, escalating costs, dearth of records stall Kaladan project

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

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2018 11:21:52 IST

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