Mujib Ali (name changed), 32, a resident of Hatsingimari, the headquarters of Assam's western-most border district with Bangladesh - South Salmara-Mankachar, recently lost his uncle on their way to a private hospital in Goalpara. Given the sheer neglect of people residing in the areas bordering Bangladesh in Assam and Meghalaya, the state of healthcare and other basic social indicators like electricity, roads, and communication, remains dismal. Many people in the area have to rush to the nearest town Goalpara, in case of a medical emergency.
Goalpara, a district-town in lower Assam, is about 116 kilometres from Hatsingimari, via the Agia-Medhipara-Phulbari-Tura (AMPT) road, and has seen a rise in medical tourism in recent years, especially, of people from Dhubri and South Salmara-Mankachar districts in Assam, and the Garo Hills in Meghalaya. However, the extremely poor condition of the AMPT road, a state highway in Meghalaya, does not facilitate a quick ride to the town.
''My mama was in a serious condition, and the doctors in our village advised us to take him to Goalpara. However, he took his last breath before we reached the town".
''My mama was in a serious condition, and the doctors in our village advised us to take him to Goalpara. However, he took his last breath before we reached the town'', says Mujib, with tears welling up in his eyes. ''When it should have taken us about two and half hours to reach the town, it took us close to five. The condition of the road is so bad that even a normal person would fall sick'', he adds.
About 133 kilometres in length, and one of the oldest transportation routes in the region, the AMPT road serves as a lifeline for people in the plain-belt of Garo Hills in Meghalaya as well as those residing in the South Salmara-Mankachar district of Assam.
The road had been in a terrible condition for a long time. In 2009-2010, the DONeR Ministry, under the 11th Plan Scheme of the North East Council (NEC), sanctioned about rupees 100 crores for the construction of 72.89 kilometres of the road – from a place called Sign Board near Goalpara town to Sabribari in the plains of West Garo Hills.
However, the reconstruction of the AMPT road by the PWD (Roads), NEC Division, Tura brought little relief to residents in the area. ''It look less than two weeks for cracks to develop on the road'', says Biplob Kumar Dey, a local reporter from Tura. ''Around 8 lakh people commute via this road, and it is extremely crucial for the development and growth of this region'', he stresses.
Alex K. Sangma, the Director of the A.chik Indigenous Justice Initiative Forum (AIJIF) has been waging a single man's crusade against the NEC officials. His organisation was one of the first to raise the issue of the abysmal condition of the road with the Prime Minister's Office. On March 30 this year, Alex pointed out in a letter to the Prime Minister, that after the AIJIF had submitted a memorandum to the PMO, the DONeR Ministry wrote to them expressing concern. The ministry official also attached a brief note that the NEC had submitted to the ministry, explaining its position on the road.
''The note is full of blunders. Medhipara is mentioned as Medhipathar. This only goes on to show the sheer incompetency and negligence of NEC officials'', says Alex. ''The note mentions that the final installment for the construction of the AMPT road was released in September 2016 after the Meghalaya government had submitted the utilisation certificate, completion report and shown physical progress. However, the condition of the road has been terrible since the very beginning''.
The North East Region (NER) Vision 2020 document, released on 2nd July 2008, recognizes infrastructure development as the basic prerequisite for development. Infrastructure development, it notes, has a ''strong complementarity'' with measures to improve health, education, industry and other services. However, rampant corruption and political backing often create an atmosphere where private contractors become immune to complaints or public protests.
''There is a vicious nexus of politicians, NEC officials and private contractors. Protests have also borne little fruits as they are mostly tokenistic in nature and are organized by people in the NGO space. There is a lack of awareness amongst the common public,'' says a resident of Chibinang on the condition of anonymity. ''It's an irony that the Speaker of the Meghalaya State Assembly, Abu Taher Mondol hails from Phulbari, and yet, the condition of the road here is so bad''.
Treepon Sangma was the President of the Phulbari Circle of the Federation of Khasi, Jainitia and Garo People (FKJGP) in 2014 when it was brought to his notice that the material used in the construction of the road was substandard.
''We spoke with the contractors but they were least interested. So, we filed an RTI with the PWD, NEC Division at Tura requesting a copy of the Detailed Project Report (DPR). It was quite obvious that the contractors had not at all followed the DPR guidelines. We contacted the supervising engineer, Jalim D. Shira, and he said he would speak with the contractors. But that's it. No action was ever taken'', says Treepon.
The AMPT road project was sanctioned in 2010 and was scheduled to be completed by 2013-2014. However, it took more than 6 years for the road to be officially completed. As it stands now, the entire stretch of the road is filled with potholes and has caused serious trouble to commuters. It has also disrupted trade and commerce in the area. Local residents point out to the PWD turning a blind eye to the gross violation of the DPR guidelines in project implementation.
''The height of the road was not raised at most places. The black topping wasn't thick enough. The amount of bitumen used was inadequate. Even metal layering and earth filling wasn't done as per estimates in most places'', mentions a member of the A.chik Youth Welfare Organisation (AYWO), who too requested anonymity. ''There was no drainage for rainwater to pass. By the time it was raining, there were potholes all over, and this happened in less than a year''.
The Revised NEC General Guidelines mandates that the state government shall ensure proper upkeep, maintenance and operation of NEC sanctioned projects. It also lays out specific steps to be taken for monitoring and evaluation. It mandates that state governments should constitute department-wise monitoring committees to oversee implementation of NEC projects. It also requires states to carry out periodic project inspection.
"As far as I know, there has been no external review conducted on the current state of the AMPT road. The engineer who was in charge of project implementation and monitoring, J. D. Shira was well aware of the corruption. But he did nothing to stop the shoddy construction'', alleges Biplob. ''The road hasn't seen any repair work despite repeated pleas and protests by local inhabitants as well as members of civil society organisations''.
While the NEC guidelines stress on transparency and publicity of information through print and electronic media, and state government websites, the reality is far from true. The DONeR ministry website, in a section on roads, and under ''roads from NEC'', contains record of road projects as on April 2012. Likewise, the Meghalaya PWD website contains no latest information on the projects undertaken by PWD NEC Division.
The NEC guidelines also require the state government to display at the project site a board with details such as date of the sanction of the project, source of funding, names of contractors, etc. However, as local residents reveal, there was hardly any such step taken to make information available to the common public. The AIJIF has been demanding that the private contractors involved in the project be blacklisted and strict disciplinary action be taken against the PWD officials.
''NEC roads are being built on high investment and are well-designed to last 10-12 years. But how this particular road was damaged within 2-3 months of its construction and how it has reduced the life span of our national assets is a matter of serious concern'', laments Alex. ''We demand strict action against Rajesh Agarwal, M. P. Agarwal, Bimal Agarwal and Kamal Agarwal of Star Infratech and R. R. Construction Company (contractors), and the supervising engineer for plundering public money''.
The NER Vision 2020 document recognizes India's North Eastern Region as a ''rainbow country ...extraordinarily diverse and colourful, mysterious when seen through parted clouds''. However, given a closer look, the AMPT road stands out as a clear blot mark on the rainbow, causing great loss and inconvenience to people in the region. The DONeR Ministry that is specifically mandated to steer the development of the Northeast seems to also use ''accountability'' and ''self-governance'' as catchwords when people in the region are still struggling for the basics.
As Meghalaya goes for assembly elections in February, it is only fair to ask the Mukul Sangma-led Congress government – why does accountability look like a distant dream in the state?
UPDATE: Following the publication of a slightly different version of this report in the December issue of Eclectic Northeast Magazine, the PWD NEC Division has started repair work across various phases of the AMPT Road. What remains to be seen is whether the road will last for a longer duration this time.
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