India’s long highway to Myanmar starts to take shape


4 Oct 2014
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Will he ever finish this nightmarish road? In an office, cluttered with maps, surveys and land profiles, Lalrinngheta, 50, often wonders. A soft-spoken engineer, he has lost count of the sleepless nights he has had since he started work on “the job of his career”, a road connecting India to south-east Asia via Myanmar, at an estimated cost of $115m. “The stakes are huge,” he says. He receives frequent calls on his mobile from senior officials or high-ranking military in Delhi asking when the road will open. The authorities are growing impatient. So, regardless of the mudslides and malaria, Lalrinngheta must finish the job by 2017.

In his large insect-infested office, he has had a safe set into the wall, to keeps the workers’ wages, paperwork for subcontractors, and his most faithful friends in the battle against the jungle: his maps. The construction-project headquarters are perched on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, where the emerald-green vegetation stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions.

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Lawngtlai is a dead-end town on the edge of Mizoram state (population 1.1 million), itself at the extremity of India’s north-east region. For centuries Mizoram has survived in impoverished isolation. Almost encircled by the Burmese border on one side and Bangladesh on the other, it depends on federal government subsidies. However, the road is expected to change all that.

On leaving Lawngtlai, the highway will slice through the jungle for 90km before reaching the Burmese border. Some 130km further on it will reach either Kaletwa or Paletwa. There, passengers and containers will transfer to ships, travelling 160km down river Kaladan to Sittwe, with strategic access to the Bay of Bengal. The port is being developed with Indian funding. In one fell swoop the isolated north-east will be connected to prosperous south-east Asia, once the whole project, costing an estimated $1.3bn, is complete. Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi then hopes to connect Gujarat, in western India, to Mizoram, finally delivering on the Look East policy originally framed in the 1990s.

It is 6am and Lalrinngheta is preparing for a site inspection. At the gate to the new “road”, guarded by a security man, he stops to admire his work, striking a pose in his cowboy hat. An asphalt highway is still a remote dream. At the moment the road is a swathe of ochre earth cutting through the hillside. To achieve even this much, the engineer has had to fight all the obstacles the jungle has put in his way: water shortages, malaria, typhoid, delays in obtaining building permits and occasional hostility from locals.

Every metre has come at a high cost. Around 30 workers have lost their lives due to malaria or accidents. The workers have lost count of the number of times they have had to start again after a mudslide engulfed the road. Lalrinngheta knows, having noted all of them, 127 in the past year alone. “The soil is very loose here,” he explains. “We constantly have to shore up the causeway and the banks on either side. We could make broader cuttings, with a gentler slope, but we have to comply with the standards set by Delhi … and the budget. So we just have to get on with it.” After five years on the project he has started fine-tuning his magnum opus, shaving a few degrees off bends, digging tunnels to drain monsoon run-off, which is particularly severe here.

Despite it all, he carries on. Building National Highway-502A is like a game of chess. To overcome an obstacle, strategic retreat may sometimes be best. In the early days, the workers laboured under police supervision to protect them from attacks by local tribes, angry at the lack of compensation for their loss of land. But how could the government buy up common land? Local farmers practise jhum, a form of slash and burn, cultivating a patch of land then moving on.

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India’s long highway to Myanmar starts to take shape | World news | The Guardian
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