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.

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!

Why medical workers are taking personal loans to keep Mizoram’s healthcare system running

One late evening in April, a senior official with the Mizoram health administration sat in his office in Aizawl, frustrated and angry. It was dark outside. Most of his staff had left for the day. “If they delay it by two months it is okay, if they delay it by three months we may manage, but it is four months now,” said the official, with discernible worry. The Mizoram Health Society, which decides how healthcare funds get used in the state, was to get Rs 25 crore from the treasury last November. That was the third and final instalment for the year 2014. Even today, the society is waiting for the funds transfer.

While the official watches helplessly, all around him the healthcare system is collapsing. Funds are needed for running hospitals and clinics, for programmes fighting malaria, tuberculosis and disease control, for immunisation, family planning, childbirth and care of new mothers. The delay is disrupting them all. “It’s not that our funds don’t come,” the health official said. “They eventually do. But the problem is the mismatch between the routing of funding and the needs of the schemes.” To tide over these shortages, he added, “We are telling staff to take loans to keep the work going. That we will reimburse them when the money comes.”