Where was government oversight?  

Imkong Walling

Remember that time when the district administration of undivided Dimapur would often issue circulars restricting vehicular traffic on NH-29 falling in between the Chathe River Bridge (Patkai Bridge) to Jharnapani, advising detours? Those circulars happened when landslides occurred blocking the arterial road between the state capital and the commercial hub of Dimapur and later on, when earth-cutting (rock blasting) began on that stretch to make way for the Dimapur-Kohima 4-lane highway. 

The commuters were directed to either take the 7th Mile-Pimla-Mhainamtsi-Jharnapani or the Niuland-Zadima-Kohima routes. The public adhered to the directives without much complaint on the confidence that once the 4-lane was completed with, taking perilous detours on unpaved and neglected single-lane alternatives would become a thing of the past. 

The sense of hope was however dealt a fatal blow on July 4, when a rockfall claimed 2 lives and wounded 3 on a seemingly safe 4-lane highway. It was back to the old routine of hitting the treacherous substitute trails, again, followed by, not surprisingly, a game of pointing fingers and exposing of the proverbial skeletons. 

It began with the Chief Minister coming out with a diplomatically worded tweet, soon after the tragedy, about the Government of Nagaland (GoN) pursuing with the Union government and the NHIDCL for ensuring safety infrastructure in place.  

A Nagaland Pollution Control Board official alleged, though not in official capacity, that the NHIDCL repeatedly ignored directives for taking safety measures. The directives included one dating to September 2020 against the use of dynamites on a geologically fragile ‘Pagala Pahar’ stretch of NH 29. 

In November 2018, a rockslide at the said stretch had blocked traffic for days, the cause of which was attributed to blasting of the hillside by dynamite for the 4-lane project. Two years later, in November 2020, the stretch was shut to vehicular traffic for almost 24 hours, which was followed by periodic closures that continued into 2021. 

Leaked documents have further revealed that, this year, a state government team, which also included the NHIDCL, had pointed out poor work quality and risk mitigation on unstable geology. 

The timing of the revelations however appeared more a ‘hand-washing’ bid. The survey by the state government occurred in March but the report was kept confidential, only to be exposed after a tragedy.

The tragedy also witnessed a display of unparalleled boldness by a bureaucrat, that too from the lower rung of the chain of command. It was encouraging to have the Deputy Commissioner, Chümoukedima, seizing the NHIDCL by the collar, but it was clear the state government was in no mood to offend the Centre by conveniently placing a district level official to do the tough talking. 

Ideally, the public would have preferred the CMO playing the hard-talking role instead, questioning the NHIDCL and filing formal complaints. The audacity displayed by the NHIDCL through one of its top executives on July 6, passing the buck to the GoN, serves to reinforce the notion of a government lacking teeth.

While all guns in the state get trained on the NHIDCL, questions remain. What were the state government agencies up to when the construction was on? Where were the CMO, PWD, including the Ministers-incharge, and the administration officials that time? It is clear there was no government oversight, implying slack quality control and thereby an expensive and deadly 4-lane highway.  

The writer is a Principal Correspondent at The Morung Express. Comments can be sent to imkongwalls@gmail.com