On political corruption in Mizoram’s roads sector

Step into the office of the Class 1 Contractors’ Association in Aizawl and you wonder if any civil construction happens in Mizoram at all.Tucked away on the ground floor of an unremarkable building behind the excise office, the office is decidedly laidback. Next to an unattended reception desk, two women roll a large number of Vaihlos, the local cigarettes. Further inside, four men each sit around four tables, playing cards – dus patta.

Their languor is surprising, the first in a series of questions.Mizoram is witnessing a large road building programme. There are bigger roads coming up linking Mizoram to neighbouring Myanmar and Bangladesh and smaller roads connecting towns and villages to the existing grid of highways. Most of these contracts are awarded by the state Public Works Department. Class 1 contractors, allowed to bid for projects of any size, should ordinarily be bagging some of the bigger jobs and all the smaller ones.

That they are playing dus patta instead confirms what is often heard in Mizoram, from PWD officials, businessmen, contractors and politicians – that most road contracts here go not to local contractors but to a handful of companies owned by non-Mizos. These are Silchar-based ABCI Infrastructures, its sister company GP Projects, Kolkata-based Tantia Constructions, and finally Sunshine Overseas, whose registered office is in Delhi.

To know why, read the story. Also, this is the final story from Mizoram under the Scroll #EarToTheGround project. You can see all those reports here.

In violence-scarred Manipur, ancient scrolls show why AFSPA will not work

About 300 years ago, a time when India’s North East was a hive of tribal chiefdoms and tiny kingdoms, Manipur was invaded by Tripura. After a pitched battle, Manipur defeated the invaders. The aggressors were on the run, the Manipuris in pursuit, when a seer reminded Manipur’s ruler King Pamheiba that a sacred Manipuri code forbade attacks on retreating enemies.The king called his troops off. The Tripuris were fed, given new clothes and allowed to go back safely. After that gesture from Pamheiba, ties improved between the two kingdoms, so much so that they started seeing matrimonial alliances.

Cut to the present. There’s another rule of engagement being discussed again in the region.
Last week, as an army convoy was ambushed in Manipur, it became clear that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – which gives the military near-absolute immunity in areas labelled “disturbed” – has failed to bring peace to the state even after 60 years. It has in fact contributed to the spiral of violence, turning Manipur into one of the most lawless parts of India.
How does the state break out of this deadly pattern? One answer to that can be found in Manipur itself, in understanding the sacred code the seer reminded King Pamheiba of.

also see this earlier story on AFSPA’s imprint on Manipur.

Why children in Manipur are writing postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Stacked on a dining table which doubles up as a workdesk in the office of Human Rights Alert lie postcards written by schoolchildren in Manipur and addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and save democracy in India.

For years, Manipur’s people have been appealing and agitating for the removal of the act which grants immunity to military forces operating in parts of India declared as “disturbed” areas. But in the last week of May, the efforts received an unexpected boost when Tripura lifted AFSPA. “We wanted to send 25,000 cards,” said Babloo Loitongbam, the executive director of Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based organisation, “but the post office did not have enough. We are sending 3,500 in the first batch.”

Unlike Tripura, where the act was put in place in 1997, AFSPA and its colonial precursors have been in force in Manipur since 1950. The colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942 was first deployed in the state to quell popular unrest when Manipur was merged into India. It became the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act in 1958 which was put in place to help the army crack down on the violent ethnic insurgencies taking root in the state.

Sixty four years under AFSPA and its predecessor have scarred Manipur. Despite the heavy military presence, the state remains one of the most violent parts of India. Over the last decade and a half, several insurgent groups in the state have morphed into extortion rackets. There is an accompanying breakdown in the functioning of the state government. Corruption is high. Not to mention a runaway VIP culture.

My field report from Manipur.

A new gateway to the North East runs into – and jumps over – a corruption roadblock

Can one road change the fortunes of a state? Mizoram is hoping so. Once ready, National Highway 502A, the road it is banking on, will connect the state to a port in Myanmar from where ships will ply to Kolkata and beyond. Not only will this create an alternative to the narrow Siliguri Corridor which connects India’s mainland to the seven north-eastern states, it will also slash the 1,500 kilometre distance between Kolkata and Mizoram by half.

Announced in 2009 under the United Progressive Alliance government’s Look East policy, land acquisition for the highway began in 2011. By the end of October that year, about 227 landowners affected by the project had been identified and compensation had been awarded. However, in the following months, another 800 people turned up, claiming they too were affected, said an official of the state Public Works Department.

They furnished land titles as proof, which had been issued by the Lai Autonomous District Council. The highway lies entirely in the area managed by the council which was formed in 1972 to address the development needs of the minority tribal Lai community.

Puzzlingly, several of the land titles overlapped. Hmunhre Chinzah, the vice chairman of the Planning Board in the Lai Autonomous District Council, agreed that something had gone wrong. In the run-up to the previous council elections, he told Scroll, “Eight senior officials in the council were found making fake land settlement certificates.”

An inquiry was ordered to identify the genuine landowners. In the meantime, land acquisition could not proceed. However, work on the road has continued. The state department official said, “Once the investigation is completed, we will proceed with land acquisition for the payment of compensation.”

It’s an extraordinary admission: the highway is being built without formal land acquisition.

Reporting for this story was done a long time ago — while travelling in Saiha, Lawngtlai and Chwangte for the stories on the autonomous district councils. It finally fell into place much later — after travelling to Champhai district to see how Indo-Myanmar trade was shaping up. In other news, the stay in the north is drawing to an end. We have filed 11 stories so far and a bunch of blogposts. It has certainly been a very educative experience.

On why the 14th Finance Commission is bad news for Mizoram

In early April, PC Zosangzuala lost his job. About three years ago, the 28-year-old had been hired by an Indian government programme which supports India’s middle schools – Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan. The job contract signed by “Peecee”, as his friends call him, suggested the programme would run till 2017. However, on April 4 or April 5 – he doesn’t remember the exact day – he got a letter from the department saying the part of the programme that employed him had been closed.

Peecee, with an earnest mien which makes him look much younger than 28, was not the only one axed. In all, 366 staffers, mostly lab technicians and clerks, lost their jobs. The job cuts have followed a budgetary squeeze in New Delhi….

…Faced with less funds, the central government officials overseeing the programme retained teachers but axed clerks, lab technicians and counsellors…. Since jobs are hard to find in Mizoram, the sacked employees – mostly between 25 and 35 years old – panicked. Some of them had married recently. Others had become parents. Some others had taken bank loans they were still repaying. Peecee had taken a loan to pay for the treatment of his grandmother who died of cancer. 

In late April, 70-80 of them went on a hunger strike. They went without food for 12 days, calling the fast off only after the state education minister assured them that whenever the state finds funds, they will be the first to be hired.

In the weeks and months ahead, Mizoram is likely to see many more such protests. Mainly due to the 14th Finance Commission. This story explains why.

Seoul-stirring soaps in Aizawl: How South Korea’s soft power is changing Mizoram

Stay for a while in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl and you start catching glimpses of South Korea. Travel around the state and the images emerge repeatedly  in the clothes, the hair styles, even the furniture.

In Champhai, the district that conducts most of the trade between Mizoram and Myanmar, business in fairness creams and hair colour is roaring. At her cosmetics shop which stocks both Indian and imported cosmetics, J Lalremruati says most customers favour foreign products. People here think they are not fair enough, she explains. “If the idea is to be more like the Koreans, then why would they buy Indian creams?”

While teenagers in Delhi and Mumbai mimic Jennifer Aniston’s hairdo in Friends, Mizoram’s young people are looking east. “A girl in one of a Korean serial wore her hair as a bun to one side of her head,” said Marina, who works at an Aizawl restaurant. “My friends and I copied her for some time.” Periodically, she and her friends look for clothes like those worn by the actors in the serials.

Even the furniture in people’s homes is changing, says Lalnghinglova Hmar, joint editor of the largest-selling Mizo daily Vanglaini. People are buying furniture that resembles the sets they see in the Korean soaps. The state even has a store called Gangnam Style.

The immediate trigger for these changes is well known. In the last eight years or so, Mizoram, like the rest of the North East, has seen a large South Korean wave. Korean movies and television serials, dubbed in Mizo and broadcast every day by around 10 local TV channels, are the most watched programmes in the state these days.

What is less clear, however, is how this interest in Korean culture started.

In Mizoram, Facebook groups take readers where newspapers fail to tread

“Have you seen the papers here?” asks PC Zosangzuala.

The 28-year-old and I are sitting in a tiny tea shop off Aizawl’s old Zodin theatre. It is Saturday evening. The city is slowly shutting down for Sabbath. And I have just asked him how he accesses news.

He doesn’t answer immediately. Instead, Peecee, as his friends call him, asks the young girl behind the counter if she has a copy of the day’s paper. She doesn’t. No matter. He leans forward on the table, blinks earnestly, and says, “Have you seen the papers here? The first page has local and state news. The second page is national news. The third is notifications. The fourth has articles by Mizo writers. The fifth is ads. And then the last three pages are sports. Why should I read a paper like that when I can get much more news on the internet?”

Out today, my story on the facebook discussion groups in Mizoram!

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