and, sigh, one more lal thanzara story

In a decision which underscores the impunity India’s political leaders enjoy, the Congress party’s Mizoram unit has chosen tainted state minister Lal Thanzara as its candidate for the bypoll in Aizawl North constituency on November 21.

and, then, an excellent development. Pu Vanlalvena, the Mizo National Front Youth leader who took on Pu Lal Thanzara over these complaints of corruption, decided to stand against him. Game on.

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Why it is premature to exult over Lal Thanzara’s resignation

Last Monday, when allegations of conflict of interest forced Mizoram minister Lal Thanzara to resign from the state cabinet and assembly, there was much excitement in the state. However, the excitement might prove short-lived as the minister could return to the cabinet soon, making this yet another case that slipped through the cracks of India’s anti-corruption framework.

Mizoram CM’s brother claims he didn’t know he owned controversial shares until he read Scroll report

On the 29th of June, we had published an article highlighting endemic corruption in Mizoram’s roads sector. Well, there is an update on the matter now. The CM’s brother, who had been accused of owning shares in a company getting road contracts, has finally responded. In a meeting yesterday with Congress party workers, he said he did not know he had shares in the company. That he got to know from the Scroll article.
ps: today, incidentally, is a personal milestone. ten years now, of quitting business reporting for development journalism.

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.