Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing hard for the completion of railway projects in the northeast states and is said to have asked the railway ministry to set a deadline. Apparently, he wants them completed by 2019, when he seeks reelection.
The target, by any stretch, is ambitious, with a total investment of around Rs 8.5 lakh crore and the tough terrain in the seven states. But what makes it more difficult is the opposition of many insurgent groups in the region. Manipur, for instance, is home to 36 militant groups. Nagaland has almost as many. They have been extorting, abducting, injuring and killing railway workers. The People’s Liberation Army and United National Liberation Front, the biggest terror groups in Manipur with some 4,000 armed militants together, are against the railway lines. Smaller outfits like Kangleipak Communist Party, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak have also joined them.
PLA and UNLF are influential among the Meitei Hindus in the state. An intelligence officer said they even influenced a section of the government and administration. Deputy Chief Minister Gaikangham Ganmei, who is also the home minister, declined to talk about the terror outfits’ efforts to disrupt the railway work.
In Nagaland, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) and its ally NSCN (Reformation) have always been against the railway line. Now NSCN (Isak-Muivah), which had a ceasefire agreement with the Centre, is also opposing the acquisition of land.
Abduction is very common in these states. The Northeast Frontier Railway Construction Company said its contractors regularly got letters demanding ransom. Manipur Police arrested 20 militants last month for extorting contractors and government employees. But no arrest has yet been made for obstructing the work. “Militant activities are hampering progress of work in different parts of the northeastern region as more and more insurgent groups are creating hurdles by threatening, abducting, killing our officials, contractors and supervisors,” a senior official of the company wrote to THE WEEK.
According to the railways, the progress of projects in Manipur is better than in other states. The state completed about 36 per cent of construction in the past seven years. Of the proposal to acquire 1,507 hectares in the state, 1,295 hectares have already been acquired, and of the 137 minor bridges proposed, 66 have been built. But none of the 20 major bridges has been completed.
The 111km line planned in Manipur will link Jiribam and the state capital Imphal. Midway, at Noney, the tallest pier of a railway bridge in the world is being built. “At 141m, it will surpass the 139m Mala Rijeka bridge in Montenegro,” said J.K. Sarma, public relations officer of Northeast Frontier Railways.
In Tripura, a 112km broad gauge line between Agartala and Sabroom, and a 109km line from Kumarghat to Agartala would be completed in two years. In Meghalaya, Modi flagged off the first railway line in the state—between Dudhnoi and Mendipathar—in November 2014. A 22km line between Tetelia in Assam and Byrnihat in Meghalaya, and a 108km line from Byrnihat to Shillong are under construction. Mizoram is expected to commission its first railway line by 2019, between Bhairabi and Sairang. “Tourism in this part of the country will definitely get a boost with these projects,” said Sarma.
The situation, however, is grim in Nagaland. The state has so far completed only 2 per cent of the 91km line from Dimapur to Zubza in upper Kohima hills. Of 944 hectares proposed for acquisition, only 197 hectares have been acquired. The local people have been fiercely resisting acquisition of forest land and the militant outfits in the state have issued warnings against the projects. Also, extortion has been the highest in Nagaland.
Interestingly, the state government seems clueless about the progress of the work. “I have no idea about the status of railway lines,” said L. Singjit, joint secretary at home department.
Assam Rifles, the paramilitary force posted in Nagaland and Manipur to crack down on terror outfits, wants the law and order issues to be dealt with by the state police. “Major road and railway projects are being hit by extortionist militants. It is not surprising that they would create trouble for railway projects. But our job is to crack the insurgency and eliminate militants from the land. We are doing our level best. But the issue of ransoms and extortion would have to be dealt with by the state police and local government jointly. We could help them but we are not the right authority to do that. We are on the job of counter insurgency,” said Nikhil Agarwal, spokesman for Assam Rifles.
What Modi is trying to realise was the dream of many prime ministers. It was Morarji Desai, in 1977, who first thought about laying railway lines in the northeastern states. While Assam was connected with the rest of India by rail, the other seven states—Sikkim, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland—were off the grid. Later, the Narasimha Rao government did a detailed survey and feasibility study. And, since 1996-97, budget allocations have been made for the project.
The Manmohan Singh government took a step forward by sanctioning Rs 2 lakh crore under the 11th plan to lay lines in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. While some progress was made during his tenure, procedural delays and insurgency dragged it.
As soon as he took charge, Modi asked the railway ministry to speed up the work. He tried to bring peace in Nagaland by signing an agreement with NSCN (IM). To placate the different sections of Manipur, he declared Imphal as one of 100 smart cities to be built. Modi also decided to take forward another plan of the UPA government—connecting India with Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The work on a 15km line connecting Agartala in Tripura and Akhura in Bangladesh was supposed to start in 2011. The first budget allocation for this was done by Manmohan Singh. At the fag end of his tenure, he signed a memorandum of understanding with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the railway ministry nominated Indian Railway Construction Company as the agency to execute the project. But nothing moved after that. Modi has now asked Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu to speed up the project.
The lines will make movement of commercial goods easier for both countries. Akhura is very close to Chittagong Port in Bangladesh. “The railway minister will lay the foundation stone once we get the approval of construction,” said Sarma. The approval of the militant groups, however, would be harder to come by.